The view of downtown Boston from its inner harbor, which is home to recreational boats of all stripes. Marilyn Pond Brigham photo.

By Marilyn Pond Brigham
For Points East

To explore Boston Harbor is to discover it has it all. Boston Harbor is, incredibly, urban and cosmopolitan, with a pastoral side revealed in small coves and rivers, and saltmarshes teaming with wildlife. Boston is one of the world’s more important and beautiful natural harbors. It has been the site of many of our nation’s pivotal historic events. It has long been a working port, teeming with merchant ships, military vessels and fishing boats. Today, the harbor not only is home port for working vessels, it also flourishes with cruise ships and recreational boats of all stripes.

I find it thrilling to sail into Boston Harbor on the southeastern approach. Your vessel runs past Boston Light, through Nantasket Roads, down the channel among the islands, and through The Narrows, and clear of Long Island into President Roads. The northeastern approach, too, delights, as you ply either the Boston North Channel or Boston South Channel, passing The Graves and The Graves Light; Winthrop, with the distinctive “eggs” of the sewage-treatment plant and Deer Island Light; then joining President Roads. Once in President Roads, it is exciting to look over the bow, across the blue water of the harbor, and see the City of Boston spread out before you: Logan International Airport, Castle Island, the old Custom House Tower and the skyscrapers of downtown and the Back Bay.

Boston Harbor is on the western side of Massachusetts Bay. It stretches from Winthrop’s Deer Island to the north, to Hull’s Point Allerton, about four miles to the southeast. Within that open area, numerous islands and rock ledges separate the harbor from Massachusetts Bay.

Boston’s outer harbor also includes Dorchester Bay, Quincy and Hingham bays, Winthrop and President Roads. The inner harbor includes the Port of Boston, Logan, the Boston waterfront, and up to the mouths of the Charles and Mystic rivers. All in all, the harbor has some 50 square miles, 180 miles of coastline and over 30 islands.

Beware: To experience the beauty of this place, you need to fully appreciate its hazards, its complexities, and the perils of navigation therein. Natural navigational hazards – shoals, flats, reefs, rock ledges – abound. And man-made hazards – submerged wrecks, breakwaters, bridge remnants, old pilings, and flotsam and jetsam – lurk on or near the surface.

Even the effects of the tides are extreme. The weather and occasional temperature inversions that lead to fog also can cause complexities for mariners. Finally, the volume and variety of maritime traffic in Boston Harbor is bound to be much greater than what most of us are accustomed to.

Eleven miles out in Massachusetts Bay is The Graves, a group of bare-rock ledges and shoals partially exposed at low tide. On this outcropping of rocks sits Graves Light, which, at 113 feet (tower height; focal height is 98 feet), is the tallest of the Boston lighthouses. Nearby are the Roaring Bulls (bare rock at low tide) and an assemblage of ledges, reefs and rocks, some with such intimidating names as Devil’s Back and Half Tide Rocks. Many a ship has foundered here in gales, fog and blizzard – or, worse, from pilot error.

Whether you choose the North Channel or the South Channel, just keep within the channel markers and you’ll be fine. Between the two channels is a large area of shoal ground. Once you approach Deer Island, steer well clear of Little Faun bar and Deer Island Light (now just a light on a fiberglass pole), as there is an obscured ledge between the light and land.

From the south, you’ll note Three and One-half Fathom Ledge, Boston Ledge, Shag Rocks and Nash Rock Shoal, all to be avoided. Boston Light, America’s oldest light station, is a 102-foot white conical tower on Little Brewster Island. The area around Little Brewster and Great Brewster islands, Great Brewster Spit and Kelp Ledges is particularly foul with reefs, ledges, rocks and shoals. Keep to the channel, which takes you past Georges, Lovell, and Gallops islands, all part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. These and the other 31 islands in the park are worth exploring.

Many areas of the inner harbor become flats at low tide, with only two to three feet of water. These include Governors Island Flats, Deer Island Flats, Dorchester’s Old Harbor, and around Thompson Island and near Quincy Bay.

Just past Gallops Island is Nixes Mate – a reef with a notorious past (pirate Capt. William Fly is buried there) – which is exposed at low tide. The reef is almost totally occupied by a black-and-white pyramid day beacon. Though well-known, and a prominent marker for mariners since the 1830s, ships have run aground there many times, most recently the Provincetown Ferry. Submerged wrecks from centuries of maritime disasters – most unmarked – are certain to be lurking somewhere unknown around here.

The Long Island Bridge was recently demolished; however, the foundations of the bridge were left with demolition debris between them. There is only one channel left open where the bridge used to be, and mariners should be wary of blithely sailing through other sections than the one that is free of debris.

The pilings of old wharves can be seen more frequently in the inner harbor. Either demolished or decaying pilings, or sodden logs, can often be seen floating around the harbor. We’ve seen lots of things drift by our boat here, and we’ve learned to have someone on deck watching for flotsam to avoid. Particularly troublesome are the homemade bleach-bottle floats that mark lobster pots. At high tide, the plastic bottles are pulled down into the water, become partially submerged, and are very hard to see. Their lines are no less of a peril to a boat with a propeller.

It’s important to note that the difference between high and low tide in Boston Harbor is 10 to 12 feet. So boating at high tide is a totally different scene than that at low tide. Currents at high tide are dramatically different than at low tide, with a very high volume of water rushing in/out of the harbor and through the channels. For boats with small, or no, engines, going against the tide at those times can be daunting. Islands that seemed so picturesque at high tide, look (and are) menacing with ledges and rocks exposed at low tide.

Often, in the summer, the extreme heat of the city (heat is created and stored in buildings, roads, cars and the like) collides with the cold temperature of the water. This can create a dense fog, perhaps five to six feet high, that hovers over the water. Obviously, such a fog complicates piloting and navigation. It’s hard to see other vessels on what is otherwise a clear, sunny and hot day.

We’ve also encountered squalls and other bad weather situations in Boston Harbor. It can take some time to run from the outer harbor to our mooring in Winthrop, and, by then, an approaching squall can hit before we can pick up our mooring. I will never forget the challenge of picking up the mooring in 25-knot winds one summer afternoon, then watch the sky darken and the squall line hit. We spun around the mooring and watched the wind whip the water, breaking spindrift from the crests, then blowing foam downwind in marked streaks. After a short period, the wind subsided, the clouds broke, and it was once again a beautiful day.

The volume and variety of vessels in Boston Harbor are also a challenge for recreational mariners. We all know the rules of the road – power gives way to sail; sail yields to commercial fishing vessel; all yield to vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver – with common sense being the overriding and unspoken mandate.

On any day in Boston Harbor, you are likely to encounter one or more of the following vessels: pleasure powerboats, small sloops, yachts, Tall Ships, commercial fishing boats, tankers, container ships, cruise ships, official boats (Boston Police Harbor Patrol boats, Massachusetts State Police Marine Section craft, tugs, fireboats), and a truly crazy boat called Codzilla. Why is this vessel insane? Well, it’s 70 feet long, with a 2,800-horse powerplant, and it shreds across Boston Harbor at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, performing heart-stopping 360-degree turns that drench as many as 110 passengers with the resultant spray, while ear-splitting music pours out of 30 speakers around the boat.

So my point is clear: You will need to exercise caution and common sense while piloting your boat in Boston Harbor waters. And you will hope the skipper of each and every boat is paying attention, too. Consider this perfect-storm scenario: A yacht is tacking to avoid going aground on the shoals ahead while it is being menaced by a buzzing pleasure power boat, which is trying to avoid a gigantic cruise ship and a fleet of sailboats competing in an evening yacht club race. Talk about insane! But this is what Boston Harbor could be like. All the ingredients are in place.

Of course, every helmsperson has the good sense to give way to the tug guiding the incoming LNG tanker. The State Police and Coast Guard escorts, as well as several hovering helicopters, ensure that no boat gets near such tankers. It’s always daunting when those law-enforcement boats approach, with guns at the ready, when they think you’re too close to the tanker – and you think you’re being prudent while out for a nice day’s sail.

It is humbling when your small craft has a gigantic tanker, container ship or cruise ship approaching fast on your stern. The ships have minimal ability to maneuver, or slow down, and you, of course, have the obligation to stay out of their way.

Our mooring in Winthrop is just to the east of one of Logan’s runways. There are additional hazards in the approach to Winthrop Harbor; this summer several whales have been sighted off Deer Island, with humpback whales breaching near passing vessels. Off the end of the runway, near the entrance to the channel, Codzilla does its 40-miles-an-hour thing, while incoming planes are descending right over our channel. It always seems the planes are low enough to hit the wind indicator atop the mast, but they aren’t. At the very least, they each generate a strong burst of wind and emit a very loud noise. All along Logan’s waterfront, State Police boats patrol the airport’s perimeter to discourage pleasure craft from getting close. Let me assure you, those troopers are not out for a joy ride, and they are as serious in their vessels as they are in their cruisers on the Mass. Pike.

For all its hazards and potential risks, Boston Harbor is a body of water that no recreational mariner should miss. There is so much to experience: Downtown Boston’s waterfront, South Boston’s Castle Island, East Boston’s waterfront renaissance, Charlestown’s Navy Yard and “Old Ironsides,” the 30-some islands of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, and that lovely blue water. There are also the shorelines, marinas and the special attractions of the harbor towns of Quincy, Weymouth, Hingham, Hull and Winthrop.

Those planning to stop at some of the harbor islands should be aware of a beautifully designed, easily followed, waterproof National Geographic map. Entitled “Boston Harbor Islands,” it shows the locations of anchorages and mooring fields, restrooms, picnic areas, and refreshment stands on Georges Island, and on other islands, in Boston Harbor. For more details, visit www.trailsillustated.com.

After successfully avoiding the perils and the hazards, you, too, may find that Boston Harbor is the most dynamic, historic, interesting, fun – and gorgeous – port in New England. Give it a shot. Don’t miss the show.

Boston Harbor resources

Nautical references
Dependable references include: “Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book,” (www.eldridgetide.com); Maptech Embassy (www.maptech.com) guide: “New England Coast, Block Island, R.I. to the Canadian Border, 10th edition,” including detailed descriptions of the Boston Harbor Islands, key coordinates, page-size charts and suggested activities; Maptech Waterproof Chartbook “Cape Cod to Cape Ann, Mass., 3rd edition,” with Lat/Long for GPS and pre-plotted courses, full-color charts, marina listings; Maptech Chartbook “Block Island, R.I. to the Canadian Border, Region 2, 16th edition,” with large-scale charts and photos; for those not planning to cruise multiple states, Maptech’s foldable, waterproof chart No. 21, “Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor, 7th edition,” handy in size, durable, and packed full of navigational information.

The Boston Sailing Center (bostonsailingcenter.com) has a cruising guide for the area that may be helpful.

Boston area marinas and rental moorings
Boston Waterboat Marina (617-523-1027, VHF Channel 9, www.bostonwaterboatmarina.com); Boston Yacht Haven Inn & Marina (617-367-5050, www.thebostonyachthaven.com); Constitution Marina, Charlestown (617-241-9640, www.constitutionmarina.com); Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina (617-561-1400, www.bhsmarina.com); Marina at Admiral’s Hill (617-997-4772, www.mybostonmarina.com). Piers Park (617-561-6677, piersparksailing.org) has a few moorings for rent.

Fuel and pump-out
Mystic Marine Fuel (www.mysticmarinediscounts.com).

Boston marine supplies
C.G. Edwards (617-268-4111); Boxell’s Chandlery (617-241-2800); Mallard Discount Marine (www.mallardmarine.com, 617-269-6699); Robert E. White Instruments (weather and marine instruments and “Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book,” 508-359-7467, www.robertwhite.com).

Boston Harbor information
Boston Harbor Islands (www.bostonsislands.org); for more specific information about mooring and anchoring, visit www.bostonislands.org/trip_getthere2.html. National Park Service (www.nps.gov/boha/index.htm); Massachusetts Water Resources Authority – Boston Harbor water quality, Deer Island Tour Line (617-660- 7607, www.mwra.state.ma.us); U.S. Coast Guard Local Notice to Mariners (www.navcen.uscg.gov/lnm/default.htm).

Sea Tow Boston office (617-567-8053); TowBoatUS Boston office (978-465-8876); U.S. Coast Guard (VHF Channel 16); Boston Police/Fire/Medical (911).

Marilyn Brigham, along with 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.