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by Josh Withe - Merrimack River Valley, New England - USA

Working as an airplane mechanic, I often get to travel all over the northeast US to do whatever it takes to keep the fleet flying for my employer. I enjoy this random type of traveling, and the opportunities it gives me to see areas I haven't before, and take mini vacations paid for by someone else.

A few years ago we ended up with an airplane stranded on Martha's Vineyard, MA, one mechanic had gone down to fix it but couldn't complete the job due to a lack of parts, tools and supplies. Normally we would have just sent another aircraft to get there, but the vacationer-in-chief (last name starts with O) was there and thanks to security baloney no one could fly there without five day notice for a background check. Since we didn't schedule our mechanical issue with the secret service ahead of time, I had to drive and take the ferry to get there. Due to the time of year I also discovered that while the ferry could get my car out to the Island, they wouldn't give me a guaranteed spot to get my car back off the Island for a few weeks. To add to the confusion, there was a major storm keeping POTUS from enjoying golf, and causing the Martha's Vineyard Ferry to interrupt service as needed.


After spending the night on Cape Cod to make sure I got a spot on the earliest ferry out of Woods Hole, MA, I staggered onto the shuttle bus with tools, a huge tarp, parts, and a change of clothes (close to 100 lbs., the bruises on my shoulders were ugly). From the bus I staggered into the ferry terminal, and from there onto the ferry. As much as I love boats, and tried to sight see, the fog and ran was too thick to see much of anything, I'm also glad I don't get seasick, or that ride would have got me.

Just before we docked I got a phone call from work telling me they sent the pilot home so I was on my own. I staggered off the ferry not knowing how to get to the airport and was never so happy to hear someone ask "do you need a cab?"

The repairs were hampered by howling wind, and driving rain, and involved lashing a giant tarp over the whole front of the airplane, and then being flogged to death by the tarp as I worked. However, hours later when I was done, the rain was gone and the sun had come out. On the cab ride back to the Ferry I tried to get the driver to take me to the old camp meeting grounds the Island is famous for, but by now the first family was on the move, causing road closures all over the Island and he just wanted to get me back to Vineyard Haven before the road got blocked.

Of course I had just missed the ferry and had almost two hours to wait for the next one, I figured I would go do some sight-seeing, but found there were no lockers to stow my stuff in, and there was no way I was going to make it far on foot lugging all that junk. I ended up wandering over to the beach so I could put my stuff on a bench and enjoy the view. It also gave me a chance to check out the two large gigs moored just off the beach I had noticed when we arrived earlier in the day. I recognized the type of boat as one I have seen in races sponsored by the Hull Life Saving Museum and know them mostly from what I had read about them in MAIB, and from the view afforded a slow dory (redundant, I know) rower as they came into sight, and then flashed past during races, usually with a funny comment or wave from the cox.

After a while I noticed a woman was clearing the tangled seaweed off the traveler lines out to the gig moorings, so I went over to find out about the boats and offer my knife instead of her bare hands. When they found out I was also a rower and we had been to some of the same races, they offered me a chance to go rowing, and told me I could stow my gear safely inside the boat shop just down the beach. It turns out I was just in time for one of their normal mid-week rowing sessions and they could use and extra rower to help crew one boat (instead of two) as many of the rowers were not coming. I was a little surprised to find they put me near the stern, as the few times I have gotten to row multi-oared boats I knew you put your unknown or weak rowers closer to the bow, but hey, I wasn't going to argue.

It didn't take me too long to get the hang of rowing a sweep again, though I had never rowed with a carbon fiber shaft before so I had to learn the feel of a super light stiff shaft instead of the springy solid wood shafts I always use, the lack of inertia and spring is very different (compared to a whale boat sweep or the shorter but still heavy oar I've used on a Monomoy). The whale boat oar feels like a telephone pole and has about a foot of flex movement from one end to the other, you really need to be on top of it when you want it to come out of the water or you could be stuffed underneath the seat in front of you. When you put your back into the stroke the oar bends and that spring has to be accounted for before you try to pop the blade out of the water at the end of the stroke or it could bounce you off your seat. I learned in Mystic Seaports Whale boat fleet, where our rowing club was able to beat the rest of the youth clubs invited most years, despite not having any experience rowing with sweeps. (Of course we cleaned up in the dory racing, even though we found the traditional, solid wood dories to be top-heavy and easier to spin out in than our plywood versions, and the thole pins just added to the fun. None of the crewed boat rowers could get the hang of using two oars at once, or steering.)

Once we got everyone warmed up (and I figured out the correct way to row in a gig, where to brace my feet, and how not to catch a crab with hatchet blades) we went outside the breakwater and did a good long power run across most of vineyard haven sound. While we were catching our breath after this I confessed that this was the first time that year I had been out rowing, and they told me they couldn't tell and it must be nice to be young and strong.

We also checked out the site of a man trying to recover whatever he could from his sunken sailboat/home, it turns out the storms wind had come from the one direction that the harbor doesn't offer protection from, and his boat had broken it's mooring, crashed and sunk on the inner harbor breakwater. We also saw a larger catamaran with one hull almost awash and further out a mast sticking out of the water next to a mooring buoy. Closer in, near the gas dock a schooner had been driven aground on purpose to save it from being wrecked in the storm, but they were just waiting for a higher tide to lift it off.

Once we got back to the beach and stored all our gear I was invited to join them again, but sadly had to tell them I lived two states away, but would look them up again if I ever come out by ferry again. I knew I had missed the next ferry by going rowing, but figured I would catch the last one a few hours later. However once I got back to the ferry terminal I found out there is a truck ferry for the daily delivery and construction vehicles that is not published on the schedule. There is a small hallway like area on one side of the boat that pedestrians and drivers can ride in and it was boarding, so I staggered onto the ferry with my tools.

Unlike the dark, rainy, rough, foggy trip out to the Island, the trip back was beautiful and breezy, I was still hot from the rowing session so I stood up near the bow ramp to enjoy the spray and breeze, there were still some fog banks around but it just made a great back drop for all my pictures of the seagulls riding the bow wave in the air kicked up by the forward boarding ramp. One seagull rode this wave all the way from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole, sometimes 25 to 30 feet above the boat, sometimes so close I could have touched him, without ever flapping his wings.


Camp meeting
Hull life saving museum rowing
Gannon and Benjamin
Mystic seaport Whale boat
Rings Island Rowing Club
Mystic dory
Mystic Whaleboat
Vineyard Haven Rowing Club

PS. If you ever visit Martha’s Vineyard in the summer, the cheaper way would be to take a bicycle, there are bike trails and dirt roads all over the Island, one cab driver I had told me he regularly gets called to different parts of the Island to bring cyclists back as they find out the Island is bigger than they think, and the hills make them too tired to make it back. All of the cabs I saw were large vans and suburban’s some with bike racks installed, so I guess that is always an option.

Shows the poor guy and his friends trying to recover his stuff from his sunken boat. On the far right is the half sunk catamaran.
The passenger ferry I missed to go rowing.
Gannon and Benjamin - the boat under construction when I was there.
Grace - the boat I believe we rowed.
Lighthouse - West Chop light I took this on the way out, the blur is from the pounding the ferry was takng.
Sabino- I took this picture back in the early 80's. Mystic Seaport had just launched the dory it was still bare wood. I got to row one of these dories about 10 years later.
The gull that soared all the way back to Woods hole.
Vineyard Haven Beach - view from the ferry.


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