As veteran North Shore boaters know, the Merrimack River is a busy and sometimes dangerous place, especially the waters at its mouth (aka, The Bar), where it meets the open ocean. In fact, the mouth of the Merrimack, which is bordered by Salisbury Beach to the north and Plum Island to the south, is considered one of the most dangerous inlets on the East Coast, if not the country, and caution should always be used when navigating the river mouth, even in fair conditions. Inside the river, the strong current (up to four knots) and heavy boat traffic, which includes vessels from 150 feet to kayaks, demand constant vigilance at the helm.
Cautionary notes aside, the Merrimack has much to offer boaters who don’t mind crowded waters. And one of the river’s major attractions is the historic city of Newburyport, situated three miles from the inlet on the southern bank.
Here you’ll find narrow streets flanked by historic buildings, excellent restaurants, a beautiful waterfront and lots of interesting boutiques and shops. In fact, Newburyport could be considered a “trendy” place these days, and it welcomes boaters of all types. Better still, it’s an easy place to get around on foot.
There are several marinas in Newburyport and the surrounding towns along the lower Merrimack, so you should have little problem finding a place to stay, even on busy summer weekends. If you only want to tie up for a few hours, consider the municipal docks along the Central Waterfront Boardwalk, which provides easy access to downtown Newburyport. Transient vessels can tie up on a first-come, first-served basis from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Fees are collected by the dockmaster and range from $2 per hour to $6 per hour, according to the size of your vessel. Water and electricity are available and are included in the hourly fee. The city also maintains 4 guest moorings available for $25 per night.
If the city docks are full, you can usually find a spot at one of the marinas that line the waterfront, such as the Newburyport Harbor Marina, Hilton’s, Windward Yacht Yard or the River’s Edge. Even more marinas are located on the Salisbury side of the river and farther upstream beyond the Gillis/Rte. 1 Bridge. There’s free pumpout service as well, via a town pump-out boat and a shoreside facility at Cashman Park, just west of the Gillis Bridge. For information contact the Newburyport dockmaster via VHF channel 12 or by phone at (978-462-3746).
Cashman Park is open year-round. The daily launch fee is $10, and seasonal passes are available. Note that the ramp can be extremely busy on summer weekends, but there is usually an attendant on duty during the day to make sure things run smoothly.
Cartoppers, windsurfers and kayakers can also launch at the small concrete ramp on Water Street, just west of the Joppa flats and a half-mile east of the Custom House Museum, although parking is limited. Another option for kayakers is to launch at the base of the Plum Island Bridge, as well as from the beach near the partyboat docks on Plum Island. Both spots provide ready access to the Joppa Flats, Woodbridge Island and the scenic marshes behind Plum Island.
Small-boaters and kayakers will find a world of exciting places to explore in the lower Merrimack. Numerous creeks on both sides of the river wind deep into the marshes, although you’ll probably want to avoid the backwaters in midsummer due to the abundance of biting greenhead flies that can drive you mad at this time of year. Both early and late in the season (early fall is especially beautiful) the marshes are a peaceful paradise for birders, kayakers and fishermen. Unless you’re very familiar with the area, be sure to pack a GPS and a compass, as it’s easy to get lost in the maze of creeks, which are screened by tall marsh grass.
Of course, your Merrimack adventures don’t have to end in Newburyport. The river has good depth far upstream, all the way to the town of Haverill. Along the way you’ll find even more creeks to explore in a dinghy or kayak, including Town Creek and the quiet waters behind Ram and Carr Islands (both islands are wildlife refuges). If you attempt to access these areas from Cashman Park, beware of the strong current and heavy boat traffic. If you wish to head east in a larger boat, Newburyport is ideally located for day trips north to the Isles of Shoals or south to Plum Island, Ipswich’s Crane Beach or Cape Ann.