The river turns the wheel

Scenes from downtown Newburyport: The iconic Fowle’s Soda and Cigars sign on State Street.

May, 2021

By Marilyn Pond Brigham
For Points East

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I learned about the power and significance of the powerful Merrimack River, a thousand miles to the east. Not only is it one of the longest rivers in New England, at 117 miles, the lower 22 miles are tidal. The river spawned the birthplaces of U.S. industrialization in the late 1800s, in towns such as Concord and Manchester, N.H., and Lowell and Lawrence, Mass.

This broad estuary was the engine that powered the textile mills and factories of the Merrimack Valley, but the village of Newburyport, Mass. – on the southern shore of the river, a scant three miles from its mouth– was not one of those large milltowns. Newburyport built ships.

The Merrimack River begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The word Merrimack is said to be a Native American term meaning “sturgeon,” a large, anadromous species that abounded there. With the harbor situated near the mouth, and with timber being transported downriver, Newburyport became an important shipbuilding town as early as before the Revolution.

By the mid-1800s, Newburyport not only built ships, but its residents also sailed those very same brigs, schooners, barks and sloops in a thriving international trade. Newburyport merchants exported lumber, fish and ice to the West Indies, and imported cargoes of molasses, sugar, coffee and cotton. Ships from Europe brought wine, salt, gunpowder, fine housewares and clothing. This flourishing trade transformed Newburyport into a thriving town, with grand brick rowhouses, mercantile buildings, and fine Federal-style homes.

But Newburyport became a leading port despite its harbor. Its fortunes ebbed over time, and there is evidence that shipbuilding and trading commerce declined because, in part, vessels became too large to navigate the harbor and nearby shoals. Contending with the vagaries of the strong Merrimack River current, tidal flow and the shoal waters made getting to and from Newburyport difficult. Sailing with a high tide might get a ship in or out of the harbor, but combined with a heavy cargo and a deeper draft, travel became particularly difficult. As with many other New England maritime towns, when the age of the steam-powered engines arrived, Newburyport’s fortunes changed, and a long economic decline began.

So, why is this relevant to recreational mariners like us? Who cares about the history of the mighty river, or the ancient quirks of the harbor’s shoals? Well, prudent, modern-day boaters do. The ebb and flow of the river, combined with the incoming or outgoing tide and strong winds, can make for either a treacherous, dicey passage or, if the skipper is cautious and thoughtful, a safe arrival and departure. Even knowing whether there have been significant recent rains in the mountains of the White Mountains can be crucial information for the modern day cruiser.

Begin your approach at the Merrimack River Entrance Lighted Whistle Buoy (“MR”), pick up Lighted Buoy “2”, Entrance Buoy “3”, and North Jetty Light “4” and South Jetty Light “5.” You’ll travel in the channel between two large breakwaters. Though the channel is periodically dredged, it’s advisable to pay close attention to the depth, or acquire local knowledge of the shifting shoals you’re likely to encounter.

As you enter the channel, beautiful Plum Island is on your port side and the marshes and sandy shores of Salisbury Beach are to starboard. But don’t be distracted by the stunning scenery. When strong tides and winds are in opposition, large waves can form, and piloting your vessel can be difficult. If conditions are worrisome, the “Waterway Guide” recommends calling the Coast Guard’s Merrimack River Station for a report of the sea state at the mouth.

Timing your arrival can be complicated. An incoming tide slows the outflowing river. A strong summer storm in the White Mountains can result in a surge of outgoing river water. So slack high tide may be the best time to enter and depart from Newburyport. Of course, you’re not the only one dealing with these difficult conditions. At the same time that you may be struggling to navigate your vessel, plenty of other skippers are out there, too, along with carefree, playful seals, and powerboats drifting or trolling for fish. So beware.

It’s about three miles from the channel entrance to the town of Newburyport. And once in the river, it’s best to continue to be wary. Note: Vessels traveling with the current have the right of way. Even when tied up at the dock or on a mooring, you’ll be aware of the river’s formidable current. You’ll hear it lap at your waterline, and see the water flowing by, splashing angrily against the side of a nearby boat.

Not long after we had arrived at our transient space at Newburyport Harbor Marina, we saw another sailboat prepare to shove off. Whereas I’m a great proponent of asking for help in docking, and appreciate supportive dockhands on both the comings and goings, the skipper of that sailboat apparently wasn’t.

He might not have been familiar with the river, and thought he could do it alone. With perhaps an inexperienced crew of wife and small kids – and no dock lines in the hands of competent staff – he backed out of the slip, which was farthest out toward the river. The current immediately overpowered him. He needed to back up, not only to clear the slip, but also to avoid another larger boat at the T of the dock. In doing so, he lost the ability to swing his bow around and power out into the river.

The sailboat crashed into a boat at its slip, and the harried skipper rushed from the cockpit to fend off, leaving his helpless wife at the helm. The river’s swift current quickly caught the sailboat, which bumped along the line of boats in their slips. Next, it tangled with the bow of a large powerboat, with a grossly overhanging anchor. That anchor ripped out one of the sailboat’s stanchions and was destined to catch the next. We could almost hear the fiberglass crack.

The large powerboat was only two slips from us, so we rushed to our stern; unable to be of any help, but nervous that the sailboat might bash into us. A dockhand appeared on the bow of the powerboat, but was unable to push the sailboat away from the anchor. Another stanchion cracked away. Finally, three inflatables under power appeared from the other side of the marina’s fairway, tied lines to the sailboat’s cleats, and dragged the sailboat away from the anchor, into the river, and sent it on its way.

That display of ignorance of the power of the mighty Merrimack left quite an impression on me. And, of course, when it was our turn to leave the marina, dockhands were there to help us – and this was at slack tide!

Many marinas have been built along the river, some on the sites of old shipyard docks. We stayed at Newburyport Harbor Marina (VHF Channel 71), which is the first marina you’ll encounter on the south shore of the Merrimack. It offers transients slips, Wi-Fi, electric/water, clean heads and a ship’s store. We enjoyed its proximity to downtown Newburyport, an upscale take-out/grocery store right down the street and several neighboring restaurants.

The marina is owned by the same company as the Nantucket Boat Basin, and has three sister marinas in Newburyport along the river: Hilton Marina, Windward Yacht Yard, and Newburyport Boat Basin. Merri-Mar Yacht Basin is farther up the River, above the bridges, and Cove Marina and Bridge Marina are in Salisbury, across the River from Newburyport. A number of yacht clubs are also on the river, and they may well offer reciprocal privileges to visiting cruisers.

Newburyport was homeport to the schooner Massachusetts, built in Newburyport in 1791, and one of the original vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service, the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. As such, Newburyport is often recognized as the birthplace of the Coast Guard. When ashore, every mariner should visit the Custom House Maritime Museum, on 25 Water Street, to learn more about Newburyport’s maritime history, and view its art and documents. It’s easy to locate its handsome Greek Revival granite quarters, the area’s original custom house. You can’t miss it when you walk from Newburyport Harbor Marina to downtown Market Square.

Shipbuilding, international trade and privateering brought great wealth to the town of Newburyport; but times changed, and Newburyport’s fortunes suffered greatly. By the 1960s, the town had stagnated, and urban-renewal efforts appeared to doom many fine, old buildings in downtown Newburyport to demolition. But, instead, efforts to revitalize downtown, combined with Federal grant funds, allowed Newburyport to retain and repurpose its downtown redbrick buildings into what is today a lively and chic town.

The wealth of days gone by is now reflected in the downtown’s vibrancy. Merrimack and Water streets run parallel to the river, and interesting byways wind their way around town and up the ridge. This was a perfect spot for seafaring folk to build their homes, so waiting wives could perch on their widow’s walks to await their returning spouses. Those buildings remain, as well, so take a walk, up and away from the river, to enjoy them.

Most of commercial downtown Newburyport shops are local ones, though a nice combination of national chain stores are there as well. Market and State streets are the places to explore. Visitors and locals alike enjoy concerts, food, shopping and farmers markets throughout the year. In the summer, flowers seem to be everywhere. It’s so much fun to stroll around, explore the shops, and stop to listen to the street musicians on most every corner. Newburyport has a festive and upbeat atmosphere to be savored and enjoyed.

A promenade runs along the river. There are also restaurants with great food and fine views of the estuary. In our experience, people there are incredibly friendly and talkative. We cruised to Newburyport last with our small puppy, which was interested in everything and everyone. Along the Waterfront Promenade, we were unable to walk a few feet without people stopping us to remark about our dog and strike up a conversation. Everyone was out to enjoy the day, the river, each other, and the town itself.

The mighty Merrimack River may have spawned the Industrial Revolution, but the river flows onward and invigorates the town of Newburyport forever. It is well worth your visit. Just remember to respect the vigor of the Merrimack. Ignore its past at your own peril. Knowing Newburyport’s former economic and maritime glory will prepare you for a safe approach to its harbor, and an interesting visit once on land.

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. Selkie is hoping to be in a transient berth in South Portland, Maine, for part of this summer, but she is content to be afloat anywhere other than bobbing at her mooring.