Eroded Barrier Beach Fills Channels, Irks Boaters

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Waterways

Extensive shoaling south of Crescent Beach has cut off easy access between Nantucket Sound (lower left) and the Atlantic (upper right) . SPENCER KENNARD  /

CHATHAM The power’s back on, the downed trees are all removed, but boaters are still feeling the effects of the series of storms that savaged the shoreline this winter.

Fueled by severe erosion on the outer beach, shoaling has threatened a number of key waterways, including the Morris Island Cut, which last year provided easy passage from Nantucket Sound to Chatham Harbor and the Atlantic. For now, that means that most south-side boaters will need to steam all the way around Monomoy Point to reach the ocean.

Harbormasters Stuart Smith of Chatham and John Rendon of Harwich provided their annual update to boaters in a session hosted Saturday by the Monomoy Yacht Club. A capacity crowd filled the meeting room at the community center to hear the status of area waterways and boat landings.

“Last year it was quite nice,” Smith said. Boaters from Saquatucket, Wychmere and Stage Harbor could travel through a modest channel south of Morris Island, and then pass through the “Fool’s Cut” in Lighthouse Beach to reach Chatham Harbor, Pleasant Bay or the Atlantic.

“This still exists, but what has happened over the winter is, Chatham Bar has shoaled considerably, to the point where the fishing fleet is primarily using the north inlet,” he said. Smith showed the group an aerial view of the waters south of Morris Island.

“As you can see, there’s just a lot of sand everywhere,” he said. “That’s a technical term.” The area south of Crescent Beach “really is a desert,” Smith said. “You can basically walk across that at low tide. And that’s probably the most significant change in our waterways this year.” The Morris Island Cut is navigable only about an hour before or after high tide, and the town has marked the deepest water with balloon floats.

“Buoys lay over because there’s no water for them to float,” Smith said. The old channel is still present when boaters depart the Stage Harbor entrance channel, but it dead-ends south of Crescent Beach. That means most boats won’t get through.

“It really has to be high tide, even for your typical outboard boat,” he said. Even the shellfishermen who transit the area in skiffs have begun using smaller boats with shallower drafts to get over the sand bars to reach the flats near the former Southway, he said.

The storms last winter, “about four of them, really really damaged and collapsed the outer beach,” Smith said. His concern is that next winter, the shoals now blocking the Morris Island Cut could fill in the Stage Harbor entrance channel.

“That will then require some more dredging there,” he said.

Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said officials hope to dredge parts of the Morris Island Cut starting in the late fall or early winter, but the primary purpose of the operation is to nourish depleted south-side beaches like Cockle Cove and Ridgevale. If the dredge creates a proper channel through the area, it is likely to be short-lived, he said.

“I have no guarantee that the channel will be there in April, let alone in the summer,” he said.

The North Cut in the barrier beach opposite Minister’s Point has reasonably deep water, but boats from Chatham Harbor access it only through a narrow channel just west of North Beach Island.

“This is a very tricky area,” Smith said. “If two boats pass there, one is going to have to give way.” There are preliminary talks about widening this channel, but no work has been scheduled. Smith urged boaters to use caution in the area.

In Harwich waters, Rendon said the chief concern is at Round Cove, where shoals have started filling the channel. Home to 95 moorings, Round Cove was scheduled to be dredged over the winter, but the job was canceled when the county dredge became iced in at Bass River. The planned dredging at Fox Hill in Chatham was also scrapped for that reason.

At Round Cove, “that channel is really tight right now, and it will remain tight for the season,” Rendon said. He added he is hopeful that the harbor entrance will be dredged this fall and winter.

Saquatucket Harbor remains under construction, but the piers on the west dock are operational and in use. Contractors are installing electrical and fresh water lines on the east dock this week, clearing the way for more boats to use the harbor. As part of the harbor restoration, the entire boat basin was dredged over the winter and is in good shape, Rendon said. The county dredge is expected to clear the channel at Allen Harbor this week, removing around 8,000 cubic yards of sand.

“All that material is going on public beaches,” he said.

Some of the commercial fishing boats displaced from Saquatucket Harbor are now in Stage Harbor, Smith said. This spring, there were as many as 35 commercial fishing boats there, including a number of scallop boats and others that fish south off Martha’s Vineyard. It represented the largest gathering of commercial fishing boats seen in Stage Harbor in many years, Smith said. Many of those boats will be leaving the harbor soon, “some of their own volition, some not,” the harbormaster said.

Smith said another noteworthy change this year involves the Chatham harbor patrol, which has historically operated during the daytime until around 5:30 or 6 p.m. In recent years, the harbormaster department has frequently had to call in staff to respond to after-hours emergencies.

“With all of these [navigational] changes, we expect that to increase,” he said. To that end, harbor patrols will routinely continue through around 9 p.m. this summer, Smith said.