During a recent October weekend, two Boston-area college students paddling recreational kayaks drowned in the waters of Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod. The Coast Guard recovered their kayaks and one body in Pollock Rip, the fast-moving tidal current that spins northeast from the tip of Monomoy Island off Chatham. The two young women got lost in the fog soon after launching from the beach. The wind was blowing offshore. The pair were likely pushed into, then capsized in, Nantucket Sound’s fast-running tidal currents where they accelerate near Stone Horse and Handkerchief Shoals.
Nantucket Sound’s water temperatures were in the low 60’s that day, and it’s likely the two succumbed to hypothermia before drowning. The open waters east of Nantucket Sound are pretty cold, and it’s this difference in temperatures which helps form the Sound’s fogs. Trailing your hand in the water, your hand is at one moment numbed, warmed the next; when the wind carries in colder air from the open ocean, fog mounts.
Kayak fishing and fly fishing enthusiasts prowl the nearshore shallows of these waters during the summer and throughout the fall, often with no companionship other than their own. Likewise, on the other side of Cape Cod, on Cape Cod Bay, visitors kayak fishing and kiteboarding launch into the waters south of Jeremy Point, Great Island, Billingsgate Shoals, and Provincetown. Some consider pressing further north, past Eastham and Truro, towards Race Point at Provincetown, that large curled fist of sand and sloping berms the northern tip of Cape Cod swings into the shallows of the Stellwagen Bank seamount.
An extensive series of shoals pile up there against this point which separates Cape Cod Bay from the open ocean. Like the waters of Nantucket Sound, when the tides here twist offshore, they pick up speed, like water rushing from a drain spout, then accelerate seaward.
Otherwise, Cape Cod Bay’s conditions are usually pretty much benign. That day in October, conditions were, mild despite thick banks of fog and a steady offshore wind that wandered up and down the shoreline. Conditions were manageable, and boaters and anyone kayak fishing made a point of paddling within a half mile of shore. The fog came and went, until finally, around four, it rose over the eastern shores of Cape Cod Bay like a mountain. The shoreline slipped from view and any on the water was enclosed in fog’s large and round, then soaring disconcerting dome.
The feeling of enclosure in fog is what’s most remarkable. You feel alone as if you’ve been buried in a cloud that has dropped down in a remote valley. Then the light changes, your perspective is altered, and you’re lost. One tactic in Cape Cod Bay when the fog rolls in and the wind are from the east is to remind yourself that land lies 90 degrees off the compass and that if you twist your bow to the wind, landfall lies forward.
It’s an act of faith in the fog to rely on clues that are blind and subtle. But keeping them in mind, the fisher without a GPS can drop his fishing gear into the water, place the rod into a rod mount, and begin trolling. Fishing in Cape Cod Bay’s fog can be lovely, really, mysterious, a little spooky, absolutely silent but for the clatter of bluefish chasing sand eels to the surface.
On a day like this, the two young Brandeis College students set out in kayaks in conditions less than ideal. The local harbormaster speculates the fog slipped in behind them. They got disoriented. Once fog lay between them and the shore, the offshore wind took over, and the sequence of events began to unfold. Likely they were pushed towards Chatham Roads. A tidal current there, running at three knots towards the eleven-mile gap between Monomoy Island and Nantucket’s Great Point, is a fact of fishing and boating life there.
Three knots is about as fast as most kayakers, and anyone who enjoys kayak fishing can paddle. Off Monomoy lies Handkerchief and Stone Horse Shoals, two spots known for their cold water, breaking waves, tidal rips, and confusing waters. Here, after a 52-hour, 750 square-mile searches, the Coast Guard recovered the sad evidence of what took place here in the fog.