It’s hard to imagine a boating destination with more to offer than Chatham. After all, this town on the elbow of Cape Cod features two very different harbors, miles of white-sand beaches, amazing scenery and wildlife, great fishing and a charming village center. It’s no wonder, then, that many consider Chatham to be the ultimate Cape Cod experience, causing its year-round population of slightly more than 6,000 to swell to nearly 30,000 in summer.
Facing the open Atlantic to the east and Nantucket Sound to the southwest, Chatham’s constantly changing shoreline has put piloting and seamanship to the test since Europeans first settled the area in the 1660s. Captain George Eldridge and his son “George W.” were famous Chatham natives whose mastery of the area’s tricky shoals and currents gave rise to the indispensible yellow “Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book,” which is still published by their descendants.
During the Age of Sail, Chatham thrived as a whaling, fishing and trading port. As the town prospered, local merchants and captains built themselves well-founded homes and shops with simple, classic New England lines, many of them finished off with red- or white-cedar shingles that weathered beautifully in the salt air. These 18th- and 19th-century buildings still grace the close-packed area between Mill Pond and Chatham Harbor, and the townspeople have taken great pains to preserve them. The Old Chatham Village Historic District, centered on Main and School streets, is now considered the finest example of a classic Cape Cod town.
With all that sand and shoreline, Chatham boasts a number of famous beaches, most of them public, some with limited parking and fees for use. It is also the jumping-off point for visits to the Monomoy Island National Wildlife Refuge, considered one of the best birding areas in New England. The barrier island is also famous for its colonies of gray and harbor seals, whose populations have exploded—much to the dismay of local fishermen—in recent years. A number of local tour boats offer trips to the refuge and seal-watch cruises.
The town’s location provides it with two distinct harbors: Chatham Harbor, to the east and homeport to most of the local fishing fleet, has ready (but not always easy) access to the open Atlantic and peaceful, scenic Pleasant Bay. To the south, near Monomoy Island, is Stage Harbor, home to most facilities for visiting boaters and offering a safer point of entry.
As a boater, it’s important to understand the difference between the two harbors. Beginning in 2007, a series of violent winter storms have dramatically altered the coastline off Chatham, leaving Chatham Harbor increasingly exposed to the Atlantic and making it a risky proposition for small boats. The channel is well marked, but makes some tricky turns and is often bombarded by unnerving breakers (the Coast Guard posts warning flags at Chatham Light when inlet conditions are considered dangerous). Indeed, the harbormaster’s office advises boaters to avoid the harbor or seek local knowledge before entering.
On the plus side, Chatham Harbor does provide access to beautiful Pleasant Bay, where boating facilities are available at Ryders Cove Boatyard and farther north at Nauset Marine East in Orleans. Be sure to keep an eye on your depthsounder and pay attention to the channel markers when navigating the bay, as it is quite shallow in spots, especially at low tide.
While Chatham lacks a true dock-and-dine restaurant, the Wequassett Inn, which sits on a quiet cove on the Harwich side of Pleasant Bay, maintains guest moorings where boaters can tie up and hop a launch to the inn for dinner or drinks. Guests can be dropped off at the inn’s dock. The Wequassett also makes kayaks, powerboats, and small sailboats available to its guests.
Boaters who study recent satellite maps and charts of Pleasant Bay will no doubt notice the presence of a break in the barrier beach between Chatham and Nauset inlets. While it may be tempting to access the bay and harbor through this “new” inlet, it is not advised without local knowledge. Powerful currents and steep ocean swells can make for a treacherous passage at best.
Those heading in or out of Chatham’s Stage Harbor, on the other hand, have the barrier island of Monomoy to protect them from the open Atlantic. Situated 4 miles from Wychmere Harbor in Harwich Port, Stage’s sheltered waters are home to several marinas and transient facilities, limited anchoring space (with permission from the harbormaster) and access to Chatham’s downtown. However, pay attention to the strong cross currents at the entrance to the harbor.
From Stage Harbor, boaters wishing to access the Atlantic side of the Cape must travel around Monomoy, a distance of roughly seven miles. To reach Main Street from Stage Harbor—the center of village activity—shallow-draft vessels and dinghies can pick their way up Oyster Pond River and into Oyster Pond. The village is a short walk from the landing on the pond’s eastern shore. On the west side of the Oyster Pond River are two marinas that offer transient accommodations.
North of Stage Island, in the main harbor, are two more marinas and some town landings. From there, the channel flows north into the privately marked Mitchell River and under a bridge with eight feet of vertical clearance at high water. The bridge is opened by the harbormaster for mooring owners only. At the north end of Little Mill Pond is a town landing close to the village center.
Yet another option for boats under 35 feet is Outermost Harbor Marine, reachable via a winding channel that branches off to the east just before the Stage Harbor inlet. Outermost has transient slips and moorings, and is just a short stroll or bike ride from Main Street.
The word “charming” seems to have been invented for Chatham Village, where you’ll find shops selling everything from local artwork and jewelry to ice cream, baked goods and toys. Cozy restaurants and pubs such as the Squire and the Red Nun see a steady stream of traffic, while pleasant bed-and-breakfasts and inns welcome those who wish to spend the night ashore.
Speaking of inns, no story on Chatham would be complete without a mention of the opulent Chatham Bars Inn, which celebrated its 100th year of existence in 2014. The sprawling facility comprises a large, shingled main building, several cottages, a private beach and immaculate grounds, all overlooking Chatham Inlet, North Beach and the mighty Atlantic beyond. The inn also maintains its own fleet of boats that is uses to take guests on fishing, sailing and seal-watching excursions, as well as trips to Nantucket.
It’s quite a place, but then again so is Chatham as a whole.