There are certain classic paddling trips that may be considered a “rite of passage” for aspiring New England sea kayakers. The crossing from Woods Hole in Falmouth, MA to the island of Martha’s Vineyard is one of them. A mere 4 miles separates the island from the mainland but the waters of Martha’s Vineyard Sound can be outright treacherous. At mean tide, the cross-current in the sound can exceed 3.5 knots which is more than enough to take an inexperienced or weakened paddler perilously off course toward a much extended trip. Building afternoon winds out of the SW are as regular as the tides and can further complicate the return crossing. Finally, boat traffic abounds in the Sound, especially during the summer months when tourists flock to the ferries and the privileged turn to their sailboats for a mid-day cruise.
In consideration of all of this danger one may ask what’s the allure in kayaking to Martha’s Vineyard? The most obvious answer, “because it’s there”, is certainly too cliché for me to accept. I was personally motivated to do this trip because Martha’s Vineyard is a jewel in every sense of the word. First, because the hard work of the crossing pays off 10-fold when you arrive on the storied island to enjoy a sunny afternoon. Second, because the MV crossing is a jewel on the sea kayaker’s belt. It’s a rite of passage trip with challenges that provide confidence that your kayaking skill has matured. When I shoved off from Woods Hole with a Rick to lead a small band of MITOCers to Martha’s Vineyard in July of 2010 I was ready to prove that I had grown up as a sea kayaker!
Rick had done the trip a few times in the past and put together a fantastic pre-trip plan. We left Cambridge after work on a Friday evening and braved the Cape traffic in order to have everything in place for an early start on Saturday. A MITOC alumni living on the outskirts of Woods Hole was gracious enough to let us camp on his front lawn which overlooked MV Sound and our main objective for the next day. It was dark when we pitched our tents and settled in for the night. The boats were packed and tied up down by the beach all ready to launch. Cloudy skies hid the stars but the beam of the lighthouse on East Chop was visible and beckoned us to cross. I was excited for the day ahead as I tucked into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to the lapping of the waves on the beach.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day to make the crossing. When we shoved off at 7:00am the Sound was like a sheet of glass. The sky was overcast and some darker clouds threatened a morning shower. Within 20 minutes we had made our way out of Woods Hole and put Nobska Point to our stern. Rick and I had decided to make the crossing at mean tide; clearly a double-edged sword. The tide was running west to east at its peak velocity of 3.5 knots and any slip-ups could put us far off course and closer to Nantucket than Martha’s Vineyard! However, if we kept a good pace and set a solid heading then the strong currents would deposit us in Oak Bluffs with only half of the effort it would take at slack tide. I took point and set course 15 degrees west of West Chop.
After passing the first channel marker the current picked up considerably. We kept our cadence up and our bows on West Chop. Just as planned, the group began to slip to the east about as fast as we could make forward progress. About half way across the sky opened up and deposited that morning shower that had threatened at the launch. The cool rain was a refreshing reprise as we trudged on against the current. Our next obstacle was a bit of early morning boat traffic in the form of a Steamship Authority passenger ferry. Visibility was high and the captain had noticed our paddle flash from a few miles away and changed his course to get out in front of us. His wake would be the only waves that we would encounter on the morning crossing!
The plan had worked like a charm! One hour on the water had landed us right in front of the lighthouse on East Chop. Yes, we had been aiming for West Chop but the current had slipped us about 2.5 miles to the east in the time it took us to make the 4 mile crossing of MV Sound. The currents continued to work with us as they pulled us around East Chop and deposited us right in front of the Ferry terminal at Oak Bluffs. The sun had come out by the time we landed at Town Beach on Seaview Ave and the morning rain was replaced by a blue-bird sky dotted with big, puffy cumulus clouds. We were in no rush to leave the beach!
In my opinion, Oak Bluffs makes for the best destination for a sea kayak crossing to Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve been to Vineyard Haven before on the passenger ferry and I found it to be too commercial and busy. Edgartown seems nice but it adds a lot of miles to an already challenging trip. Oak Bluffs is close (only 6 miles as the crow flies from Woods Hole), offers a ferry as a return contingency, and boasts the quaint, island life I’ve come to appreciate! The town is dotted with colorful houses, nautically-themed antique shops, and enough culinary variety to please any pallet. Our noses and the grumbling in our tummies led us to Sharky’s Cantina for a tasty mid-day treat. I indulged myself in a lobster roll and washed that down with an ice cream sundae from the shop next door. Screw my irritable bowels, right!?!?!
By 1 o’clock the tide had turned and we were eager to jump back into the strong current for the return crossing to Woods Hole. As we rocketed around East Chop we noticed that the conditions on the Sound had changed drastically from those which we had experienced in the morning. The smooth-as-glass surface had been replaced by 3-5foot chop. The wind had picked up to 10 knots out of the SW, as expected, to further fuel the building seas. The good news was that there were no storm clouds on the horizon. However, a different type of storm was brewing in my belly and was fueled by the combination of lobster, ice cream, humid air, and the unsettled chop. What do you do when you NEED TO GO in such a situation? Well, you either go right where you are or you get your butt to shore. I alerted the group to my desire for an unplanned pit stop and paddled the 1+ miles to West Chop (the nearest beach) at record breaking speed. By the time the group at caught up I was walking out of the woods and my business had been taken care of. No one seemed to mind the stop too much as the beach was quite inviting and allowed for a snack and another quick dip in the warm water.
The “emergency” stop left us a bit off course for the return crossing considering that the current was building east to west. We set course from West Chop aiming 15-20 deg east of Nobska Point. It was only about a quarter mile off of West Chop when we got ourselves into the “rough stuff”. The SW wind was at our backs as we bobbed in and out of view of each other between the 3-5ft chop. We took as much advantage of the conditions as we could by surfing the more organized waves. To be honest, the return was quite fun and largely uneventful save for our encounter with a cargo ferry whose operator was much less concerned about us than the passenger ferry had been in the morning. We broke through his massive wake and tried to catch up to surf the other side to no avail.
About an hour later we found ourselves at the channel marker off of Nobska Point. Rick was ready with his camera and snapped a perfect picture of me next to the channel marker with Nobska Point Lighthouse in the background. From there it was an easy mile back to the beach and our friend’s house in Woods Hole. There we were greeted at the beach by our friend and his roommates and we showed off with some celebratory Eskimo rolls. Our hosts invited us to a cook out on their porch once we got our gear squared away and it wasn’t long before I found myself kicked back on the porch with a guitar in my hands, the smell of burgers in the air, and the warmth of satisfaction in earning my first stripe!
***This trip is not recommended to anyone but the most experienced sea kayakers who are physically fit and well trained/practiced in open water rescue and nautical navigation. The currents and open water conditions encountered during the MV crossing can be treacherous to the small craft. The route requires entering a shipping lane with heavy boat traffic. Always obtain updated weather forecasts prior to a crossing attempt and have a layover contingency in the case that a return crossing is not possible.
Launch: Woods Hole, MA (Any location within the township is feasible. Note that parking is tricky)
Landing: Town Beach, Oak Bluffs (Martha’s Vineyard), MA
Highlights: Challenging conditions, Exploring Oak Bluffs, Relaxing on the Beach
Duration: Crossing = 1.5-2.5hrs one-way depending on tide. Total trip = 8hrs with stops and tide change.
Distance: 10-12miles but plan for more.
Good Eats: Sharky’s Cantina, 31 Circuit Avenue Oak Bluffs, MA
Kayak Dave Rating: