Provincetown

After Thoreau visited in 1850, he declared Provincetown "the most completely maritime town that we were ever in."

Introduction

After Thoreau visited in 1850, he declared Provincetown “the most completely maritime town that we were ever in.” {HDT/CC, p229}

A fishing outport (never prosperous like New Bedford, Gloucester or even Marblehead), P-town in the 19th century was more remote by land than by water, its harbor an offshore refuge for great fleets of mackerel schooners.

Throughout the 20th century, the artistic and the alternative have added a distinctive culture to that maritime heritge. Today Provincetown draws much of its character from its visitors. All summer long, boats fill the harbor and there is a real vitality in the streets.

Navigation

Approaches

The Mayflower’s passengers observed of Provincetown:

“The bay is so round and circling that before we could come to anchor we went round all the points of the compass.” {Mourt p16}

The unmistakable fist of sand that the Pilgrims encountered at the end of Cape Cod still forms a winding entrance to the harbor, offering greater protection around every turn.

At the center of this whorl is the Pilgrim Monument, 348 feet above high tide and visible over twenty miles away. A series of bearings on the monument is a reliable way to measure your progress against the coastline’s succession of near-identical dunes and beaches.

Not for navigation

It’s more difficult to gauge distance off shore. On both sides of the Cape near Provincetown the depth contours are abrupt and the curving shoreline is more disorienting from the water than it looks on the chart. Pay careful attention to the Shank Painter Bar. It makes out from shore over a half mile, and depths go from more than a hundred feet to barely ten in a hurry. As you aim for the bell off Wood End, the typical southwesterly can push you closer inshore than you’d like.

Approaching at night, the prominent lights at Race Point, Wood End and Long Point, with their off-standing buoys, will guide you around the hook, although there are a few distractions. Often the rotating AERO beacon northeast of Race Point is the first light you’ll see, reflecting off the clouds.

Fishing boats, with their deck lights, frequent the waters off Race Point and trucks, with their headlights, frequent the nearby beaches. We’ve looked, sometimes with a little anxiety, but never found either on the charts. . .

Not for navigation

Anchorages

“It is a harbor wherein a thousand sail of ships may safely ride.”
Mourt’s Relation 1622 {p 16}

“It is one of the best harbors on the Atlantic Coast, having a sizable anchorage area in depths of 12 to 57 feet with excellent holding ground. Coasters and fishermen find protection here in gales from any direction.”
Coast Pilot 2001{p 273}

Thousands of sail do in fact visit Provincetown every summer, but very few end up anchoring. The water of moderate depth close to town is filled with moorings, and inside the breakwater, the bottom is reported to be littered with the debris of a busy harbor. {CP 273}

Outside the breakwater the depths increase steeply. And the harbor is large, so that wherever you anchor, you’ll be exposed to considerable fetch in at least two directions. Most boats that do anchor find swinging room outside the mooring field and south of the breakwater.

📷 Geoff Rand
Note that there is a fairway 100 yards wide, running from Green ‘3’ off Long Point to the south end of the breakwater, in which anchoring is prohibited.
📷 Geoff Rand
Looking over the harbor from the top of the Pilgrim Monument.

Moorings

The moorings directly inside the breakwater are private. The large field of transient moorings begins south of Fisherman’s Wharf and runs nearly to the Coast Guard wharf. These moorings are adequately protected, but given the fetch within the harbor, they can feel a bit exposed if it’s blowing anywhere from south to northeast. In a strong easterly, you’ll want to get behind the breakwater.

Within this field, Provincetown Marina, Flyer’s, and Provincetown Yacht and Marine all maintain guest moorings. Call when you arrive, and their launch will direct you to an appropriate mooring. On summer weekends you can try your luck, but reservations are recommended. During a recent June visit, there were plenty of empty moorings Thursday and Friday nights, but the launch driver reported that everything was booked for Saturday.

Slips

Provincetown Marina has a row of transient slips on the inside of Fisherman’s Wharf, and Provincetown Harbor Marina has six slips for transients on inside face of MacMillan Wharf.

The Provincetown Marina office is open 24 hours a day in season. Reservations are necessary on summer weekends, and strongly recommended throughout the summer. Dockage rates are by the foot, with all boats under 40 feet charged for 40 feet, and there is a two-night minimum Friday and Saturday.

P-town Harbor Marina requires advanced reservations.

Charts

Not for navigation. Charts are not updated. 

Going Ashore

It’s no surprise that the town website leads off by stating “Provincetown continues to issue licenses to out of state same-sex couples. . .” Descriptions of P-town routinely begin with some variation on the theme of New England’s premier gay resort and thousands of visitors every summer prove the point. Crowds arrive by car, by air, and literally by the boatload on ferries from Boston, to enjoy the Tea Dances and bars, the mostly-but-not-all-gay B&Bs, the festivals and carnivals, the “romance of freedom itself.”

Still, uncorroborated estimates put the town’s visitation at roughly half straight. In the afternoon, you’re more likely to see a mom & dad couple pushing a baby stroller than you are to see a well-built man in a low cut dress riding his bike down the street.

While Provincetown as we know it today dates to roughly the mid-70s (the Business Guild formed in 1978 to promote gay tourism), it is also the current incarnation of a century-long embrace of diversity. Hippies avoiding 60s-era civilization found relative seclusion at the end of the Cape. Greenwich Village writers and intellectuals (frequently socialist-leaning) congregated for summers here. A group of these called the Provincetown Players, in 1916, staged the first-ever production of a Eugene O’Neill play at their waterfront theatre.

Charles Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art may have started Provincetown’s association with the arts in 1899, but not the town’s sense of being a bit apart. Nineteenth century fishermen and whalers, as in any port, in any era, already lived to a rhythm distinct from their shorebound contemporaries. Heck, even the Mayflower Pilgrims were already living an alternative lifestyle when they stopped here on their way to Plymouth.

The legacy of all this for the visiting sailor is a waterfront concentration of restaurants, film, theatre, art galleries, quirky shops, quiet beaches and fabulous streetscapes that is unrivalled on the east coast. It also means you probably won’t hear the last chorus of “YMCA” drifting out of the beachfront bars and across the mooring area until after midnight.

📷 Geoff Rand
Pilgrim Monument.
📷 Geoff Rand
One fishing boat tows another, disabled one past Wood End. 

One Hour Ashore

Be ambitious. Climb the Pilgrim Monument.

Off the Beaten Path

The Cape Cod National Seashore begins at Long Point and spans all of Provincetown’s Atlantic coast on its way down to Chatham. If you don’t feel like walking 3 miles north of town to the Province Lands Visitor Center, or anchoring across the harbor and rowing ashore, Flyer’s runs a boat to Long Point.

Maritime History

At the Monument, the Provincetown Museum has several rooms of exhibits on P-town’s (thinly documented) maritime history.

The Whydah display at MacMillan Wharf has pirate stuff.

Or read the Mayflower Compact.

Rainy Day

There are enough galleries, theaters, shops and restaurants for a rainy week.

Services

Facilities

Flyer’s and Provincetown Marina offer launch service with their moorings. Each of the mooring providers has some sort of dinghy dock. Ask the launch driver when you arrive.

P-town Marina and Flyers’s have showers. At P-town Marina, the showers operate with tokens available in the office – get two. The water has a reputation for going straight from cold to scalding. Shower veterans soap up before inserting the rinse token.

Restrooms at Flyer’s, the Marinas, Town Hall, the beaches. . .

Boston Harbor Cruises and Bay State Cruises offer ferry service from Boston. Cape Air has flights from Logan.

Fitting Out

The Provincetown Marina fuel dock is on the south (out) side of Fisherman’s Wharf.

Contacts

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Comments

If you have updated information, corrections, or contributions to this harbor, please share them below. Comments are moderated by Boston Sailing Center. 

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David Filipov
David Filipov
5 months ago

Hey everyone! Anchoring is possible in PTown harbor but you have to be really careful about selecting your spot, and really aware of any forecast wind shifts overnight! In an easterly, northeast of the breakwater has plenty of room that will avail, as well as a generous beach on which to land. In the prevailing summer southwesterly, there is a sliver of anchorage under Long Point, but bear in mind that it’s a long slog to town in your dinghy. Also take note that seals now teem along that beach, which means white sharks are there, too. Will they take your dinghy for a fat seal? There’s also anchorage west of the Flyers mooring field, but watch out for the sunken ship! And it shoals quickly. Also keep in mind that everything in Provincetown is exposed to the southeast. Drop the coin and dock at the Marina.

Provincetown

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