Navigating the Woods Hole passage

woods hole 

A week ago, Janet and I sailed to Martha’s Vineyard. The morning that we planned to leave, we ran into engine trouble that delayed our departure for several hours. Turned out to be as simple as the the battery cables weren’t tight enough and not enough current was flowing to start the diesel. Anyways, the delayed departure caused a problem with our scheduled passage through Woods Hole.

During the week before our sail to the Vineyard I carefully went over the tides and currents in the Eldridge to know the best time to sail through Woods Hole. In other words, when we’ll have currents running with us or at least have a slack tide. I do that every time we plan on going to the Vineyard. Any prudent skipper of a sailing vessel would.

However with the delay, rechecking the Eldridge I estimated that we would hit Woods Hole at the worst possible time. With a contrary current of 4.1 knots running against us. I talked it over with Janet and we decided to go for it. As I told her, “we’ll just punch through it”. We both wanted to spend our weekend on the Vineyard.

I’ve made the passage several times before with the contrary current at it’s highest strength. So, I thought no problem. We’ll just end up making about a knot of headway through the worst parts. Hence, why I thought we’d punch through it. That decision turned out to be a big mistake.

As we got into the worst section of the Woods Hole passage, it turned out that the current was in actuality over 5 knots. I estimated 5.5 to 6 knots of contrary current. We had full sails up, in a strong wind, along with our diesel engine throttled to full 100% maximum power….. and at several points we were standing completely still. Making 0.0 knots headway. With that strong wind and our engine at full throttle we should have been doing over 6 knots.

That was a dangerous situation because we were running the rapids without full control of our vessel. Too many things could have gone wrong that could have easily sent the boat right over to the rock ledges on either side of the passage. I’ve read in the past that the Wood Hole Harbormaster has stated he deals with 1 sailboat a week ending up on the rocks. There’s a reason Woods Hole is one of the most dangerous place in Massachusetts.

As it turned out, we made it alright. While we had Galatea running full blast against the rapids and making no headway I planned out how we would make the turn and run with the current back to the entrance and wait it out in Hadley’s Harbor. But before executing that maneuver, I thought I’d try to steer to the opposite side of the channel. That worked. We were facing oncoming powerboats but the current was slightly less on the “wrong side” of the channel but we were finally able to make headway and get out of Woods Hole.

The lesson I learned is that never try to punch through Woods Hole during a full contrary current. What obviously occurs is that there are different currents during the different phases of the Moon (following the tides). The 4.1 knot current speed that the Eldridge reported must be just an average speed. The previous times I went though the passage I was lucky. The current was never as strong as it was last weekend. From now on, if we don’t reach the entrance to Woods Hole to make a favorable passage, then we wait it out or sail down to Robinsons or Quicks Hole.

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