In Wake Of Winter Storms, Boaters Will Face Navigation Problems

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Coast Guard , Boating , Erosion , Waterways

Beachgoers view the break in South Beach, later known as the April Fool's inlet, the day after it was created during a storm on April 1, 2017. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Boaters anticipating accessing waters along the town's eastern coast by the usual routes this summer may have to change their expectations.

“Delete last year's GPS” settings, Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon recommended.

Even though they haven't had a chance to explore inlets, navigation channels and popular boating spots in detail because of the weather, officials say that the storms that played havoc with the shoreline this winter and spring also did a job on the town's waterways.

“We've had so many storms it's hard to get an accurate depiction of what's going on,” said Deputy Harbormaster Jason Holm. But by all indications, he conceded, “It's a mess.”

Chatham Coast Guard Station Senior Chief Corbin Ross, whose crews have been on the water on a regular basis throughout the winter, agreed.

“Everything has changed,” he said, adding that while a channel remains in place through the inlet across from the station, “I don't think it's done changing.”

Officials are keeping a keen eye on three areas: the two major inlets on the east side of town and the channel between Morris Island and North Monomoy, known as the Morris Island cut, at the town's southeast corner.

The two inlets into Chatham Harbor have been problematic for a few years. The inlet across from Lighthouse Beach had been the main access to the harbor since its creation in 1987, but the 2007 break across from Minister's Point to the north began a dual inlet system that is still playing out.

Officials anticipated the northern inlet becoming the dominant access in and out of the harbor, capturing most of the tidal exchange between the ocean and Pleasant Bay and the harbor, but that has yet to happen. Last year there were signs that shoaling was clogging the 1987 inlet, and the northern inlet was being used more often by commercial fishing boats and other vessels. While the north inlet lacked a consistently deep channel, it seemed to be heading in that direction.

Especially after a storm on April 1 last year created a new break in South Beach about a quarter mile south of Lighthouse Beach, hard by the entrance to the harbor. Over the subsequent months the April Fool's Cut, as it became known, served as a new access for boaters for Chatham Harbor, Pleasant Bay and the Atlantic and Nantucket Sound. The 1987 inlet, meanwhile, continued to shoal and the bar remained unstable and sometimes dangerous.

The recent storms lowering the southern tip of North Beach and the southern end of North Beach Island. Ross noted that there are two spots on North Beach Island across from Lighthouse Beach which wash over regularly, although the in a west-bound direction only. Both major inlets may have shoaling problems, said Keon. Holm said it's been hard to tell the extent of the shoaling. “It's so rough every time we've been out there,” he said. “We're waiting for some still water.” He added that it appeared that the waters through the north inlet may have deepened; Ross said aerial photos seem to indicate it is getting wider.

There is “open communications with the sea” through the Fool's Cut, Ross said. Observations indicate that the norther inlet is getting most of the tidal exchange from Pleasant Bay, while the 1987 inlet and Fool's Cut are carrying some water from Pleasant Bay but also from Nantucket Sound, which has higher tide levels. Inside the Fool's Cut is very shallow, however.

“We were training in 20-foot-plus” waves near the bar during the season's first and second storms, Ross said, but as soon as those waves hit the shallower water west of the Fool's Cut, they lost their power. That will provide some protection to the inner shoreline, but it means more shoals for boaters to watch for. The “Chatham's Three Breaks” Facebook page reported Monday that there was significant shoaling in the Fool's Cut channel, with about 3.4 feet of water at high tide but only six to eight inches in some areas at low tide.

“It’s going to cause a big problem for boaters in the future months ahead,” the page's administrator, shellfisherman Randy Saul, wrote.

After the April Fool's inlet opened up last year, the Morris Island cut became a popular route from Nantucket Sound to the Atlantic, eliminating the long trip around the tip of Monomoy or the often treacherous voyage through the 2013 cut in South Beach. Shoals pushed into the narrow gap between Morris Island and Monomoy by the tides flowing west through the cut made navigation tricky last year, and at least the initial analysis, through aerial photos and anecdotal evidence, indicate that it's “definitely shoaler than last season,” Keon said.

Holm concurred, saying a lot of sand pushed west from South Beach by wind and waves is now clogging the Morris Island cut. When Coastal Facilities Manager-Wharfinger Michael Ryder went through the area recently, there was only about two feet of clearance at high water, he said. The condition of that waterways has been the most frequent question boaters have asked the harbormaster's department recently, he added.

The 2013 inlet “looks to be in pretty rough shape,” Holm said. Even last season that area was barely navigable at high water and was used mostly by shellfishermen, since recreational boaters now had the more convenient April Fool's inlet to access Pleasant Bay and the ocean. With South Beach significantly lowered and breached during the storms, much of it can be considered little more than shoals. Much of the sand from the beach as well as material eroded from the cliffs on Morris Island washed to the west into the Morris Island cut area. Based on observation from aerial photos, the 2013 inlet area is likely to be accessible only at high tide by small vessels, Keon suggested.

Harbor icing in December put the Barnstable County dredge schedule behind, which means that for the second year in a row, the Fox Hill channel won't be dredged, said Keon. Plans are still in place for dredging of the mouth of Mill Creek later this spring.

By mid month, Holm said, he hopes waterways staff can get a better look at the channels and begin putting out aids to navigation to mark this season's navigable waterways.

The next two months will determine the conditions boaters will find this summer, said Ross.

“We're just in limbo, waiting to see, now that the storms have passed, where this settles out,” he said.