It is a picture perfect day in Nantucket. The sun is shining. The sky is crystal clear…a deep blue punctuated by a scattering of fair weather cumulus clouds. The temperature is a pleasant 70 degrees with low humidity. A low pressure area over Nova Scotia taken together with a high pressure area over eastern Pennsylvania is priming the wind pump here on the island. A 20 knot northwesterly breeze has been whistling through the rigging since early morning.
We take this opportunity to explore the island by bicycle. Our first destination is the small beach town of Siasconset (pronounced “sconset”) on the eastern edge of the island. Here, the ocean churns in a mass of white water, breaking on shoals for as far as the eye can see. There are many beachgoers camped out for the day on the sand, but few brave enough to enter the water.
From Siasconset, we ride north to the Sankaty Head lighthouse, then west on the paved Polpis bike path. We pause at the small but fascinating Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum on Polpis Road to learn about the islander’s history of saving lives at sea.
Because of the ubiquitious shoals that surround Nantucket, over 700 shipwrecks have been documented in these waters since recordkeeping began during the whaling era of the late 1700s. The Massachusetts Humane Society responded by building and staffing a series of rescue stations located in various coastal locations throughout the island. Here, lifesaving personnel maintained a constant watch for shipwrecks.
In the event of a shipwreck at sea, a crew of five surfmen would launch a sturdy 30 foot surfboat and row to the scene of the disaster. A short film at the museum entitled You Have to Go Out documents a particular incident in January, 1891 in which heroic lifesavers rowed 15 miles through a winter storm to the wreck of the three masted schooner H.P. Kirkham, then rowed 15 miles back to the lifesaving station with their rescued victims. Just imagine how it must have been to be in a 30 foot rowboat off the coast of Nantucket in a January storm! The unofficial motto of the surfmen was “you have to go out, but there is no guarantee that you will return”.
Other noteworthy local shipwrecks include the collision of the RMS Olympic with the permanently anchored lightship Nantucket 117 in 1934 in which seven lives were lost. More recently, the collision and subsequent sinking of the luxury Italian passenger liner Andrea Doria with the freighter Stockholm in 1956 resulted in 46 casualties.
The Massachusetts Humane Society was eventually transformed into the U.S. Life Saving Service in 1871, the predecessor agency to the U.S. Coast Guard. We are profoundly grateful to the USCG for maintaining the buoyage system that keeps us safe and for being there to provide search and rescue in a worst case scenario.
From the museum, we return to the harbor after a brief stop at the local foodstore for provisions. Islanders are generally respectful of bicyclists, but late afternoon traffic inspires us to explore alternative routes along residential streets that enable us to avoid congestion. By the time we return to the dinghy dock at the town pier, we have cycled 23 gently rolling miles. It has been a delightful day.
Nantucket is an interesting and attractive destination. We have decided to extend our stay for another day or so to relax and explore the island.
Note that you can click on any photo to see an enlargement.