CHATHAM – As expected, the break in South Beach created on April 1 has been a boon to boaters this summer. Boat traffic in the area has increased considerably now that there's a more or less direct route from Nantucket Sound to the Atlantic.
But that route isn't without its problems.
To get to the ocean from Nantucket Sound, boaters must first pass between Morris and Monomoy islands. According to Harbormaster Stuart Smith, that passageway has become more treacherous than the new break.
“You can't get through there at low tide,” he said. While there's about two and a half feet of water in the South Beach break at low tide, there's less than just off Morris Island. There have been more boat groundings there than in the new cut, Smith said.
“It's a very, very treacherous area,” he said. “We would just like people to slow down.”
“Sand is pouring in there and moving around,” Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon added.
Keon said he's been approached about dredging the Morris Island channel by the owners of Outermost Harbor Marine as well as other marinas who see the benefit of a safe waterway between Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic. He plans to meet soon with the waterways advisory committee and the board of selectmen to discuss dredging. In 2015, selectmen rejected dredging the Morris Island channel after a similar request from Outermost, because the area is within the disputed western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. The town continues to challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's claim to jurisdiction over the area, with federal legislation that would set the boundary at low water remaining locked up in a House committee.
There are other issues that would complicate dredging the Morris Island channel, Keon said.
“It does present a number of logistical issues,” he said, including the rapid changes the area is undergoing. “An area we may be dredging today may not be viable in the couple of weeks. I just don't have any sense at this stage of how long a channel would last in that very dynamic area,” he said.
The area is included in the town's comprehensive dredging permit for the Nantucket Sound shoreline, but there are other technical concerns, such as getting the project on the schedule for the Barnstable County dredge as well as where to put the dredged material. The most logical place is Harding's Beach, Keon said, but the most efficacious location would be the western portion, “and that's a long way” from the Morris Island channel, nearly two miles. To pump dredged sand any distance beyond 4,000 square feet requires a booster pump, which increases costs; Keon said that a 9,000- to 10,000-foot distance could require all of the piping the county owns, which is deployed all around the Cape.
The caution regarding the Morris Island channel also goes for boaters heading through the South Beach cut, referred to by some as the April Fool's or just Fool's cut. Smith said a commercial fisherman recently watched a bass fisherman going around in circles in the fog searching for the inlet.
“It's just such a confined area. We obviously don't want any boat collisions,” Smith said. A new buoy marks the Outermost Harbor side of the new inlet, but the other side, adjacent to the 1987 inlet, isn't marked. “We didn't want to confuse it with too many buoys,” he said.
Nonetheless, boat traffic from Nantucket Sound to the ocean and into Chatham Harbor and Pleasant Bay is noticeably heavier this summer. Lighthouse Beach Supervisor Vince Gulotta estimated that there 75 percent more boats passing by the beach this summer than last.
The 1987 inlet continues to shoal, to the point where deeper draft boats must play the tides and sometimes wait beyond the bar before going across and into Chatham Harbor, Smith said. This could become a critical issue for commercial fishermen, as a longer wait may mean carrying more ice to keep their catch fresh. “There's just a whole host of issues,” he said.
Whether shoaling in the 1987 inlet was accelerated by the April break is “up for debate,” he added, since the inlet has been shoaling for some time and has been in its “death throes” for at least nine months.
“We're seeing more of that,” he said.
Just inside the bar, right at the South Beach break, the water runs deep and fast. “The water roars through there,” he said of the constrained area just off Lighthouse Beach. “It wouldn't surprise me if that closed up at some point.”
There are indications that the north inlet, across from Minister's Point, may be evolving into a more navigable channel, which would make it a more attractive option for the fishing fleet quartered at nearby Aunt Lydia's Cove. Until recently a large fan of sand on the Pleasant Bay side has made it too shallow to navigate at most tides, but Keon said the area between the northern tip of North Beach Island and the spit of sand cut off from the rest of the beach in late June has a more substantial flow both in and out, and may be the start of the process of the north inlet taking over from the 1987 break as the dominant inlet in the system. That's what scientists have predicted would happen since the north break occurred in 2007.
“I think that pace will quicken if the '87 break becomes impassable,” Smith agreed.
For now, the mantra for boaters hoping for quick access from Nantucket Sound to the Atlantic via the Morris Island channel and the new South Beach break should be “throttle down,” Smith said.