Nantucket

Nantucket's gentle island landscapes, seafaring traditions, cobblestone streets and comfortable sense of wealth make it the Grail of regional cruising.

Introduction

I can’t think of a harbor in Massachusetts that excites more controversy among cruising sailors.

To its proponents, Nantucket’s gentle island landscapes, seafaring traditions, cobblestone streets and comfortable sense of wealth make it the Grail of regional cruising. It’s the one destination on which to focus your mid-winter cruise planning.

To its detractors Nantucket is an overpriced, over-hyped, overly self-absorbed theme park for the rich. They find the obsessively regulated streetscapes antiseptically precious. With too many dress shops. These sailors won’t go there unless blown ashore off-season, and then they’ll just complain about how you used to be able to anchor anywhere, buy a decent burger, blah blah blah.

Admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult to separate Nantucket the island from “Nantucket” the brand. And the trend is ineluctably towards the megayachts and premium properties of a world class vacation destination – whatever that means.

Still, for anyone cruising the New England coast, Nantucket has to be considered a life bird.

📷 Geoff Rand
The Nantucket Whaling Museum underwent a $12 million dollar renovation completed in 2005 and the results are terrific. The showstopper is this 46-foot sperm whale skeleton suspended over the main gallery. It’s a vivid evocation of how the island first acquired its wealth.

Navigation

Approaches

Sailing across Nantucket Sound is the perfect prelude to the island itself. It’s over 20 miles from either Hyannis on the Cape or Edgartown on the Vineyard, so the low shores on either side disappear in even the lightest afternoon haze. First the big tank west of town, and then the landmass of the island rises ahead. In a good summer southwester the ride gets bumpy enough to be exhilarating. Making the passage, short as it is, adds substantially to Nantucket’s defining sense of remoteness.

The proposed wind farm on Horseshoe Shoal, for all its worthy environmental contributions, seems sure to transform the Sound from the island’s wild preface into a mere obstacle. “Nantucket? Yeah. Go past the windmills, first harbor on the right. . .”

The harbor entrance is flanked by jetties extending almost a mile into the Sound, and the dredged channel is marked by a string of nuns and cans. It’s wide enough that you may have room to maneuver under sail, but it’s also heavily travelled by recreational boats and the island’s many ferries.

Not for navigation

Anchorages

You can generally anchor inside, to the north and east of the mooring area. Watch the depths; there’s a large shoal area in the middle of the harbor. Any anchorage will be even farther from town than the moorings. And the harbor is big enough that there’s an appreciable fetch, especially from the east.

Moorings

Nantucket Moorings maintains over a hundred moorings in the harbor for transients. They accept reservations, but require a 2 or 3 night minimum for reserved moorings. Out of season, it’s a good bet you can get an unreserved mooring on a first-come first-served basis, but reservations are recommended between late June and Labor Day. See the reservation form on their website.

It’s worth noting the harbor is big enough that the moorings can be pretty far from town. Launch service is available, but it’s not included in the mooring fee, and the launch charges per person, per ride. So if you have a poor-rowing dinghy with no outboard, or a big crew that wants to visit town repeatedly, you can end up spending more on launch rides than the (not inconsequential) cost of a slip.

📷 Geoff Rand
This elegant sidewalk cover plate for the water system is definitely not to be used for navigation.
📷 Geoff Rand
Looking north from the Boat Basin over Brant Point Light and the harbor entrance, with Nantucket Sound in the distance.

Slips

Slips are available from the Nantucket Boat Basin, located on the western shore of the harbor and right downtown.

The Boat Basin is a quintessential full-service marina, with a concierge who can seemingly arrange anything, including on-board spa service. A member visiting recently tells of the dock staff’s slightly incredulous reaction when he assured them he didn’t need to plug into shore power, cable TV, or high speed internet.

But seriously, TV hookup or not, the Boat Basin staff in our experience is unfailingly welcoming and helpful.

Reservations

Demand for both moorings and slips in Nantucket harbor is highly seasonal. The Boat Basin sends reservation forms to their mailing list in January and popular dates fill quickly. In early June, they may not answer the radio after 5pm, and following Labor Day in some years, you can pay for two nights and get a third free.

Charts

Not for navigation. Charts are not updated. 

Going Ashore

The standard gloss on Nantucket goes something like “With its soda fountains, cobblestone streets and flower-brimming window boxes, Main Street in this island’s downtown area seems preserved in amber.” {NYT 04.12.06} Well, almost. The town is immaculately attractive from its cobblestones up. But it’s not so much preserved in amber as it is suspended in willing disbelief.

Nantucket’s development follows a pattern familiar in eastern Massachusetts, but the arc of her story is unique for its extremes. The early prosperity generated in the peak years of Nantucket’s whaling industry (say 1815 to the 1840s) was spectacular, world-renown, and highly concentrated among ship owners and captains. The stagnation following whaling’s decline was protracted, really through WWII, though ameliorated some by tourism.

📷 Geoff Rand
Those irresistible downtown cobblestone streets.
📷 Geoff Rand
Graveyard on the road to Madaket.

Also unique to Nantucket’s evolution is the outsized influence of one man, the investor and developer Walter Beinecke. In the mid 1960s, Beinecke bought up something like 80% of the town’s commercial acreage including much of the waterfront. The parcels (including the Boat Basin and a majority of downtown storefronts) have been sold a couple of times since. But with a few changes, they are still held by a single developer. {BG 04/30/05}

Beinecke’s vision for the island, his marriage of 20th century money to pre-industrial aesthetics, set Nantucket on a course to what we see today. He valued old buildings, open space, and a well-off clientele. So he bought up land for conservation, spent generously to rehabilitate historic structures, and pressured his business tenants to go upmarket, to avoid the generic commercialism he saw overspreading the Cape. Quoted in TIME {07.26.68} Beinecke said “Instead of selling six postcards and two hot dogs, you have to sell a hotel room and a couple of sports coats.”

Two sports coats? Ring-a-ding ding.

Forty years into this carefully constructed image, the line between what’s in bounds and what’s out can leave you scratching your head. It was the arrival of a Ralph Lauren store in 2004 that prompted forecasts of the apocalypse from town fathers – “If it starts a domino effect, that turns a disaster into a catastrophe.” {BG 02.21.04} – and a subsequent ban on chain stores in town. {NYT 04.12.06}

Instead, the downtown features ostensibly local independent businesses that are lovingly curated by the wives of off-island hedge fund managers or Silicon Valley billionaires. {BG 08.29.12}

The economy now consists, according to the island’s newspaper, of “tourism and the construction of multi-million dollar summer homes” while “the sky-high cost of living has driven more than a few islanders to the mainland.” {I&M} This 20th century reincarnation as a premier summer destination has returned Nantucket to international prominence.

And the old town preserved in amber? It’s hard to believe that a port devoted to the ferociously bloody business of killing whales ever looked this pretty.

📷 Geoff Rand
Brant Point Light, at the entrance to the harbor, is surrounded by a nice little beach overlooking the entrance channel.

One Hour Ashore

Sailing to Nantucket for a one hour visit would be a classic instance of “a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there.” Most people spend two nights in the harbor in order to have a full day on the island. On a one night stay, you’ll probably walk around the waterfront, go out to dinner, and resolve to come back.

Off the Beaten Path

You can rent bikes from a number of shops close by the waterfront, and a 6 or 7 mile ride out of the centrally located town will get you to just about any destination on the island. For a guide to beaches and other attractions, try here.

To get as far from town as possible, you can visit Great Point Light in the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. The lighthouse is a 4 mile walk after a 6 mile ride.

Maritime History

The Whaling Museum, part of the Nantucket Historical Association, is just a block in from the Steamship Authority Wharf. Their focused collections and imaginatively presented exhibits on whaling history and island history are absolutely worth a visit.

Rainy Day

If you tire of the toggeries, try The Chicken Box.

Services

Facilities

Launch service is available. See the navigation page for a more complete description. Dinghy in to the town dock.

For Boat Basin customers, there are restrooms and showers in several places on the wharves. For mooring customers, the facilities are at the town dock.

Be prepared to sort your trash and recyclables. The Boat Basin expects you to use see-through trash bags, provided when you sign in.

For researching events and activities, start with the island’s newspaper, the Inquirer & Mirror or their Visitors Guide. The Nantucket Historical Association and Nantucket Boat Basin sites also lead in a number of helpful directions.

Fitting Out

Diesel, water and ice are available at the Boat Basin’s fuel dock.

For pumpout, call the Boat Basin if you’re in a slip, or the harbormaster if you’re on a mooring. Nantucket got itself declared a Federal No Discharge Zone early on.

This is a convenient harbor to resupply. There’s a full grocery store right on the waterfront, along with anything else you’d need in town. The Nantucket Ship Chandlery, attached to the Boat Basin, is pretty well stocked. (I bought a fondly remembered pair of emergency sea boots there a few years back, having forgotten my foul weather gear at home and facing a passage around Cape Cod. . .)

Contacts

Nantucket Moorings
1-508-228-4472
VHF: 68
Book with Dockwa

Harbor Launch
1-508-325-1350
VHF: 68

Photos

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Nantucket

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