Officials Warn Boaters Of More Shifting Sands

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Boating , Erosion

The new “April Fools” inlet, as pictured on May 18. CHRISTOPHER SEUFERT PHOTO

CHATHAM Thanks to the whims of Chatham's shifting sands, boaters can now quickly travel between Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic for the first time in more than 25 years. But particularly for people in smaller boats, exploring the east side waters means taking extra safety precautions.

Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith and other experts spoke to a large crowd of recreational boaters Saturday, updating them on changes in the town's waterways since last summer. The event was organized by Monomoy Yacht Club, and drew more than 150 people to the community center.

“This is pretty exciting for a lot of folks who have been confined to one side of Chatham or the other since 1987,” Smith said. The new inlet in South Beach provides access between Outermost Harbor and Chatham Harbor, and the cut is three feet deep at low water, even deeper than the channel south of Morris Island that connects Outermost Harbor with Nantucket Sound. The new inlet is already in regular use by boaters, Smith noted.

“There is a lot of tide here. If you're going to do this, you should be cognizant that this is where the fishing boats go, and there's probably going to be a lot of traffic through here, especially on the weekends,” he said. The area is also prone to sudden, thick fog patches, the harbormaster noted.

Senior Chief Corbin Ross of Coast Guard Station Chatham said he recently was in the harbor during an easterly storm, two hours before high tide, and “we were seeing about a four- to six-foot break all the way across the bar,” he said. The breaking water continued inside the harbor, to a spot roughly opposite the new break in South Beach, Ross noted. While conditions will likely improve as the summer weather approaches, he urged boaters to be aware of changeable conditions, especially late in the season. The area of the harbor closest to the new cut is exposed to the Atlantic.

“Be aware of that,” he said. “That is wide open to the ocean.”

Smith gave updates on other key waterways in town, as well. Dredging will begin later this week at the Stage Harbor entrance channel, and is expected to continue until July 4.

The South Inlet in South Beach, off Morris Island, is the least navigable of the breaks in the barrier beach, Smith said. With no well-defined channel, the cut is usable by small boats at half-tide or greater, and is marked by balloon floats.

The Morris Island channel is also heavily shoaled, with the biggest problems between Buoy G and Buoy H, the harbormaster said. The town is hoping to dredge this area but doing so will be costly because of the need to transport the recovered sand to south-side beaches. The permitting is also a challenge, since federal officials ask the town to specify where exactly it will be conducting the dredging.

“This is Chatham. We never have any idea until the day before we actually do it,” Smith quipped. Should the idea be endorsed by selectmen, the project could take place next winter, he said.

The main harbor entrance opposite Lighthouse Beach still provides the best access through the barrier beach, the harbormaster said. When there is an easterly wind and a dropping tide, “it's probably not the day to go over the bar,” Smith said. The north inlet opposite Minister's Point is also usable and the best channel will be marked with buoys shortly.

One boater in attendance asked about the best tide charts to use, and Smith said he typically uses the NOAA website to access data from the tide gauge at Aunt Lydia's Cove, or the Nantucket Sound data for Stage Harbor. But Smith said it's an inexact science, particularly in the new inlet.

“With the new inlet, you've got water coming from three different directions, literally,” he said.

Smith advised those who haven't seen the new inlet to talk a stroll down Lighthouse Beach.

“It's a nice walk for those of you who might not want to take your boats there, and I don't blame you,” he said.

A number of boaters at the meeting had questions about moorings, and one asked what the town is doing to require those with permits to actually use those moorings. Smith acknowledged that there are some permit holders who abuse the system and tie up a valuable mooring spot without reason, particularly in Stage Harbor. Draft regulations likely to be taken up in the fall would begin to address the problem, but the town is very reluctant to take away mooring permits.

“It's a life sentence,” Smith said. With around 1,300 people on the waiting list for moorings, if a boater loses his mooring permit, he most likely won't ever get it back. “So we walk very gingerly,” he said. The town's current regulations require that permit holders have a boat registered to the permit, but don't actually require that the boat be kept on the mooring.   

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