So You Want to Go to Cuttyhunk...

Just about all you need to know about the little island at the end of the Elizabeths – except how to get there from here.

A few years back, our Dukes County commissioners were planning a day trip over to Cuttyhunk island, the outermost outpost of their realm. They were making a courtesy appearance at a Gosnold selectmen’s meeting, Gosnold being the town that governs all the Elizabeth Islands, Cuttyhunk included. There was room for one more passenger in their charter boat departing Menemsha. Would I like to go? You bet. I’d never been to this speck of rubble I’d forever spied from the Gay Head Cliffs. My only concept was that hardly any people lived there, and they got about the place in golf carts. And now and then, some faraway bureaucrat gets a mind to mothball the post office. Finally I would meet the island personally. I would also learn of The Pipe.

“That’s why so many people are here today,” whispered the lady sitting next to me inside tiny Gosnold town hall, circa 1924. She was Cuttyhunk’s one-woman volunteer news service, taking notes for the next email dispatch. “So many” people numbered about a dozen, perched on wooden folding chairs. The state’s deadline was fast approaching for property owners to get off The Pipe. The state really, really meant it this time. Yet most of the island’s 130-odd homes were still on The Pipe. Even town hall was on The Pipe. And few citizens were keen on spending thousands of dollars to install septic systems and get off The Pipe.

I figured The Pipe to be an obsolete sewer, but no. Post-meeting, I learned The Pipe was a mere pipe, dumping Cuttyhunk wastewater straight into Vineyard Sound. Untreated. 

Tyler Billman serves up oysters on the harbor. Right: The view to the west end of the island.
Wayne Smith

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Quansoo anymore.

Curiosity led me back to the land of The Pipe to find out more – was it actually possible that this island society was more provincial than my own? How did stuff work here? I had to find out. The FAQs on the visitor website gave fair warning: Do businesses accept credit cards? Hardly. Is there an ATM? No. Lodgings and eateries? Barely. Campground? No. Kayak, bicycle, golf cart, or fishing gear rentals? No, no, no, and no. And without your own boat or light plane, you pretty much can’t get there directly from here. But I nonetheless got myself to New Bedford one morning in time to catch the daily 9 a.m. voyage of the M/V Cuttyhunk and jumped aboard. Thus began my six-hour fact-finding Cuttyhunk speed date, seated on a bench across from a pallet of Pepperidge Farm bread and a pile of FedEx boxes aboard an eighty-foot freighter. Here’s but a smattering of what I gleaned.

The FAQs could be expanded. The town hall is open on certain days depending on the season. No groceries to be had at The Market when the grocer goes off-island for provisions. No published local telephone directory, unless you’re a dues-paying member of the Yacht Club, which gets you their free printout. No liquor sales. Ferry service only two days a week in the off-season. Spotty WiFi connections from the antenna atop Aquinnah’s Outermost Inn. Frequent if brief power outages. And no, the exterior outlet at the gift shop is not busted. The circuit is shut off on purpose, lest someone charge a cell phone. The cost of electricity from the town-owned power plant is just that wild. And you can’t be buried in a coffin in the crowded cemetery anymore.

Cuttyhunk is genuinely welcoming, mind you, but on its own terms. The Vineyard used to be like that: No restaurant service after 8 p.m. Few stores open on Sundays. Snowy television reception. When on island, make do as an islander. I kind of miss that. I was informed of “Cuttyhunk outlaws,” a social caste of inhabitants who earned their island creds via matrimony into island families of long standing. On the ferry, I met an outlaw named Hall, who married into the Davis family. On Cuttyhunk, he’s considered a Davis.

Bonnie Veeder, a sixth-generation islander, runs the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club bed and breakfast.
Wayne Smith

Current evidence of Cuttyhunk hospitality, if in season only: Public restrooms by the fishing dock. Wall Street Journal and other dailies available at the al fresco pizza place. Services in three faiths at the pretty Cuttyhunk Island Church. A daily, one-hour medical clinic at the Avalon Inn, treating tick bites in the main. Visiting rotating doctors and clergy are thanked with free vacation housing.  

Furthermore, Cuttyhunk seems to be a first-name-basis kind of place. As in, “you should go ask Lisa.” What with the sparse population, even a common name like Lisa is likely to belong to just one person, whom everyone knows. Moreover, it’s not difficult to track down Lisa or anyone else. If Lisa isn’t changing beds over at the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club bed and breakfast, she’s most likely at town hall checking messages or collecting timesheets from the trash collectors. (She’s the town clerk.) Or she’s around the corner at the post office. Or maybe down the hill at the harbor master’s shed. You can walk this undulating circuit in about fifteen minutes.

The sparse population is getting sparser all the time. Eighteen year-rounders lived there at the time of my visit. This was down from about twenty in 2011. Which was down from forty in 2002. According to Lisa, whose last name is Wright, if you insist, a safe guess for the year-round population in any given year is twenty-five. But nowadays, many “year-rounders” live more like three-seasoners, getting away in winter when there’s no resort trade to ply. As one islander explained, few want to deal with the inconvenience of island life anymore.

Summer residents are some 400 strong, inhabiting homes that have typically been in their families for generations. They grow up together in sailing classes at the Yacht Club. They know each other for life. Their houses are relatively understated. No mega-mansions to speak of here. At least not yet.

Wayne Smith

More shocking to a Vineyarder than The Pipe: Summer people get to vote! This is legal! Taxation with representation! Every spring, Sue and Jono Billings fire up the boat engines for a day just to ferry off-islanders to and from the annual town meeting. All three town selectmen are seasonal residents. 

The distinction between summer and year-round peoples seems, to my eye, more blurred than on the Vineyard. When locals made mention of summer residents, I detected no smirks, no rolling of the eyes, no whining about the Auuuugust people. Maybe it’s because many year-rounders are descendants of
summer people. Almost everyone has washashore in their DNA.

Still, Kumbaya does not extend to the town-owned fishing dock. The wooden building houses storefronts about the size of rabbit warrens, where denizens of the marina can find, say, a freshly shucked littleneck, an ice cream cone, or fishing charter captain. The relevant bylaw is wordy, but the upshot is: To be a commercial tenant, you gotta be a local.

The young collegian selling me a T-shirt in the gift shop was the same person who served me breakfast that morning on the patio of the bed and breakfast. Her buddy worked the gift shop in the morning, the ice cream place in the afternoon, the pizza place in the evening. Together, they pretty much clinched the entire private sector job market. They had no nightlife and didn’t much care.   

Captain Bruce Borges, owner of Cuttyhunk Fishing Charters, provides lobsters down at the harbor.
Wayne Smith

The 1873 schoolhouse has a functioning school bell and an astonishingly full curriculum. The school population is two: Carter and Gwen. Once they finish eighth grade, they’ll commute to high school off-island, just like their dad, Duane Lynch, who attended Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School back in his day. The school will then be shuttered until the next school-age child comes along. The teacher multitasks as principal and janitor. She makes do with ten-month house rentals, vacating in June for the summer occupants. Shades of the “Vineyard shuffle.” Some teacher tenures have lasted but two or three years. The professional experience is rich, they say. The lifestyle can be trying.

The director of the Cuttyhunk Historical Society has the better housing fate, with a gratis apartment accessed by a secret entry behind the building’s supply closet. (So much for the secret.) This de facto visitor center has a permanent Elizabeth Islands FAQ exhibit, because there are just that many visitors – more than 4,000 each summer – who wander in from the marina asking the same naïve questions as yours truly.

Dockage and mooring fees cover nearly one-third of town expenses – and it’s a very short season. Columbus Day is not the new Labor Day here.

In 2009, George Isabel, the harbor master, also became the town’s first officer of the law with actual police credentials. The dual role seems like a no-brainer. Public disturbances typically have something to do with drunken sailors. George once got a 2 a.m. call to free a guy who was stuck in a bosun’s chair. After swearing me to anonymity, one islander claimed that, in summer or winter, Cuttyhunk may be the wettest dry island in the world. When George is in Florida for the winter, emergency calls go to Chilmark. Oh sure, now they need us. The Elizabeth Islands belonged to the town of Chilmark before they declared independence in 1864.    

George’s proudest achievement in police work was getting every vehicle on island registered, down to the last golf cart. He says people thought it was okay not to bother with renewals. Because Cuttyhunk is different. Come to think of it, that may explain the long saga of The Pipe – at least in part. When I returned years after my initial visit to the island, more homes were off The Pipe, but not all.* Stubbornness might not be much of an issue anymore, but for some, money still was.    

Back on the Vineyard, my re-entry to traffic and supermarket lines seemed harsh. What a difference a day makes. Still, I was grateful to charge my phone again.

* The EPA recently certified that the last houses were finally off The Pipe. “I’ve always said we should have a party when this is finally done,” said Lisa Wright, “but we haven’t yet.”

Comments (6)

Robert Leonard founder of the Slippery Sneakers Zydeco
Coventry, Rhode island
I've traveled with my band from Maine to Florida, sailed the BVI's and other islands, have 30 hours beyond my masters degree, written two books and built three logs homes and most of my own furniture. But if I could live on Cuttyhunk Island for the rest of my life, I WOULD JUNP AT THE OPPORTUNITY. I first sailed there when I was 24 yrs old and have loved the Island ever since. My band just performed at the Avalon on July 12, 2017. Everyone threats you with respect. It is the last of a real down to earth place to live. Thank you Cuttyhunk for everything.
July 14, 2017 - 10:54pm
Edward Ducy
Swansea, Ma.
Wow! This is my idea of the true "Andy of Mayberry, RFD" Law Enforcement retirement job. Chief Isabel enjoy the best job in the world! I really could enjoy living there & doing L.E.!
September 21, 2017 - 9:52pm
Can you harvest Quahogs in the harbor yet.
October 27, 2018 - 9:45am
Ned Lloyd
Woodstock CT
I'm glad to read that Cuttyhunk hasn't gone the way of the other islands (yet). I may have to get back there. My first visit was 1971, and at that time if you wanted to make a phone call from the phone booth (remember them??) at the foot of the town dock, you had to first listen to make sure the line was clear (the whole island was one party line), then you had to actually turn the crank handle on the side of the pay phone to ring up the New Bedford operator and have her put your call through. A wonderful place!
January 21, 2019 - 12:13pm
6466 Lexington Rd
If life is stripped of ideals, dreams, and fantasies, then life is just a pile of empty shelves
April 14, 2020 - 4:55am
When people ask me where I'm from, I proudly tell 'em Cuttyhunk; if they've heard of it, I'm truly surprised; if they haven't, well then they had better get a cup of coffee ready (and another pot brewing) because I could talk Cuttyhunk non-stop for hours if not days. LOVE THAT PLACE best on the whole eart.
March 26, 2022 - 10:53pm