Watchword For Summer Boating Season: Caution

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Topics: Coast Guard , Boating , Chatham , Environment , Harwich , Pleasant Bay

Caution is the watchword for boaters in Chatham and Harwich this summer. The Coast Guard is keeping a close eye on the main entrance channel to Chatham Harbor. Shoals on the board are “concerning,” said Senior Chief Corbin Ross. FILE PHOTO

Whether on the water for business or fun, boaters in and around Chatham know one thing for sure – nothing about these beautiful salty waterways stays the same for long.

Hoping to learn more about the current condition of local waters and harbors as the boating season begins, more than 150 people turned out for Saturday’s Harbor Updates at the Chatham Community Center. The event, sponsored by the Monomoy Yacht Club, featured Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith, Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon and Senior Chief Corbin Ross of Coast Guard Station Chatham.

Boaters on the waters off South beach in Chatham as well as in and around Stage Harbor, Morris Island and Pleasant Bay should be prepared for changes resulting from tons of drifting sand propelled south by wind and current, according to Smith.

“At the bar in front of the Coast Guard Station we’ve seen a lot of accretion of sand coming from the cut,” Smith said. The bars are marked and there is a channel off Lighthouse Beach, he added. Smith expressed concern due to a “tremendous amount of water now leaving the harbor at a narrow point” resulting in potentially rough seas.

Smith cautioned boaters about two shoals in the entrance to Stage Harbor, one off the lighthouse, and the other off Crescent beach. The channel there is clearly marked.

The Mitchell River bridge, scheduled to open later in June, will bring improved conditions for boaters as the waterway has been moved eight feet to the west and the channel has been made six feet wider than it used to be.

The Morris Island channel is considerably shallower, Smith said. “The tip of the beach is marching north,” he said, and the good water (a foot and a half at low tide) has shifted. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of shoals. “We had our first victim last night,” he said. “He became disoriented in the fog.” The boater was fine but Smith called the area “a mess – an area to be avoided.”

Smith pointed out more shoaling in Pleasant Bay. “It’s a maze to get in,” he said. “At high tide you have about two and a half to two feet.” The new Muddy Creek bridge has increased the water flow and made it “almost navigable,” especially by paddleboards and kayaks. Because it is a designated swim area, powerboats are prohibited there.

Asked what could be done about the changes, Smith was cautious.

“The amount of material deposited as a result of the South Beach breach is tremendous. The town will dredge if necessary,” he said, “but you pay by the cubic yard and no one envisioned this much material.”

Rendon began his overview of Harwich waterways and immediately got a laugh from the group. “In Harwich we actually have water in our waterways,” he said with a smile. Rendon described some of the 87 calls for maritime assistance his office had handled, including a boat fire and a small boat rescue in strong surf when an engine died, leaving the decks awash in water. “Things happened quickly and we got him off,” Rendon said. He credited the strong cooperation between Chatham and Harwich, as well as the Coast Guard, with being key to positive results on the water.

Renovations at Allen Harbor this year have resulted in replacement of 180 feet of main bulkhead, as well as repaired piers and landings. It is now a public access facility open to all, Rendon said, with just a $10 daily ramp fee. Wychmere Town Pier is in operation for its first full year, with improved facilities, upgrades to the shellfish labs and new bathrooms.

Improvements to Saquatucket Harbor are on the schedule ahead, with construction of new docks and improved services, including a handicapped accessible ramp and 11 new slips. An eight-foot main walkway and pier will be concrete while the finger docks will be made of tropical hardwood. “It will be stable and long lasting,” Rendon stressed.

A $1 million state grant will help to offset the $7 million cost, he noted. All boats are expected to be out of the harbor by mid October so that dredging can take place before the Jan. 15 deadline. “We should be ready to go by Memorial Day,” Rendon said. “Pray for a calm winter so we won’t lose a boating season,” he added.

Of interest to fishermen is the new artificial reef two miles south/southwest off the Saquatucket Harbor entrance. The reef was created with, among other items, concrete from the old Harwich High School. “There is no buoy there,” Rendon added, “however I’m told there’s lots of fish on that reef.” For coordinates of the reef, go to www.harwich-ma.gov/harbormaster.

With the increased shoaling, Senior Chief Ross cautioned boaters that with a two-foot, eight-inch draft, the Coast Guard rescue boats might not easily get into all local waters for rescue purposes. “The shoals on Chatham Bar are concerning,” he said. “Breakers form faster and white water happens in new places.”

Pleasant Bay has its challenges too, Ross said. “It’s so tight that we have limited access. If you get in trouble there,” he said with a smile, “make sure you do it in the channel!”

Ross stressed the importance of all boats being equipped with safety equipment “to buy time until we can get to you.” If it suspects a problem, the Coast Guard may board a boat to ensure it is operating in a safe manner. Voluntary vessel safety checks are available for boaters through the Cape Cod Sail and Power Squadron and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“If you see us out doing more boardings, that is why,” Ross added. Conditions can be challenging on the waters around Chatham and Harwich.

“Areas we know are dangerous are even more dangerous now,” Ross said.