Harwich Port, Mass.: Home away from home

Saquatucket Municipal Marina. Photo by Marilyn Brigham

Story and photos by Marilyn Pond Brigham
For Points East

For almost 20 years, while cruising aboard three different boats, my husband Paul and I have been twice-yearly transient Saquatucket Municipal Marina (SAQ) visitors. Today, we consider ourselves to be a part of this harbor’s family. We enjoy the beauty and serenity of the spot, appreciate the marina’s excellent facilities and the professionalism of the staff, and savor the camaraderie of the Saquatucket mariners. The SAQ staff and mariners have created and nurtured a wonderful community, and we are pleased to be a small part of it.

We initially came to Saquatucket Marina when we bought our first boat from a dealer in Harwich Port, Serenade, a 32-foot trailer-sailer. Launched from the marina’s boat ramp, we brought her round to one of the slips to outfit her. That first season, we made friends with other SAQ sailors. We had a christening party, inviting our close friends, but SAQ boat owners – power and sail alike – stopped by to help us celebrate.

At that time, everyone was commissioning their boats, toting sails, lines, and sharing the marina’s wheelbarrows along the floating wooden docks. We had found a community. We all were anticipating an adventuresome summer of sailing, fishing, picnicking, cruising or racing.

At season’s end, when it was time for Serenade’s haul-out, we returned to SAQ and hailed the harbormaster’s office (VHF Ch. 68) for our slip assignment. Not only did the harbormaster come to the dock to grab our lines, several familiar SAQ sailors also helped tie Serenade into her slip. One acquaintance yelled out, “Paul and Marilyn are back again. How was your summer?”

Over the years, SAQ has been a part of every splashdown and haul-out. Our off-season transient stay there is now generally a week or so for commissioning and decommissioning. The marina’s staff knows us, and it tries hard to accommodate the vagaries of our commissioning schedule. Once there, the harbormaster and his crew generally stop by the boat to say hello and catch up. A longer stay gives us more time to accomplish all we need to do, and also allows us to chat and compare notes with the other boaters.

We’ve met some amazing and wonderful people on the SAQ docks, most of whom are there all season. We’ve exchanged restaurant and cruising tips, offered the use of our mooring in Falmouth to SAQ cruisers, and met up with SAQ boats in the Nantucket Boat Basin or in Edgartown Harbor. One season at SAQ, our second boat, Toujours, was assigned to a slip next to a beautiful Tartan, also named Toujours. That next season, the other Toujours sported new gelcoat, with her name in the same font and look as ours. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

And we found some wild coincidences: other sailors who’d graduated and/or worked at our alma maters or lived/worked in the same town as our winter residence. One year, we found an assemblage of people gathered about a Nordic Tug whose owner we’d previously met. A long-lost college friend, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years, was among them, there to sprinkle the ashes of her father-in-law, a Harwich native, in the waters of Nantucket Sound.

Just off the parking lot and overlooking the harbor is a small memorial park, dedicated to SAQ mariners who have crossed the bar. The existing park was re-dedicated in 2006 to celebrate the life of a young SAQ sailor, who loved the harbor, sailing, and the sea. In the park, there’s a nice bench, some lovely plantings and a large memorial stone. The names of deceased SAQ mariners are engraved on the stone, as well as smaller paver stones. They are still a part of the SAQ community.

The beauty and tranquility of the harbor is unparalleled. The harbor was dredged from the marsh and connected to Nantucket Sound with a broad channel cut from a small, meandering river. Harbor construction was completed over a two-year period, with the Saquatucket Municipal Marina originally opening in 1970. SAQ is the largest municipal marina on Nantucket Sound, with over 190 slips, parking for over 100 cars, the harbormaster’s handsome office building, and two popular restaurants. However, if you put all that to your back, you’d never know that bustle was there.

Over time, the small cottages that dotted the shore have been remodeled into large summer homes. But the harbor – peaceful, quiet and protected – is still surrounded by lush marshes on either side. Herons, geese, ducks, jumping fish, sea turtles and playful harbor seal are familiar sights.

If you drive through town, the streetlights sport colorful banners that announce, “Harwich Port – three Harbors – one Port.” In fact, like Saquatucket, the other two harbors – Allen and Wychmere harbors – had no serviceable access to Nantucket Sound; both harbors were small kettle holes. Now all three are major ports for both commercial and recreational vessels.

Wychmere Harbor was but a small salt pond with a limited flow of salt water to and from the Sound. A navigable channel was dredged in the early 1900s, which, over the years, has been greatly improved. I’ve often heard that Wychmere Harbor is considered to be the “prettiest harbor on Cape Cod.” With lovely homes, the Stone Horse Yacht Club, and lots of handsome yachts moored in the harbor, that may well be.

Many people have fond memories of the harbor’s famed waterfront restaurant, Thompson’s Clam Bar, which served clam and lobster plates and ice cream puffs from 1950 to 1996. Boats could tie up along the dock for take-out, or one could come walk right up to the porch for dining. Today, Wychmere Harbor offers moorings for pleasure craft, facilities for commercial fishing fleets, and a shellfish laboratory to help stock the town’s waters.

Allen Harbor also once was a shallow pond with a small outlet to the Sound. In the mid 1900s, that outlet was enlarged to allow for easier access. The town has had the harbor dredged several times, and Allen Harbor has expanded significantly, and now can boast town docking facilities, a popular boatyard, Allen Harbor Yacht Club, and moorings for pleasure craft.

The harbors all face Nantucket Sound, and Wychmere and Saquatucket harbors share the same approach. The entrance to Allen Harbor is about a mile farther west. Navigating east in Nantucket Sound – leaving Bishops and Clerks reef off Point Gammon in Hyannis, to starboard – head for Kill Pond Bar (RG “KP” Fl), off Herring River. The approach to Allen Harbor is marked by privately maintained buoys. Past the two buoys, you’ll see the jetty at the end of Doanes Creek; just follow the channel to the harbor. Mid-channel has about five feet at high tide, and the inner harbor has depths of six feet.

The approach to Wychmere and Saquatucket is also Kill Pond Bar RG to C “1”. Once in the channel, before the jetty to starboard, is the junction buoy, GR C “S”. Wychmere Harbor is to port (west); you’ll see a large condominium complex. And the entrance to Saquatucket Harbor follows the channel past the jetty (north). The jetty generally has a large, unofficial welcoming committee of cormorants perched atop it.

All Harwich Port channels are subject to shoaling, and are periodically dredged. If your vessel draws more than five feet, call ahead to the harbormaster’s office (508-430-7532) to ask about current conditions and for any navigational advice. None of the harbors permit anchoring, but, by luck, you might snag a mooring at Allen or Wychmere. There are no moorings at Saquatucket Harbor, and the slips are extremely popular. Most of the dockage is filled by permanent seasonal slips; currently there’s a decade or two wait for a permanent assignment. Slips are generally available in season for transients; call the harbormaster’s office in advance of your passage.

The swirling sands of Nantucket Sound are constantly being pushed toward the land, so dredging and maintenance of harbors and channels are a persistent issue. The Town of Harwich is to be commended for its fine maintenance of its harbors.

With a municipal marina more than a half-century old, SAQ facilities were beginning to show wear. The concrete bulkhead was deteriorating and near the end of its useful life, and the boat ramp was too short. The narrow wooden floats could be unstable, as they flip-flopped in strong winds – or as two people with heavy wheelbarrows filled with nautical stuff passed each other – and had rough surfaces that snagged lines and feet.

The harbormaster’s office, though quaint and serviceable, was anything but efficient and shipshape. The bathroom facilities must have seen some very rough treatment, and had been reduced to bare necessities. All in all, it was time for a multi-million dollar upgrade.

Under the guidance of two harbormasters – one who launched the process of renovations and the other who saw it through to completion – and the Harwich Waterways Committee and the Town of Harwich, Saquatucket now is as good, if not better, than any commercial marina in Massachusetts.

Renovations included the removal of the old wooden pilings and floats and the demolition of the harbormaster’s office. Saquatucket Harbor was dredged, without the inconvenience of pilings and docks, and new pilings and wide concrete floats were installed with a more efficient layout. An improved bulkhead and a longer boat ramp were also built. All of these improvements carefully considered the needs of the various SAQ boating constituencies – commercial fisherman, charter fishing, sightseeing and ferry operators, recreational boaters, and members of the general public.

Commercial boats are now at slips away from recreational boaters. Trawlers are all right next to one another; separated from the large sightseeing and ferry operators. But both types now have better facilities for loading and unloading their cargos, fish or people. Ramps for the handicapped and the able-bodied lead people from the parking areas to the ferries and sightseeing boats – safely away from the road where they used to have to congregate before boarding.

The new, welcoming harbormaster’s office has professional office space, a reception area for mariners to speak with staff, and lovely, modern heads. In front, a large deck overlooking the harbor has a new restaurant, Dockside Seafood Shack. Order your food, sit outside under the umbrellas, and watch the harbor activities to your heart’s content. And, several small artisan shacks are nearby that local artists/crafters rent on a weekly basis to sell homemade goods. All of this brings order, efficiency, convenience, and a sense of fun to the place.

For the recreational SAQ mariner, the resulting facilities mean wide, concrete, stable floats, with slips with light towers, power hookups, water and Wi-Fi. Those new, larger wheelbarrows hold more nautical stuff, and the floats are wide enough so passing wheelbarrows don’t hit the lights. With the new dock layout, small daysailers and put-puts are assigned slips close to the bulkhead, and larger sailboats and powerboats progress out in size towards the ends of the piers, where there’s more water.

Though many of the old gang and their boats have been reassigned slips and are no longer in the same proximity to one another, the same conviviality of SAQ boaters continues. At our arrivals and departures, the harbormaster and his staff are there for us, along with old or new friends.

A popular local hangout for SAQ boaters, townies and tourists is Brax Landing restaurant, adjacent to the harbor but not a part of the marina. It’s a great spot for dinner after a long day on your boat – either on the marsh-side patio or inside by the large windows.

It’s about a mile walk to town, and one without sidewalks. It could be a dicey trek along Route 28 (west), especially during the busy summer months. But if you persist, you’ll find interesting shops, fine dining, churches, and plenty of ice-cream shops. Farther down along Route 28, with sidewalks, there’s a shopping plaza with a pharmacy, a hardware store, and, a little way beyond, a supermarket.

While exploring Harwich Port in that direction, you’ll pass a scenic overlook for Wychmere Harbor, and you’ll not be far from Allen Harbor and its boatyard. Exploring Harwich Port in the opposite direction from town (eastbound on Route 28), you’ll be within walking distance of more ice-cream shops and fine dining. If you hire wheels, you’re about five miles from Chatham.

While we never look forward to the end of the sailing season, we always anticipate our return to Saquatucket. And, of course, we very much look forward to spring splashdown. No matter the season, our SAQ friends are there to welcome us back, and we enjoy comparing notes on our voyages and catching up on all the news. It’s always good to be back at our homeport away from homeport.

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.