Accidents Highlight Bar Danger

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Boating

This August aerial photo shows the shoaling encroaching on the Chatham Harbor entrance channel as well as the Chatham Bar, center left. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

Officials Worry Shoaling May Be Closing Inlet

CHATHAM – Following a number of recent incidents, town officials are once again warning that the Chatham Bar is a dangerous place to be this time of year, for both experienced and casual boaters.

The deterioration of the channel leading into Chatham Harbor is also raising concerns that it may be filling in.

Last Thursday, two Orleans men were thrown from their boat after it was hit by a 10-foot wave as they headed into the harbor through the 1987 inlet. Earlier that day a fishing boat had its windshield blown out while crossing the bar, and just a week or so before another fishing boat ran aground and lost its windshield in the same area.

“If you don't have to transit that bar, then don't,” was the advice of Harbormaster Stuart Smith.

A combination of weather, as winds shift from the southwest pattern of the summer to the prevailing north-northeast direction of the fall and winter, and severe shoaling in the Chatham Harbor entrance channel make the bar particularly treacherous this time of year. In September 2014 a 40-foot fishing boat nearly sank at about the same location.

The Chatham Bar has been an infamous navigation hazard through the centuries. Getting past it was the chief challenge when Bernie Webber and his crew went out to rescue the survivors stranded on the Pendleton in February 1952. A collection of ever-shifting shoals that form a formidable maze at the entrance to the harbor, Chatham Bar migrates constantly, making traversing it a trick deal even for the most experienced mariners, Smith said, especially on an ebb tide.

Conditions are especially difficult now because the channel that runs from the open Atlantic into the harbor, through the inlet created by a break in the barrier beach in 1987, is almost nonexistent.

“There really isn't a channel,” said Chatham Coast Guard Senior Chief Corbin Ross. While there remain some areas of deep water, fingers of sand extend across the channel all the way across the bar, he said. It's especially problematic the hour before and after low tide.

“We have to pay particular attention during that period,” Ross said. “If there's any kind of offshore swell at all, even if it's only a few feet, it can be constantly breaking on the bar. When you come in you have to time it correctly. There's no period when it's not breaking. It's always breaking.”

If a boat is unlucky enough to hit a shoal or be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a breaking wave can easily swamp it. That's apparently what happened to David and Hans Wiener of Orleans last Thursday.

According to Smith, the father and son were returning to Pleasant Bay over the bar shortly before noon in their 23-foot center console Pathfinder. A 10-foot wave hit the boat broadside; the vessel pitch-poled and rolled over, ejecting the two men into the 61-degree water about a quarter mile south of Lighthouse Beach. Fisherman Mike Woods was nearby, Smith said, but because of conditions could not reach the men, who were waist-deep in the water. Woods notified the harbormaster, and Smith and Assistant Harbormaster Tom Deeg were on scene a short while later. Deeg threw the men a lifering and took them on board. They were taken to the fish pier where a Chatham Fire Department ambulance was waiting. The men were shaken, and one had a gash on his knee, but they were not seriously injured. They warmed up in the ambulance but refused further treatment, according to the fire department.

Smith said earlier in the day the windshield on fisherman Tim Linnell's boat was blown out by a wave as he was heading out over the bar. While fishermen have to go out, recreational fishermen and boaters should avoid the bar this time of year, he said.

“Tool around Pleasant Bay. Don't go over the bar,” Smith said. And don't depend on a smartphone weather app to provide conditions in that area, he added. “It's a different universe. It can be a bluebird day in your back yard, but the Chatham Bar is not the place to be on an eastwind, especially on an outgoing tide.” The Coast Guard regularly broadcasts bar reports on VHF Channel 16.

Over the past several months, sandbars have steadily moved south from the southern tip of North Beach Island, to the point where they are now constricting and intruding on the channel, which runs parallel to South Beach, more severely than in the past, Smith said. He said he was trying to set the first buoy on the bar but there was “just no water there. There was no where to move it to.”

If the inlet across from Lighthouse Beach is deteriorating, the north inlet, created in 2007 across from Minister's Point, isn't getting any better either, Smith said. The theory was that if the south inlet, where much of the tidal flow between the ocean and the harbor and Pleasant Bay occurs, begins to fill in, the northern inlet would become more dominant and navigation there would improve. Based on the historical cycle of the Nauset barrier beach system, the northern break usually ends up being the main inlet, said Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon.

“The implications for navigation are obvious,” he said. “How we deal with that is uncertain.”

While dredging is technically feasible, the cost and equipment requirements would be “substantial,” he said. Such a project would likely be beyond the resources typically available to the town, such as the Barnstable Count dredge, and begs a number of other questions, including how often it would be required and where dredged sand would be deposited. The barrier beach is within the boundary of the Cape Cod National Seashore, where disposal of dredge material is prohibited.

“What we don't want to end up with is where we're headed,” Smith said, “two channels that are bad from a navigation standpoint. That's basically where we're at.”

For as long as anyone can remember, Chatham Bar has been just south of the lighthouse. A shift to a dominant northern inlet could change that permanently.

“It wouldn't surprise me if Chatham Bar as we've known it since 1987 is in its death throes,” Smith said. “It may become impassable depending on what happens with the weather.”