Onset gets left off most cruising itineraries – we suspect because its proximity to the Canal is too close but not close enough. A sailor transiting the Canal is usually headed someplace else, not looking to stop. And when forced to lay over near the Canal, skippers tend to choose Sandwich for its just off the exit ramp convenience, rather than navigate the winding back road of a channel to Onset.
The channel into Onset doesn’t feel as tight as the chart suggests, though, and at the end is a quiet, Victorian-inflected seaside resort. Onset is a particularly attractive option for the night if you intend to catch an east-going current through the Canal early in the morning, or if you’ve passed through the Canal westbound in the afternoon and don’t relish punching your way through the chop into Buzzards Bay.
Following the channel into Onset doesn’t require much more than a careful eye on the chart and the numerous buoys. With a steady southwest wind it’s even practical to sail all the way in. Note that the fixed green light QG “21” is a mark for the Hog Island Channel. As you head in to Onset, leave G “21” to starboard and green can “1” to port.
Be sure to make plenty of allowance for whatever current is running when you turn in. Except around slack water, the Canal currents will sweep you past the entrance to Onset in a hurry.
There may be room to anchor outside the moorings between Wickets Island and Onset Island.
Onset has 3 possible sources for transient moorings.
At the head of the channel, just off the Town Wharf, the town maintains 3 or 4 moorings. The Onset Dockmaster oversees them from his office on the wharf.
Nearer the Canal, both the Point Independence Yacht Club and Onset Bay Marina have moorings in the bay between Wickets and Onset Islands.
All the moorings are sheltered and convenient to town.
The dockmaster’s office on the Town Wharf. The mooring area is just out of view to the right and Wickets Island is visible in the hazy background.
The yacht club and marina, both on Point Independence, have overnight slips as well. The slips at the Town Wharf are limited to a one hour tie up for dropoff or provisioning.
Onset Bay Marina has an online reservation request form for both slips and moorings.
Not for navigation. Charts are not updated.
The foundation of the town we see now dates to the 1870s, when a group of Boston Spiritualists purchased much of the village. They laid out both parks and individual house lots to create a summer resort. Summer vacationers, Spiritualist and otherwise, came to enjoy Onset’s beaches and salt air. Today’s Victorian streetscapes are their legacy.
In many ways, Onset’s development mirrors that of Oak Bluffs on the Vineyard, where a nearly contemporaneous Methodist summer camp grew into a seaside resort town with enduring architectural appeal. The underpinning religions are somewhat different, though. The International Spiritualist Federation explains “Spiritualism is founded on the facts of (a) personal survival of bodily death, and (b) communion between this world and the Spirit world.” A handful of Spiritualist churches and groups remain active in the Boston area, including Onset.
Bypassed by the 20th century highways delivering tourists to “Olde Cape Cod”, Onset fell out of favor. And while the town’s reputation may have suffered in the years after WWII, its buildings enjoyed the essential preservative of that era – benign neglect. Mostly fixed up now (realtors would call it a rennaissance), and without the frenzied commercialism of more notable summer towns, Onset’s parks, beaches and streets are pleasingly both new and old fashioned.
Extensive legal action by the Onset Protective League established public access to the beach in 1915.
The bathhouse behind Onset Beach takes a design cue from the Wigwam.
One Hour Ashore
Depending on your interest, walk the waterfront streets or the beach. Kenny’s Saltwater Taffy, by the town wharf, has been a beachside institution since the 1890s.
Off the Beaten Path
The On-i-set Wigwam (on the northern edge of the village, about a half mile from the town wharf) is a strange relic from the waning days of Spiritualism in the 1890s. Its architecture anticipates the kitschy roadside vernacular of the early automobile era, while its plaque solemnly declares it is “Erected to the Memory of the Redman — Liberty Throughout the World and Freedom To All Races.” Local inn owner Alice Touchette suggests its builders hoped to “retain… the natural holistic spirituality” of the natives.
The yacht club and marina have launch service for their moorings. There is a large dinghy dock at the town wharf.
Showers and restrooms at the yacht club and marina. There are no showers at the town wharf. Restrooms and dumpster at the wharf are open during business hours.
Diesel, water and ice are available at either the marina or yacht club. The town wharf does not have fuel.
A grocery and hardware store are both a short walk to the west of the town wharf.
Onset Marina is a full-service repair yard.