From the Vineyard Gazette edition of May 1, 1964:
Old Vineyard boatmen have said that if any man can operate a craft of any sort around the Island of Martha’s Vineyard and keep out of trouble, he can get by as a boatman anywhere.
The expression of course, had its origin in the days of sail, although it may still apply in this age of marine motors and all that they have added to the case and comfort in handling boats large or small. For Vineyard waters contain all known hazards, and in addition some tricks of the elements that are unusual.
The Island is, first of all, a place of puzzling tidal fluctuations, wherein a fair tide can be found somewhere at any time, if the navigator knows where to look, and if, incidentally, he can succeed in getting to the bearing. By the same token, the stranger may also discover that he can strike a head tide unexpectedly, and this almost anywhere and at any time.
Vineyard waters are swept by busts and freakish wind currents that seem to have no regard for the prevailing direction or velocity of the wind as indicated by official vanes and anemometers. Brief squally, fluking winds that come from anywhere strike with hammerlike force and then die entirely. And in all this confusion the skipper of a craft with “legs” as old-timers would have said, must follow with considerable fidelity the buoyed channels because of shoals, ledges and occasional lone rocks.
Should a stranger cruise these waters and ask the experienced for information, boatmen other than the Coast Guard are apt to mention obstructions to navigation by names, rather than by buoy numbers.
As for these names, they are nearly as many as there are obstructions. They vary greatly in their implication, and whereas the explanation of the names is sometimes available, in others it remains a mystery, for neither history nor tradition offers a clue.
For instance, the small but dangerous ledge lying between Squibnocket and the Island of Noman’s Land, is called The Old Man. Small craft can pass over it without striking, but in so doing there is an ever-present danger that the sea may break and overcome a small boat. A tall wave has often been known to rise and break when all the sea about is smooth. In storms the seas break there incessantly.
The reason for the name, the Old Man, no one knows. The best guess is that it arose from the ancient expression of calling anything large or formidable an “old man”. A log, a rock, a tree, for example, if unusually large, was sometimes so referred to by ancient Vineyarders.
As to Lucas Shoal, northwest in Vineyard Sound, the question has been raised as to who Lucas might have been. The answer is not immediately forthcoming. An 1864 book referred to it as Loose Shoal. The name may be that of a person, or the corruption of an Indian name. It has been said that it was given to the shoal by an oldtime pilot.
Easterly, and bordering on the coastal channel, lies Bow Bells, another reef, small but shoaling to a degree that might make it dangerous to large ships. Whence came the name? Again no one knows. The original Bow Bells are in the city of London, in the church by St. Mary-le-Bow. It is fair to suppose that the name was given by an Englishman, but by whom and why? Perhaps he was an officer in the Revolutionary blockading fleet, making or correcting charts while his ship was on patrol, or a man with a sense of humor, or even a homesick man.
Middle Ground, the great sand shoal in Vineyard Sound, is named for its position. There are shoals by the same name to be found in many places and always for the same reason. It does, indeed, divide the Sound lengthwise into two sectors, with deep water on both sides of soundings which are but a few feet in depth.
Monohansett Rock, marked by a black can, was probably known to Vineyard boatmen for years, perhaps generations, before it was named and marked. Tradition had it that the rock was unmarked until, groping in a fog, the steamer Monohansett struck it and a report of the rock was made.
The bell and spar which mark the channel off West Chop and Low Point take their local names from the lands which lie inshore. Erosion has wasted away the land, leaving only the rocks, but the names remain.
No one knows how or why the name of Tom’s Shoal originated. A black can rides near it to guide the fishing boats past. Surf breaks there even in calm weather and it is a treacherous place indeed.
There are fragmentary entries in a private journal or correspondence which mention the wreck and loss of the brig Thomas. Where she hailed from or where bound is not known. Perhaps there was no connection at all, but it is the only suggestion offered. There it lies, Tom’s Shoal, in the same mysterious category as Lucas Shoal and like Look’s Brook, Abel’s Hill and Will Lay’s Plain, named for some individual.
Compiled by Hilary Wall