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One of the reasons Onne and Tenley van der Wal replaced their 1972 Pearson 36 sailboat with Snow Goose, a 1986 Grand Banks 32 trawler, is because they got tired of beating their way to and from Cuttyhunk at 4 knots.

The van der Wals like to go to the small outposts in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. They appreciate the laid-back style. But getting there on the sailboat would sometimes be a slog that consumed much of a day. “It’s 20 miles,” Onne says. “But on the Goose, it only takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes.”

Penikese has stunning natural beauty and is a great place for a walk.

Penikese has stunning natural beauty and is a great place for a walk.

That’s how long it took them to get to
Cuttyhunk from Jamestown, Rhode Island, last September, when they left on a Friday around 2 p.m. to meet fellow members of the Conanicut Yacht Club for a weekend getaway. It would be their last trip of the season on Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay. “Tenley was all pumped up, and we had a beautiful motor over there,” Onne recalls. “We prefer Cuttyhunk. It’s quieter there than Block Island.”

The ride to Cuttyhunk was relaxing. Tenley put a couple of pillows on the settee in the cabin, where she read a book while Onne went back and forth between the flybridge and the lower helm as the autopilot held the Goose on course. Onne would take photos of birds and clouds from the flybridge or go below to make a cup of tea or a bite to eat while he kept an eye out for traffic from the lower helm. “It’s so civilized,” Onne says about traveling on the Grand Banks at 8 knots.

They’d arranged to meet one of their friends, Aidan Petrie and his Eastbay 38, at Cuttyhunk. The van der Wals have cruised all over the world with Aidan and his wife Kate, including bareboat charters in Baja and Thailand. But because the Eastbay is faster, they usually travel separately and connect at the destination. “We’re not glued at the hip,” Onne says.

Approaching from the west, the van der Wals crossed over Cuttyhunk, keeping Penikese Island to the north so they could make a hard right turn into the inlet, to the well-protected Cuttyhunk Pond. The harbor has about 50 transient slips plus mooring balls, but Onne likes to tie onto one of the 20 or so pilings because they’re closer to the dock. Although in September Onne says he doesn’t have to make a reservation, he’d made one anyway.

Aidan and Tenley hit the local market for provisions

Aidan and Tenley hit the local market for provisions

By 5 p.m. they were tied off. Because Onne didn’t have his davits yet, he’d towed his dinghy from Jamestown and used Snow Goose’s boom to lower his 9.9-hp Tohatsu onto the dink. Aidan had also tied up to a nearby piling, and because the few sit-down restaurants on Cuttyhunk were closed for the season, Onne picked him up for a dinner aboard the Grand Banks. “We were pretty beat,” Onne says.

On Saturday morning, they took the dinghy to Penikese. With three of them on the dink they couldn’t get it on a plane, so it took about a half hour, but with blue skies, no wind and no clouds, it was a perfect day to cross over and explore the 75-acre island.

Few people know of Penikese Island and its unique history, and even fewer visit it. In 1602, the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold was the first European to set foot on it. He and his crew scared four Wampanoag Indians and stole their canoe. The Europeans eventually cut down the natural tree cover, and for a time Penikese was used to pasture sheep.

In 1873, the island became home to the Anderson School of Natural History and gave birth to the Nature Study Movement. A building with 58 bedrooms was constructed and a yacht with 80-ton cargo capacity was donated for collecting purposes. The school would only last two summers, but some of its students would go on to found six seaside biology labs, three of which still exist today: The Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole; the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, and Stanford University’s Hopkins Seaside Laboratory of Natural History, founded in 1892 by Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, a former Anderson student.

A far more sordid chapter in the island’s history began in 1905, when the state of Massachusetts responded to a public health panic by opening a leprosy colony on barren Penikese. The facility was overseen by a genteel general practitioner and his socially conscious wife; the couple moved there and treated the mostly foreign patients kindly. But in 1912, Harvard University started an ill-conceived research project that instead of protecting the stigmatized leprosy patients, exposed them to questionable experiments. Four years later, when the chief architect of the project departed the island, eight of the 13 patients on the island were dead. By 1921, the state closed the facility and burned and dynamited the leprosy buildings, leaving just the remains of the dead in the burial ground. They are still there today.

For a half century the island remained uninhabited, but from 1973 until 2011 it was home to a school for troubled boys, and for a short period after it served as an opioid-addiction treatment facility. Since 2019, the Penikese Island School has used the remaining buildings for school trips and youth camps to expose kids to nature.

A sandpiper on Penikese

A sandpiper on Penikese

The nature is pristine. The island has some of the healthiest waters in Buzzards Bay, with eelgrass meadows providing an important habitat for fish and shellfish and the grassy hills and rocky beaches serving as a critical nesting colony for seabirds—including the endangered roseate tern.

When Aidan, Tenley and Onne beached the dinghy on Penikese there was nobody around. For two hours they walked the entire island. “I’d never been to Penikese before,” Tenley says. “It has stunning natural beauty. Just a nice morning’s walk.”

They returned to Goose, made some lunch and took a swim. That evening, they joined the Conanicut Yacht Club members on Cuttyhunk, who’d sailed over from Jamestown for a lobster boil, which was put on by Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms. Cauldrons with lobsters, clams and corn were supplemented with beer and cornbread. “It’s basic, but nice,” Onne says. “The weather was cool with jeans and jackets, but you walk from table to table to chat and pig out on lobster. It’s a good time.”

There was an arts festival and they listened to some music at the church, which was just a folk singer with a bass player. “He was great,” Tenley says about the singer. “It’s an artist in residency program. They stay at this amazing old house. A great group of young people run it.”

They had planned to return to Jamestown on Sunday, but a weather front kept them at Cuttyhunk for another day. They went ashore, got coffee and donuts at the Cuttyhunk Café and stopped at the Cuttyhunk Island Market for provisions. The delayed departure gave them more time to explore. “Cuttyhunk has a small-town atmosphere. Everybody knows each other. It’s a very chatty, social place,” Tenley says. “There are no cars. They have golf carts and there is this fun tradition when the last ferry leaves for the day, people take a running leap off the dock.”

When the wind and current conflict, Buzzards Bay can get rolly.

When the wind and current conflict, Buzzards Bay can get rolly.

On Monday, they wanted to head back to Jamestown right away, but it was blowing about 25 out of the west and Onne knew with the opposing tide on Buzzards Bay it was going to be rough. But Tenley wanted to get back to their gallery in Newport, Rhode Island, to take care of business, so they headed out.

It didn’t take long for her to regret the decision to head for home. “We got outside, and she started making calls on the long-distance telephone,” Onne says, using one of his South African euphemisms for mal de mer.

He offered to turn the boat around, but he also knew it was going to get better as they proceeded, so Tenley told him to press on. By the time they got to Sakonnet Point conditions got better. “Now when I say it’s gonna be bumpy, she knows what it’s gonna be about,” Onne says. “If you get the waves a bit off the quarter, a boat like ours is going to roll.”

By the time they reached the reef at Brenton, things had calmed down. “The water was as flat as a board.” Onne says. “When we saw Castle Hill, we said, ‘man, we live in a beautiful place.’”

Cuttyhunk will continue to be one of the van der Wal’s favorite spots. “It feels like Maine,” Onne says. “It’s quiet. It’s just far enough, and if you pick your day and time, it’s a very peaceful place.” 

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.

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