East Inlets 'OK, In Chatham Terms'

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Boating , Waterways

This aerial view of Chatham's inlets taken June 10 shows the relatively good water through the North and South inlets. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

Shoaling, Obstructions Means Local Knowledge Critical For Boaters

CHATHAM – Just a few years ago, Harbormaster Stuart Smith called all three of the inlets mariners used to access the Atlantic from Chatham Harbor “lousy.” Conditions have improved; Smith says the inlets are now “OK, in Chatham terms.”

Which means that although the inlets are less dangerous than in past years, they are still tricky to navigate, and the best way to ensure safe passage is through local knowledge.

As the boating season ramps up, the Monomoy Yacht Club held its annual harbor update Saturday at the community center, where about 50 mariners heard the good and bad news about current waterways conditions.

The inlets from the harbor to the Atlantic have gone from three to two, with the former Southway and Fool's Cut “all melded into one” as South Beach breaks up, Smith said. Both the North and South inlets are navigable at most tides, although both have their challenged.

The North Inlet hasn't changed a lot from last year, Smith said, with mostly good water with the exception of around the tip of North Beach, where depths run to about three feet at low water. The biggest concern is a large rock right in the middle of the channel near the southern tip of North Beach.

“At low tide it is a foot below the water line,” Smith said. His department has marked it with a buoy and warned mooring permit holders about it through an email.

In a demonstration of the dynamic nature of the outer beach and the North Inlet, Smith noted that several years ago, the rock was on the south side of the channel; it is not on the north side.

“The rock didn't move, the real estate did,” he said.

While fishermen and boaters use both inlets, the South Inlet is the safer of the two, Smith said, because it has less breaking surf. “The tide runs really hard in the North Inlet, and that can present problems if you're in a smaller boat,” he warned.

Smith's department is working with the Coast Guard to log weather and wave conditions in the inlets after the town disputed Coast Guard data on the frequency of breaking surf. Initial data is showing more frequent surf conditions than the Coast Guard had reported, he said.

The South Inlet has more “twists and turns” than the North Inlet and the water is shallower, with shoals reducing clearance to two and a half to three feet in some spots.

“That doesn't sound like a lot, but in Chatham, that's like six fathoms,” Smith commented. “We're really happy with that.” Buoys were set out in the navigation channel five weeks ago and will be fine-tuned prior to the Fourth of July holiday, he said.

It's still possible to get from the South Inlet to Outermost Harbor and around to the Morris Island cut. The channel to Outermost is marked with orange balloons; it's so shallow that buoys lay over at low tide, Smith said. Getting around to the Morris Island cut is complicated by the remnants of South Beach, the northern tip of which is stretching out toward Morris Island. The deep water south of Morris Island going toward Stage Harbor is a bit further south and southwest than last year, and Smith warned that boaters should be cautious because the tide runs hard through that area. It's also extremely shoal at low water. He recommended checking the area out in a shallow-draft vessel before trying to power through in a larger craft.

“It's still a messy environment,” he said of the area.

Dredging over the winter and spring – most recently by the Army Corps of Engineers hopper dredge Murden, which completed its work last week – means that the Stage Harbor entrance channel is clear of the shoals that were pushing in from the east. The velocity of water and volume of sand moving from east to west will likely require off-season dredging into the future to keep the channel clear, Smith said.

He also warned boaters that technically vessels are not allowed to operate within 150 feet of a beach where swimmers are present. “This is a problem everywhere” in the town's waterways, he said, because people swim off almost every beach in town, and the narrow passages caused by shoaling sometimes makes it difficult to safely gain the required distance from the beach.