Bound for Salem

The view in Salem Harbor, and (inset), on Derby Street, a creepy example of the things that supposedly inhabited the town in the 1600s. Photo by Marilyn Pond Brigham

Story and photos by Marilyn P. Brigham
For Points East

When we sail to Salem, Mass., we usually rent a slip at the Hawthorne Cove Marina (978-740-9890, VHF Channel: 8). Formerly known as the Brewer Yacht Yard, in 2017 the facility was purchased by Safe Harbor Marinas, thus the name change.

As the channel to the marina is not very deep, we often find it a challenge to find the best way in, wending our way through the mooring field in what appears to be deeper water. But this piloting exercise is fun and always worth the effort.

Why? At the very least, Salem’s visual seagoing history is a tasty dish. As early as 1762, close to 50 wharves jutted out into Salem Harbor, filled with warehouses, ropewalks and storehouses. And hundreds of large sailing ships were tied to them. Around 1800, a trader out of Sumatra reportedly remarked, “Salem must be a great country” as he looked out over the harbor filled with large vessels, most hailing from Salem.

It’s no surprise that the Sumatran thought Salem prominent, and the East Asian trade made it so. In 1790, Salem was the sixth largest city in the country and the richest per capita. It is said that Elias Derby, owner of the Grand Turk, the first New England vessel to trade with China, was the nation’s first millionaire. Great wealth came to Salem, and that prosperity and worldliness is evident in much of Salem we see today. Visit the city by boat and you’ll carry aboard your own seagoing imagery, and this will add dimension to the fine architecture along the streets and the vast maritime collections of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).

Today, visitors arriving in Salem Harbor are struck by its shallowness. This, and the fact that only two of those 50 bustling commercial wharves remain, make it hard to envision how the harbor could have accommodated all those large ships. Apparently, by the 1840s, Salem Harbor began silting up, and, not long after, shipping was eclipsed by manufacturing as Salem’s major industry. The harbor is now filled with pleasure boats, with hundreds of boats in the mooring field.

Approaches: When you cruise along the shore of Massachusetts Bay to Salem Sound, you’ll find it filled with rocky ledges, bare rocks, islands and lobster pots. It’s best to keep a close eye on your chart and exercise great caution. We’ve sailed to Marblehead and Salem many times, and most recently approached Marblehead Channel in a pea-soup fog on an otherwise beautiful summer afternoon. We had all instruments on – air horn and whistles at the ready – and the dog and I were on the bow looking and listening for anything.

The first mark is TR, Tinkers Rock Gong, southeast of Tinkers Island, and we were all alone. Next, we headed north to RG “FR” at Fifteen Foot Rock, southeast of Marblehead Rock. There, we were hailed on the radio by the Salem Ferry Nathaniel Bowditch, a fast ferry running between Salem and Boston (the vessel’s motto is, “Only a broom will get you there faster”). She wanted to know who we were, and, more importantly, she wished to identify herself and tell us she was approaching fast. We never even saw the ferry, and only after she passed us did we hear the engines and feel our boat rock in her wake.

Then it’s past the entrance to Marblehead Harbor in the South Channel to daymark G “1”. Beware: Lots of rock and ledge here. And, on a pretty day, lots of sailboats are seen racing out of Marblehead. The next mark, G “4”, is off Peaches Point. Then you honor N “4” and C “3” and turn to the South Channel off Wellman Ledge at N “6”, and on to G “21” and R “22”.

You’re now in Salem Channel, and you’ll soon see G “23”, a green daymark on a piling. Salem Channel is deep and well-marked. Once in the channel, you’re well on your way into Salem Harbor. With a 10-foot tidal differential, we’ve found it best to approach Salem Harbor near or at high tide.

When approaching the marina, don’t aim directly for it. Rather, maneuver through the mooring field head-on until you see a more open area to starboard. Then head for the private buoys that mark the small, shallow channel that leads to Hawthorne Cove Marina.

Slips are also available at the Pickering Wharf Marina (978-744-2727, VHF Channel 9), and transient moorings, with launch service, are available through Hawthorne Cove Marina and Salem Water Taxi (978-745-6070). Salem Willows Yacht Club (987-744-9684, VHF Channel 68), not far from Hawthorne Cove Marina, also may have transient space for reciprocal-club members. Once moored, or tied to a dock, there is much to see and do in Salem.

Waterfront District: Hawthorne Cove Marina is conveniently located in town, right off Derby Street. It has all the facilities one expects from a good marina – well-maintained floating docks, a nice clubhouse with clean heads, a gathering area at the top of the dock for grilling and picnics, and full marine-repair capabilities.

And Hawthorne Cove has a very special next-door neighbor, the House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace and inspiration for his 1851 novel of the same name. No trip to Salem should be without a visit to that historic structure.

Continue walking down Derby Street, toward the town center, and you’ll come to the Derby House, the U.S. Custom House and Derby Wharf, all part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and definitely worthwhile exploring. The sloop Friendship of Salem, a half-mile walk out Derby Wharf, can be boarded, but visit its website,, for visiting times.

This district also has many examples of Federal architectural homes, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is an interesting place to stroll through, particularly with ice cream from Captain Dusty’s, or candy from Ye Olde Pepper Companie (America’s oldest candy company) – both of which are on Derby Street and close at hand.

Close to the marina, we’ve enjoyed dinner at the Witches Brew on Derby Street, and, at the other end of the street, bought fresh, homemade pasta and sauce from the Jean Louis Pasta Shop for dinner on the boat. Pickering Wharf, with its restaurants, hotel and shops, is a fruitful place for exploration. The schooner Fame cruises from the end of Pickering Wharf for sails in Salem Sound; she is a replica of a privateer from the War of 1812.

Downtown District: Of course, if you have interest in witches and the occult, Salem is your cup of hemlock . . . er, tea. Many museums and shops focus on the Salem witch trials and modern-day witchcraft. Naturally, Halloween shops and all-things-pirate flourish in downtown Salem.

Back to maritime artifacts, priceless art and antiquities: Be sure to check out the PEM ( Its forerunner was the East India Marine Society, founded in 1799 by sea-captain members. The riches and oddities they brought back became the core of the original collection. The East India merged with another local museum to become the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continually operated museum in the country. The PEM holds an extraordinary collection of worldwide maritime art and history, natural specimens, paintings, books and manuscripts. The museum also manages 22 historic buildings; all in Salem, they represent every major American architectural style.

The Downtown District has a delightful pedestrian mall that’s adjacent to the PEM. You’ll find lots of shops there: metaphysical supply stores (witch shops), pharmacies, and gift and sundries stores. We’ve enjoyed stopping at New England Dog Biscuit (just off the mall) for a tasty peanut butter squirrel cookie for the dog.

And, for us, fresh-baked artisan bread at A & J King Bakery to take back to the boat for dinner. If the galley crew needs the morning off, go to Red’s Sandwich Shop for a hearty breakfast or lunch. They open at 5 a.m. and close at 3 p.m.; Sundays 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Their historic building was once (circa 1700) the London Coffee House.

McIntire Historic District: If you enjoy antique houses, walk around the McIntire Historic District several blocks from the PEM. This district encompasses over 300 Georgian and Federal structures. Many were designed and built by Samuel McIntire, a Salem born woodcarver and architect (1757-1811). These homes highlight the wealth and profits accrued by Salem’s East Asian merchant families.

Most homes are privately owned, but some are open to the public, owned by the PEM, Historic New England, or other organizations. The buildings are elegant and gracious and were probably ostentatious in their day. Many of the streets are tree-lined and cobble-stoned, and the district is on the National Register of Historic Places. It makes for a great walk.

There are many other notable restaurants, museums, historic sites, cemeteries, hotels and brewhouses in Salem. You can even tour the Harbor Sweets chocolate shop, at 85 Leavitt St., and watch them create their famous confection called Sweet Sloops.

Salem’s sea captains sailed to the distant ports of the Far East, with holds filled with New England lumber, nails, whale oil and salted cod. When ships returned to Salem, their captains had traded goods in many foreign ports, and their holds were filled with china, silks, tea, spices and other exotic wares. You, too, can call at Salem aboard your own vessel, “holds” filled with the all the imagery, colors and textures your salty imaginations can conjure up. No, Salem’s not a country, but it’s a great small city whose maritime legacy endures for us all to explore and savor.

Marilyn Brigham and her co-captain/spouse Paul sail Selkie, a Catalina 445, out of Quissett Harbor, Falmouth, Mass. She is a lifelong sailor and a current member of both the Quissett and Cottage Park yacht clubs. She hopes the 2019 sailing season finds Selkie cruising off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.