Marblehead, which celebrated its 360th anniversary in 2009, is a small town with long boating tradition. Located 18 miles north of Boston, the town boasts a deep and well-protected natural harbor that’s home to some 1,200 recreational boats (two-thirds of them wind-powered). Marblehead is a sailing town, and the sport gained a permanent foothold here in the mid-1800s, which saw a huge boom in pleasure sailing among wealthy urbanites who “rusticated” on the North Shore of Boston. From 1870s to the 1930s, Marblehead was the hub of recreational sailing. Indeed, it was the first place to popularize small-boat racing and was home to several America’s Cup boats and sailors.
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Today the town is home to no less than 6 of the most venerable yacht clubs in America—the Marblehead Yacht Club, the Eastern Yacht Club, the Boston Yacht Club, the Pleon Yacht Club, the Dolphin Yacht Club and the Corinthian Yacht Club—as
well as some of the top names in professional sailing. Legends such as Dave Curtis, Ted Hood (who ran a famous loft here) and Stan Goodwin all lived and sailed out of Marblehead at some point in their careers. Some still do, such as well-known naval architect and Marblehead resident Doug Zurn, designer of the MJM cruising yachts, the cold-molded Samoset 30 and the classy Gloucester 20 center console.
The charming downtown area, with its plethora of restaurants and shops set among narrow, winding streets, is easily accessed on foot.
Of course, Marblehead was a working harbor long before recreational sailing became big, and it remains home to a small fleet of commercial fishing and lobstering boats, which unload their catch daily at the town wharf at the bottom of State Street, on the harbor’s northwestern shore.
Marblehead may look enchanting, but the surrounding waters of Salem Sound are peppered with shallow boulders and ledges. First-time visitors must pay careful attention to the channel markers, charts and electronics. Persistent fog, numerous pot and mooring buoys and heavy boating traffic, especially during the summer months, add to the challenge of navigating these waters.
The first thing boaters see when entering the harbor is the large water tank in the center of Marblehead, then the distinctive spire of Abbot Hall, the seat of town government. Marblehead Light (fixed green beacon) warns mariners from its position above the rocks on Marblehead Neck.
The light is part of the 3.74-acre Chandler Hovey Park, which offers pavilions, benches, picnic tables, restrooms, swimming (if you can stand the icy waters) and spectacular views of Salem Sound and Marblehead Harbor. Originally owned by the U.S. government, the land was purchased in 1948 by Marblehead resident Chandler Hovey, who donated it to the town.
Upon passing the park and entering the harbor, you’ll spy the grand Corinthian Yacht Club to port, followed by the collection of postcard-perfect Colonial buildings lining the rocky shore of Marblehead Neck. A bit farther along is Eastern Yacht Club and the Pleon Yacht Club, the latter founded in 1887 by a group of boys with “boats too small and finances too meager to join the older senior clubs in Marblehead,” according to the club website.
At the very southern end of the harbor is shallow Ladys Cove, at the head of which is Riverhead Beach town launch ramp. The parking area is large, but only small boats and kayaks are able to launch here at anything less than high tide. There is no dock or float, and the water depth at high tide is less than 3′ for the first 50 to 75 yards into the cove. Parking is free, but limited. Trailerboaters who want to access the harbor and Salem Sound in general are better off launching at Winter Island in Salem or Popes Landing in Danvers.
Continuing along the northern shore of the harbor, you’ll encounter Hill & Lowden Yacht, located next to the docks of the Marblehead Yacht Club, founded in 1878 and the oldest yacht club in town. Next up is the Boston Yacht Club, adjacent to Crocker Park. The site of the park was originally known as Bartoll’s Head, but was renamed for Uriel Crocker, who donated a large portion of the land to the town in 1885. The park is home to a plaque commemorating Marblehead’s contributions to the U.S. Navy. Crocker Park offers a pavilion and gazebo, benches, restrooms and a swimming float and hosts numerous weddings and summer-evening concerts.
Adjacent to Crocker Park is the harbormasters office and Tuckers Wharf, which features showers and restrooms for visiting boaters. Boats can tie up to the nearby town-owned landing for 30 minutes. Arrangements can sometimes be made with the harbormaster for longer transient dockage at Tuckers Wharf, but availability is extremely limited in summer. Transients may have to arrange a mooring through one of the yacht clubs or Mid-Harbor Marine then catch a launch into town. Next to the landing are the Driftwood Restaurant and the Landing Restaurant and Pub, both great places to grab a bite to eat or a drink.
The charming downtown area, with its plethora of restaurants and shops set among narrow, winding streets, is easily accessed on foot. You can even hoof it out to Fort Sewall, now a public park on the northwest side of the harbor. Built in the mid-17th century, the fort protected the town during the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. During the War of 1812, the fort and its surrounding rock-riddled waters became famous for providing safe haven for the U.S.S. Constitution. Like Chandler Hovey Park on the opposite shore, Fort Sewell affords sweeping views of the harbor and is a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch.