February 17, 2020
An excellent jumping-off spot for trailer-boaters and paddlers, as well as a peaceful stopover for shallow-draft coastal cruisers, Pamet Harbor never fails to charm.Text & Photography by Tom Richardson
I owe Pamet Harbor a debt of gratitude. Back in 2000, my future wife and I were circumnavigating Cape Cod in a small boat (don’t ask) when we encountered strong southwest winds on the crossing from Provincetown to the Cape Cod Canal. What started out as a choppy ride soon turned into a white-knuckle fight to keep from swamping in the building seas. As I cast a nervous eye toward shore, wondering if we might have to surf our way to safety, I spied a jetty in the distance. Suddenly I remembered—Pamet Harbor!
I vaguely recalled visiting the place on a fishing charter some years earlier, but wasn’t sure what else it offered. Nevertheless, any port in a storm, right? Slowly, carefully, we beat our way across the white-capped seas and slid through the inlet, where I beached the skiff at the base of the jetty and literally kissed the ground.
As the adrenalin rush of our near miss faded, we began to take stock of our surroundings, and soon realized that we had stumbled upon a beautiful little harbor filled with interesting boats of all sorts, a nice launch ramp and meandering tidal creeks teeming with birdlife—proof that sometimes the best boating destinations turn out to be the ones you don’t plan on visiting.
Since that fateful day, I have returned to Pamet several times on other fishing trips and once to explore its backwaters in a kayak, and am always pleased to see that the harbor has maintained its low-key charm and natural beauty. It’s a good place to escape the tourist traps, noisy restaurants, busy beaches and traffic congestion of a Cape Cod summer. For trailer-boaters, the harbor offers an excellent launch ramp with ample parking, not to mention ready access to many popular fishing spots, including Stellwagen Bank, the Race, Peaked Hill Bar, Billingsgate Shoal and the Brewster Flats. And paddlers will find a peaceful, protected spot that allows close-range observation of marsh and shore birds going about their business. Indeed, avid birders flock to Pamet, intent on getting up close and personal with the area’s avian wildlife, which includes ruddy turnstones, plovers, terns, great blue herons, egrets, green herons, night herons, sandpipers, osprey, hawks, sparrows, kingfishers and more.
Cape Cod Outpost
Behind it all is a fascinating history. Like many Cape Cod waterways, the harbor has been extensively and intentionally altered over the centuries. Indeed, the Pamet River’s original inlet was located a half-mile north, at the base of Corn Hill, where the Pilgrims and the Mayflower crew famously helped themselves to a stash of maize belonging to the Nauset tribe.
From the late 1700s until the Civil War, the harbor was home to a vibrant shipbuilding and fishing industry, as well as a salt works, all despite its notoriously shallow inlet. When rail service came to the lower Cape in 1873, a trestle and depot were built on the harbor, along with a high berm that divided the marsh. Not that there was much need for a station. For a century after the Civil War, the harbor was all but deserted, mainly due to severe silting of the river mouth and the decline of shipbuilding on Cape Cod (although a small boatyard continued to operate at Pamet through the 1950s).
In 1918, the present inlet was carved through the dunes in an attempt to straighten the course of the river, increase current flow and ultimately prevent silting. However, within five years the harbor was again unnavigable to all but shallow-draft vessels. To solve the problem, a pair of stone jetties was constructed in the 1950s. This helped mitigate the silting problem—at least for a time. Major dredging occurred in the 1960s, again in 1996, and most recently in 2008.
At present, the harbor channel has a reported mean low water depth of three feet from the launch ramp to the bay. Small to midsized boats usually have no problem launching here, although the channel gets pretty dicey in spots due to continued shoaling. In other words, it’s best to time your launching and hauling around the upper stages of the tide, just to be safe.
The ramp and large parking lot make Pamet especially popular among fishermen, as the harbor affords quick access to Cape Cod Bay, Stellwagen Bank, and the backside of Cape Cod. On the other hand, many visitors never venture beyond the jetties. Kayakers and nature-lovers can spend the day exploring the harbor’s tidal creeks and the Pamet River itself, which very nearly bisects the upper arm of the Cape as it flows from its source behind Ballston Beach. Note that the river becomes exceedingly shallow at low tide, so it’s best to launch a trip upriver on the incoming tide and return on the ebb.
High tide or low, big boat or small: no matter how you choose to enjoy the harbor or what your reasons for visiting, Pamet never fails to impress—especially if you’re looking for a good place to ride out a storm.
Pamet Harbor at a Glance
There are no marinas or marine services on Pamet Harbor. The harbormaster’s office maintains three transient moorings inside the harbor, as well as a complementary dinghy with oars. Moorings rent for $20 a day and can be reserved.
The Pamet launch ramp is a double-lane, concrete-slab ramp that can accommodate even large boats on the upper stages of the tide (not so much at low water). It also features a decent amount of parking and a tie-up float. Fees are $10 per day for use of the ramp and parking; $5 per day if launching a dinghy or kayak at the beach adjacent to the harbormaster’s office. There are 38 spaces for trailers and another 28 for vehicles alone, but the lot fills up fast on summer weekends. Ice is available at the harbormaster’s office, which is open mid-April to mid-October, 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. If you launch before the office opens, be sure to pay the ramp fee before leaving.