First time I swam Thachers Island, Rockport’s waters was pretty far back: a three-day fishermen’s dory trip around Cape Ann. Rowing past the island’s distinctive pink granite western shore, I decided I’d had enough. The Island’s distinctive utility boatshack blared out its bright little message, drawing my attention to it, the island it stood upon, and to the narrow-gauge trestle ramp which tongued down from its heavy doors where there lay the landing ramp and cargo skidway used by the island association’s [Thachers Island Assocation LINK] caretakers to lay in gear.
The Project Adventure [LINK] duty boat accompanying us lay off-stern, circling and shouting from the single-cylinder surfboat at the laggard dory which drifted behind us. Coast clear. I shipped my oar and jumped.
Gloucester’s and Rockport’s – in fact all of Cape Ann’s – water temps are a crap shoot no matter the time of year. Narrow shafts of warm water are often fenced in by cold thick barrens. You don;t know which you float over until you dive in. When I hit the water I knew I had thrown a loser.
The shock was abrupt. Underwater I caught a blurry glimpse of a sunken buoy that marked the island’s service mooring. Must have been a spring tide, full moon [TIDE LINK] , to bury the mooring. That mooring could have been a block of ice for what I knew.
John Updike, no outdoorsman as far as I know, wrote that physical comfort can soothe even the most outraged child. I was a soothed chold: I’d discovered I could calm myself in water. Most of trips back to Cape Ann since have been to find similar cures, even if what hurts now is often a whole lot more than simple and predictable garden-variety adolescent orneriness.
Thachers Island has since, and often, become for many paddlers and boaters [NSPN link] a good spot to recharge during a long boat trip. The island’s distance from coastal Rockport, with its well-known Bearskin Neck, chamber music festival [LINK], etc., is not much: four miles by a long route, two by a short. Yet the island provides a whole lot more than its short distance from shore would suggest.
For examp the island’s twin granite lighthouses. They soar. Climb the open north tower’s aerie, which twists up through the center of the tower like a corkscrew, and you pause on small landings every forty steps or so. Each landing’s curved wall gives way to windows you peer through to catch glimpses of slats of land, swaths of ocean.
Finally the top. A narrow door beneath the crawl-in for the beacon, lightning rod and thick panes of lens glass. Now the door and you setp into a cool wind that whisks the catwalk. You look out, you look down, and there it is, pretty much: the rest of the Atlantic ocean, the curve of the earth, all of Cape Ann from Ipswich to Manchester.
For those with kayaks, the view is a different matter. You use the towers not to gaze down and look out from but to measure your position relative to, when you line up one tower one behind the other, geographic north and south.
On the catwalk meanwhile, if you shift your gaze about forty-five degrees off due south and look straight down, you;ll see the shattered Londoner daybeacon. Bring your eyes north and finally you’ll see the island’s gem: a enclosure at half tide known as the Jade Bowl, a natural swimming pool into which the waves run and collect, warming in the sun.
Tthere are dozens of spots like this off Cape Ann’s northern and eastern shores, especially if, let’s be honest, grinding along for fifteen miles along the shore in a kayak, from popular Pavillion Beach to Eastern Point to Brace Cove, etc. becomes rather repetitive after a while.
Key is to find and stop at Thachers first. It takes a not inconsiderable willingness to chance a rough landing that might knock off some of your gelcoat, and a willingness to land at rocky spots such as the nearby Salvages or Straitismouth Island. What happens is in the end you come to regard kayaking less as sport, more as transpor, less a means unto itself than a means unto an end.
So next time you gear up off Gloucester or Rockport, consider bringing lunch and a pair of goggles and a shortie wetsuit to zip yourself in to. Land at Straitsmouth or Thachers and your usual run-of-the-mill trip from point A to point B and back to point A trip might become more of a swim, less of a kayak trip.
This is how the second half of the Jade Bowl story happens. Yvonne Rosmarin [LINK] looks down from the catwalk on the north tower, nudges her neighbor, and points down with her elbow because nobody, really, ever lets go of the railing on the catwalk. She says,
I looked down and agreed with her. The ring of rocks, shelf, and boulders arced out from the side of the island in the shape of a mouse-chewn cheese round, the pool filling with the steady surge of groundswell. We descended the tower, paddled around to the pool, landed on the rocks and dived right in.
First creature I saw through my goggles was a stripedbass [LINK] hovering over a crevace at which he was pulsing his gills like an actor working the muscles on his jaw as he mulled over a problem, the fish eyeballing a crab. I waved my hand and the striper bass flicked away seaward. Seems the ideal approach to kayak Cape Ann is less action, more thought. It’s not always the number of miles you paddle, but where the miles take you. Off Rockport and Gloucester, stop and look and you’ll see more by paddlng less.