The Magic of Swimming on Martha’s Vineyard ByAUG. 8, 2014
I’ve been slammed by waves, with or without a wet suit, in both the Atlantic and Pacific. I’ve dangled my feet in California’s Russian River, been smashed against the cliffs edging the Snake River in Wyoming and crossed the Hudson round trip between Westchester County and the New Jersey Palisades. I’ve sampled clear cenotes that seemed bottomless throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and sought out nameless swimming holes accessible only from ropes that swung from trees.
But as a promiscuous swimmer — the more kinds of water the merrier — I’ve yet to find a place as magical as Martha’s Vineyard. Out the back door of my primitive rented cabin is a tidal pond — a rare habitat that connects to the ocean and thus changes in depth, salinity, current and resident creatures from one day (and one hour) to the next. It is long, narrow and one of five, like the fingers of a hand, that converge at Tisbury Great Pond, the largest inland body of water on the island. Just beyond is the Atlantic Ocean, South Beach to be precise, all of it part of the 600-acre Long Point Wildlife Refuge, the last remaining unspoiled part of a summer resort where tourists drive the winter population of 16,000 to 105,000. On a typical visit, over the last 15 years, I swim in “my” pond, shared only with a pair of swans, a half dozen times a day.
My Martha’s Vineyard is not the celebrity version of the island, roughly a triangle, with the ocean its 25-mile base and the sound at the west and east sides, converging at the tip, where ferries leave for the mainland. It’s not the version that presidents Bill Clinton and Obama annually fly into, eschewing the salt spray of the half-hour boat crossing. And not, mercifully, the island that draws the first family this year from Aug. 9 to 24 (and the inevitable 96-square-mile traffic jam they bring with them). I know it by its aquatic riches, the most diverse a swimmer can explore handily in such a compact space.
During my first swim in the pond this summer, past 8 p.m. with the sky striped pink and orange, the water was the highest I’d ever seen, obliterating the narrow strip of sand at its edge. By morning, it was higher still and had a little chop. What makes Tisbury Great Pond and its fingers tidal is that periodically the narrow barrier of sand to the ocean is opened — the gap is known as the Cut — to maintain the proper balance of salt and fresh water for shellfish and other creatures and to prevent flooding. Several times a year, determined by naturalists for the Long Point Wildlife Refuge, bulldozers open the ocean to the pond, for a period of time as short as a day or as long as several months.
I’d never been there before the day the Cut was opened, or seen the yellow warning signs strung along the dirt road leading to the cabin: “WARNING: Swimming in the Cut can be extremely dangerous! Swim at your own risk. Hold onto your children. Use life jackets!” So I decided, since I had no plans otherwise, to stay in the pond.
THE ISLAND IS ALSO DOTTED with nontidal ponds, bodies of standing water, natural or man-made, usually shallow and home to marsh plants and animals. I jump at the chance to swim in them — and here I have. There are public beaches along both the Atlantic Ocean and the Vineyard Sound, although each town sells passes to private ones to its owners and renters. As a renter in the town of West Tisbury, I have the choice of the ocean at South Beach or the sound at Lambert’s Cove.
Because I crave a swimmer’s swim — long, lazy laps rather than the battering of waves and sand in every bodily crevice — I choose Lambert’s Cove. The word “sound,” derived from Anglo-Saxon or Old Norse (“sund”), actually means “swimming” according to some dictionaries, and “gap” or “strait” in others. It’s a protected ocean inlet, water as cold and salty as the ocean but the surface nearly as still as a lake. So perfect is the water at Lambert’s Cove that after slogging up a long hill from the parking lot, and cresting the dunes, I’m too impatient to open a sand chair and spread a towel before running into its icy brine. I swim. I float. I swim. I float. Remembering the taste of the water in my mouth and the feel of it on my skin is how I put myself to sleep all winter.
That steep hill of dense sand from the beach parking lot — where by tradition and a show of trust, beachgoers leave their flip-flops and know they’ll be there hours later — is why I recently pointed a woman to nearby Seth’s Pond. A first-timer to the Vineyard, she was checking out the terrain for her 90-year-old grandmother. Spry, she told me, but not up to the task of climbing a dune.
The pond is not far down the road, and popular among families with small children, until about 5 p.m. when they head home for supper. Within steps of the shallow area where toddlers splash all day, it is deep and large enough for the old woman to have a real swim, and right by the shoulder of the road where parking is easy after the families empty out.
I’m more likely, as dinner hour approaches and with it the sunset, to head for the public beach at Menemsha. The beach is crowded and very rocky so it is not the ideal swim. But a pair of fish stores, each with its loyalists, back up to the dock, where the ships unload their daily catch. Pick your own lobster, some still squirming until plunged into a pot of boiling water, and take it to the beach on a paper plate. The meal will be messy, to the delight of the gulls — and a lobster roll is a less sloppy alternative. Regardless, the sunset equals the nightly ritual at Key West, as natural and human spectacle.