Officials: Caution The Watchword For Boating In Chatham

By: Tim Wood

A private dredge contracted by the town is currently clearing a major shoal from the Stage Harbor entrance channel. The Army Corps of Engineers dredge Currituck will return to continue the work in mid to late June, as sand being swept in from the east continues to fill the channel. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

East Inlets Treacherous, Stage Harbor Channel Still Being Dredged

CHATHAM – In 1620, treacherous shoals off Chatham forced the Mayflower to turn north rather than head south toward the vessel's original destination in the Hudson River Valley. Shoaling, both inside and outside the town's harbors, still plagues mariners nearly 400 years later.

Boaters will have to exercise caution navigating just about all of the town's waterways this summer, from Chatham Harbor to Stage Harbor, playing the tides and watching out for those ever-shifting shoals.

“Err on the side of caution,” is the advice Harbormaster Stuart Smith gives for navigating the inlets on the east side, while on the south side, dredging in the Stage Harbor entrance channel will continue through June.

“We really have no sense yet how long the channel will last,” said Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon. The disintegration of South Beach and the merger of the 1987 inlet and the Fool's Cut on the east side has given the Atlantic a clear shot through the Morris Island channel, sending a conveyor belt of sand in the direction of the entrance to Stage Harbor.

From what he's seen this spring, Smith expects a busy boating season as folks seek to escape to open water and wide, sparsely populated outer beaches.

“If you're going to socially distance, there's no better place to do it than on a boat, as long as it's with your family,” he said. Boaters will have to comply with state guidelines announced Monday which limit recreational boats to family members. “Patience is going to be the call this summer,” Smith added. “If you're not going to be patient, then you should go back home.”

Boaters aiming for the Atlantic from Pleasant Bay and Chatham Harbor will have to play the tides to use the North Inlet, which has severe shoaling and is nearly unusable at low tide.

“You're going to want to be two hours either side of low tide while transiting there,” Smith said of a typical 20-foot vessel with an outboard. The channel is marked, but around buoys 14 and 16 some large submerged trees have been seen — thought to be from nearby eroded beaches — and they've been marked with yellow balloons to prevent collisions.

The better choice for reaching the Atlantic is farther south, where the 1987 inlet and the Fool's Cut have essentially joined together, Smith said. The channel has its own challenges, however. It runs parallel to the bar for about a half to three-quarters of a mile south from the previous location of the 1987 inlet, and surf can be “significant” and run broadside to the channel.

“It can be hairy when there's an easterly blow,” he said.

“Hopefully one of them will at least be viable for the season,” Keon said of the two east-side inlets.

Private dredging contractor DredgIt is “making headway” in the Stage Harbor channel, Smith said, but mechanical breakdowns and extensive south and southwesterly winds has slowed progress. The town had to get a waiver from seasonal dredging restrictions due to horseshoe crab spawning for May, and may have to request a second waiver for June, Smith said. Even with the waiver, dredging has to stop between May 20 and 24, Keon said, because of high horseshoe crab activity during the moon tide. The Barnstable County dredge Sand Shifter is also working at the entrance to Mill Creek, and will have to pause due to the restriction.

The dredge has nearly cut through a significant shoal blocking the Stage Harbor entrance channel, Keon said. The Army Corps of Engineers dredge Currituck worked in the channel in January but ran into a problem in the form of two 2,000-pound blocks that previously held Coast Guard buoys in place. The buoys are gone, but the Coast Guard was unable to remove the blocks because they were covered with so much sand, Smith said. The town has hired the Robert Our Company of Harwich to remove the blocks this week. That will allow the Currituck to return during a two-week window in mid to late June to clear more shoaling from the channel.

But there's a catch. Although the Stage Harbor entrance channel is a federally-maintained waterway, the town has to pay for the work. The Corps is covering the $150,000 mobilization cost to get the Currituck to Chatham, Smith said, but the town must pay $36,000 a day for the work, which is expected to last about 10 days.

“It's kind of ironic we have to pay the federal government to dredge a federal channel,” Smith said. “It's a significant amount of money, but our backs are against the wall pretty significantly.” Keon said there's little federal money for small-harbor dredging, and the Currituck, a hopper dredge that siphons sand from the bottom, is the most efficient way to get the work done.

While the DredgIt operation has pumped sand onto Harding's Beach to build up that shoreline, the sand siphoned up by the Currituck is dumped offshore. But the sand already deposited on Harding's Beach will help alleviate erosion; likewise, sand being dredged from Mill Creek is being pumped to Cockle Cove Beach, which has suffered considerable erosion and might have been closed without the infusion of sand, Keon said.

Smith advised boaters using the Stage Harbor channel to be cautious. “If your vessel draws over three or four feet, you're going to likely have to play the tide,” he said. That may depend on the dredging, how much can be completed and how long the shoals remain at bay. Having the Currituck here for two weeks will help, but, he said, “there's far more than two weeks of work out there. Even when they dredge they won't be done.”

Given the sand being pushed toward Stage Harbor from the east, “I don't expect this to be good for the next couple of years,” Keon said.

The town had budgeted a significant amount for dredging, including shoreline maintenance funds for Nantucket Sound, but the extent of the needed work once again raises the subject of the town acquiring its own dredge.

“The last thing the town and certainly I want to see is us having a dredge, but if people want us to keep up with these channels and navigation projects, as expensive as it will be, it may be more affordable,” Smith said. A consultant is currently working on a study on the cost and viability of the town owning its own dredge; a report is expected sometime this summer.

“The challenges that go with running a dredge are not insubstantial,” Keon said.

If the spring is any indication, the summer's boating season will be busy, making clearing the channel into Stage Harbor, the town's heaviest used recreational harbor, imperative.

“When summer residents started showing up in March and put their boats in the water with mittens and winter jackets, that was a pretty good indication of their commitment to go boating,” Smith said.

“There's definitely been an uptick” this spring, said David Oppenheim, owner of Chatham Yacht Basin. With many summer residents arriving early due to the coronavirus emergency, especially after schools closed, more boats were being put in the water earlier than usual, he said.

Todd Walker of Nauset Marine said many customers have request early launching of their boats, and there has been significant interest from people interested in buying new vessels.

“We do project a busy boating summer,” he said in an email. “People are looking for ways to get outside, escape months of isolation and have some fun. Boating may be the one way to get out and enjoy time with your family while staying safe and clear of crowds.”

Boatyard customers will have to follow safety protocols as outlined by the state and by the marina, Oppenheim said, including wearing face masks and social distancing. No more than two boats are allowed to gas up or load at a time. Other state guidelines restrict recreational boat occupancy to persons from the same household, no gatherings of people from multiple households on boat ramps, docks, or piers, and no tying together of boats or other crafts.

“We've never done this before, it's all new,” Oppenheim said. “We certainly are going to meet any state guidelines that are required, and ours, I would say, are a little bit more detailed.”

“We've just got to be smart,” Smith said. “It's not going to be business as usual, but it certainly can be made tolerable.”