September Sea

A Bostonian who has often matched his strength with the sea, WYMAN RICHARDSON,as his father before him, has found his heart’s desire in the remote and rustic Farm House at Eastham which gives him and his family quick access to the ocean, the Nauset Marsh, and one of the most beautiful beaches in all Cape Cod. Here Dr. Richardson retreats, to fish, to write, to hunt, or do nothing. This is the third of a series of articles on the moods of Cape Cod which Dr. Richardson is contributing to the Atlantic.

by WYMAN RICHARDSON, M.D.

1

FROM the Farm House at Eastham on outer Cape Cod, we can look over the hill and across the Nauset Marsh to the dunes, and beyond them, where they are low or have become hollowed out, to the sea. Sometimes its color is a bright blue, sometimes green, sometimes gray. Not infrequently a fog bank, lying offshore like a huge rolled-up carpet, will suddenly begin to unroll itself, and to blot out sea and dunes alike. However, really to get the feel of the sea, to know its whims and caprices, its gentleness and its fury, you have to be right there, in it or by it.

The sea’s moods are never the same. They may, and usually do, change with startling rapidity. Better to be standing on the beach than to be out in a flimsy boat if the sea’s anger is suddenly aroused. Even then, you may be in trouble.

Pitted against the vast ocean, which, unhindered, stretches off to the east, and around the earth’s curve, to the coast of Spain, is the Nauset Beach, the Great Beach. From the tip of Monomoy, for forty miles, it runs almost due north, unbroken except for narrow inlets into Pleasant Bay at Chatham, and the Nauset Marsh at Eastham. North of the Nauset Coast Guard Station, it is bordered by relatively high cliffs, while to the south the only barrier to the marsh is a line of sand dunes, some low, some high. Peculiarly enough, however, the cliffs seem to be the most vulnerable. Within my memory, the old Nauset Lifesaving Station had to be abandoned, and, on a hill 200 yards to the rear, the new Coast Guard Station built. The old station toppled into the sea before all the material in it could be salvaged. This means that I have seen the ocean eat at least 120 feet into the land during the past forty years.

Not so on the dunes. Houses are built along the dune beach, and houses are washed away; dunes grow big, and then disappear; the 100-yard-wide strip of land is cut through in big storms and high tides, and sand comes spreading over the marsh grass; but the cut is soon plugged again, and the marsh remains undisturbed. What the sea takes from one spot, it builds up in another; and each year the piping plover must hunt for a low, beach grass covered rise of just the right height for a nest. The dune beach, though its contours are ever changing, remains unbroken, its defenses intact.

The sea is never really quiet. Even when it is at its most serene, there comes from it a continuous low hum, or murmur, which waxes and wanes, and out of which arise a lot of little sounds. Voices do not carry far at the sea’s edge, no matter how calm it may happen to be. Secrets, if you must have them, need not be whispered here, for even the spoken voice will not be heard except at very close range.

I remember, one night in September, fishing the beach by moonlight. We arrived about ten o’clock, with the tide at half flood and the moon high and full. There was not a breath of air, and the ocean was as calm as I have ever seen it. Even then, however, there was a slight uneasiness about it, a very gentle heave and thrust, that caused small waves to tumble against, the beach and send a whispering cadence back to the dunes.

It seemed almost as bright as day, as we somewhat gingerly waded into the cold water and began to cast. Tight riffles, made by schools of bait, appeared at the edge of the shelf. Soon bass began to break water in the midst of these schools, but the familiar pistol-shot sound of their feeding, which we frequently hear in the marsh, was so muffled by the sea’s quiet voice as to be almost inaudible. As is usual when we get excited, our casting immediately began to suffer, and backlashes appeared. The bass would chase the bait right up onto the beach at our feet, not four paces away. I hooked one with only a rod’s length of line out. The fish grabbed my eel and started off with a tremendous burst of speed. The whirling reel handle caught my thumb before I could get it out of the way; and, for several days, a very painful thumb it was.

We caught three bass in short order, all small — that is, five to seven pounds — and then they stopped biting. We fished right over the high water, without any more excitement, until well after four o’clock, when the moon already was becoming orange-tinted. And all this time, not the slightest riffle disturbed the glassy calmness of the sea. It seemed almost as if we were fishing from the shore of the Salt Pond.

Some day, try casting, with your surf outfit, into the Salt Pond. You take your stance at the edge of the pond, and make your whiplike cast. The rod, as it snaps through the air, produces a swishing sound; the reel spool utters a loud whirring noise, somewhat resembling an old and rickety electric fan; and the bait hits the water with an immense splash that will frighten any bass within a hundred yards.

Take the same cast on the beach, however, and no matter how calm the sea, you do not hear a sound. When the bait hits the water, there is a splash, to be sure, clearly visible in the bright moonlight, but it makes no noise, and probably only serves to attract the attention of any near-by bass.

No, even in its quietest, most docile moments, the sea is a trifle restless, its immense energy only reluctantly restrained. Standing, knee-deep in water, halfway down the rise, there is no need to keep a watchful eye, lest the oncoming wave cause you a wetting. But the power is there; you can feel it, as gentle currents play about your feet.

Tonight all is peace and quiet: watch out for tomorrow!

2

SOMETIMES we find the sea in a really joyous mood. I well remember one Sunday later in the fall. There was a brisk northwest breeze, remnant of the previous day’s nor’wester that had cleared away an easterly storm. The blue sky was filled with small, broken cumulus clouds, which hurried across the Cape as if on their way to some important rendezvous at sea. The air was clear and sparkling, and just cold enough to give us the energy needed for our beach walk.

The marsh was full of black ducks. When we came by the Goose Hummocks, or, perhaps more accurately, by the site of the Goose Hummocks, for they long since have been washed away, we started at least 500 ducks off the flats. Flocks of sheldrake, red-breasted mergansers, interspersed with a few early whistlers, were trading up and down the channel. On the flats, bunches of red-backed sandpipers were scattered about. A few late blackbellied plovers, running fast and stopping suddenly, were stoking up preparatory to taking a long journey. We guessed their intentions by noting their constant calling, knowing that on such a day they are likely to push off for warmer climates. It was not until we rounded the point of the beach at the Inlet, however, that we really felt the joy of the sea.

The tide on the outside was at half flood, and already the outer bars were well under water. The northwest breeze had kicked up quite a chop through which moderate easterly seas, generated by the recent storm, were still rolling in to the beach. The ocean was a brittle blue, speckled here and there with whitecaps, especially offshore, far from the lee of the dunes. The choppy waves, riffled by the wind, danced gaily along, apparently bedecked with bright jewels which glinted and shone in the sunlight.

Meanwhile the surf kept pounding steadily in against the breeze, the crest of each wave plumed with a white streamer which drifted off to leeward. The bigger waves were breaking mostly on the outer bars, but smaller secondary waves came prancing up to the beach, and fell with happy abandon at our feet.

There was a constant stream of fowl flying south, some low, some high. Long lines of eiders, the males a stunning contrast in black and white, passed by, barely skimming the surface of the water, and often disappearing behind a wave crest. Loose bunches of coot, mostly whitewings, flying fairly high, came hurtling by, their heavy bodies propelled by their relatively small wings at an incredibly rapid rate. A flock of loons, the big loons, came along, also headed south. (A “flock” of loons may consist of eight or ten birds. Each loon is separated from the next by at least 300 or 400 yards. In the daytime they can maintain liaison by sight. Perhaps at night they close ranks.)

Occasional flocks of black ducks came in straight from the east, boring steadily into the wind until they had crossed the dune strip and pitched down to meet their brethren in back of Teal Hummock. Several skeins of geese, most of them in an unusually unkempt formation, drifted down alongshore, crossed the dunes a short distance above the Inlet, and, steadily gaining height, as well as order, disappeared to the southwest.

The beach itself seemed nearly white, and was almost overpoweringly bright. We had to squinny when we looked toward the north to see if the old wreck by the Beach House had come out again. We found that it had, after having been buried for two years; and when we came up to it, we sat for a while on one of the big timbers, wondering what had been the fate of this once staunch ship.

Finally we made our way back to the Coast Guard Station and the car. Our spirits were light, our minds free: and a mild joke was unusually happily received. Why not? The sea was in a happy mood, and so were we.

3

IN ITS regal mood, the sea is superb. This is most likely to occur during the hurricane season, in August or September. The storm need not be experienced ashore. Generally, no report of such a storm is available, though possibly, if one perused the shipping news, one might find reference to some severe storm at sea. Such a storm, originating, say, in the Caribbean region, may pass by, many hundreds of miles offshore, and create huge waves which, unhindered, roll on and on, finally to crash with a thundering roar on the Nauset Beach.

From the Farm House platform, on such an occasion, when we take our morning observation, we see long rollers coming in through the Inlet on the flood tide. Every once in a while, a column of ocean spray, gleaming in the bright sunlight, will rise straight up into the air, above all but the very highest dunes. In spite of a fresh westerly breeze, the roar of the surf, a mile away, comes plainly to us, now suddenly louder from the northeast, now from the southeast .

From the bluff at the Coast Guard Station, we have a magnificent view. Wave after wave, in stately majesty, comes rolling slowly and irresistibly toward the shore. On the outer bar, the water piles up in a veritable mountain, and as the crest topples over in a mass of white foam, the illusion of a snow-capped mountain peak becomes even more striking. As the water shoals up, steeper and higher become the waves. Their backs begin to hump up, and curve away in an easy slope to the following trough, while the forward wall becomes more and more concave. Eagerly the top of the wave rushes on while the foot, in its struggle with the friction of the sandy bottom, is more and more slowed up. The suspense is almost unbearable, as, for one breath-taking moment, the wave seems to hang in mid-air. Then comes a deafening crash, which shakes the beach, and a smother of white foam leaps high into the sky, as if to snatch at the sun.

Take out your watch and time the interval between crests. Eleven seconds? Twelve seconds? Even thirteen? No ordinary storm built such waves as these! Such a storm must have been of real hurricane proportions.

There is a good, panoramic view from the bluff; but to get the real feel of the sea, you must be down on the beach. Watch out, though; the tide is rising, and already some of those thunderous waves are eating away the steep face of the dunes. From the beach, you do not have the same perspective, but the immense size of the waves becomes very much more apparent. As you stand near the top of the rising, so high is the oncoming wave that it seems to tower over your head. The roar is intensified, a constant all-pervading din, interrupted only by the louder crash of each succeeding breaking wave. Conversation is impossible. A few words, shouted into the ear, are as much as you can manage. And along the beach, the sunlight is diffused into a halo effect by a fine fog of spray.

Try now to figure which are destined to be the bigger waves, and which the smaller. From above, this seems relatively easy; from below, it becomes a thousand times more difficult. It has been said that every seventh wave is a big one; but this has not been my experience. There seems to be a certain rhythm, it is true, and big waves do tend to come in threes; but the rhythm is not dependable, at least not sufficiently so to count, on if you have to launch a lifeboat. However, if you have great patience and great experience, there will always come a time when the seas are relatively small. Take her out then, if you must; take her out surely and quickly, and never, never think of turning back. Likely you will have to climb up over a steep mountain of water, and you may smash down so hard in the next trough that the bow goes clean under; but, if you have figured correctly, and if you keep heading out, you will make it.

How, then, about coming in? If it was a thousand times harder to predict the seas from the beach than from the bluff, it is still another thousand times more difficult when you are actually at sea. I know, because I have been there.

Many years ago, a couple of friends and I elected to row a sort of half dory from Scituate to Duxbury Beach. Not until after we were out in it did we realize that there was a tremendous surf—the longest and biggest, we found out afterwards, that had been seen in years. Being young and stubborn, we continued on our way. Loaded down with duffel, we could not keep too far offshore because the fresh southwest breeze would then begin to slop water aboard; nor could we come in too close, and risk being caught by a breaking sea. Once, we decided to pass inside a shoal which lay about a half mile offshore. I shall never forget that tense moment when, just as we came abreast of it, a huge wave began to mount higher and higher. Fortunately for us, the wave did not topple, and the danger, for the moment, was over.

However, at Brant Rock Point we gave up. Beyond the point, the southwest chop was too much for us. We chose a spot directly opposite what was then the Brant Rock Lifesaving Station, and began to edge in toward shore. Just here the difficulty began. At what spot were the waves, on the average, beginning to break? If you knew, you could come up close to that spot, wait for a series of small waves, and follow in behind one of them as fast as you could row, in order to get in before the next big one came along. This sounds very well on paper, but it did not seem to us so easy as we lay on our oars and watched the great waves thunder into the beach.

At this point, one of the Lifesaving crew waved a red flag, and we hung off. In what seemed like a very short time, the lifeboat, not then motorized, was negotiated out through the surf and came alongside. We transferred our gear and ourselves, and cast the dory adrift. The Captain put us amidships, and then very slowly began to creep inshore, keeping his head turned over his shoulder as he tried to gauge the weight of the oncoming waves.

For a long time we lay there — fully fifteen minutes I should think — when suddenly he cried, “Now!”

The boat came to life as the crew bent to their oars. Then ominously a wave, smaller than most, to be sure, rose higher and higher astern. The lifeboat came up on the wave’s crest and, gathering speed, slowly started to point her bow downward. All at once she began to yaw to port. The Captain, with his steering oar over the starboard quarter, put all his weight on it but could not straighten us out. Quick as a flash, the stroke oarsman jerked his oar out of the lock and slid it over the same quarter. This proved to be just enough to bring us around; and we shot in, riding the wave, at what seemed to me the speed of light.

I do not know how close a call this was. From what little experience I have had, I should say it was too close; for had we yawed around just a little further, nothing on earth could have stopped us. In a jiffy, we would have turned broadside to the sea and been rolled over and over like a bobbin on a spinning machine. As it was, we landed gently on the beach. Quickly we hopped out, very thankful to feel terra firma beneath us, while the crew heaved the boat up out of reach of the next wave.

I have heard it said that, if one is in a banks fishing dory and must come in through a heavy surf, the thing to do is to lie down in the eyes of her, and wait. The dory is supposed always to come ashore, upright and dry. However this may be, when finally we looked around for our little abandoned boat, we were astonished to find her right side up on the beach. We looked inside, and there was not a drop of water in her.

Yes, when the sea is in a regal mood, it is wonderful to watch it from bluff or beach. But my advice would be to remain there, or, possibly, if not subject to seasickness, to stay far offshore. Anything in between means trouble, bad trouble.