Outside Cape Cod

Outside Cape Cod Itinerary Chart
Regional Chart:
Boston Harbor
Regional Chart:
Cape Cod Bay
Regional Chart:
overnight pic
Nauset sunrise
photo by Geoff Rand
fishing pollock rip
catboat off monomy
lobsterboat off nauset at sunrise

Other Itineraries

There's a great line in the Episcopal wedding service, describing marriage as something "not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly. . ."

The same should be said of a passage outside Cape Cod.

From the elbow at Monomoy to the fist at Provincetown, the Cape presents almost 50 miles of coastline directly exposed to the North Atlantic, without a harbor accessible to keelboats.

Even in benign conditions, the route can challenge cruising sailors. From Nantucket (or Chatham or Hyannis) it's roughly 70 miles to Provincetown, 80 to Scituate, and 100 to Boston. An overnight sail is typical. Pollock Rip further complicates the timing, with unfavorable currents four hours out of every twelve acting as a gate that's closed nearly half the day.

The ideal scenario is to leave Nantucket Sound in the morning with the prevailing southwester, go through Pollock Rip sometime in the afternoon, and reach north along the Cape in flat water as the sun goes down. Set a new course that's tangent to the curving shoreline every hour or two, roughly following a depth contour (80 or 100 feet) that is comfortably off the beach. After dark, the big lights at Nauset and Truro help mark off progress, and then the overnight leg across Cape Cod Bay is straight and free of navigational hazards (though not free of shipping). If you're returning to Boston, anchoring off one of the harbor islands for breakfast is a memorable way to end a cruise.

That's the ideal scenario; reality is often less generous. A few years back we were hit with a weak cold front just north of Pollock Rip. The wind backed from east to northeast to north gradually enough that we were able to fetch the Cape on starboard tack, but the seas built up pretty quickly and after dark it got sloppy. We wasted a pot of good chili. The front arrived earlier than we expected (hoped?) but trying to slip around ahead of it was a mistake. If it comes through a couple hours sooner, we're tacking offshore, in the dark, 180 degrees away from Boston, in a northeast breeze. Or motoring into it all night.

I've spoken with someone who's tried that, in headwinds over 20 knots, with his family aboard. The Coast Guard had him on a radio check-in schedule every 15 minutes. They made it. But to embark on an adventure like that is inexcusably naive -- one broken water pump belt or loose wire and you're just about in the 19th century.

Back then, before auxiliary engines, electronic navigation and the Cape Cod Canal, a typical set of Sailing Directions devotes 2 pages to navigating the area's shoals and rips. It devotes 4 pages to the location of huts and shelters built along the Lower Cape to protect shipwrecked sailors from hypothermia, along with some tips on abandoning a beached vessel at high or low tide. Hmmmm. {Norie, pp 79-95}

With modern forecasting, you can expect you'll never be caught outside the Cape in dangerous weather, unless you're obstinate about an itinerary. You can prepare for a trip around the Cape, you can plan for it, but you can't plan on it. I'd guess that in maybe 30 cruises where we've hoped to make the trip outside, it's been feasible a little better than half the time.

Sometimes you just have to go through the Canal.

{Open sources in a new window.}