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Boating in Newburyport & Merrimack River

Boating, dockage and reservations in Newburyport, MA

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Boating in Newburyport, Massachusetts

Wonderful Boating Destination
Newburyport is sometimes regarded as a harbor to skip for fear of passing through the Merrimack River entrance. But those who pass it by miss out. The downtown district overflows with fantastic restaurants, fine shopping, and open space that draws thousands of tourists each summer to soak in the elegance of this historic seaport. With careful planning and smart navigation, visiting this city by the sea reaps great rewards.

Located on the lower Merrimack River's south side, Newburyport entered the shipbuilding business as early as 1655. Many vessels built in Newburyport's early days were clipper ships, and Newburyport shipbuilders ranked among the finest of the clipper builders, adding extra polish and flair to their craft. This aptitude earned the community its nickname "Clipper City."

Privateering was also big business during the heyday of Merrimack shipbuilding. Many of Newburyport's men worked as legalized pirates, commandeering British vessels and smuggling their cargo into the U.S. to avoid the Queen's taxes. When the Revolutionary War was over, these patriotic mariners continued their smuggling ways, this time to evade taxes from their own government. So Alexander Hamilton, then serving as Secretary of the Treasury, proposed a solution to President George Washington. The result was the Revenue Cutter Service, a fl eet of 10 vessels (two sloops and eight topsail schooners, averaging 50 feet in length) intended to maneuver close to shore to enforce the tax laws and snuff out smugglers. The first such cutter, the Massachusetts, was built in Newburyport and launched on July 23, 1791. In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and formed the U.S. Coast Guard. Newburyport considers itself the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard and you'll still find a crew on duty at Coast Guard Station Merrimack River in downtown Newburyport.

Things to See and Do

The Clipper City has all the attractions of a tourist destination, but with the feel of a small town. Its appealing brick-based downtown, laden with cobblestone walkways and unique shops, buzzes with year-round activity. The splendid riverfront boardwalk is a nice place to stretch your legs or sit on a bench, eavesdrop on some local gossip, and take in the sunset.

Begin at the information booth (978-463-6614) near the Firehouse Center. If you want the inside scoop on the city, call up Michael DeCastro at Port City Tours (978-225-8486). Rumor has it that one day "Tom from Florida" took the tour, only later to reveal that he was, in fact, Tommy Lee Jones.

The well-regarded Firehouse Center for the Performing & Visual Arts (978-462-7336) at 1 Market Square features concerts, plays, and festivals, but if there's nothing running while you're in town, you can peruse the works of art in the building's two galleries. Another standout downtown is the Custom House Maritime Museum (978-462-8681) at 25 Water St., a granite structure marked by two retired buoys at its entrance. What better place could there be for nautical exhibits than this building, where ships from around the world stopped to register their cargo with the port surveyor?

Antiques lovers appreciate Newburyport's treasure- filled shops, especially Oldie's Marketplace (978-465-0643) at 27 Water St., a large indoor/outdoor shop that's open on week- ends. Pause over the inlaid granite compass in Market Square, the site of Newburyport's own tea-burning three days before the Boston Tea Party. After the Great Fire of 1811, the city required that the downtown buildings be no more than three stories high, built of the brick from the ballast of ships. This is believed to be one of the first uses of zoning laws in America.

Joppa Flats, Plum Island, and the Parker River Wildlife Refuge constitute one of the nation's top bird watching spots (many avian-oglers insist it's number one). Prime time occurs during seasonal migrations of course, when the Atlantic Flyway is aflutter with diverse species of birds and butterfl ies. Newburyport's festival calendar stays booked from Memo- rial Day weekend to Columbus Day, but the biggest by far is Yankee Homecoming, a nine-day celebration of New England's heritage. It begins the last weekend in July and includes a lighted boat parade, concerts, great food, a road race, fireworks, and a beer festival; call the Chamber of Commerce for more information (978-462-6680).

If the weather is such that a cruise up the Merrimack River is in order, stop by Lowell's Boat Shop (978-834-0050) in Amesbury. Opened in 1793, it is the oldest running boat- builder in the country. Wooden dories are still crafted by hand here, just up the river from the Chain Bridge, whose construction in 1792 limited larger vessels to the lower three miles of the river, a benefit to Newburyport and Salisbury.

Restaurants and Provisions

During Prohibition, the Plum Island creeks made ideal hiding places for busy rum-runners. Now that grog's legal again, everyone likes to meet at long-time favorite The Grog (978-465- 8008) at 13 Middle St., an inviting establishment off State Street with fireplaces and big leather chairs upstairs, a busy bar downstairs, and bands in the basement on many nights.

Along State Street, The Rockfish (978-465- 6601) at 38 State St. is where you can dine while watching the downtown life go by below. A balmy summer night is the perfect time for a margarita and a Mexican meal at Agave (978- 499-0428) at 50 State St., a few paces away.

You'll find the local crowd during breakfast and lunch at Angies (978-462-7959) at 7 Pleasant St., and all day and into the late evening chatting over pastries and chai at nearby Cafe Di Sienna (978-462-3190) at 33 Pleasant St.

Check out the Tannery Marketplace, across Merrimac Street from the Coast Guard station, for its many cafe and resturants, bakery, shops, and more! Just a pebble's toss away you'll find Ten Center Street and Molly's Pub (978-462-6652).

For meals on the water, check out Michael's Harborside (978-462-7785) at 1 Tournament Wharf for luscious lobster and other seafood. Are meat and potatoes more your thing? Then order the baby back ribs at the popular Black Cow Tap & Grill (978-499-8811) at 54 Merrimac St., or spend a little to enjoy something exotic—say wild boar, antelope, or quail—at Glenn's (978-465-3811) at 44 Merrimac Street. Don't overlook Starboard Galley (978-462-1326) at 55 Water St., near the Newburyport Harbor Marina, for the best in local seafood. For the best coffee on the waterfront, follow the crowd through the boatyard near Windward Yacht Yard to Plum Island Coffee Roasters (978-465-1444) at 54 Merrimac Street.

On Salisbury's shore, enjoy an angelic evening dining at Seaglass Restaurant & Lounge (978-462-5800) or enjoy lunch or dinner with a view at Stripers Grille (978-499-0400).

Richdale (978-465-9808), a convenience store on the corner of State and Pleasant can help you replenish some galley staples (and on-site Dunkin' Donuts will appease your coffee craving). For full-fledged restocking, take a cab to one of Newburyport's two supermarkets. You'll �nd a Laundrdmat across from the maritime museum.

Boating, dockage and reservations in Newburyport, MA


Use tide tables for Portland. High Tide at the Merrimack River entrance is 6 minutes later; low water is 29 minutes later. High tide at Newburyport is 30 minutes later; low tide is 1 hour, 10 minutes later. Mean tidal range is 7.8 feet.


Use ChartKit Region 2, pages 14 and 55; Maptech Waterproof Chartbook Cape Cod to Cape Ann; or Maptech Waterproof Charts 7, 36, and 83. Also, NOAA charts 13274 (1:40,000), 13278 (1:80,000), and 13282 (1:20,000).

Navigation and Anchorages

Newburyport's downtown area is about 3 miles from the mouth of the Merrimack River. The entrance to the river is approximately 7.5 miles from Ipswich Bay R "2" Fl R 4s BELL, 9.5 miles from Essex Bay, 4.7 miles from Hampton Harbor, and 18.1 miles from Portsmouth Harbor.

From the south, head for R W "MR" Mo (A) WHISTLE southeast of the mouth of the Merrimack River. From here, steer on a northwesterly course for the entrance between the breakwaters. If the swells are kicking up, many local mariners opt to instead travel more to the north toward R "2" Fl R 4S BELL before making the turn into the river entrance.

From the north, pass east of R N "2," marking Breaking Rocks. Head for R "2" Fl R 4S BELL before swinging wide into the channel. The mouth of the Merrimack is marked by Fl R 2.5s 15ft 4M "4" on its northern breakwater and G C "5" off its southern breakwater. The channel has a controlling depth of about 10 feet at low tide. You'll see a blue water tower north of the entrance and a number of lighted buoys and towers along the channel entrance.

The river itself is easily navigable. Where most boaters run into trouble is at its entrance, known as the Bar. It's considered among the most dangerous on the East Coast. A strong ebbing tide combined with a northeasterly wind will make The Bar downright treacherous for small craft and less-experienced boaters. The river will be at its worst one hour before and immediately following low tide. If you decide to enter or exit the river, pass all the way through; if you encounter rough seas, do not try to make a turn while still in the shallows of the river entrance.

CAUTION: A strong current, opposed by heavy winds, can make crossing The Bar extremely dangerous. In an easterly gale, seas break across the entire entrance. Approaching the mouth of the river, on the north jetty, you'll see a white sign that reads "Danger Rough Bar." When the swells exceed 2 feet, the light will fl ash. Heed this warning. If the light is not fl ashing, it's not necessarily safe. Check the sign when exiting the river as well. If it's fl ashing, you may want to wait it out. Hail the Coast Guard (VHF 16), harbormaster (VHF 12), or a local tow service (VHF 16) beforehand to check on conditions.

The Merrimack River is the largest in eastern Massachusetts, with a strong current and a fairly deep channel. Stay true to the channel markers, and the river won't give you much trouble. At high tide, the river can be used by boats with a 12-foot draft up to Newburyport, and a 6-foot draft all the way up to Haverhill (about 12.5 miles up the river).

Once between the jetties, avoid the shoaling off Plum Island Point by favoring the north jetty on your approach as you pass G "7" Fl G 4s. There's often a lot of current and boat traffic in this area so pay close attention. As you pass R "8" Fl R 4s you'll see The Basin, a �nger of water to the south, extending along Plum Island for about a half-mile. It's deep enough to venture down, but it's full of private moorings - there's no place to drop anchor. Leave R "8" Fl R 4s to starboard. Otherwise you'll run into Badgers and other nasty rocks. Small boats in search of striped bass congregate here, as well as harbor seals during spring and fall.

Black Rock Creek extends northward, behind Salisbury Beach, after R "10," denoting Black Rocks. You can go only as far as the boat ramps on the point, but this is a nice creek to explore in your dinghy and do some �shing.

From R "8" Fl R 4s to about G C "11" a no-wake zone is enforced. As you travel up the Merrimack, you'll see the Joppa Flats to the south. The flats are fodder for fisherman and the marshes teem with birds and wildlife. It's possible to navigate all the way down into Plum Island Sound at high tide, but it's not advisable without local knowledge.

Continuing up the Merrimack, stay in the channel as you approach Fl R 6s 22ft 4M "18," (known locally as the Ice Breaker) marking the North Pier, and G C "17." The channel becomes narrow, and if you stray, you'll wind up on Half Tide rocks. To port is the American Yacht Club (978- 465-9053), which has a few moorings available to transients. To get there, be sure to travel a good distance past G C "17." With a strong current and an outgoing tide, you can be car- ried back into Half Tide Rocks.

As you continue upriver, you'll see downtown Newbury- port's city docks on the south side, and several marinas on either side of the river.

CAUTION: The harbormaster discourages anchoring anywhere in the Merrimack River. The bottom is gravel, not good holding, and the river's current can run a good 3 to 4 knots. Newburyport's city dock has nearly 1,000 feet of transient space, and there are plenty of spaces and moorings available at marinas along the river.

Before you reach the city docks, you'll find Newburyport Harbor Marina (978-462-3990), where they can accommodate boats up to 140 feet and, in addition to shore power and WiFi, fuel is available. Past the city docks, fuel, ice, bait and tackle can be found at Hilton's Marina (978-462-3990). They also have an 85-ton lift in case you need a major haul-out. Nestled by the bridge, Windward Yacht Yard (978-462-6500) is a full service boatyard that has a special af�nity for sailboats and yachts of all sizes. Its neighbor on the western side of the bridge, River's Edge Marina (978-462-6500) is home base for the annual lighted boat parade, and the marina has 70 slips, a few of which are often available for transients.

On the Salisbury side of the river, Bridge Marina (978- 462-2274) offers easy access to Stripers Grill and the Fish Tale Diner.

The 35-foot Gillis Route 1 Bridge is manned and can be opened by hailing the bridge tender on VHF 13. The abandoned railroad swing bridge immediately westward (vertical clearance: 13 feet) is always in the open position. The channel passes through the north opening. When passing under the bridges, pay attention to the traffic, the current, and your superstructure-the horizontal clearances of the bridges differ, and tall-masted vessels will need to stay in the center or southern portion of the channel for full clearance. Remember that the vessels traveling with the current have the right of way.

Past the bridges, the channel runs to the south of Ram Island and Carr Island. You can venture behind the islands in your dinghy , and can even drop anchor on the north side of Carr Island. The area north of Ram Island can get shallow. From here, Town Creek extends into Salisbury, making for a pleasant exploration by dinghy.

Along the southern shore, you'll pass several more marinas occupying the sites of former shipyards. Newburyport Boat Basin (978-465-9110) services both smaller boats and those as large as 50-feet, has a steep low-water launch ramp, and an outboard mechanic on duty. Neighboring Merri-Mar Yacht Basin (978-465-3022), more than 50 years on the river, is another fine option for haul out and repairs.

The channel forks as you approach Eagle and Deer islands, about 1.6 miles up river from the Route 1 Bridge. Both routes are well marked and deep, but if you have a vessel that exceeds a 28-foot clearance, you must take the north route to the Deer Island swing bridge. When you hail the bridge tender (VHF 13) to open the bridge, there's usually not more than a two- hour wait. The adjacent I-95 highway bridge has a 55-foot vertical clearance over the northern channel.

North of the highway bridge, you'll pass Amesbury's waterfront, which includes several marinas. You can take the Merrimack River all the way up to Haverhill. It meanders through some narrow sections, but if you follow the markers, there are no inherent problems. Rocks Village Bridge, about 5 miles upriver, is a hand-operated swing bridge with a ver- tical clearance of 17 feet, and the Route 113 Bascule Bridge in Groveland has a vertical clearance of 13 feet. As with the Deer Island Bridge, both will open with several hours advance notice. Brilliant fall foliage can make this trip more than worthwhile.

Shoreside and Emergency Services
C & J Trailways 800-258-7111

Coast Guard: Merrimack River 978-465-5921 or VHF 16


Newburyport: 978-462-3746 or VHF 12 or 16

Salisbury: 978-499-0740 or VHF 12 or 16

Police, Fire, Ambulance:

Taxi: Walkey's Livery 978-462-7722

Tow Service:

Sea Tow 800-4SEATOW or VHF 16

Sea Tow Newburyport 978-462-8855 or VHF 16

TowBoatU.S. 800-391-4869 or VHF 16 ✦

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