Wild Ride in the Cape Cod Canal

By David Paling

It was August. The three of us had gathered on a small beach in Sandwich, Massachusetts, to dive for lobsters. We had brought a surfboard along; a battered, eight foot fiberglass model that once did time as a rescue board for Cape Cod lifeguards. We hoped to reach deep water with this surfboard, using it as a flotation device during the trips out and back.

The cost of lobster had drawn us here. Even at its cheapest, the tasty meat of the blue and green Homarus americanus is a pricey meal. Diving for them is a fun means of avoiding the exorbitant fee.

The day was clear and the water looked smooth and calm. We had never been diving together before but I had known Steve and Tracy for several years. Steve and I had been in the same scuba certification class.

The dive site was on the northern section of the hook shaped Cape Cod peninsula. The beach provided a magnificent view of the busy Cape Cod canal one-quarter mile away.

Our dive plan called for an offshore swim of about 400 yards, heading in the direction of Provincetown. We wanted to avoid diving in the canal, an activity both illegal and dangerous. Rather, we would head for a clutter of lobster pots in the water directly off the beach.

We donned our scuba gear and swam to the site. Buoys were all around us. We floated in the water, resting easily on the surfboard. The hum of boat motors could be heard coming from the direction of the canal.

We dropped underneath the surfboard. Steve led, Tracy and I followed. We descended to the ocean floor at 42 feet. Visibility was about 15 feet. Rocks of all sizes were embedded in the silt bottom. We immediately spotted crabs, then a single Tautog swimming lazily by. Steve smiled, flashed an OK signal and then left with a powerful kick of his fins.

It was difficult to stay with him. He swam helter-skelter, ripping up small rocks, thrusting seaweed aside and poking his head into any dark pocket he happened upon. Fish scurried from his path. If a muddy trail hadn't been left in his wake, we may have lost him altogether

When he finally halted to stuff a second lobster into the bag, I sensed the cold current at my back. Then I noticed we were moving, flowing along with the silt and fine bits of kelp Steve had stirred up. I signalled for an ascent to determine our exact location. I felt slight anxiety as we followed our bubbles up. Could we have strayed too far from our pre-determined course?

We broke the surface and quickly looked around. The beach appeared tiny and distant. The canal, however, did not. We were just a short sprint away from the mouth of its 7.7 mile long land cut.

'Let's kick,' I said. We clung to the surfboard and tried paddling in unison. For all our efforts, however, the best we could manage was a neutral position. We gave up and drifted toward the busy canal.

Ships of all sizes and nationalities pass through this waterway and we were soon to be in the path of one that was about to exit. A crowd began to form on the banks to witness our fate.

We hit rough water and our ride into the canal turned wild. 'Should we drop some gear?' Tracy asked, scrambling to hang on. The angry waters rolled and twisted the surfboard around and around.

I saw panic on Tracy's face behind the glass plate of his mask. He clenched the surfboard for all he was worth, determined not to give up any expensive scuba equipment to the violent sea.

The ship bore in, at this point just several hundred yards away. There was but one course of action open to us and we went for it. 'Help, help!' we hollered, for all we were worth.

Two fishermen saw people waving at them from the banks of the canal. They veered in from open water to see what all the commotion was about. Coming closer, they spotted us and rushed in to help.

A ring buoy was tossed in our direction. Steve reached out, hooked it with his arm and they hauled us in. When we were all aboard the boat one of our rescuers casually asked, 'You guys have an unexpected ride?'

We sat on the deck quietly as he navigated through the mouth of the Cape Cod canal. We were too unnerved and embarrassed to explain the turn of events to him.

The ship emerged from the canal into open ocean three, maybe four minutes after we had been pulled from our very vulnerable position. Our rescuers delivered us to our point of departure on the sunny beach. As we got out of the boat, Steve handed the men our hard-earned lobster catch.

'Thanks,' we mumbled and they motored away.

Hindsight revealed that it was ignoring fundamentals that caused our predicament. Next time, an advanced tide check would help to determine the time of day to dive here. Periodically checking a compass certainly would have helped to keep our bearings. And, the attraction of lobsters should not have occupied our senses to the point that we strayed too far from our plan; particularly when there were obvious hazards nearby.