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Tidal current teaches another lesson

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor: I read with great interest the article by Laurence Eubank about his encounter with the ledge along the channel Broadway in Woods Hole ("Aground off Woods Hole," Issue 119, Jan./Feb. 2002). There is a lot of bottom paint on the rocks around this channel, and some of it is mine. While I did not lose my boat, I can identify with Mr. Eubank's story.

We spent the night of Sept. 10, 1995, aboard our Bristol 35.5 Spizarinktum anchored in Hadley Harbor near Woods Hole and devoted the better part of an hour that morning entertaining the anchorage trying to get an extremely well-set CQR broken out. The morning was very clear with about 25 knots of wind from the north (hence the buried anchor), and we were about an hour later than planned entering the channel leading to Vineyard Sound. The current set and drift was estimated to be about 071° at about 2 knots — certainly nowhere near maximum.

We were headed for Nantucket, and our route began at can 1, just past Coffin Rock, which is outside of the Woods Hole passage. We had discussed the pros and cons of taking the Broadway cutoff. Two years earlier, my crew, Bill Adkins, had broken off half of his boat's rudder while going through Broadway and was justifiably a bit skittish at the idea. As we approached the junction, I looked down the channel, and it looked like a wide-open, four-lane highway. I had been through this channel several times (as had Bill), and I remember thinking to myself, "How can anyone screw this up?" — so down it we went. We were checking off the buoys as we went and marveling at the roughly 20° correction required to maintain course, when I saw the inbound ferry approaching.

Not wishing to get anywhere close to it, I moved closer to the southwest side of the channel but still inside of the markers. I could look backward and clearly see the row of cans delineating the channel edge and was confident we were within the channel — but not by a lot. About this time, the next buoy on our chart was nowhere to be seen; it appeared to be missing or out of place. In the few seconds of uncertainty that followed, I kept checking astern to verify our position. Bill, meanwhile, was watching the depthsounder bounce from 16 feet to 5 feet, back to 16, and then WHAM! The boat rode up on the ledge and hung there.

Mr. Eubank is absolutely correct; there is nothing that gets your attention like the sound of your boat hitting a ledge. Several months earlier a large racing sailboat had been lost on the ledge off Woods Hole, and that story flashed through my mind. One lesson learned in an earlier misadventure saved this day — and likely the boat. That was, if at all possible, stay on the up-current side of a channel. This I had done, and after a bit, the current pushed us off the rock and back into deep water.

How had we managed to hit the ledge when we could see so clearly where we were? There are two likely reasons. This was the year that the Coast Guard suffered significant funding cuts and removed a number of navigation aids. We had not checked Notice to Mariners and were momentarily confused by the missing (or relocated) buoy. Also, crabbing (20° to starboard) as we were, I believe we mistook nun 4A marking Great Ledge for nun 4, which is farther to port and in deep water. Passing 4A close to starboard would have taken us over the 3-foot area and solidly onto the ledge.

Fortunately, our damage was limited to a layer of fiberglass being knocked off the toe of the keel and a reminder of how quickly one can find oneself in dire straits when in the grip of a tidal current.

William R. Eppes lives on Great Diamond Island in Maine.