Updated January 14, 2011
The natural forces that relentlessly shape and re-shape Chappaquiddick’s shoreline have punched a hole in the elbow-shaped barrier beach that separates Cape Poge Bay to the east from Nantucket Sound to the west. The breach as it currently exists is approximately 60 yards wide and several feet deep at high tide.
Experienced observers do not expect the opening to last long. But for now, it has cut off land access to the tip of Cape Poge and the gut, the narrow opening to Cape Poge Bay and a popular seasonal fishing destination.
In April 2007, a one-two punch of storm-driven ocean waves and powerful spring tides knocked open a cut in Norton Point Beach, the two-mile long barrier beach that had linked Katama to Chappaquiddick and provided off-road vehicle access. The opening continues to migrate east and significantly affects currents and navigation in Edgartown Harbor.
Unlike that dramatic breach that opened Katama Bay to the Atlantic Ocean and has once again made Chappaquiddick an island in reality as well as name — a well-documented historically common event, as evidenced by maps dated as early as 1775 — there is no available evidence of openings along the elbow.
The elbow beach extends from Cape Poge light to the gut, the narrow opening to Cape Poge Bay, noted for its sheltered water and highly productive bay scallop fishery. The beach is approximately two miles long and relatively narrow for most of its length. It is about 25 yards at its narrowest point in the vicinity of the breach.
A longtime summer camp — commonly referred to as the windmill house for the longstanding skeletal, weathered windmill that still provides electrical power — sits on a three-quarter mile privately owned stretch of the beach.
In a telephone conversation Monday, Jo-Ann Taylor, Martha’s Vineyard Commission coastal planner, said that historically the beach has been very stable and she expects it to remain so.
“I wouldn’t expect that to last,” Ms. Taylor said of the new opening. “I would expect it would close off. It has an adequate sand supply from the lighthouse site and that’s the direction of sand movement.
The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), a private nonprofit conservation organization, owns or manages most of Chappaquiddick’s barrier beach system for shorebird and barrier beach protection and visitor recreational use.
Chris Kennedy, TTOR southeast regional director, said the latest breach was reported after a period of sustained high winds that blew from the northeast and turned to northwest in late December. Initially he thought it might simply be a wash-over, but found that is not the case.
Mr. Kennedy said the elbow beach has always been relatively flat and lacked the major dunes found elsewhere along the shoreline. “What I find so surprising is that it has always been a relatively stable area,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Even though it looks very fragile in the 200-year-old maps, when you look at it, it’s the same shape, same location, so it is not as dynamic, for example, as Wasque.”
Mr. Kennedy said a recent aerial photo of the breach appears to show a significant flow of water into the pond judging by the delta of sand that is building up on the inside.
“We cannot just fall back on history like we can with the breach at Norton Point,” Mr. Kennedy said. “A breach at the elbow is kind of an unknown at this point.”
In an email to The Times, Kib Bramhall of West Tisbury, an artist and well known fisherman who is intimately familiar with the Island shoreline, said breaches have occurred on both sides of the windmill house in the past.
“Before there was a windmill it was just a camp belonging to Phil Norton,” Mr. Bramhall said. “During hurricane Edna in September, 1954. The breaches were big enough for a friend and me to take an 18-foot inboard boat through both. Norton’s camp was built on the site of an old duck hunting camp, indicating the location had been stable in the past.”
Perhaps those most concerned with knowing what the future holds for the beach are Donald Cecca and Diane Gerros, owners since 1995, of the three-bedroom ramshackle house and dock that rests between the dunes among the rusting debris left by former owners. The breach is located about 200 yards south of the house.
In a telephone conversation from her office in Cambridge, Ms. Gerros said she is aware of the breach. “I don’t think there’s much I can do,” she said. “Nature is a much stronger force than I am. I think about it. I am hoping that it will fill back in.”
Ms. Gerros said she and Mr. Cecca fell in love with the property many years ago for its wild, remote quality. She said she does not like the litter that came with the property and remains on the beach, but it is very heavy and costly to remove.
Years ago, former owner Michael Pacella feuded with TTOR and fishermen over access across his property. At one point in the disagreement, the concrete business owner transported large concrete blocks to Chappaquiddick and placed the blocks along the beach and installed no-trespassing signs. The dispute was eventually settled, and all comers continued to enjoy the beach.
The signs have long since rusted away but the blocks remain embedded in the sand, among many hazards to off-road vehicles, hazards that include the remnants of rusting fence posts used to string wire along the beach to deter vehicles.
This article has been revised from the print version to include comments from Kib Bramhall.