Navigating Chatham's Waterways Remains A Tricky Proposition

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Boating , Waterways , Dredging

This aerial view shows the Stage Harbor entrance channel and the shoaling to the east from Morris Island to the Fool's Cut and the 1987 inlet. Waterways officials say these areas are in somewhat better shape than last summer but are still tricky to navigate. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

CHATHAM – There's actually some good news for boaters: The town's dynamic, shoal-ridden waterways are no more difficult to navigate this summer than last. In fact, some spots have improved. A little.

But local knowledge still remains critical, and conditions are subject to change at any time, Harbormaster Stuart Smith told a capacity crowd at an informational meeting at the community center Saturday sponsored by the Monomoy Yacht Club.

“You've got to be creative in Chatham,” Smith said, relating how a charter boat operator got through the Morris Island cut at low tide—usually a time to avoid that area—by lifting his outboard out of the water and drifting through the shoals, faith and the tides carrying the boat across safely.

Conditions in the area off Morris Island are somewhat better this season, Smith said, and an hour and a half to two hours either side of low tide “should be fine” for most recreational boaters. There is still considerable shoaling between Morris Island and Monomoy, much of the sand swept in through the Fool's Cut to the north. Displaying a photo showing huge fans of sand, Smith quipped, “Somebody might build a house out there.”

Officials are keeping a close eye on the entrance channel to Stage Harbor, which is getting increasing use by fishermen due to changing conditions in Chatham Harbor. Shoals from the east are pushing west toward the channel, sections of which, along with the Morris Island cut, were supposed to be dredged by Barnstable County this past winter and spring. Only about two hours of dredging was done, however, Smith said.

“The county has faced some significant challenges in their dredging operation,” he said, including major equipment breakdowns. Because of restrictions on dredging due to horseshoe crab spawning and piping plover nesting, even if the county dredge could do the work, it's too late in the season. “We hope to do this next year, sometime after the first of the year,” Smith said, with the work being done by either the county or the Army Corps of Engineers, since the Stage Harbor entrance is a federal channel.

The Coast Guard is evaluating the placement of its buoys along the Stage Harbor entrance. It remains navigable with eight to nine feet of water at its shallowest, Smith said.

In Chatham Harbor, the Fool's Cut, created in 2017 when an April 1 storm breached the narrow connection between Lighthouse Beach and South Beach, is marked by buoys and has reasonably good water at most tides, Smith said. The same can't be said for what was previously the main entrance to Chatham Harbor, the inlet created in 1987 across from Lighthouse Beach. There is significant shoaling on the outside, and while last year there was a “somewhat defined” channel, “this year there really isn't one,” he said. “Chatham Bar is in tough shape.”

The heavily-used North Cut, on the other hand is “not very different from last year,” Smith said. “As a matter of fact, there's been signs of some improvements.” Other than deep-draft fishing boats, most vessels can get through the inlet at all tides, unless there's surf. Shoals on the inside just south of the inlet continue to be problematic; planned dredging there last fall didn't happen due to mechanical and weather problems, and the town is continuing to pursue permits to expand the allowed dredging area there to respond to changes if necessary.

“This is the primary channel that recreational boaters coming out of Orleans, Harwich and Chatham and the Pleasant Bay area are using” to access the Atlantic, Smith said.

The Fox Hill channel between Pleasant Bay and Ryder's Cove was dredged last winter, Smith said, but “a third of it filled in” almost immediately. “I think as they were digging it it filled in right behind them.” Nonetheless boaters should see a modest improvement in conditions there and off Bassing Harbor. “It's shallow but it's marked,” he said.

The South Cut between Monomoy and South Beach “is no more,” Smith said, describing the area as “a mass of shoals.” In order to access shellfishing grounds in the old Southway, shellfishermen leaving Stage Harbor have to go out the Fool's Cut, around the remnants of South Beach and thread their way through the shoals off Monomoy, he said.

Smith also updated the status of construction at the fish pier (see separate story) and said the Mitchell River bridge is functioning well after the draw span was dismantled and repaired this spring. Expansion of the wooden span due to water and humidity had caused it to stick and not close properly.

“It worked this morning,” he said of the bridge, “it worked yesterday. We have a winning streak of, I think, four openings.”

At Old Mill Boatyard, the town is working on plans to expand floating docks to accommodate the Coast Guard. Because conditions in Chatham Harbor create uncertainties about the ability to launch vessels moored at the fish pier, the agency now considers Stage Harbor its primary launch point and would like the flexibility to relocate vessels to the harbor. It's current dockage at Stage Harbor Marine is limited.

“I cannot believe how dynamic and how much the environment here changes,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Carlos Hessler.

He stressed the need for boaters to have adequate and functional safety equipment on board and recommended free vessel safety exams offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Cape Cod Power Squadron. Those groups also offer boating safety courses on a regular basis.

“This is for you, to help ensure you will be OK in an emergency,” Hessler said. He also urged kayakers to secure identification to their kayaks so that if one is found adrift emergency responders can quickly determine if there is an actual emergency, such as a person in the water, or if the vessel is simply lost. In an emergency, boaters also need to be able to convey to rescue officials their GPS coordinates, how many people are on board, the nature of the distress and a description of the boat, in order to facilitate Coast Guard response.

“We're limited with our resources.” Hessler said. “We do not have an unlimited budget. We do not have helicopters in our back pocket.”