A whaleboat from New Bedford Community Rowing passes through the Hurricane Barrier. Photos/New England Boating/Tom Richardson.
A whaleboat from New Bedford Community Rowing passes through the Hurricane Barrier. Photo Tom Richardson

When Joe Myerson, a longtime boating writer and Buzzards Bay sailor, suggested that the 2009 Cape Dory Owners Association rendezvous take place in New Bedford Harbor, some of the members expressed trepidation. After all, the city was no Newport or Nantucket, and had a certain “gritty” reputation. Even Myerson himself grew concerned as the event drew closer.

“Frankly, we were all a bit skeptical about what we’d find, so we were pleasantly surprised by the city and the harbor,” he says. “There’s a good public marina and moorings, and the downtown offers so much to do and see, so much history. Plus, the variety of restaurants, galleries and shops is truly amazing.”

Nautical Chart, New Bedford
Nautical Chart, New Bedford

Downtown Access

In the years since Myerson’s visit, the recreational boating infrastructure in New Bedford has been further improved, and now it’s even easier to visit the city by boat.

“Over the past few years we’ve been aggressively upgrading moorings, adding dinghy docks, renovating Pope’s Island Marina and investing in other projects to provide the recreational boating community with a friendly, unique and authentic experience in America’s number-one fishing port,” says Ed Anthes-Washburn, Deputy Port Director, alluding to the fact that the city ranks first among the nation’s fishing ports in terms of catch value (sea scallops are the main catch these days).

Visitors to New Bedford Harbor can expect to encounter their share of fishing boats
Visitors to New Bedford Harbor can expect to encounter their share of fishing boats.

That means you can expect to see a lot of fishing boats, both inside the harbor and on the approach from Buzzards Bay, on a trip to New Bedford. To access the inner harbor—part of the Acushnet River estuary — you first have to thread your way through a series of ledges and rocks. Pay close attention to the charts and keep an eye out for trawlers and ferries as you head for Butler Flats Light. Another hazard to be aware of, especially when approaching from the north, is Egg Island ledge. This shallow area has some nasty rocks that lie just under the surface and extend close to the main channel. Give it a wide berth.

Moorings & Marinas

Once inside the Hurricane Barrier, there are several places to stash your boat while you go ashore and explore the city. The best deal in town is the municipal moorings, just south of Pope’s Island. The moorings, identified by their yellow floats, are free to use during the day and can be rented nightly for $35. From the mooring you can hail the Whaling City Water Taxi on VHF 72 for a lift into town, or take your dinghy to the free dinghy dock next to the Schooner Ernestina, on the south side of State Pier. After tying up, you might want to tour the 120-year-old former fishing schooner, which also made several Arctic expeditions before being converted to a passenger ship. She brought thousands of Cape Verdeans to New Bedford before being bequeathed to the city in 1982 as a historic icon.

New Bedford boaters are familiar with the funky landscaping on Crow Island.

If you’re looking for greater creature comforts during your stay, the city-owned Pope’s Island Marina offers seasonal and transient slips with electric and water. The facility is locked and secure, and also features laundry and showers. Adjacent to the marina is a second free dinghy dock where you can tie up and pick up supplies across the street at the True Value hardware store or order a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.

From the marina you can take a short walk or ride via dinghy or water taxi to the downtown area, where you’ll find easy access to historic Johnny Cake Hill. This multi-block section of the city is part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, which is dedicated to preserving the city’s numerous historic buildings and educating visitors about its varied past. The Park Service headquarters is located in a former bank on William Street, which makes a good starting point for a walking tour along the cobblestone streets of the Hill.

Whale of a Good Time

The Seamen’s Bethel on Johnny Cake Hill is one of many historic sites in downtown New Bedford.

Once known as the “City That Lit the World,” New Bedford was the largest exporter of whale oil and the richest city in the country until just after the Civil War. Hundreds of whaling ships launched from the harbor, inspiring the famous Melville novel Moby Dick, which is read aloud in its entirety each January at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, also just steps from the waterfront.

This splendid museum provides a thorough look at the history of whaling in New Bedford through thousands of artifacts, artwork and exhibits. Kids will love the half-scale model of the whaling barque Lagoda and the massive whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling in the lobby.

New Bedford is loaded with good restaurants.

Aside from its rich history, the downtown area thrives with restaurants, shops and galleries. In fact, there are some 20 eateries and 15 galleries within a five-block radius of the waterfront. Also of interest are the Buttonwoods Park Zoo, where families can learn about the sea and science as well as other animal habitats, and the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, which hosts live musical performances, plays, comedy acts and more throughout the year.

Of course, New Bedford makes a great jumping-off spot for side trips to other boating venues, including the various harbors of Buzzards Bay, the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard. Many recreational fishermen also launch from New Bedford Harbor because of its proximity to a host of fishing grounds that serve up terrific action with striped bass, bluefish, scup, sea bass, tautog, false albacore and fluke (see sidebar).

So whether your pleasure is fishing, sailing, cruising or simply checking out interesting new destinations, New Bedford is worth a look. Pay it a visit this season and you may be pleasantly surprised too!

Additional Photos

The Cuttyhunk ferry routinely makes the run to and from the islands.
Trailer-boaters can launch at Pease Park, on the Fairhaven side of the harbor.