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Great Escape

Sail away and leave the world behind



Extending just off the southwest corner of Cape Cod are the Elizabeth Islands—alluring, undeveloped, and, well, private. At five miles long, Naushon is the largest, but the only way to stay there is to marry into the family that owns it. Happily, there’s nothing to stop anyone from sailing there, which is just what our family did last August.

My wife Martha and I grew up sailing—small-boat racing and big-boat cruising—and were eager to introduce our daughters, six and nine, to its pleasures. Sailing offers the sun and water of a summer vacation, the thrill of an adventure, and the geographical change of a journey.

We chartered a 40-foot yacht from Sound Sailing in Norwalk, a school and charter company that offers a sort of timeshare for sailors. (Join and have access to small day-sailers or larger overnight yachts.) Our boat, Bermuda High, is kept in Mystic for easier access to the Cape and surrounding islands. A Hanse 400, it had one mast, two sails, and three sleeping cabins, plus a salon (living room), galley (kitchen), and two heads (bathrooms).

Provisioning came next—a major operation involving food, clothes, and other necessities for seven days, then figuring how to keep them fresh or dry or in the case of beer, cold. We left from Mystic with friends from Ridgefield, and spent about five hours making the 20-plus-mile sail to Block Island.

After an overnight in Block we were off to Newport. Getting from point A to point B requires a GPS and some degree of expertise with navigation and currents. We, unfortunatley, lacked the GPS, which we planned to pick up in Newport. With good visibility, it’s an easy, four-hour sail. With no visibility, it can be a terrifying haul since Newport is a major port for large ships and ferries.  Though the forecast called for clearing, there was fog as thick as chowder. Ferry foghorns blasting, we could see barely 100 feet. What to do? We blasted the customary signals and listened. Being an iPhone fan, I wondered if there was an app for this. Two minutes and $49.99 later, a sailboat icon flashed on a chart, pinpointing our location and direction to the next buoy. We navigated our way through the soup and into an anchorage.

That night we met Martha’s brother and his family on their own 47-foot sloop, Whirlaway. For 15 years they have spent most summer weekends on their boat near the Cape, with an occasional trip Down East. They are good to sail with for a number of reasons: they’re fun, they know all the secret spots in the area, and they have a splendid freezer—keeping our fish and meat safe for the week. Following their lead, we sailed up the Rhode Island Sound to Westport, Massachusetts, and through a long, winding channel where the current whips over four knots (about five mph). We dropped anchor and swam to a nearby beach. Within a half-hour, the fast-moving tide engulfed the beach. The tide rose so quickly that another cruiser there had to swim his dogs to his boat. We were able to drift back fairly effortlessly in the ripping current, challenged only by our ability to grab a handful of boat as we hove to. That night, we ate our only meal on land.

From there we headed across Buzzards Bay to the Elizabeth Islands. The best known of them is Cutty Hunk, since it is the one island accessible to the public, has a good harbor, a small town, and a nifty clay beach, which provided hours of fun. Within the seven islands, there are a few quiet places to overnight, and we chose Naushon’s Hadley Harbor, with deep water, good protection, and places to explore. After anchoring, time is often spent checking over the boat, swimming, and playing cards or reading. You can also explore. Since we are not on a first-name basis with the island’s owners (the Forbes family, no relation to the publishers), we politely refrained from making land, and instead took Whirlaway’s inflatable boat and putted around the perimeter.

It was a small journey within the larger week-long adventure. But in our tranquil cove, within earshot of Woods Hole’s bustling harbor, it felt as if we had traveled back centuries—living off the sea, with nothing more pressing on the agenda than a leisurely swim, a hearty meal, and a gentle rock to sleep.

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January 2019

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