Cape Cod Circumnavigation on a F-24 Trimaran?

It was all going to be so easy and so much fun when we pulled out the charts and kicked around the “Hey, let’s circumnavigate Cape Cod” idea. August is the best month of the summer, we thought. Our F-24 trimaran can do at least 10 knots under sail, and we’ll be reeling off 50 miles before lunch. The 150 total miles or so will be a snap. We’ll leave the Cape to port, explore Buzzards Bay, Vineyard Sound, Cape Cod Bay, and even drag-race past the sunbathers on the outer arm of the Cape, in the open Atlantic, we boasted. It sounded like a great trip.

It started smoothly. My colleague and co-adventurer, Mark Corke, borrowed a brand-new Toyota Tacoma to haul the boat to the ramp, and I filled it up with more food, water, and coffee than we could possibly need. The plan was to cruise in style, not to count every pound, even though the F-24 (like all multihulls) benefits from not being loaded down with stuff. Bob Gleason of The Multihull Source not only lent us the boat, but even helped us launch near his facility in Wareham, Massachusetts, on the northwestern side of Buzzards Bay.

As with most such efforts, we got started a little late, but before we knew it the laminated sails were drawing, coordinates were punched into our trusty little handheld GPS, and water was gurgling past our hulls. We were doing around 6 knots in around 7 knots of fading northerly breeze. The plan was to reach 7 miles across the bay and spend the first night of our circumnavigation in Quisset Harbor. That way we’d be well positioned to punch through current-ridden Woods Hole with the current pushing us farther up our counterclockwise track to Chatham the next day. We kept our pace even when the wind dropped to spotty zephyrs. Neither of us wanted to spoil the wonderful sensation of speed and quiet by firing up the outboard even as darkness descended.

By the time we got settled on a mooring, it was too late to go into town. So we sat on deck and enjoyed the warm night and the absolutely still anchorage before hitting the rack. Tomorrow we’re going to cover some ground, we told ourselves.

The sun was waiting for us the next morning, and Quisset was in our wake as soon as the coffee water had boiled on our one-burner camping stove. (Note: The F-24 has no standing headroom, and the galley consists of a cooler and a camping stove.) We smiled as we popped through Woods Hole before most office workers get to their cubes, but…the wind had shifted. Instead of the screaming beam reach up to Chatham we were expecting, we were beating dead into 20 to 24 knots of northeasterly wind and steep Vineyard Sound chop. I thought the wind was forecast to shift to the southwest, but nobody told the wind. After several hours of beating and a mistaken second hearing of the forecast, I made the decision that put the whole plan in jeopardy. “Hey Mark,” I said. “You up for a 25-mile beat to Chatham? Or do you want to use this breeze to blast 40 miles around the other way? If we turn around, we’ll be in Wellfleet this afternoon and can ride this northeasterly all the way down the Outer Cape to Chatham tomorrow. We are cruising, after all.” Oh, what a dumb decision that was.

So we turned around. And the sailing was great. We were doing 10 knots when we turned the corner coming out of Woods Hole. We cruised past Quisset and on up to the Cape Cod Canal in no time. We were lucky not to be bucking the current in the canal, which can get up to 4 knots; I hadn’t checked the tide tables. But even as we were congratulating ourselves for outthinking Mother Nature, the wind faded, as it often does before shifting. We weren’t going to make it all the way around the Cape. I just didn’t know it yet.

It was nice to get a good meal and stretch our legs in Wellfleet, but I had bad feelings about the next day’s itinerary. Thanks to my brilliant “plan,” our circumnavigation now hinged on sailing over 50 miles from Wellfleet to Chatham along an unbroken stretch of beach that offers no real harbors (except for Provincetown) in between. If I’m right, we’ll scream around the hook of the Cape and down to Chatham in double-digit splendor. But if the wind shifts south, I’ll simply scream.

Even in the protection of Wellfleet Harbor, we awoke to halyards humming against masts and flags blown stiff by a chilly breeze. The wind had shifted to the southeast (“It never blows from the southeast in the summer,” I whined) and was in the steady low 20s. We screamed past Provincetown until we turned the corner (heading east) and began bashing into whitecaps and a vicious head wind. I screwed up. Turning around once in a trip might have been clever. Turning around the second time was surely not. Instead of leaving the land to port, we ended up sailing circles and still had miles of beating to get back to Provincetown Harbor. Things didn’t feel any better when we got settled on the mooring.

August means tourists on the Cape, and especially in P-town. Weary from sailing many miles without getting anywhere, we were greeted by the Fat Tuesday atmosphere of Front Street. The busloads of tourists who came to gawk and chew salt-water taffy made it hard to move or think.

After a bad night’s sleep in the chilly, rolling anchorage and the whopping $50/night mooring fee for our little boat, we were ready to get out of there. We couldn’t wait for the wind to subside for our outside run to Chatham. No, we had to double back to where we came from—again.

After an uneventful sail back across Cape Cod Bay (past Wellfleet, again), we spent an uneventful night jammed into a marina in Barnstable. We were ready to go home. We were under way early the next morning in light wind and patchy fog. This time I actually—and accurately—read the tide tables, and we transited the Cape Cod Canal at 10 knots with the favorable current, each mile bringing us closer to home. But not yet.

Nasty wind-over-current in shallow-water chop met us on the Buzzards Bay side of the canal. We were less than 5 miles from getting off the boat (at last), but the stiff head wind had returned and we had to head way off to keep from knocking our fillings loose in the seas. And to make matters worse, the fog had closed in to less than 50 feet visibility. We soldiered on down the relatively narrow channel until finally we could bear away toward the peace and ease of Wareham Bay. We even unrolled the gennaker and saw 15s on the knotmeter. Good, we’ll get back just a little bit faster, we thought.

Queue the choir. We sailed out of the fog bank into a glorious summer day. Flat water. Warm, humid breeze. An effortless 10 knots, in the right direction. The easterly winds that had plagued our trip were cold and damp; this was summer. The foulies we’d had to wear all week came off. The sunglasses came out of the moldy sea bag. Alleluia!

Half an hour later we were back at the launch ramp. We joked that we should just turn around—again—and start the trip all over again. But in the end we realized that sometimes you’re the pigeon and sometimes you’re the statue. We’d weathered a perfect storm of bad decisions, a comedy of errors that could have been a lot worse. We’re still friends. It makes a good yarn. And I still have the second Cape circumnavigation attempt to look forward to this August.

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  1. says: Anonymous

    Good story telling. Tough lessons. Thank you for sharing so much truth of your journey. Did you ever make the second attempt? Looking forward to the next chapter.