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Woods Hole is notorious.
Therefore, why would anyone devoted to good seamanship attempt passage without all due care?… I asked myself after the fact.
Woods Hole is the primary connection between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound in Massachusetts. The Bay and the Sound are separated by the 15-mile-long Elizabeth Islands chain.
The tides in the Bay and the Sound are surprisingly out of sync. When the tide is still high in the Bay but has ebbed in the Sound, the current through Woods Hole can reach 5 or even 7 knots. To make matters worse, a significant change of course across the current in the middle of Woods Hole sets the boat dramatically sideways and creates confusing passing situations with oncoming vessels. It’s a busy waterway, with ferries between the mainland and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket passing through. There are significant rocks, ledges, and fixed, and floating navigational aids on both sides of the narrow channel that can be pulled nearly underwater by the current. The usual afternoon winds in Buzzards Bay are southwest at 15-20 knots. The chart is explicit: “A dangerous waterway surrounded by treacherous shoals.”
In short, things can deteriorate quickly in Woods Hole.
Those were the conditions that I anticipated, and found, as I approached Woods Hole aboard my new (to me) Hinckley Sou’wester 42, Golden Eye, from the west under sail with my wife and daughter aboard. I made a firm decision to douse both sails and motor through. However, as we approached, I modified my decision to leave the main up, which would still afford good visibility without adding too much to our speed, likely to exceed 12 knots over the bottom. Getting closer on a wonderful starboard broad reach, I opted to leave the genoa up, too, and sail through.
Things initially went well: We were in control and picking up speed as we got into the current. I had been through many times and felt I knew the drill.
But suddenly, my blood ran cold as I saw a nav aid appear aft of the genoa and some distance off—on the wrong side. I was well south of the channel in an area filled with rocks and fixed nav aids. The nav aid that I should have honored had been hidden under the genoa.
No excuses—it was plain bravado that put the boat, my wife, my daughter, and me at risk.
Happily, I was able to bear away and regain the channel without disaster. Sheer, frightening luck.
Lesson learned: Bravado and seamanship don’t go together; they are mutually exclusive.
By Ernie Godshalk, Boston Station