Rockport on my mind

The shack that launched 1,000 images: Rockport’s iconic Motif #1 fish house, and (inset) the view of the harbor there from inside “the claws.” Photo by Marilyn Pond Brigham

Story and photos by Marilyn Pond Brigham
For Points East

Rockport Harbor, on Boston’s North Shore, has, quite aptly, the shape of a lobster, the tasty crustacean so vital to this town’s economy. The tail forms at the entrance to the harbor, between the two breakwaters – one at the end of Bearskin Neck, the other jutting from The Headlands, the promontory on the northeast side. In the inner harbor, past the Town Wharf, the “claws” are formed by the North Basin (containing commercial fishing and lobster vessels) and South Basin (mostly small pleasure craft) with the T-Wharf between.

Several years ago, my husband Paul and I sailed into Rockport with our 36 foot-Jeanneau, Toujours, towing Quelle Fois, our dinghy. We had reservations through the harbormaster for several nights in the harbor. Rockport Harbor is busy, and we knew that the harbor depth accommodated a maximum draft of six and a half feet; Toujours drew six feet.

We timed our arrival with an incoming high tide, as we expected many boats, minimal depth, and scant room for maneuvering, especially while trailing the dinghy. Paul and I don’t have many issues with picking up moorings; the penalties for missing them usually aren’t great. But I find docks unnerving: They are immovable and unforgiving. As we make an approach to a dock, I generally call out for a dockhand to come grab our lines. Also, I’m not fond of jumping from a moving boat to a dock.

When we arrived, we hailed the harbormaster on VHF Ch. 9 to get directions to our assigned mooring. He told us it was a “float” at the top of the harbor, so imagine my apprehension when we found our assigned mooring to be a small, floating dock, several feet before the granite T-Wharf, by the Sandy Bay Yacht Club. This meant no dockhand and no help. I would have to jump off the boat and secure the lines myself. There would be no margin for error.

My initial panic faded as I realized I needed to focus and do it. I jumped off Toujours, dock line in hand, at just the right moment. Paul, at the wheel, yelled, “Cleat it off, cleat it off.” As we drifted toward that imposing granite wharf, I responded, “There are NO cleats.” Suffice it to say, we did just fine, bringing Toujours to safety with no mishap or loss of gelcoat, creating no public spectacle for those onshore.

Why do we like Rockport so much? Well, its history is one ingredient in the heady mix it offers. This seaport town has cycled through several major industries. The first settlers harvested timber for shipbuilding, but once the large pines were hewn, the town turned to its most abundant natural resource, granite, for commerce. During the 1800s, huge granite blocks were cut from Rockport quarries for the construction of great buildings, wharves and streets in cities and towns all along the Eastern Seaboard. However, by the 1920s, the advent of concrete brought the granite industry to a halt.

In the late 1880s, Rockport became a destination for affluent Bostonians, who built lovely seaside homes to escape the city’s summer heat. The stunning location and natural light also attracted artists, who established thriving artist colonies. The enduring industries have long been fin-fishing and lobstering.

There’s plenty to see and do in Rockport. Shops and restaurants abound, and theaters, art galleries, historical sites and music festivals are there for the cruiser’s pleasure. Bearskin Neck – which juts out into Sandy Bay and supports both the Town and Bradley wharves – has a host of interesting shops, restaurants and ice-cream parlors to sample.

At the end of the neck, you’ll find a panoramic view of Sandy Bay. And you’ll see Motif #1, a picturesque 1880s fishing shack that’s became one of America’s most popular artist subjects. Destroyed during the Blizzard of 1978, both Bradley Wharf and “Motif #1” were rebuilt.

But back to our initial docking experience. Looking at the bright side, one advantage to being at that float was that it was just a short dinghy ride to the Sandy Bay Yacht Club ( The club, founded in 1885, is located at the T-Wharf, and it runs a launch service throughout the harbor. Using our yacht-club reciprocal privileges, we enjoyed the SBYC’s great facilities and the fellowship of its members. We struck up conversations with members in their charming clubhouse, and, before we knew it, we were asked to join them for coffee, donuts and chatter on the deck overlooking the harbor.

Rockport was for many (over 160) years a “dry town,” thus it was hard for a sailor to get a drink. This state of affairs started in 1856, when a horde of over 200 temperance women, some yielding hatchets, rampaged through the streets of Rockport and destroyed over 100 gallons of rum and liquor. Things change slowly in Rockport, and, as a result, liquor sales in town didn’t begin again until 2019.

One great drawback to Rockport Harbor is its exposure to the east and northeast and the fury of the winds from those directions. It can be an uncomfortable night on a mooring there, and it’s a very bad place to be in a hard nor’easter.

In the heyday of the clipper ships, coasting schooners and New England passenger ferries, Sandy Bay became a graveyard of ships that foundered in unpredictable, rough weather and high seas or were dashed on the rocks and ledges, with severe loss of life and property. As there was no port between Portland, Maine, and Boston for a ship to seek refuge in dense fog or during bad weather, it was determined that Rockport’s northeast exposure could be turned into an asset and become a safe haven.

From 1885 to 1894, the federal government engineered the building of a 9,000-foot breakwater about a mile off Rockport Harbor, called the Sandy Bay National Harbor of Refuge. Some 650,000 tons of granite and stone later – and two-thirds completed – the breakwater project was abandoned. Rather than the intended sanctuary, a huge hazard to maritime travel remains. This breakwater is an evil-looking, L-shaped structure, with flashing gong “3” at the northwest corner and flashing bell “2” near its southeast end.

If you’re bound north from Rockport, toward Portland, once you are past that nasty submerged breakwater, only lobster pots will concern you. On the east side of the breakwater are a pair of dangerous and imposing rock formations – the Dry Salvages and the Little Salvages. The easternmost Dry Salvages are indeed dry at high tide, and covered with an unappealing, white cap of guano. Birds and seals can generally be seen lounging atop. The adjacent lower reef, the Little Salvages, are usually submerged at high tide, and, thus, are particularly treacherous.

The Dry Salvages are famous. The author, TS Eliot, lived on Cape Ann as a boy and as an adult during World War II, wrote the poem, “The Dry Salvages,” the third poem of his Four Quartets, and a metaphor for life, spirituality and death.

And the ragged rock in the restless waters,

Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;

On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,

In navigable weather it is always a seamark

To lay a course by: but in the somber season

Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

These two rock formations certainly give one pause, and are definitely to be avoided, unless you are brave enough to visit them on a calm day in a kayak.

If you are on your way south, to Gloucester or Boston, you’ll pass Straitsmouth Island. There’s not much on the Island, just scrub growth and rock. It is dominated by Straightsmouth Light, established in 1835, and rebuilt several times since, to mark the entrance to Rockport Harbor. While the 31-acre island is now owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a two-acre portion of its northeast side contains the lighthouse, which is maintained by the Town of Rockport. The island is accessible by kayak and by a commercial launch.

Still moving south, around Cape Anne, you’ll encounter the 124-foot tall, granite Twin Lights on Thacher Island, off Emerson Point. These lighthouses were built 300 yards apart in 1861 of New Hampshire granite, rather than of local stone. The precursors to the lights were also twin, a pair of wooden lights built by the British while America was still a colony.

The lighthouses were built to warn ships of a hazardous location, Londoner ledge, just east of Thacher Island, rather than to beckon them toward the entrance to a harbor. A remarkable detail: The two towers were positioned so that, when mariners line them up, the towers point true north, thus allowing them to adjust their compasses.

The lighthouses are maintained by the Town of Rockport and the Thacher Island Association (, and the public may visit on the association launch or by private kayak. Two guest moorings are available offshore; reservations are necessary.

Many additional memorable places to savor are at your beck and call during a cruise to Rockport – Pigeon Cove, Halibut Point and Folly Cove, for example – but I have not visited them by boat. Perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to return to Rockport and see more of its gorgeous coastline.

I encourage mariners to cruise to Rockport, navigate with care, and make some memories of your own. I just hope you’re not assigned that daunting float at the T-Wharf.

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.