Pollack Rip

Running almost 9 miles from the elbow of the Cape at Monomoy to the northern tip of Nantucket, the Rip is a ridge of shifting sand, cut through with a handful of shifting channels.

Introduction

Pollock Rip is an inspiring stretch of water. It’s the kind of place that should lead you to contemplate the abilities of your boat, your crew and yourself on the one hand, and on the other the vast forces of wind and water through which you are sailing.

Running almost 9 miles from the elbow of the Cape at Monomoy to the northern tip of Nantucket, the Rip is a ridge of shifting sand, cut through with a handful of shifting channels. Strong tidal currents flowing in and out of Nantucket Sound meet weather from the open ocean to generate conditions that range from merely disorienting to completely treacherous.

Most famously, Pollock Rip turned back the Mayflower as she made her way south along the Cape, full of Pilgrims who according to William Bradford “hoped to find some place about Hudson’s River for their habitation.” Bradford continues:

But after they had sailed that course about half a day, they fell among dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and they were so far entangled therewith as they conceived themselves in great danger; and the wind shrinking upon them withal, they resolved to bear up again for the Cape. . .{OPP}

Thus, their land fall at Provincetown and eventual settlement in Plymouth.

📷 Geoff Rand
Fishing boat at sunrise off Nauset Beach, just north of Pollock Rip. Calm weather makes a passage through the Rip more comfortable, although it doesn’t mitigate the currents.

Navigation

Approaches

The only reason to talk about Pollock Rip as part of a cruise is if you hope to include a trip around Cape Cod in your itinerary. If you do, it’s important first of all to understand the commitment this implies.

Pollock Rip requires planning before your cruise for the significant currents. It requires flexibility in your schedule to accommodate the weather. And it requires effective reaction, while underway, to cross-channel set and changes in the contour of the shoals. Here’s a look at each of these considerations:

Not for navigation

Currents

The tidal currents flow through Pollock Rip at maximum velocities of 1.5 to 2.5 knots. That’s a big chunk of headway for most cruising sailboats. Currents are strongest right around the south tip of Monomoy, but they continue at appreciable velocities for 6 or 7 miles into Nantucket Sound, and for a similar distance up the east side of the Cape. So while it’s possible in flat weather to power a sailboat through against a foul current, it’s pretty slow.

Most sailors time their passage to the fair current, saving a couple hours of transit time. Avoiding the head currents does mean that Pollock Rip is effectively “closed” for 4-hour periods twice a day in each direction. Since it’s almost twenty miles (i.e. half a day) from Monomoy to either Nantucket, Chatham or Hyannis, coordinating your harbor arrival or departure time with the Pollock Rip currents has to be the starting point for planning this part of your cruise. The 12 pages of current charts in Eldridge give an hour by hour graphical representation of the full tide cycle in Nantucket Sound. Or NOAA has a tabulated schedule of currents in Pollock Rip online after a few clicks here.

In Butler Hole the current runs across the channel enough to push you out if you fail to correct for it. The first challenge is to recognize how much you’re being set, and there are few visual clues. The shoreline is nearly featureless, with no landmarks ahead or behind, and the buoys can be more than a mile apart. It’s important to take frequent bearings on the buoys both ahead and astern, as well as to closely watch Course Over Ground on the GPS. Most first-time navigators through Pollock Rip will significantly underestimate the cross-channel set, and will fail to compensate adequately.

Slack water is not a precisely synchronized and tabulated event here. I can remember heading up the west side of Handkerchief Shoal, just after “slack water,” thinking the new west-going current would push us safely into Nantucket Sound. Busy with a sail change, we failed to notice that in spite of what the book said, the current for us was still running east, pushing us back over the Shoal. Some single digits on the depth sounder got our attention.

Not for navigation

Weather

The most important weather consideration is finding a 24 hour window of fair conditions to get around the Cape to your next harbor. It’s much easier to find this window if your schedule allows you to make the passage a day earlier, or later, in your cruise.

Avoid going through Pollock Rip when the wind and current oppose each other – for instance riding a west-going current from the ocean side into an afternoon southwest breeze. The resulting chop can be wet and uncomfortable for a dozen miles.

📷 Geoff Rand
A rip is visible ahead of the boat.

Shifting Depths

With its exposure to ocean storms, the sands of Pollock Rip are constantly in motion, so any chart is guaranteed to be inaccurate somewhere. Sailing directions from the 1850s describe a shoal that “partly dries at low water” {Norie p94} where today’s charts show minimum depths of 7 feet. Our depth sounder in 2007 gave readings of 150 feet where the chart showed 80 or 90 feet at most. At the same time, we could see breaking water extending from a marked shoal, past the buoy and part-way across the channel.

The deep water through Butler Hole is well-buoyed and frequently used by fishermen; it should be safe to start with the marked channel. But simply following pre-printed courses or old waypoints can get you into trouble here. Expect buoys to be in new positions. Decisively favor the upwind, up-current side of the channel. Don’t be surprised if the depth sounder and chart disagree; trust the depth sounder and alter your course towards deeper water when it’s appropriate. And carefully watch the surface of the water for evidence of current set and shallow spots.

Charts

Not for navigation. Charts are not updated. 

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Pollack Rip

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