Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Hill Not Climbed

Yesterday we reconnoitered Chilmark on Marthas Vinyard, MA, to gain local knowledge prior to possibly mounting an attack on Menemsha Pond, which is reputed to be number one on the local gunkholer's bucket list with the more easily conquered Lake Tashmoo holding second position.

This all started when Ron, a cruising friend of many years, wrote, "Ok, you conquered Lake Tashmoo. You went where most sailboaters fear to go. The final challenge beckons - Menemsha Pond, which allegedly has a narrow unmarked channel with a raging current at times. The chart shows plenty of water in the Pond - if you're able to negotiate the entrance. Don't attempt this until you get all available information including local knowledge. Even then, I'm not recommending that you accept this challenge. I wouldn't. But then, I'm not a dauntless gunkholer. Yet, to triumph over Lake Tashmoo and Mememsha Pond would be like reaching the summits of Everest and K-1 in the same season." That Ron, he is such a naughty boy and knows me so well.

Sweet Pea at Saddle Key in the Bahamas
I like to think I can gunkhole and have enjoyed getting off the path now and then. When Ron and I sailed Sweet Pea in the Bahamas a couple of years ago, we were always sliding into skinny water, just because it was there. It helped that those waters were as clear as vodka, making the bottom visible for sixty feet or so.

One time in Pipe Creek the entrance to a blue lead was blocked by an inconvenient shoal. We arrived slightly early on a rising tide and couldn't quite make it over the bar. I chanced on the strategy of leaving us in gear at a low speed so we wouldn't slew sideways in the current and nuzzling the shoal until we slid over. Fortunately the moon was such that subsequent tides were higher rather than lower. Otherwise getting back out might have been inconvenient. Excavating a channel underwater can be brutal work.

While many claim to have planted their flag past the summit of the Tashmoo Lake channel, few can make a similar boast about Menemsha Pond. Instead we learned that most find themselves planting their keel firmly (short of the summit) on a treacherous swirling sand shoal that happens to be located just off the deck of an upscale restaurant. Our unnamed local source told us that rumors that diners held up numbered placards to rate the grounding and subsequent kedging off are completely untrue. "They get a standing ovation when they finally get off," he responded, "We aren't Oriental ". Nor is this North Carolina, given the crisp Yankee accent.

So, yesterday's trip to seek local knowledge was serious business, made more so by our having passed up the chance to call on the Chilmark Flea Market as our #4 bus trundled by and we stayed aboard.

This effing market featured fresh farm food
Minutes before at the West Tisbury bus hub we had heard a local rider speak knowledgeably about the various effing markets (farmers, flea, flower, furniture), comparing and contrasting attributes, prices, and vendors with the adroitness of an effing affectionado. When she mentioned yarn it got Anita's attention -- I was briefly concerned about whiplash the way her head whipped around to zero in on the conversation -- and we learned that lovely hand-dyed wool was a staple at one of the markets. I forget which market but I'll bet good money that Anita remembers.

The market that we passed by on our bus was gay with colored tents and packed with people, some of whom might have been woolly, though in the muggy southwesterlies I mostly saw sober cottons punctuated by polyester bike outfits as gaudy as a parrot's plumage. Perhaps the yarn was under wraps.

Anthony Bailey in The Shores of Summer -- yeah, he's always my authority on sailing into impossible places around here -- describes the Memensha Creek channel as perhaps carrying about six feet at high tide, He did the creek on 3/4 tide falling and I'm sure Margot was telling him a thing or two as the depth sounder chanted its plain song of descending notes, pausing at 2 feet under his keel before soaring back to loftier heights.

He gained the Memensha summit in '91 before the Coast Guard started maintaining the channel, which makes his ascent historic. His 2-1/2 foot draft really shouldn't be held against him since he did it on a falling tide. After all, how little you draw doesn't matter than much when the tide is squeezing the water out from under you like someone stepping on a wet sponge. I've proven that you can go aground in inches of water when I've wandered off the channel in Tendril and made those aboard hop off to lighten the load and push us back into deeper water.

These days the Memensha channel carries even less than it did in Anthony's time. Now that the Coast Guard has joined Homeland Security, its dredging budget has been reallocated to much more important things, like installing machine guns on those patrol boats that I saw docked in Memensha basin.

Headed to Menemsha beach, properly attired for bathing
I can understand that. Priorities must be honored. The lifeguard chair at the nearby beach clearly spelled out the rules: NO NUDE BATHING. I know how ugly a crowd can be when incited to riot by those nudists. We certainly need the Coast Guard to be properly equipped for strafing the sand to put down any possible uprising. Look what happened in nearby Concord not that long ago when the British lacked machine guns and lost a colony.

So anyway, these days the channel would carry about five feet at high tide. Given Sweet Pea's draft I had six inches to spare with another six inches or so on a spring tide. I consulted my brand new copy of Eldridge only to learn that we had missed the spring tide unless we waded up that channel the very moment we were there. For each day after that, going aground would mean that dragging would not be of any concern for weeks. Alas, any applause at getting off would also be delayed for the same period. What to do? Risk it for the glory or retire in defeat?

Menemsha has its own charms
It was probably our attitude that ruined the Menemsha for us though we had come prepared to like it. It exudes a gritty reality that might have grown on us over several visits. The seafood was terrifically fresh and the dining facilities were unique. As it was, we looked at each other and wondered why we would want to come back even if we did manage to reach the pond.

Well, it's settled. Anita says that that today we're gunkholing over to the Oak Bluffs flea market on today's bus and that's that. She's my Margot and I've learned to listen to her sage advice. Too bad about a missed opportunity, but a man's gotta do . . .

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