Marblehead is hardly an exotic cruising destination, but it is, and always has been, a bit apart from the rest of Massachusetts. From its beginning as a fishing outpost, through its years as America’s premier yachting harbor, to what is now the North Shore’s least accessible commuter town, Marblehead has evolved with its face to the sea and its back to the land.
Even today, the old town retains the character of a pre-industrial coastal village. Early houses crowd the tangled, narrow streets right down to the water’s edge. Private residences stand adjacent to shops and restaurants. Much of the waterfront is taken up with maritime trades: boatyards, hoists, sailmakers, yacht brokers, designers, and of course the sprawling yacht clubs. Boats are everywhere.
It is the unique appeal of the town, rather than the serenity of its moorings, that attracts sailors to Marblehead.
The steep rocky character of Marblehead’s harbor also defines the entrances. Deep channels make their way past bold islands and extensive outlying ledges.
From the south, Marblehead Channel is wide and unobstructed. The red and green bell at the mouth, flashing (2+1) red, is quite bright, usually visible 3 miles off. To the east, the intricate channels criss-crossing Salem Sound appear more obvious on the chart than they do from the cockpit. Most of the rocks are marked, though many of the marks are unlit, making this area somewhat inimical to exploration at night.
Anchoring is neither practical nor permitted in Marblehead harbor.
Marblehead harbor is open to the northeast, and gets pretty wild in a coastal storm, with moored boats heaving up and down in 2-3 foot seas. In normal summer weather it’s quite pleasant. Salem Sound is bothered by a persistent groundswell, though, seemingly no matter what the weather. So boats moored near the harbor mouth should expect to roll a little.
Most guest moorings are administered by the three major yacht clubs. Eastern and Corinthian are both located on the Neck; their launches can take you to the clubhouse or to town. The Boston clubhouse is on the mainland side, in the old town.
The Harbormaster may also be able to find you an empty mooring.
Marblehead has lots of moorings, and just as many boats. Odds are usually pretty good that something is available, but avoid the time before the Marblehead/Halifax Race (odd years, early July), during Race Week (usually late July) and any of the big regattas that Marblehead regularly hosts.
The prominent light on Marblehead Neck has an unusual fixed green (F G) characteristic. If you’re approaching from the south, the light occasionally disappears behind the high ground of the Neck until you get within 3 miles.
Tie-up space is extremely limited in Marblehead. The Harbormaster does have a few hundred feet of floating dock, just past the Town Landing. It’s conveniently right in town, and space can be reserved. But it is subject to the same uncomfortable roll from the north and east as the moorings, and becomes untenable in even a near-gale from that quarter.
Not for navigation. Charts are not updated.
Walking the streets of Marblehead’s old town may keep you engaged for hours – nearly every building looks simultaneously like a modern shop or dwelling and an anecdote from the past. If you want more space, try one of the harborside parks:
Chandler Hovey Park, at the tip of Marblehead Neck, is the sight of Marblehead Light. It’s also an abrupt and striking piece of rocky coast with commanding views of the harbor and Salem Sound. The inviting beach just south of the park is private, but there’s a large pebble shelf at the north end where you can land your dinghy.
Fort Sewall guarded the harbor entrance in the early 1800s. It’s most famous for protecting USS Constitution when she sailed into Marblehead, evading British ships during the War of 1812. Today, the earthworks and benches are a great place to enjoy that half hour before sunset. The fort is a short walk from the center of town, and right next to the dinghy landing at Fort Beach.
Brown Island (called Crowninshield Island by its owners, The Trustees of Reservations) is north of the fort, outside the harbor. Its varied terrain of beach, grass, rock and wooded upland can be reached by dinghy at any tide, or by (dry) foot from the mainland an hour either side of low water. The island closes at sunset.
Brown Island is a short way out of the harbor or out of town, to the north. It’s reliably quiet.
Evening frisbee at Fort Sewall.
One Hour Ashore
Sunset at Fort Sewell. Then maybe a beer at Maddie’s.
Off the Beaten Path
See any of the parks described in the text.
For a town whose evolution is so richly and successfully linked to the water, there is remarkably little to actually visit. As you wander the streets, notice that the plaques on most historic houses refer to an early resident’s maritime trade.
Visit Abbott Hall to see the famous fife & drum painting Spirit of ’76, then find a cafe or gallery. Marblehead doesn’t have much in the way of indoor public attractions near the harbor.
The yacht club launches can generally take you either to their clubhouse or to town. Or dinghy in to the Town Landing or one of the beaches.
The yacht clubs have showers for visitors on their moorings. Public restrooms are available at the Town Landing, Fort Sewell and Chandler Hovey Park.
Marblehead is easier to get to by boat than by public transportation. There’s an expensive taxi or an inconvenient bus. If you need to meet crew, Salem, Manchester or Gloucester have good rail service reasonably close to the harbor.
Diesel, water and ice are available at the Marblehead Trading Company, the big complex of gray buildings at the Town Landing, and at the Boston Yacht Club float.
On the street side of the Trading Company is the storefront of The Forepeak, a comprehensive marine store. Closed Sundays. Lynn Marine Supply, across the street, stocks charts and foulies.
Crosby’s Market is a block from the Town Landing, on Washington Street. It’s a locally-based grocer with a nice, comprehensive inventory plus beer and wine.