Sailing and Exploring Where Land Meets Water

Guests with Marsh and Bay Expeditions convert a 16-foot O’Day sailboat into a camper for a night of rest on the Westport River. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Guests with Marsh and Bay Expeditions convert a 16-foot O’Day sailboat into a camper for a night of rest on the Westport River. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WESTPORT, Mass. — If you think New England has run out of remote, natural places to explore, well, at least one tour group says there's plenty more to enjoy and a unique way to experience it.

Marsh and Bay Expeditions offers overnight dingy cruises of coastal coves, beaches, small unpopulated islands and hard-to-reach harbors with the unfortunate name of “gunkholes.” Don't let the term scare you away. It's a nautical word for a shallow cove. It also describes the isolated destinations along southeastern New England's coast that this tour group seeks out aboard their modest-sized, classic sailboats.

Since the operation started last year, founders Lu Yoder, Kate Blofson and Olaf Bertram-Nothnagel have retrofitted four daysailers — wide-cockpit sailboats suited for cruising in shallow waters — with a protective covered canopy and makeshift storage space that also serves as sleeping quarters. (Think of the family station wagon that doubles as a camper.)

By outfitting the boats for sleeping, it makes them less reliant on finding camping sites onshore. “It allows you to be much more flexible with your planning, which means one thing: safety,” Yoder said.

The boats — two O'Days, a Sailstar Explorer and a Wayfarer, so far — are durable vessels, common to New England waters since the 1950s. They are popular with first-time sailors and laid-back day cruisers. Yoder and Bertram-Nothnagel have fortified these 16-footers for multi-day, open-water trips to the Elizabeth Islands, Martha's Vineyard and outer Cape Cod.

The three founders have extensive experience teaching sailing and skippering boats of all sizes. Yoder is also captain of a 10-ton sloop. But, they prefer the benefits of small boats, such as frequent onshore visits, the intimacy of melding with nature and meeting new people.

“That helps you stay connected to nature,” Yoder said. “It's where all the action is ecologically. And also where the interesting people are.”

An expedition can run from two to eight days and starts at $249 per person. Each trip begins with a cruise down the long, shallow Westport River, with visits to tiny islands populated with eel grass and osprey nests. Depending on weather conditions, you may sail to nearby rivers along Buzzards Bay, then out to Cuttyhunk Island and Cape Poge Bay on Chappaquiddick Island.

There are plenty of lightly visited places along the way that offer the serenity nature-lovers seek. “There's tons of places you can go and think you're in Alaska,” Bertram-Nothnagel said.

Food and supplies are stored in plastic buckets and dry bags. Meals, prepared over campfires and propane stoves, are enjoyed on beaches.

Days start early, as the destination is dependent on the wind, tide and current. A good wind may propel the boats straight to one of the big islands. A calm day might divert the trip to a nearby river.

The idea of these trips is to escape the structured world and crowded beaches and harbors, and let nature dictate the day.

Dana Ostberg, a nurse from Boston, signed on to two excursions this summer because the time in the outdoors offers a break from her daily routine. “It's a lot more fun than checking on your e-mail,” she said.

Brendan Gabian of Philadelphia said the excursion to explore the corridor where the ocean meets the land is "an intimate way to see the seascape.”

And if words, and gunkholes, don't convince you, this video might.