Officials Provide Navigation Update

by Tim Wood
Shoals are clearly visible in the Morris Island channel. At low tide depths can be as little as one foot. There are also many trees in the area that have fallen into the water and are hazards to navigation, Harbormaster Jason Holm said during a harbor update Saturday. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO Shoals are clearly visible in the Morris Island channel. At low tide depths can be as little as one foot. There are also many trees in the area that have fallen into the water and are hazards to navigation, Harbormaster Jason Holm said during a harbor update Saturday. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Navigating Chatham’s waterways is “never a straightforward thing,” Harbormaster Jason Holm said in introducing a rundown of conditions on the water during the Monomoy Yacht Club’s annual harbor update Saturday.

And yet, this boating season, the town’s waterways are in pretty decent shape, Holm said, with most major channels relatively clear and marked with aids to navigation.

More than 100 people crowded into the upstairs meeting room at the community center for the update, which also included Harwich Harbormaster John Rendon and Coast Guard Station Chatham Chief Ross Comstock.

“The season has definitely started,” noted Rendon. The previous week his department responded to a kite surfer in trouble, a boat sinking in the Saquatucket marina, and a dead deer in the water.

For boaters traversing between Nantucket Sound and Chatham Harbor, conditions are not as problematic as they have been in years past, although there are some shallow areas in the Morris Island channel. At a normal low tide, Holm said, some spots can have one to one-and-a-half feet of water.

“There are some pretty narrow spots in there,” he said.

A shoal pushing into the Stage Harbor entrance channel from the west should be taken care of by the Army Corps of Engineers later this month (see separate story).

The channel between Stage Harbor and Chatham Harbor has “lots of shoals,” Holm said, and zigzags a bit; it is currently marked and will be adjusted based on reported conditions.

Erosion along Morris Island has caused quite a few trees to end up in the channel. Twenty-five to 30 large trees have been removed, but there are many more, some stranded on shoals. He urged boaters to use caution traversing the area and not travel at a high rate of speed.

“Any high tide can bring those off the shoals and deposit them in the channel,” he said of the debris. The harbormaster department will be placing signs in the area warning of hazards to navigation. “It’s a huge concern of ours right now.”

On the Chatham Harbor side, the channel through the South Cut is similar to last year. Some fishermen have been cutting to the east, Holm said, which is a viable route on calm days, albeit with a depth of only about two feet at low water. But when the weather gets rougher, there can be breaking surf there; a couple of boats ran aground there last summer, he said.

The channel inside of the North Cut jogs to the south hard against the beach and is very narrow, according to Holm. Boaters sometimes anchor there to access North Beach Island, and it can be difficult to squeeze through, especially when there is a lot of boat traffic.

“You don’t want to play chicken with another boat in this area,” he said. “It could be potentially very dangerous.” He’s considering posting this area as a no-anchor zone.

The department, together with the coastal resources department, will be conducting a town-wide town landing cleanup this summer, Holm said, clearing old skiffs and kayaks and installing new signs.

In Harwich, dredging has finished in Allen Harbor and is now being done in the Wychmere channel, Rendon said.

“It’s worse this year than it has been for a long time,” he said of the Wychmere channel.

Time of year restrictions that prohibit dredging due to winter flounder and horseshoe crab spawning as well as limits on where dredged sand can go due to piping plover and other nesting shorebirds severely restricts the window towns have to get dredging done, Rendon said. June through September are open months, but the waterways are too busy, and beachgoers complain about odorous sand.

“But we shouldn’t be dredging in June, July and August,” he said. “People don’t want to be sitting on the beach and seeing dredge spoils coming out of a pipeline.”

That forces towns to dredge between October and December, increasing competition for access to dredge equipment and combating unpredictable weather. “It’s a challenge,” he said. He suggested that regulators need to seek a better balance between the need to dredge and closures that protect certain species.

“Our harbors and our channels are the lifelines of the Cape, and they’ve got to be dredged,” he said. “I’m not downplaying conservation efforts, but there’s got to be a balance.”

Unlike this time last year, Chatham’s Coast Guard station is 95 percent staffed, Comstock said. Last year at this time, staffing levels were at 38 percent. All Cape Coast Guard stations are fully staffed and operational, he said.

One concern is harassment of seals. He’s already received complaints of violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassment of seals and requires that people and vessels maintain at least a 150-foot distance from the mammals. If a seal moves because of a boat, that is considered harassment and can be punished by severe fines.

Station Chatham’s status has not changed, Comstock noted. In recent years it was downgraded from a surf station to a heavy weather station and then to a level three, the “most basic Coast Guard response station,” he said. There were only eight days of weather too rough to operate, although Comstock said the station would have been capable, with waivers, of operating most of those days. To upgrade the station, 36 days of such weather would be necessary.

Comstock urged boaters to contact the station for a safety inspection.

A link to a recording of Saturday’s presentation can be found at