There’s nothing like it.
On the deck of the ferry. Cars loaded. The massive engines rev up, a blast of dirty diesel out the stacks, the ferry shudders, the fog horn blows, and we’re off. The ferry does it as it has for years… sliding out of the Woods Hole harbor, past the Nobska Lighthouse, and across Vineyard Sound to Martha’s Vineyard, the land amid the streams. You can feel the mainland, all the worries, shedding, slipping away….
Terry and I are on deck, at the bow, part of an excited summer crowd. The Steamship Authority moved 1,645,570 passengers and 395,480 cars last year on this route. This morning, the sea air is crisp, the wind whipping through us, a cleansing. We pass sailboats of all kinds, sport fishermen. Gull’s fly playfully, earning bread from passengers snapping photos. Seven miles and there’s just enough time to unwind, to shift into low gear.
As the island draws nearer, I look desperately for my grandparent’s home, its weather-beaten shingles and white trim. My grandparents came here every summer. They had a converted fishing boat for overnight “camping” in the Elizabethan Islands. I remember outings to Cuttyhunk, Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon, an epic crossing of the middle grounds in a deep fog. Visiting was fun despite the mandatory swim before breakfast. My grandparents used to hang a white sheet from the attic window to welcome us as we came in on the ferry. I can see it all now like I saw it then.
We come into Vineyard Haven Harbor to disembark. Martha’s Vineyard is the 58th largest island in the United States, third largest on East Coast, and the largest on the East Coast not connected by a bridge or tunnel. It is accessible only by boat and air. It is a triangular island 87 square miles in size, 25 miles east to west. You can get from one tip to the other in about 45 minutes depending on traffic. It’s gorgeous, ravaged by weather and high seas, but sheltered from the hustle of the mainland.
We visit Mom in West Chop, a summer colony that’s frozen in time, a retreat indeed. The old tennis club is on a bluff with piers for swimming. The flagpole is a promontory overlooking the “chop” and Cape Cod beyond. Homes have views of the busy yachting channel into Vineyard Haven. A getaway: rustic, classy, somewhat austere. We’re warmly welcome; the pace slows. I swim both mornings before breakfast. Later, we amble along the rocky beach, skipping rocks and watching the boats go by. The pier at 4:00 is a hit, diving into the clean and cool waters. I talk clean energy. We have dinner “up-island” with family in Chilmark.
Years ago the Vineyard was inhabited by the Wampanoag. The tribe reached a maximum population of 3,000 in the 1600s, then declined to ~300 by the 1760s. The island was known as Noepe, defined as “the land amid the streams.” Just off “the chop” it’s easy to see where the currents collide. Sweeping southwest, one can see “the middle grounds,” where the sea is shallow and the fishing is good. “Big pier” was badly damaged by Sandy, so we check out its new pilings and decking.
No one knows for sure who “Martha” was and for whom the island was named. Some say it was the wife of explorer Bartholomew Gosnold who sailed to the island in 1602, and whose wife and daughter were Marthas. The island was known for its wild grapes… thus the Vineyard. In the 19th century, whaling brought the island and neighboring Nantucket prosperity, ships dispatched worldwide to catch whales and harvest their blubber for lamp oil. That collapsed in 1870 when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. Commercial fishing out of Menemsha is still viable. The island and lobsters go together.
Today Martha’s Vineyard has a year-round population of 15,000; it swells to 125,000 in summer. Idyllic on this summer day; views of harbors dotted with sailboats; bicycles and beach-goers abound. We head to Aquinnah, crossing over its dunes to its majestic stretches of surf. We lap up the raw energy of the sea and play in the ocean. Hummus on Catherine’s freshly made bread was a hit.
A short, meaningful retreat, and we steam out of Vineyard Haven. To starboard and at berth is the mighty Shenandoah – the ship whose black dog is now a branded clothing line. So quickly the island slips away. Someday soon we’ll be back to enjoy this again.