CHATHAM – Local waterways officials expect a busy season this summer as boaters escape to open waters and isolated beaches.
“I expect a full marina throughout the summer, and our transient dockage is significant,” Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon said of the town's public boating facilities. “So we're going to be busy this summer.”
But boaters will have to deal with two major issues: significant shoaling in Stage Harbor and Chatham Harbor, and state health and safety requirements that limit the number of people per boat and require face covering and social distancing.
Rendon, Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith and other waterways officials provided a rundown of current navigation and marina conditions Saturday during the Monomoy Yacht Club's annual Harbor Update seminar. According to the club, a record 219 people watched the Zoom session online.
Shoaling is always ongoing in Chatham, Smith said, but is “particularly significant this year.” There are three main trouble spots: the Stage Harbor entrance channel, the North Cut in Chatham Harbor, and the harbor's South Inlet.
A huge shoal of sand has been sweeping across the Stage Harbor entrance channel for months. “Actually a lot of that sand is South Beach, and it's ending up in the Morris Island channel” and the Stage Harbor channel beyond, Smith said. A private dredge was contracted by the town to remove 15,000 to 20,000 cubic yards of sand from the channel, but ended up taking out about 22,000 cubic yards, he said. And that didn't even clear the entire shoal; there may be as much as 50,000 to 60,000 cubic yards of material needing removal.
The Army Corps of Engineers dredge Currituck is expected to arrive about June 17 or 18 to continue the dredging. It will spend two weeks in the channel and will cost the town more than $400,000. Even though Stage Harbor is a federal channel, there's no money in government coffers to fund the work, Smith said.
“This is becoming expensive,” he added, noting that the work by the private company, DredgIt, cost the town about $500,000. He acknowledged spending nearly $1 million a year to keep the channel open is unsustainable, but the economic damage of not doing so would be “enormous.” There are four commercial marinas in the Stage Harbor system as well as public landings and other facilities, and it is heavily used by both commercial and recreational vessels.
A consultant is doing a study of the efficacy of the town owning and operating its own dredge, a complicated operation that many don't support, Smith said. But the current shoaling situation, especially in Stage Harbor — as a seemingly endless supply of sand is swept in from the east — “may force our hand if we want to keep these channels open,” he said. Asked about putting up a jetty or revetment to block the sand flow, he said such a structure would be “a very, very significant, costly endeavor” and the permitting alone could take a decade.
Boaters need to use caution in the Stage Harbor channel, Smith said, whose department has marked the passage with red and green balloons to augment Coast Guard buoys. “Don't pay attention to the numbering system at the moment,” he said. “Things are changing so quickly that we're constantly moving buoys in and out of there.” The channel is narrow, he added, and vessels drawing more than 4.5 feet should avoid it at low water.
The former South Inlet, Fool's Cut and the 1987 inlet have basically merged, Smith said, and provide the major channel out of Chatham Harbor. However, vessels must travel south broadside to the sea, which can be dangerous under certain conditions. The area is marked but constantly changes, he warned. “That presents navigational challenges that folks are going to have to be aware of,” he said.
Water in the South Inlet is deeper than in the North Cut, where anything larger than a mid-20-foot outboard vessel should only transit two or three hours either side of low tide, Smith said. The area has undergone significant changes in just the last week, he added, with a new channel developing just in the last week.
“For those traveling this area, it's in a constant state of change,” he said. Anytime below half tide, “it's not a place you want to be.”
Harwich's harbors are in good shape, Rendon said, although there is dredging going on in Allen Harbor and planned for Wychmere Harbor. All public boat launching ramps are open, but at Saquatucket Harbor and Allen Harbor, which were funded with state money, only vehicles with Massachusetts registration can launch boats. Other town ramps, including Herring River and Long Pond, are open to all, Rendon said.
COVID-19 guidelines are in place at boat ramps and docks requiring social distancing and face coverings. No groups larger than 10 people are allowed on boats, and groups should ideally only include family members. Because of the restrictions, the Freedom Ferry, Captain Kidd, Yankee 2 and other charters and tours are currently not operating out of Saquatucket Harbor, he said.
Both Rendon and Carlos Hessler, Officer in Charge of the Chatham Coast Guard Station, stressed safety, particularly singling out kayaks. Rendon said in two recent cases, kayakers capsized and their occupants were not wearing lifejackets. Fortunately, someone saw them from the shore and both were rescued without injury. He warned that conditions on the water can change without notice.
“Wear a lifejacket, no matter what time of year,” Rendon said.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadron are not doing in-person safety inspections at this time, but boaters can request an online inspection at www.chathamcgux.org, said Flotilla Commander John Geurtson.
A recording of Saturday's session is available for viewing at the Monomoy Yacht Club website, monomoyyc.org.