P-town on our minds

Story and photos by Marilyn P. Brigham
For Points East

Provincetown is the curled fist at the end of the arm that is Cape Cod, that iconic peninsula that dares to poke out into the Atlantic Ocean. Provincetown encompasses about 18 square miles, and its harbor is surrounded by water in every direction (21.3 miles of coastline), except east. The town’s sandy, dune border is shared with its only other neighbor, Truro.

Provincetown’s briny surroundings are Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts Bay and the Atlantic. All this water gives Provincetown’s light a special quality that is both luminescent and ephemeral. Provincetown’s special light has been valued by generations of artists, painters and photographers. Even the average mariner can appreciate the difference, as seen in his amateur photos of this port of call. Provincetown’s illumination is somehow different from that of any other New England port, which makes it very special.

It’s easy to find your way to Provincetown. Cape Cod Bay is beautiful in every way, with few buoys or hazards until one approaches Provincetown Harbor, where hazards could include a foraging whale or another mariner. We have rarely encountered either on our many cruises here. Once your course is set to P-town, across either Cape Cod or Massachusetts bay, you will soon see the Pilgrim Monument. At over 252 feet high, and 350 feet above sea level, it is truly an aid to navigation. Of course, its primary purpose is to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims in the New World in 1620, and the signing of the Mayflower Compact. The 400th anniversary of these events will be in 2020.

If you are cruising from the north or west, you will approach Race Point and see Race Point Light, which is located at the “knuckles” on the fist of the Cape. The light was originally lit in 1816, but, as with most early lighthouses, was rebuilt in 1876 to withstand greater winds and forces, and now is unmanned, automated, and runs on solar power. The waters on that side of Provincetown are shoal: Off Herring Cove Beach, watch out for Shank Painter Bar, which rises abruptly from deep water and continues along the shore to Wood End Bar. Don’t come in too close as you approach Provincetown Harbor. You’ll come to Wood End Light – established in 1872 and automated in 1961 – then Long Point Light, established in 1827. The present structure was built in 1875 and automated in 1952.

You’ll see G “3” bell, right off Long Point, from which you begin your entrance into the harbor. Proceed until you are by Fl R “4” just off the large, stone breakwater. If you read the notes in your NOAA Chart, it describes Provincetown Harbor as “one of the best harbors on the Atlantic Coast, having a sizable anchorage area in depths of 12 to 57 feet with excellent holding ground. Coasters and fishermen find protection here in gales from any direction.” Here’s hoping you need not seek protection from a gale, but we have found that the breakwater offers good protection from large rolling waves in the harbor’s mooring fields and marina slips.

As the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce exclaims: “The Pilgrims found us in 1620 . . . your turn!” The Pilgrims, who fled religious persecution in England, disembarked the Mayflower in November, in what is now called the West End, at the far end of Commercial Street. It would be hard to imagine a more inhospitable place to land: salt marsh, wind-swept dunes, scrub oak, salt (not fresh water), and encounters with the native Nauset Indians. No wonder they left shortly thereafter to sail to Plymouth. But, for us, Provincetown’s marshes, dunes, water and natural resources beckon us to visit.

Cruisers will note that Provincetown is a busy harbor, with daily schedules for large passenger ferries to and from Boston. These are joined by whale-watching vessels, commercial fishing boats, parasailing speedboats, Tall Ships and, of course, visiting powerboats and sailboats.

There are several marinas in town, including Provincetown Marina at Fisherman’s Wharf, Flyer’s Boat Rentals and Moorings (in the West End), and the town facilities at MacMillan Pier. Over the years, we’ve been on both the moorings and the dock at Provincetown Marina (phone 508-487-0571; ptownmarina.com). The marina, which has recently undergone extensive renovation, offers 100 slips for vessels up to 300 feet, and 85 moorings with launch service. There are new floating docks; remodeled, clean heads; and great facilities at the head of the dock, including an outdoor meeting area with a TV and fire pit to allow boaters a place to gather and converse.

Flyer’s Boat Rental (phone 508-487-0898; flyersboats.com), which offers moorings for boats up to 100 feet, provides launch service and other amenities and boat and engine repair services. Transients can rent moorings by the hour, day or week. At MacMillan Pier (phone 508-487-7030; provincetown-ma.gov), the town offers transient dockage and moorings. In choosing your spot in Provincetown, remember that waves off Cape Cod Bay can create quite a roll, making a good night’s sleep difficult. It’s best to secure a mooring or dockage behind the breakwater.

In exploring P-town on foot, you don’t need a map, but once ashore it’s good to have the lay of the land. There are basically four major roads running east and west in town: Commercial Street, Bradford Street, Route 6 and Province Lands Road. Lots of interesting roads bisect those main roads, each worthy of your time exploring by foot or bike (a car is really a liability in town). Commercial Street runs along the harbor. The East End is filled with shops, restaurants, art galleries, small hotels and inns, and piers and marinas and beaches. As you walk west, Commercial Street, in the West End, becomes less commercial, with more private homes, the Coast Guard station and small inns. Commercial Street is one-way headed west, but, sometimes, so many bikes, cars, and pedestrians spill over the sidewalks to fill the street that you’d never know it.

Head to Bradford Street if you want to climb to the top of the Pilgrim Monument. Route 6 is to be avoided, unless you’re in a car. Province Lands Road puts you in the middle of the Cape Cod National Seashore, where you might want to explore the Province Lands Visitor Center, the Old Harbor Life-Saving Museum at Race Point Beach (phone 508-487-1256), or the miles and miles of bike trails.

You’ll get your first taste of bohemian, artsy, touristy, funky Provincetown on Commercial Street. You will see people of all stripes: gay, straight, transsexual, and people in between. Everyone – and I mean everyone – is happy. People walk the streets laughing and greeting friends – old and just- acquainted. It is unimaginable that someone could be in the midst of all this happiness and not pick up the vibes of being free of the constrictions of the workaday world or a world that may have a different view of your lifestyle.

If your visit coincides with one of Provincetown’s many dance or arts festivals, the Portuguese Festival and Blessing of the Fleet, Girl Splash, Bear Week, Whale Week, Carnival, or some other colorful celebration, there’s even more going on in town and that much more to be happy about.

Provincetown is known for its many restaurants (60-plus at last count). What kind? Gourmet, pub grub, fast food, seafood, bakeries, bars and cafes. Cheap, mid-priced and deluxe. Italian, French, Chinese, Portuguese, American Bistro and Mexican. There are lots of very popular places to eat, so be prepared to make a reservation well in advance, or risk waiting on the street outside the restaurant – people watching – before they can seat you.

On Commercial Street, you’ll also find lots of shops – not ticky-tacky ones, as you may have remembered from many years past (well, there may be a couple). Yes, the salt water taffy place is still there on the corner, across the street from Town Hall. But now there are also lovely galleries with great local art, interior design, home accessories, gift and clothing stores, you name it. For the visiting mariner, more practical stores – a hardware store, several liquor and grocery stores – all within walking distance of the harbor. There are also several public beaches for beachcombing or swimming, where well-behaved, leashed dogs are allowed to play and swim.

What else might a visiting yachtsman want to do in Provincetown? Rent a bike to explore the bike trails of the Province Lands, take a dune buggy ride to Race Point, parasail over the harbor, tour the Provincetown Art Association & Museum, take a whale-watching cruise to Stellwagen Bank, putt-putt across the harbor in your dinghy, or take the water taxi, to sunbathe or explore Long Point, walk across the dike (low tide is best for this) from the West End to Wood End. Shop, eat, relax, and be happy in a place where everyone else appears to be happy and having the times of their lives.

Water, light, history, beauty and contentment: What more could a town and its harbor offer?

Marilyn Brigham, along with her co-captain/spouse Paul, sails 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 2018 sailing season finds Selkie cruising off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. If fair winds and time allow, perhaps Selkie will cruise to Maine this year.