Our family spends a good chunk of that fleeting miracle called summer living together on a 34 foot boat in Block Island. If you are conjuring an image of a yacht from Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” think again. We have bikes, boogie boards, knee boards, water skies, fishing poles, clam rakes, grills, tomato and pepper plants strapped, stowed or bungied everywhere on the boat. We clothespin our hand-washed laundry to the bow rail to dry in the ocean breezes. We are the Clampetts of the waterways living in a marine trailer park. But hey, it is the only way our family could ever spend a couple of months on one of the most beautiful places on earth. (I commute between the island and the mainland on weekends, and on occasion, my mind follows suit).
Every summer I float the idea of doing what our trawler was made for: cruising, and every year I get outvoted. When I tried to flex my muscle a couple of years ago, “forcing” them to motor over to that squalid little town on the mainland, Newport, there was nearly a mutiny. “What’s so great about Newport? Block Island has everything we love.” For them, the Block is the beginning and the end of the world. And indeed they have their clique of dock friends, and their own lives out there. My wife and I rarely see them unless they are hungry, need a few bucks, or are returning for curfew.
So this year, despite the opposition, we took the last week of June, before the kids started their jobs on the Block, (yes, we introduced a dose of reality into nirvana by requiring them to obtain and maintain jobs this summer) to explore Martha’s Vineyard. It took us five hours to steam the 38 nautical miles to the Vineyard on our slow trawler, with Michaela and her brother operating the much-faster center console boat alongside of us, frustrated that their Ferrari was tethered to our Dodge Duster. They even did a few donuts to mock our slow progress.
We had been warned by other boaters that Menemsha, at the Northwest corner of the island, about five miles past Gay Head on Aquinnah, was just a sleepy fishing village without a lot of amenities. People told us that Oak Bluffs and Edgartown had a lot more to offer the kids, but I had an idea that Menemsha was the place we needed to be.
As we cleared the narrow breachway where the current ripped out of Menemsha Pond, famous for having been the background for much of the Jaws movie, the air was a heady mixture of salt, barnacles, drying nets and lobster bait from the many high-bowed Down-Easters in the harbor. It was the smell of a working harbor. Conspicuously absent were any megayachts, tourist shops, glitzy restaurants or Mcmansions. Even Billy Joel’s old house was an understated cottage perched on the hill overlooking the harbor. Dozens of youngsters swam or netted crabs in the buoyed lagoon between the jetty and the dock in the harbor, and more children fished from the beach, just beyond which terns were dive-bombing the bait rippling the surface.
We tied up and cleaned the boats, walked down to Larson’s Fish Market, then to the one retail store in town called Menemsha Blues and the ice cream shop. Michaela moaned: ‘Are you serious, dad? We left Block Island for this?”
I felt like Clark Griswold in “Family Vacation” wanting to tell the kids to buck up and give the place a chance, although even I was beginning to wonder if there would be enough to do here for five days. As a conciliatory gesture, we ran the center console the 15 miles to Oak Bluffs, where we tied up our boat in front of one of the dozen waterfront restaurants lining the wharf. That town was an impressionist painting filled with pink shirts, blue shorts and Black Dog hats which Monet might have entitled “Vineyard Vines”. Fortunately, I did not have time to fret about whether my running shirt was too declasse because we had to beat feet to make it back to Menemsha by dark.
When we nosed into the harbor a few minutes before sunset, there were hundreds of people milling about the beach, and a hook and ladder parked at the end of the road. I thought we were watching a tragedy unfolding until I noticed everyone had cameras or cell phones aimed across Vineyard Sound, where the last gleam of the red globe was sliding behind Cuttyhunk, the moment punctuated by the fire truck’s siren. Sunset is apparently a sacrament here.
For the next four days my son and I spent hours boating all manner of aquatic life, including sea bass, scup, and fluke. We gunk-holed in Menemsha Pond, following the channel into some skinny water where there are no navigational aids for a half mile or so, and then the pond opens up revealing another hidden harbor. We even managed to take a hard bike ride together, one of the few times my son has ridden my son following our transcontinental trek last summer.
Meanwhile Michaela and Lisa were off on their own “explores”, cycling around Chilmark, eating speciality salads at the grocery market, taking the bus into Vineyard Haven to check out the shops, and enjoying the spit of beach at Menemsha. We ate dinner in Edgartown two nights, enjoying the restaurant, The Port Hunter, so much the first night that we returned for an encore, proving our initial visit was no fluke. Every dish was more savory than the last, with the plat de resistance a plate called tuna “sunnyside up”, seared on one side and uncooked on the other. Suddenly, there was no more grumbling about that other island 38 miles to our west. In fact, we stayed a day longer than we had planned, lulled by Menemsha’s magical rush and withdrawal of the waves rolling into the beach just the other side of the jetty.
The only disappointment was that by our last night, my son had not landed a striped bass. That species was not interested in our artificial offerings when there was so much bait in the water. We tried to find some live eels, but that would have required a 30 mile round trip to a part of the island that does not have Indian names, where tourists wear their goofy golfing outfits or clutch Kate Spade purses. That did not deter my son from his noble pursuit. Every evening he threw his popper off the jetty toward the raspberry sherbert sea, a perfect reflection of the sunset’s afterglow. And every evening he returned to the boat empty-handed.
On our last night, my son asked me to join him on the jetty to throw a plug. While I was eager to hunker in my berth with my novel, and quite possibly a glass of wine, so I would be ready to shove off at dawn, on the rare occasions when your teenage kid asks you to do something with him, you best do it. After a half an hour of lobbing a creek chub into the harbor dimpled by the frustrating swooshes of stripers sucking up all of the live bait, I told Caelan I was going back to the boat.
Just as he was trying to negotiate more fishing time, he stopped mid-sentence. With an excited inflection, he said: “I got one, dad!” I could tell by the way the fish was taking line it was a keeper. I borrowed a net from a fellow fisherman on the jetty, and when the fish splashed close to the rocks, we traded positions so he could net it (and not blame me if we lost the fish). A couple of minutes later we were walking back to the boat with a 32 inch striper wriggling in his hands. After a few photos under the docks lights, Caelan sluiced sea water through his gills, and released him in the harbor.
As we left the cliffs of Gayhead in our wakes early the next morning, I began to realize just how fortunate we had been to spend time together on that forgotten corner of paradise, without any friends, electronic disruptions, or plans, living moment to moment. Of course it could not last, and the kids were soon begging us to run the little boat back to Block ahead of us so they could resume their “real” lives. We did what parents of teenagers do: held our breath and hoped for the best as they sliced through the waters of Rhode Island Sound, slowly disappearing over the horizon.
My brother and I had five hours to dream and wonder what Martha’s Vineyard would be like as we motored in his Bristol Harbor, from Block Island, at an annoying eight knots. I had heard many flattering things about the Vineyard. I imagined hopping off the dock, being greeted by young dock boys dressed in Vineyard Vines apparel, then strolling into some fancy towns with the aroma of delicious food wafting from nearby pubs.
I was dreaming about walking down the streets that I had seen in magazines, maybe spotting a Kennedy or Taylor Swift, when I was rudely awakened by the most acrid stench imaginable. At first I thought we were downwind of Cormorant Island, a little clump of rocks in Mystic, painted white with seagull poop. The smell had a tinge of decaying fish mixed in with a splash of cat pee. Thinking this might just be a bad dream, I popped open my eyes to see us coming into a beat up looking harbor with a bunch of working boats. The word “luxurious” did not fit into what I was seeing and smelling. To make things worse, if that was possible, my dad had taken away my phone for the week.
At least it was sunny, and I could get a tan in the middle of nowhere. So I made the best of it riding bikes into Chilmark with my mom, something we never do at home or even on Block Island. We had some arugula, tomato and mozzarella salads on the porch of the grocery store, my mom bought me a necklace at the closest thing to a real store for miles, Menemsha Blues, and we hung out on the beach while my dad and brother fished every day. I read one book and made it halfway through another one. And we went to some cool restaurants on the other side of the island, an hour’s bus ride away.
By about the third day, I understood why my parents had not kept going past Menemsha, to Oak Bluffs or Edgardtown, which is what most people do, and what my brother and I had begged my parents to do. I was sitting up on the flybridge after dinner, writing in my journal, sipping a cup of tea, when I started to realize just what it is about this place that I was beginning to love.
The air is lighter out here, almost like it’s easier to breathe, and you kind of get used to the smell of the harbor. The regulars on the dock, the people who make Menemsha their summer home, have told us that Menemsha is the best kept secret on Martha’s Vineyard. Like Bob, an 88-year-old man from New Jersey, who has been returning every year since 1962. In that time he has caught 30,000 pounds of striper from his 8-foot dinghy, has gone through four outboards, sunk it once, and has been around the entire island in it. You can tell this place still excites him every time he talks about it.
I sat up on the fly bridge that night watching the light slowly melt from the sky, listening to the stripers splash the water, hearing silky ripples lap against the hull of our boat, and the clear clang of the bell buoy at the harbor’s entrance, observing the people swarming to the beach to see the sun dip from sight, their eyes soaking up every shade of color in the sky.
I think I have found a little slice of heaven. Even though I did not have my phone or my friends, it was so simple to be happy out here. There is nothing to distract you from the beauty of this place. You cherish what you have. You are grateful.
If every place could have a little bit of Menemsha in it, there would be no reason to complain. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I am going to miss this place. But I know Menemsha is now a part of me. I will bring Menemsha with me wherever I go.