The schooner Fame underway. Photos/New England Boating, by Tom Richardson.

The Pickering Wharf launch motors past the Schooner Fame. Photos/New England Boating, by Tom Richardson.

Salem, Massachusetts, brews up a salty cauldron of fun, interesting—and sometimes spooky—things to see and do by water.

By Rob Duca

Witches are usually the first things one associates with Salem, thanks to the “witch trials” of the late 1600s. But this seaside city offers more good magic than bad. Salem is teeming with maritime history and Colonial culture—and it’s all within easy reach of boaters arriving from the north or south.

The Custom House

The historic Custom House overlooks Derby Wharf.

The entrance to Salem Harbor is approximately 16 nautical miles from Boston Harbor and 10 nautical miles west of Gloucester. Approach carefully, though, for these waters are riddled with rocks and ledges. The most direct route is through Salem Channel, which begins east of Newcomb Ledge. The dredged ship channel has a minimum depth of 29′ and is marked by lighted buoys. It runs west-northwest between Bakers and Misery Islands before turning southwest near the Beverly shore and into the harbor, leading modern mariners to marvel at how huge sailing ships managed to access this bustling port.

The end of the deep-water channel lies just behind the massive power station, which occupies 65 acres of the Salem waterfront. Depths in the central portion of the harbor range 7′ to 15′, but shallow quickly once you leave the channel.

Getting Ashore

Gary Strempek displays a  fine striper taken on live mackerel.

Gary Strempek displays a fine striper taken by Parker Kelley (right) taken on live mackerel.

Accessing the downtown area requires a mooring or slip rental from one of Salem’s 3 private marinas (docking alongside the three historic stone wharves is prohibited). However, it’s best to make reservations, especially on busy summer weekends. Mooring customers can call the Salem Water Taxi for a ride to and from shore, or they may be able to arrange for dinghy dockage at Pickering Wharf Marina, at the head of the harbor near many downtown shops and restaurants. If you have any questions regarding the local boating facilities or need assistance, the Salem harbormaster’s office is usually ready and willing to help. Hail them on VHF 16 or call (508) 741-0098.

Pickering Wharf is the most centrally located marina and can accommodate vessels up to 120′. It has 30 and 50 amp electrical service, telephone and cable, WiFi, showers and laundry facilities. It will also try to arrange dockage for restaurant patrons arriving by water.

The wharf itself is home to shops, restaurants and antiques galleries. Capt.’s Waterfront Grill features charcoal-grilled seafood and steaks, while Finz is known for its raw bar, wine list and hip crowd. If you want to dine at either place, contact Pickering Wharf Marina or the harbormaster to inquire about short-term tie-up in the downtown area.

Magical History Tour

In A -Pig's Eye

In A Pig’s Eye serves up tasty barbecue near the Salem waterfront.

For a jolt of morning coffee, Jaho serves organic fair-trade java and teas, gourmet sandwiches and artisan gelato made fresh on the premises. If you don’t feel like walking, the Salem Trolley stops at the wharf and makes a loop through most of the historic areas.

Brewer Hawthorne Cove Marina is slightly farther from downtown and accommodates boats up to 65′. The marina is adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables, which was built in 1668 and is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. The house inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s legendary novel of the same name, and Hawthorne’s birthplace is just steps away.

The Salem Witch Museum

The Salem Witch Museum continues to serve as a major tourist attraction.

A bit farther off the beaten path is Dion’s Yacht Yard, tucked away in the southwest corner of the harbor. This small, historic boatyard, well known for repair and service, is about a mile from downtown and offers 18 slips and six moorings reserved for visitors.

Public docks are located at Winter Island Recreational Park, at the mouth of the harbor, at the Willows Pier in Salem Willows Park, and at the Congress Street Bridge, next to Pickering Wharf. All have a 20-minute tie-up limit, strictly enforced, so boaters wishing to overnight or spend a few hours in town will need to arrange a mooring or slip through one of the aforementioned marinas.

Peabody Essex Museum

Figureheads in the Peabody Essex Museum.

Other shore-side attractions worth visiting include the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously operating museum in the country, where you can explore 200 years of extraordinary art, architecture and culture. Another historic landmark just steps from the waterfront is the Salem Custom House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked as a surveyor in the 1840s. Tours are available.

The Salem Maritime Historic Site offers tours of historic buildings and the replica Tall Ship Friendship. Visit the working sail loft to watch shipwrights craft authentic nautical parts.

Fort Pickering Lighthouse

Salem Light off Winter Park.

At the entrance to the harbor, Winter Island Park is home to Fort Pickering and “Camp Waikiki,” the remains of an air force base used during World War II.

Of course, no trip to Salem would be complete without taking in a bit of witch lore, and there’s plenty of that to go around in the form of the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, the Witch House and Dracula’s Castle. Believe it or not, a few of these places actually teach history!

For a listing of Salem marinas, boat yards, launch ramps, harbormaster contacts, restaurants, historic sites, and more, CLICK HERE.


House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables

Great food at Finz.

Great food at Finz.

There are many ways to get around Salem.

There are many ways to get around Salem, including the Salem Trolley.

Joe Higgins with a fish print.

Joe Higgins displays one of his Gyotaku fish prints.

Share this Article On Facebook Twitter More...


Like New England Boating on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.
Receive our Daily News Update:

Don’t forget to sign up for our monthly newsletter!

Each month our emailed newsletter keeps you up to speed on the top news items, videos, destinations, reviews and fishing articles on New England Boating, so you won’t miss a beat. It’s convenient, it’s free, and you can opt out at any time!