October 2, 2018
Banking on Barnstable
EXPERIENCED NEW ENGLAND BOATERS, AND ESPECIALLY FISHERMEN, HAVE LONG KNOWN BARNSTABLE HARBOR AS A PLACE THAT SERVES AS BOTH A SAFE HAVEN AND A GATEWAY TO ALL SORTS OF AQUATIC ADVENTURE, BUT THERE’S MORE TO THIS CAPE COD TOWN THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Tom Richardson
The town of Barnstable comprises seven villages, including West Barnstable, and Barnstable Village. West Barnstable borders the inner harbor and the sprawling 4.000-acre Great Marshes, the second largest saltmarsh system on the East Coast.
Protecting this rich and fragile ecosystem is the sheltering arm of Sandy Neck, a barrier beach featuring majestic rolling dunes, some rising to 100 feet.
When entering Barnstable Harbor from Cape Cod Bay, it’s important to follow the markers carefully, as the narrow channel is surrounded by extremely shallow flats that have caused headaches for more than a few boaters.
To starboard, shoal water extends from beautiful Sandy Neck, a barrier beach marked by the Sandy Neck Lighthouse on Beach Point. The 182-year-old lighthouse presides over a cluster of venerable shingled cottages that are part of a private summer community on the Neck. Originally built in 1826 and rebuilt in 1857, Sandy Neck Light was decommissioned in 1931. Until the spring of 2007 it was regarded as an area oddity because of the fact that its lantern room was missing, giving it a peculiar “headless” look. Residents raised more than $65,000 in private donations, resulting in construction of a new lantern room in 2008. Today the light—all 48 feet of it—stands whole again, although it and the adjoining lightkeeper’s house are not open to the public.
Fortunately, Sandy Neck itself is. The beach is a favorite summer and fall outpost for boaters and non-boaters alike. Each season a legion of off-roaders stake their claim along the beach (after securing a permit from the town) in RVs and pickup trucks, either carrying or towing campers.
Long before the area became a summer playground, Sandy Neck played an early role in New England whaling, which got its start here in the 1600s. Colonists would venture into the bay in small skiffs and chase the whales onto Sandy Neck, where the animals were killed and processed. Bones and other artifacts from this industry are occasionally unearthed today.
During the 1930s, the harbor was a major source for soft-shell clams, with 8,000 barrels harvested in 1936 alone. Yet another early industry that flourished in Barnstable was saltmarsh haying. The Great Marshes’ abundant cordgrass (Spartina altiflorens) was harvested by early settlers and dried for use as feed for livestock, bedding, insulation and mulch. The marshes were once dotted by “haystaddles”—stands upon which the cordgrass was left to dry.
Evidence of Barnstable’s colonial past can be found a short distance (one mile) from the harbor. This includes the stately captains’ homes on Route 6A, also known as Old King’s Highway. Originally a Native American trail between Plymouth and Provincetown, the Highway was used daily by early settlers to move supplies. In the 18th century, the sea merchant and whaling trades transformed it into a major route to Boston. Today, 6A runs through the heart of Barnstable’s business district, which features shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Back on the water, kayakers, canoeists and intrepid shallow-draft powerboaters can venture into the maze of tidal creeks that wind through the Great Marshes in the western portion of Barnstable Harbor, behind Sandy Neck (although novices are advised to do so only on a rising tide and to get out of Dodge lest the rapidly falling water leave them marooned for the next six hours). It’s a good idea to carry a GPS and cell phone with you, and beware the onslaught of greenhead flies that rule the marshes in midsummer. The best times to boat or paddle the marshes are the months of May and June, and again from late August to mid-October. And if you like backwater fishing, the Barnstable marshes produces some amazing action with striped bass in June.
NAVIGATING THE INNER HARBOR
Barnstable’s Inner Harbor (Maraspin Creek) is accessed via a narrow (25 feet wide) channel marked on either side by a “fence” of tall PVC pipes. Follow the markers closely, as the channel is bordered by extremely shallow flats. If unfamiliar with the harbor, you might consider entering on a rising tide, which may float you clear if you accidentally ground.
A concrete state-run launch ramp with float provides trailerboat access immediately to port on Blish Point after clearing the inlet. This is a busy area in summer, with hundreds of boats and kayaks splashing and hauling on nice weekends. The small harbor features a restaurant and three marinas, as well as a nearby market for provisions. A whale watch boat that runs trips to Stellwagen Bank also operates out of the harbor. Be aware that there is little room for turning in the basin, so larger vessels should keep to the outer harbor.
Barnstable Harbor Names & Numbers
Dockage, Moorings & Service
All of the harbor’s marina services—including a whale-watch boat, a good restaurant and a handful of charter boats—are clustered together in Maraspin Creek.
- Millway Marina (508-362-4904): A full-service facility specializing in engine repair. Gas, restrooms and water available.
- Barnstable Marine Service (508-362-3811): Offers dockage, rack storage and full-service boat, engine and electronics repair, as well as gas and diesel. Ice, bait, restrooms and showers.
- Barnstable Harbor Marina (508-790-6273): Operated by the town, this marina occasionally has slips available. Hail the harbormaster on VHF 16 to check on availability. Offers pumpout and water.
An unofficial anchorage in approximately nine feet of water (mean low tide) is located just west of Beacon R “12”, but be sure to anchor north of the main channel.
- Blish Point State Landing on Millway Road is a paved ramp with ample parking and an attendant. The lot fills up early, especially in summer, so get there early. Note that some boats may be unable to use the ramp at low tide. Fees: $8 weekdays; $10 weekends; $100 season pass. Webcam of parking lot may be seenHERE.
- The Scudder Lane town landing, off 6A, is a town ramp (sticker parking only), with access to the shallow western part of the harbor, but most boats can only launch and retrieve on upper stages of the tide. Also, parking is limited.
- A small ramp providing access to the east side of the harbor is located at Grays Beach/Bass Hole in Yarmouth.
- Sesuit Harbor, roughly 5 nautical miles east of Barnstable Harbor in the town of Dennis, has a large public ramp with ample parking.
- Kayakers can launch at the Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary at the end of Bone Hill Road (off Rte. 6A), at the east end of the harbor.
- (508-790-6273; VHF 16)
- Mattakeese Wharf Restaurant (508-362-4511): Fresh seafood and steaks and offers lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, right on the harbor.
- Village Landing Restaurant (508-362-2994): A small but busy place near the harbor off Route 6A. Serves breakfast and lunch.
- Dolphin Restaurant (508-362-6610): Located in the center of Barnstable Village on 3250 Main St.
- Barnstable Restaurant and Tavern (508-362-2355): Located at 3176 Main St., the Barnstable dishes out traditional New England cuisine.
The Barnstable Market offers a variety of groceries, fine wines and beer, as well as an in-store breakfast bar and deli.
Barnstable offers some of the best beaches, boating, hiking and fishing on the Cape.
- Leading the way is Sandy Neck Beach (508-362-8300) and the Great Salt Marshes Conservation Area. The bayside of the 6-mile-long barrier beach consists of a public beach with lifeguards and snack bar and a campsite area that allows off-road vehicles to access the various trails on Sandy Neck. Vehicle traffic is strictly regulated on Sandy Neck, and permits required by the town are available at the ranger station—or gatehouse—at the entrance of Sandy Neck Beach.
- Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary (508-362-7475): A 110-acre wildlife preserve with walking and hiking trails that abut the harbor.
- Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises (888-942-5392): Whale watch cruises to Stellwagen Bank.