What boater hasn’t dreamed of exploring Cape Cod during the summer or early fall? From hidden gunkholes to bustling harbors, surf-pounded beaches to meandering marsh creeks, this New England boating mecca has it all. Plus, the boater has the luxury of avoiding the Cape’s infamous summer traffic.
For those contemplating a Cape Cod sojourn, we’ve put together a counterclockwise itinerary of deep-water ports—some well- known and others slightly off the beaten path—that stand ready to welcome the cruising sailor or powerboater. Take your pick, and take your time.
BUZZARDS BAY Buzzards Bay is justly famous among sailors for its predictable summer southwesterlies (and just as infamous for its “square waves,” created by opposing tides). It’s also a great spot to cruise and fish, although the transient boater won’t find any large towns to visit along its eastern shore.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking a quieter side of the Cape, or a place to catch your breath before or after transiting the Cape Cod Canal, there are several small, well-protected harbors worth checking out.
One of the best is Red Brook Harbor, set in the northwest corner of Buzzards Bay in the town of Cataumet. Located between Wings Neck and Scraggy Neck, and tucked in behind Bassetts Island, Red Brook is very close to the canal and serves as a convenient stopping point for cruisers passing through Buzzards Bay. Yachts up to 120 feet can access the harbor, although careful attention to the depth sounder and plotter are required when negotiating the channel’s sharp turns (MLW in the channel is 7 feet). Take the southern route around Bassetts Island if new to the area, but watch out for the notorious rock pile just west of GC “11”.
For top-notch service and accommodations, head to the harbor’s largest full-service marina, Kingman Yacht Center (508-563-7136, kingmanyachtcenter.com). KYC has it all, from deep-water slips and moorings to haul-out, service and fuel. Plus, it’s home to the Chart Room restaurant— a Buzzards Bay institution and a great place to enjoy sunset cocktails.
For a fun side trip, take a dinghy or kayak to Bassetts Island, which offers a long, sandy beach and great swimming (but no public restrooms). If you don’t like crowds, plan your trip here on a weekday, and beware the poison ivy that grows thickly just beyond the dunes.
Just around the corner from Red Brook, south of Scraggy Neck, is Megansett Harbor in the town of North Falmouth. Like Red Brook, Magansett makes a great stopover for cruisers preparing to transit the canal or those heading south and west. It’s more exposed to westerly winds, but you can seek shelter inside Fiddler’s Cove on the south side of the harbor.
Fiddler’s has 7 feet of depth MLW, and is home to Fiddler's Cove Marina (508-564-6327, byy.com), a full-service facility that’s part of the Brewer Yacht Yard group. It offers ValvTect gas and diesel, haul-out, pump-out, ice and transient slips
for boats up to 55 feet. A general store is located nearby. If you have a bicycle onboard, consider a ride along the
Shining Tides bike path, which skirts the eastern side of Buzzards Bay all the way to Woods Hole, a great destination in itself.
Quissett Harbor, in Falmouth, may just be the best-kept secret on Buzzards Bay, if not the entire Cape. It’s a lovely, quiet and protected harbor, serviced by the venerable Quisset Harbor Boatyard (508-548-0506, 36 Quissett Harbor Rd., no website). The yard offers transient moorings but no fuel. MLW in the narrow and winding channel is 8 feet. There
is also a small anchorage just south of RN “6”, but it’s apt to be crowded in July and August. One of the harbor’s main attributes is that it lies just outside Woods Hole, making it a great spot from which to launch day trips to the Vineyard, Nantucket, Cuttyhunk and numerous South Cape destinations, including Osterville, Hyannis and Chatham.
Roughly two miles east of Woods Hole is Falmouth Harbor, shown on charts as Falmouth Inner Harbor. This largely manmade port was created in 1907, when an inlet was cut in the barrier beach separating freshwater Deacons Pond from Nantucket Sound.
Long and narrow, with a MLW depth of 12 feet, the harbor is protected in the worst winds and seas, and makes a great stop for transients on their way up and down the coast, or for those preparing for trips to Nantucket (27 nm), Martha’s Vineyard (5 nm), and Cuttyhunk (12 nm).
The harbor is serviced by no less than five marinas, the largest being MacDougall's Cape Cod Marine Service (508-548-3146,macdougalls.com). Established in 1938, MacDougalls can accommodate boats up to 150 feet with a 12-foot draft. It offers a 75-ton TraveLift, fuel dock, storage, canvas shop, engine and hull repair and transient dockage for yachts and smaller craft.
Be aware that Falmouth Harbor can be a busy place, particularly on summer weekends. Watch out for other vessels (several ferries run out of the harbor) when approaching and leaving the harbor, especially at night or in the fog.
A band shell located just behind the marine park hosts free summer concerts and other events. Restaurants on the harbor include the Falmouth Raw Bar and the Flying Bridge restaurant, as well as the Falmouth Clam Shack at the southern end of the harbor.
The downtown area is an easy 10-minute walk or bike ride from the inner harbor (many marinas also provide shuttle service). It’s not Nantucket Harbor or Newport, but Falmouth features many stores, boutiques and restaurants, including Anejo, which serves excellent Mexican cuisine.
HYANNIS HARBOR Aside from Provincetown, there is no bigger or busier harbor on the Cape than Hyannis. The town is famous as the summer enclave of the Kennedys, whose compound overlooks Nantucket Sound. Just don’t think you can get anywhere near the place for some snapshots.
Hyannis has a wide, deep-water channel (12 feet MLW) and the full-service Hyannis Marina (508-790-4000, hyannismarina.com), which can accommodate yachts up to 200 feet. It also has courtesy and rental cars, Wi-Fi, fuel, a pool and more.
Virtually everything a transient boater wants or needs can be found in Hyannis, although many of the finer stores, boutiques and restaurants are a mile or more from the water- front. Eateries closest to the harbor include Tugboats, Trader Ed’s and the Roadhouse Cafe.
If you wish to anchor, there’s a good anchorage just behind Egg Island in 7 to 8 feet of water, although it’s likely to be crowded in summer. Another benefit of Hyannis is its proximity to Nantucket (23 miles) and Martha’s Vineyard (18 miles). Plus, the Hyannis Airport is nearby for guests who want to fly in or out. If you’re keen on visiting Hyannis, be prepared for heavy traffic on most summer days. Ferries, large yachts and numerous small recreational boats ply these waters, so keep a close watch. Also, be prepared for fog, especially in early summer.
CHATHAM HARBOR Chatham offers a mellow blend of the Cape’s historic and natural charms and serves as an idyllic stopover for boaters having made, or about to make, the long haul along the Outer Cape.
There are two harbors from which to choose—Stage Harbor and Chatham Harbor. Use the former if you’re unfamiliar with the local waters and Chatham’s Atlantic shore, which is often pounded by large swells and prone to shifting shoals and powerful currents. The entrance to Stage Harbor, on Nantucket Sound, is more protected and convenient for boaters approaching from the west. The narrow channel offers 6 feet at MLW.
The village of Chatham is not directly on the harbor, but if you have a dinghy or kayak you can head along the Mitchell River to Little Mill Pond, where you’ll find a public landing at the far northern end of the pond. Another option is to travel the 21⁄2 miles or so up the scenic but narrow Oyster River into Oyster Pond, where you’ll find a free public dock, two blocks from Main Street. Taxis are also available from the lower parts of Stage Harbor.
The charming village features quiet, shaded streets lined by lovely Victorian and colonial homes and buildings, and boasts many art, jewelry and clothing shops, as well as several good restaurants and pubs, among them the famous Squire.
Many boaters love Chatham for its natural beauty and close proximity to Monomoy Island National Wildlife Refuge, an amazing place to fish, bird watch, see the seals or simply have a picnic and explore the shallows. Monomoy was, until recently, an island, separated from the mainland by a cut known as the Southway until a storm closed the break in 2006. A great daytrip for transients is a kayak paddle or dinghy ride from Stage Harbor to Monomoy. You can also catch a ride to Monomoy on the Rip Ryder ferry.
PROVINCETOWN HARBOR It’s fun to imagine what the Puritans, who first visited the idyllic natural harbor of Provincetown in 1620, would think of the place nowadays. What was once a desolate stretch of dunes, scrub oak, poison ivy and pitch pine surrounded by salt water is now a bustling tourist mecca and thriving artists community.
Summer is a never-ending Mardi Gras, with drag queens roaming Commercial Street amid noisy throngs of foreign tourists and family vacationers. Numerous restaurants, galleries, and boutiques now line the streets, alleys and wharves that were once the sole domain of commercial fishermen and whalers.
P-town’s natural harbor and two massive breakwaters offer excellent protection from the wind and seas from virtually any direction. The approaches are deep and free of obstructions, and the inner harbor can easily accommodate large yachts and commercial vessels.
Day-trip options from P-town include runs to Stellwagen Bank, three miles north, where you can view humpback, minke and finback whales at close range (be sure to stay 300 feet from the whales, as per federal law). Ocean sunfish, bluefin tuna and basking sharks also gather over the bank to feed during the summer, when the surrounding waters teem with plankton and baitfish.
Of course, shoreside activities and events abound in P-town. You can climb to the top of the 252-foot Pilgrim Monument (built in 1910 and also home to the Provincetown Museum) for a spectacular view of the Cape and surrounding waters. If you like eclectic stores, be sure to stop in at Marine Specialties, a P-town institution selling everything from mooring balls to fishnet stockings and located in an old fishing-net shop in the heart of Commercial Street. The athletically inclined can rent a bike and ride through the towering dunes and pitch pine forest just outside town or visit one of the former lifesaving stations along the Outer Cape. If you like to walk, you can hike along the West End breakwater, built in 1911 by the Army Corps of Engineers. Cruises of the harbor are available through several companies, but kids will love the pirate ship cruises aboard Pirate Adventures. Nightlife abounds in town, with numerous cabaret performances each night during the summer and fall. ml