I guess my quintessential memory of Woods Hole is sailing through in a southwester gusting over 20, crabbing hard into the crosscurrent, inadvertently helped every time our diminutive helmswoman lost her footing in a puff and we rounded up a little further away from the rocks. Meanwhile out in Vineyard Sound, a sailboat lay a-hull, uncomfortably broadside to wind and chop, with a big Coast Guard helicopter close overhead.
Or maybe it’s the time an inexperienced navigator spent a little too long down below with the chart, missed a couple of buoys, and wound up thoroughly disoriented. Our hint that something was wrong came when the helmsman, with rising apprehension in his voice, started calling out soundings that were remarkably similar to the depth of our keel. We got through unscathed, but frankly it was luck.
Or the time a very experienced skipper got fooled by the red/green junction buoy pulled half under by the current and obscured by an east-driven rain. We mistook it for just another green-side channel mark, then executed a quick full-throttle pirouette in front of Red Ledge to regain the channel.
On the other hand, we’ve just as often motored through at slack water with no wind, sodas and sandwiches in the cockpit.
Woods Hole is the Jekyll & Hyde of Massachusetts waterways — sometimes a placid and well-marked maritime thoroughfare, sometimes the most dramatic and dangerous mile of water on the coast.
The light on Nobska Point.
Navigating Woods Hole is tricky — potentially dangerous — for a combination of reasons.
Foremost is the current. It routinely flows through at over 4 knots (80 or 90 percent of velocities in the Cape Cod Canal), and, according to Eldridge, will hit 7 knots on occasion. The full current on the nose makes transit slow and awkward. The full current from astern will cause things to happen at an alarmingly rapid pace. Moreover, the current runs slightly cross-channel in the upper section called “The Strait” and more significantly cross-channel in the lower section called “Broadway”. As the current approaches full strength, it can literally pull hard enough on the buoys to tow them partially under, creating a distorted navigational picture.
Unexpectedly, the buoys themselves can be a source of confusion in even the best conditions. From the birds-eye perspective of the chart, Woods Hole presents neat, well-marked channels. True enough. But viewed from the cockpit, the converging and diverging channels can look like a random scattering of reds and greens. That there are so many buoys in such a small area perversely adds to the confusion. Throw in the occasional buoy that’s missing, off station or substituted. It’s a maritime version of the forest-and-trees conundrum; sometimes in Woods Hole you can’t see the channel for the buoys.
Even the chart itself has tripped people up. It’s scale, at 1:5880 in the Chart Kit version, is unusually large (“zoomed in”). A more typical harbor chart is 1:20,000 or even 1:40,000. So in Woods Hole, a foot of chart represents only about a mile of water, and charted objects come up maybe 4 times faster than feels “normal” from other charts. If you’ve got the current behind you, events will feel like they are coming at you at 8 times normal speed. It’s very easy to miss a buoy.
The basic strategy for negotiating Woods Hole is to go through at slack water. This requires deciphering the current tables in Eldridge or online here. Remember that current is described by the direction towards which it flows, so the southeast flood runs from Buzzards Bay towards Vineyard Sound and the northwest ebb runs from Vineyard Sound into Buzzards Bay. The brief period of essentially slack current persist for about 20 minutes either side of the time the current turns.
A more conservative strategy, recommended to anyone making their first trip through Woods Hole as skipper, is to arrive at the end of a period of head current, maybe an hour before slack water. This way, you’ll fight a knot or two of current going through, ensuring the transit happens slowly with plenty of time to identify the buoys. And if your schedule slips a bit (imagine!) you still have a window of moderate current. I would not go through Woods Hole for the first time with a following current.
If you do find yourself going through with or against a significant current, it’s vital to establish how hard you’re being set out of the channel and compensate immediately. The most accurate technique is to sight a range from the next buoy ahead or behind you to a point beyond it on shore and keep them lined up. Just looking over your shoulder frequently will give you a sense that you’re staying in the channel or getting pushed to the side. Crabbing 20 or 30 degrees to the axis of the channel is common to fight the cross-current in Broadway. To avoid the worst of the cross-current, follow The Strait, passing north and east of Red Ledge. It’s slightly longer, though less confusing, and allows use of the range lights in Great Harbor.
Finally, note that most of the basic channel marks in Woods Hole are unlit nuns and cans, while the number of lights near but not in the channel are numerous and bewildering. Attempting to go through at night is highly inadvisable, even with significant prior daytime experience.
This can has extra flotation in a band around its waterline. . . a suggestion of how hard the current will pull at its maximum strength. The green daymark “3” sits on Middle Ledge at the edge of Broadway. Nobska Point is visible in the background.
Above the nun you can just see the Great Harbor range lights. It was hard to avoid compensating for the angle of the buoy when looking through the viewfinder. Notice the “sky” in the upper right corner — an indication of how much the image needed to be straightened to get the horizon level.
This is the green and red can at the junction of the Strait and Broadway. The red stripe is not very prominent, and when the current is strong and the waves are big it’s not hard to lose sight of the red and mistake the buoy for a simple green can.
Anchorages, Moorings & Slips
Hadley Harbor on the Buzzards Bay side, and Tarpaulin Cove on the Vineyard Sound side, are attractive nearby anchorages. Both are good spots to wait for slack water, although at 5 miles distant, Tarpaulin Cove is not so convenient. The outer harbor at Vineyard Haven is less appealing, but it’s less out of the way.
Moorings and slips are available in Great Harbor, which will be treated separately.