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Boating in Nantucket, MA

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Boating in Nantucket, Massachusetts

A whale of a destination
Nantucket's newest attraction-a sperm whale-is also its oldest. Whale hunting, which dates back to the native Wampanoags, was turned into a thriving industry by the European settlers who sailed the world over in pursuit of whales and their valuable oil. Whaling is what made Nantucket prosperous and earned it the title "Whaling Capital of the World" in the first half of the 19th century when 88 vessels and their crews left the island in search of sperm whales.

Now a new whale is garnering attention. In 1998, a 46-foot sperm whale died near 'Sconset on the east end of the island. Eventually the skeleton was recovered, cleaned and reassembled as the centerpiece of the expanded Nantucket Whaling Museum, which reopened in 2005. The presentation is startlingly dramatic, as the enormous whale with its menacing teeth and massive head seems to challenge visitors to dare to come close.

Visitors who stand next to that skeleton can perhaps understand how Moby-Dick, the powerful white whale in Melville's classic novel, might have destroyed a ship. That book was, in fact, inspired by the true story of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which met its fate during a whale encounter in 1820-a disaster beautifully narrated in Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent nonfiction book, In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

Nantucket's history involves a lot of familiar names. In 1602 Captain Bartholomew Gosnold (Cape Cod, Cuttyhunk, Martha's Vineyard) discovered the island, whose Wampanoag name "Nantocket" or "Nanticut" (depending on which reference book you use) means far-away island or land far out to sea (20 miles to be exact). Later it was sold to Thomas Mayhew and his son (the first Martha's Vineyard settlers), who held on to it until 1652 when they sold it for "thirty pounds and two beaver hats" to nine men. Among them were Tristram Coffin and Thomas Macy (ancestor of R.H. Macy who founded the famous New York City department store). The Coffins were particularly notable and prolific.

Though some entire families went to sea during the whaling era, most Nantucket women stayed ashore to head their households and run the town's businesses, giving rise to "Petticoat Row," the nickname for Centre Street, the heart of the women-run business district. One remarkable woman was Maria Mitchell (pronounced Ma-rye-ah, like the wind), who was born on Nantucket in 1818 and buried there in 1889. The Nantucket astronomer became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for her discovery of a comet (from the roof of her father's Nantucket home in 1847) and her pioneering work as the first female in her field. The Maria Mitchell Association, which has a natural science museum and observatory, was founded in her honor.

Fate conspired to end Nantucket's primacy as a whaling port. A major fire destroyed the wharves and much of the business district in 1846. At about the same time the harbor silted in, making it impossible for large ships to dock there, and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania diminished the demand for whale oil. Tourism, which began shortly after the Civil War, brought new prosperity as visitors came to breathe the salt air, sun themselves on the sandy beaches and walk through the cobblestone streets, admiring the old captains' homes and stately buildings.

Today the island has one of the largest historic districts in America, with more than 800 buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Tourism remains the mainstay of this 14-milelong, and 3 ½-mile-wide hummock in the sea, where each summer the population grows from the year-round 10,500 to 55,000. The island must be doing something right to attract so many, and it won't take you long to fall under Nantucket's spell.

Things to See and Do

Rest assured you'll find plenty of interest as soon as you step ashore. The wide wharves that jut out into the harbor are filled with boutiques, restaurants, galleries, tour boats and even shingled cottages that host those who prefer shoreside accommodations. Be advised: Nantucket is a boat ogler's heaven. Mega-yachts call here regularly, and hundreds of sailboats fill Nantucket Boat Basin every Memorial Day weekend when the Figawi (www.figawi.com) racers arrive from Hyannis for a weekend of partying. Those who favor wooden boats should drop by in August when scores of classic yachts from all over the Northeast converge to compete in the Opera House Cup.

Within a five-minute's walk, you'll understand why Nantucket is like no place else. Weathered gray shingled cottages (which now sell over $1 million each) line the side streets and waterfront roads, their gardens adding a burst of welcome color to this often foggy place. Main Street is paved with cobblestones that once served as whale-ship ballast. They've been there since the 19th century, when town's people put them there so wagons loaded with whale oil would not sink into the ruts in the dirt road. Be sure to pick up a map and a guide at the Nantucket Visitor Services (508-228-0925), the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce (508-228-1700 or www.nantucketchamber.org) or most any bike shop or museum.

You could spend a day browsing the shops along Main Street and the surrounding streets, where you'll find nautical antiques, wonderful books, handcrafted jewelry, traditional Nantucket Lightship baskets, boutiques, and T-shirt shops galore. Halfway up Main Street is The Hub (508-325-0200) of island intelligence. This gift store and news emporium has newspapers, magazines, and maps. If it's about Nantucket, it's there and there are plenty of 'em.

Nantucket Whaling Museum (508-228-1894) on Broad Street. Reopened in June 2005 after extensive renovations and expansion, it's housed in an old "tryworks," where whale oils were refined and made into candles. It has a fully rigged whaleboat, an unparalleled collection of scrimshaw and hundreds of historical island artifacts, plus that astounding whale skeleton. It is run by the Nantucket Historical Association (508-228-1894 or www.nha.org), which owns 24 properties, 12 of them open to visitors in the summer. They include the Old Mill, the Oldest House, the Hadwen House, the Historical Research Library, and the Quaker Meeting House. Together they tell the story of Nantucket's growth from a Quaker farming community to a great whaling port and now a summer resort.

Also in town, the Maria Mitchell Association (508-228- 9198) exhibits the island's plant and animal life through an aquarium, an observatory, and natural science museum. Ecology walks and astronomy programs for both children and adults are offered.

"Renting a bike," one visitor tells us, "allows you time to get lost and still get there." Try Island Bike & Sport (508- 228-4070), Cook's Cycle (508-228-0800), Nantucket Bike Shop (508-228-1999) and Young's Bicycle Shop (508- 228-1151), among others, for rentals. The in-town cobblestones make pedaling a chore, but just outside of town miles of paved bike paths wind through the island and will take you to the ocean beaches on the south shore, to Siasconset (better known a 'Sconset), a pretty former fishing village on the east end or Madaket on the west.

A particularly nice ride is a 14-mile loop, via the Polpis Path, through conservation lands and past the Nantucket Life Saving Museum (508-228-1885) to 'Sconset. Fully a third of the island is protected by private land trusts and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, whose fragile holdings are home to deer, marsh hawks, and the rare broom crowberry. After you've stopped for a bite or a beverage and seen the pretty rose-covered cottages in 'Sconset, you can head back to town on the Milestone path where you will pass the Milestone Cranberry bog, a particularly colorful sight in fall when the red berries float on the surface of the water.

Cisco, Surfside and Nobadeer are popular beach choices for surf's-up swimming and boarding. Children's Beach, near Steamboat Wharf, offers shallow and protected water, while older kids will enjoy playgrounds, public tennis courts, and mild surf at Jetties Beach.

Restaurants and Provisions

We've yet to hear of anyone having had a bad meal on Nantucket. That said, choosing from the more than 50 restaurants represents a true challenge, and be advised that New York prices, with entrees at $40 in some places, abound. And if you don't have reservations, you can expect to wait in most places.

In any case, you won't have to venture far from your slip, but you can take the leg-stretching opportunity to peruse the menus you'll find posted along the sidewalks. At Straight Wharf Restaurant (508-228-4499) they serve local dishes, all while capturing the culture of Nantucket Island. The catch is what's lively at the Straight Wharf Fish Store (508-228-1095), where those who are ambitious in the galley can purchase what they need.

Don't miss the chance to dress up and dine in the last surviving piece of the Nantucket Railroad, which has been reincarnated at 1 Main Street as the Club Car (508-228- 1101) restaurant. Head up Main for additional options, including the easygoing Even Keel Café (508-228-1979) and the bistro-style Arno's at 41 Main Street (508-228- 7001), both of which serve all three meals and won't empty your wallet. One of our favorites, the Tap Room at the historic Jared Coffin Inn, closed for renovations and planned to reopen for the 2007 season.

What could be better then enjoying a wonderful meal right on the water? The Rope Walk (508-228-8886) on Straight Wharf has good drinks, well-prepared New England cuisine, and a lively clientele. Another great harbor view can be found on Eaton Street at the White Elephant Hotel's Brant Point Grill (508-228-2500), a welcoming place to enjoy a truly American gourmet dining experience with live music in the bar in-season.

The Boarding House (508-228-9622) on Federal Street delivers fine food in a hip, downtown location. Take an outdoor table and savor each delightful course, from salad to sorbet. Another sure bet is Cioppino's (508-228-4622), around the corner on Broad Street.

De Marco Restaurant (508-228-1836), at 9 India Street, comes highly recommended for Northern Italian cuisine in a country inn atmosphere, with wooden beams, comfortable seating, and a large fireplace. Head across the street to the petite Black-Eyed Susan's (508-325-0308) and let the ever-changing menu absorb you with its ethnic twists and turns. It's small, it's popular, and it's colorful; it's also cash-only and BYOB, so come prepared.

For those on the go, the island abounds with take-out and snack bars. The Nantucket Bake Shop (508-228-2797) on Old south Road is a popular morning stop, world-famous for its fresh Portuguese breads and other goodies. If you're thirsty for some natural refreshment, visit Nantucket Nectars' Juice Guys' Juice Bar on Easy Street and order up a smoothie and a sandwich. Another popular stop is "the strip," on the lower end of Broad Street by Steamboat Wharf, where you can take your pick of great pizza, taco, coffee and sandwich take-out shops.

The Far-Away Land is one of the most convenient places to stock up on supplies. While you're filling your prescription at Congdon's Pharmacy on Main Street, sample one of their soda fountain delights. Lighten your loads at the laundry machines at the end of Swains Wharf. Groceries, ATM, and necessities are all available at the Grand Union just off Old South Wharf. From here, plan on carrying everything back to the launch or your dinghy-not many shopping carts brave the cobblestones more than once.


Use tide tables for Nantucket Harbor. Mean tidal range is 3 feet.


Use ChartKit Region 2, pages 2, 8, 9, and 43; ChartKit Region 3, pages 66, 67, and 82; Maptech Waterproof Chartbook, Block Island to Cape Cod; or Maptech Waterproof Charts 19, and 85. Also Maptech electronic and NOAA paper charts 13242 (1:10,000), 13241 (1:40,000), and 13237 (1:80,000).

Navigation and Anchorages

Nantucket Harbor's approach buoy RW "NB" Mo (A) BELL is located 21.9 nm from Chatham, 19 nm from Hyannis Harbor's entrance, and 21.9 nm from Edgartown Harbor. From any direction, you'll enter Nantucket Harbor from the north side of the island. Great Point Light (Fl 5s 71ft 12M), at the northeastern tip of the island is a good landmark, as is Sankaty Head Light (Fl 7.5s 158ft 24M), on the eastern shore. The entrance to Nantucket Harbor is identified by RW "NB" Mo (A) BELL.

CAUTION: Nantucket Sound is unpleasant under easterly winds and a westerly current. Ocean swells not entirely broken up by Monomoy Shoals can create short and steep waves outside Nantucket Harbor.

From the north, it's pretty much a straight shot to the island, but again you must beware of heavy seas. From the west, you'll pass along the Nantucket Main Channel (a.k.a. the Cross Rip Channel), lying between Cross Rip and Horseshoe shoals. The water in and out of the channel is deep enough for most cruising vessels, but you should play it safe and stay within the channel. From the north and west, stay east of G "1" Fl G 4s BELL on the eastern end of Tuckernuck Shoal before making the approach into Nantucket Sound.

From the southwest, you could use Muskeget Channel, the marked cut between Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and then meet up with the Nantucket Main Channel. Strong tidal currents and shifting shoals keep this passage to locals only. First-timers should run along the north side of Martha's Vineyard.

Outside the harbor to the west you'll find Esther, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget islands. These are privately owned and inhabited during the summer. The waters around the islands are tricky and should be explored only in a shallow-draft vessel. The same holds true for Madaket Harbor, on the western tip of Nantucket Channel, where there's fuel and slips available.

From the south and east, look for the 648-foot LORAN tower on the south shore. Farther up the east shore, you'll see the 158-foot Sankaty Head Light, a white tower with a red band around it.

From the south, stay east of Great Rip Channel and Rose and Crown Shoal until you can safely approach Great Round Shoal Channel. This channel, northeast of the island, takes you between Point Rip, to the south, and Great Round Shoal, to the north. Most frequently used by fishing vessels, Great Round Shoal Channel is well marked; heed the buoys. The current runs through here at about 1.5 knots, and with opposing winds, the waves stack up. If the weather is rough, the trip will be, too. Don't attempt to cut over Point Rip, which extends 3.8 nm from the northeastern tip of the island. Once you're through Great Round Shoal Channel, and past G "13" Fl G 2.5s BELL, you can cut south into Nantucket Sound and head for the harbor entrance.

Nantucket Sound, in the giant bight that is the north coast of Nantucket, offers beautiful water for sailing. Prevailing winds out of the southwest are mild and usually pick up early in the afternoon.

From R W "NB" Mo(A) BELL at Nantucket Harbor's entrance, the marked channel runs 1.5 nm southsoutheast to Brant Point, identified by a small lighthouse (Oc R 4s 26ft 10M HORN), east of the Coast Guard Station and two range towers. As you approach the harbor, you'll see partially submerged breakwaters on both sides. To approach, line up the two range towers on Brant Point dead ahead. The one in front is quick-flashing, while the back tower remains constant. If you stray from the channel, you run the risk of hitting a shallow spot or a submerged portion of the breakwater.

To enter the harbor, you have to swing east, then west around Brant Point. A no-wake zone is enforced throughout Nantucket Harbor. Many windsurfers ply the seas off Jetty Beach along Brant Point. You can either look for a spot to anchor farther in the main harbor-the bottom is a mixture of sand, mud, and eel grass-or you can veer east along the channel running parallel to Coatue.

Nantucket Harbor draws a crowd in summer. The main anchorage area begins as you round Brant Point and is marked to the east of the mooring field. There is plenty of water for even large cruisers. If you'd rather pick up a mooring, call Nantucket Moorings (508-228-4472 or VHF 68).

Nantucket Boat Basin (508-325-1350 or www.nantucketboatbasin. com), at the western end of the harbor, is enclosed between a bulkhead extending south from Straight Wharf and another extending north from Commercial Wharf. Call the dockmaster (VHF 9) for information about slips. Electricity, fuel, and ice are available at the basin's wharf, and the center of town with all its attractions and eateries is less than a fishing cast away.

Also in the basin is Nantucket Ship Chandlery (508-228- 2300), which carries marine hardware, nautical supplies, and foul-weather gear.

If you're anchored or moored, the town pier has a dinghy dock, restrooms, showers, and a pump-out facility (their pump-out boat is known as Headhunter). Pump-outs are encouraged before you come and mandatory before long stays. Need oil? Glyn's Marine (508-228-0244) will deliver it right to your bobbing boat; they also repair dinghies and outboards. Nantucket Land & Sea Co. (508-228-4038) also makes house calls to service engines and generators. For gas and diesel repair, call Lewis Marine Repair (508-364-6334). If you are in need of services found only at a great allaround boatyard, visit Brant Point Marine (508-228-6244), located at the Town Pier. For custom woodworking or repair, call on Shattuck Yachts (508-833-0211). At the head of the harbor, Grey Lady Marine (508-228-6525) will take care of your engine repair needs, and all hull and storage requests.

If you'd like to escape the crowds, venture up toward Head of the Harbor. From the main harbor, head northeast along the channel that runs parallel to Coatue. The water here is shallow in spots, with a controlling depth of 3 feet (mlw), so it's best to go on a rising tide. Keep the uncharted, numbered spits well to port as you make your way up. Don't try to enter Polpis Harbor, to the south of the Head of the Harbor, except in a shallow-draft boat.

Shoreside and Emergency Services

Nantucket 508-228-6234
Nantucket Regional Transit 508-228-7025
Coast Guard:
Brant Point 508-228-0388 or VHF 16
Hy-Line 508-778-2600
Steamship Authority 508-477-8600
508-228-7260 or VHF 9 and 14
Police, Fire, Ambulance:
A-1 508-228-3330
Tow Service:
Sea Tow 800-4SEATOW or VHF 16
TowBoatU.S 800-391-4869 or VHF 16

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