Cruising in the shallow end

The shallow waters of Essex Bay do not keep out all sailboats. The near boat is a Pearson 42 that draws 5 feet 3 inches and the distant boat is Mike Roger’s Hunter 34 that draws 5 feet 5 inches. Our boat draws 4 feet 4 inches. Photo courtesy Hamer Shannon

October 2021

By Homer Shannon

My wife, Dee, and I have always enjoyed sailing down to Essex on the Massachusetts North Shore and staying a few days in the Castle Neck River (aka Back Beach) in Essex Bay. This is undoubtedly one of the prettiest spots on the Bay State coast, and it affords more hiking, swimming, kayaking, and other water sport activities than any place I know.

But all this comes with a cost. Essex Bay is not an easy place to navigate in a sailboat. A mile out from the actual river entrance, the Essex bar is shallow and shifting – cross at your own risk. Official NOAA charts don’t list the channel buoys because they get moved every year.

And there is tidal change: The large, shallow body of water runs in and out through the narrow channels and can set up ferocious currents. What may seem like a nice anchorage at high tide could become a sandbar at low tide.

Our cruise to the Essex River this past summer – July 30 through August 1 – was quite different from a challenging visit several years ago – after which Dee declared that we would never go there again. On that cruise, the outgoing tide in the Castle Neck River, which ebbs southwest, teamed up with a strong southwest breeze. This caused boats to back up over their anchors, drift around, and, in some cases, pull their anchors right out. Instead of going to the beach, we spent the day aboard on anchor watch, changing the scope as necessary and occasionally fending off an unmoored boat. This year we decided to try again, but with a twist.

Some time ago, fellow American Yacht Club member Mike Rogers said he had a free mooring in Essex River, and any club member was welcome to borrow it. Perhaps, Essex Bay would not be so challenging when on a mooring, I thought. So I gave Mike a call. Mike said he had just put his sailboat on it, and it wasn’t available. However, he noted, numerous moorings were in this area that hadn’t had boats on them all season. Why not pick up one of those?

Mike’s mooring wasn’t in the Castle Neck River; it was farther up the Essex River, in a basin of deep water, west of the narrows at Conomo Point and south of Cross Island. The mean low water there is up to 30 feet deep, and about 30 moorings are in the field.

Getting there would require piloting about halfway up the Essex River. This would be longer than ducking around to Back Beach, but the route was marked, and even at low tide, there’d be at least six feet of water all the way up. The chart showed three-foot spots. Luckily, we didn’t experience any of these. In addition to having a mooring, the area would be new to us. We could experience new beaches and take a dinghy ride up to the Essex causeway, where there are several good restaurants, including Woodman’s iconic clam shack, “A family tradition since 1914.”

We also asked Mike about the status of the bar at the mouth of the river. He informed us that the best water was the official entrance mark to the north of the G “3” buoy. As we discovered, the deep water is a bit farther north than the mark, which seemed to be mispositioned by about half a mile. When we departed, I noted the spot where we exited the bar on my GPS. Go to position 42 degrees 40.308 minutes north and 70 degrees 43.288 minutes west. You will see the No. 3 buoy ahead in the distance as you approach from the north. Turn in here and head for the point on the northwest end of Coffins Beach.

We departed at half tide and didn’t see water shallower than 20 feet as we crossed the bar. Once past and into the opening between Coffins Beach and the southern point of Castle Neck, you just follow the buoys to the Essex causeway. If you are going all the way, beware of the hard right turn after Cross Island. At mid-tide or higher, the way ahead appears to be straight, but a sandbar will block your path. The channel narrows significantly past this curve in the river.

At lower tides, the route is obvious, but at higher tides, you can easily be fooled into thinking there is deep water where there is not. Past the Cross Island bend, the marks change to red and white, vertically striped marks lettered “A” to “M.” These designate the center of the channel and are well placed. It would not be a good plan to try and bring any boat bigger than 25 feet LOA up this part of the river. The channel is narrow, and there is little room to turn around.

Once you get to the causeway, there is no place to dock or anchor a larger boat. Secure your big boat somewhere else and take your dinghy for the final part of the trip. It is about two-and-a-half statute miles from Conomo Point to the causeway.

The channel between Cross Island and Conomo Point is known as “The Narrows,” and we picked up a mooring just past this. The mooring didn’t have a pendant, though it looked new and in good condition. We tied up using a dock line (see sidebar) and settled in. What we didn’t know was how the tide came through this area.

We arrived about four hours into the incoming tide. The current was light. At 2 a.m., we awoke to the sound of rushing water and the banging of the mooring ball against the hull. This carried on until about 4 a.m., when we finally got back to sleep. The incoming tide changes from a gentle flow to a rushing torrent for the two mid-hours of the tide cycle. After this period, the tide settles down again. The ebb is a steady and moderate flow.

The incoming rush is due to the behavior of the flow, as it covers the sandbar at the back of the mooring field. Once the bar is flooded, the current picks up, as more water can exit the basin. The hull-banging was primarily due to a strong west wind, but while the flood is running hard, you can expect your boat to twist and turn in a very erratic way.

The tide really boils through this area. The back of the mooring area experiences this effect to a lesser degree, but it is also shallower. There may be sufficient room for anchoring there, and the bottom, as in all of Essex Bay, is muddy sand and will hold an anchor well.

In addition to taking the dinghy up to the causeway, we took it over to Back Beach. We discovered that there is relatively deep water, just off Corn Island, right along the marsh. This might work as an anchorage, but I can’t speak for the currents there – and the channel is narrow. It would be a bit daring to try overnight.

At Back Beach, we encountered the usual Saturday crowd of powerboaters lined up on shore using the stern-in method of anchoring. Only a few boats were anchored in the deeper water, and about 15 new moorings had been installed. These moorings run the length of the Back Beach section of Castle Neck River and are placed about 150 feet apart in a single, mid-channel line.

While they crowd out anchoring in the area, they also offer midweek mooring borrowing. Contrary to rumors, the water in Castle Neck River was still plenty deep, and the route there was about the same as it has been for the past ten years. The moorings had names on them, so they were private, but not all were in use.

Our weekend was a success. We had fun and learned new things about the area. We also discovered that Essex Bay is a challenge, no matter where you anchor or whether you use a mooring. It’s just the nature of the place; what makes up its beauty – sandbars, beaches, marshes – also makes for challenging boating. Therefore, most boats you see in the bay are “smallish” powerboats. Local boats reflect local conditions. Essex Bay is not the place for deep draft sailboats, but you can go there in one with a moderate draft – with care.

Homer and Dee Shannon live in Windham, N.H., and sail out of the American Yacht Club in Newburyport, Mass. They have been sailing Cinderella, a Bristol 29.9, for 22 years. The boat draws 4 feet 4 inches.