The Old Harbor

We approached Rockport just as a viscus fog bank lifted. To our left, a large green channel marker stood sentinel. On the other side of the huge buoy was a series of underwater ledges, the remnants of an island and a breakwater that crumbled into the Atlantic. Rockport’s spires, rooflines, and grand concert hall rose over a fortress seawall of stacked granite.

To our right was a long line of houses perched on the craggy rock extending to a cliff point that marks the second side of the Cape Ann peninsula. We vectored further east, behind the collapsing breakwater and towards Sandy Bay, an anchorage tucked next to Rockport’s northwestern edge.

Inching closer to the sandy beach that lined just a small portion of the cove we surveyed the several possible places to anchor. Depths ranged between 16 and 30 feet at high tide. The chart indicated a sandy bottom in several places, but we wanted to stay clear of a rock turret worrying that the anchor would foul on undersea boulders that were strewn throughout the area. We worked our way around several lobster pots and dropped the anchor in 36 feet of water, laying out our entire payload of chain. There was only one other boat in the anchorage, but it was still early, and I knew that by midafternoon several vessels would be looking for a place to spend the night.

Eleanor and I jumped in the dinghy that I’ve since named The Jack Burton Pork-Chop Express and ripped off towards the main harbor. Eleanor giggled and laughed as we zoomed around lobster pots and launched off of gentle ocean rollers. The propeller occasionally lost contact with the water making the classic high revved chainsaw sound as the Jack Burton Pork-Chop Express shredded the easy waves. “Just two people. You and me Daddy. Just two people in the dinghy. We’re going fast, she said, with a burst of laughter.

We cruised along the great granite sea wall that nearly surrounded the main harbor. A group of tourists took pictures of us as Eleanor waved. The charts and Google maps showed the main harbor as small, crowded and busy; precisely the type of place where I avoid parking my 43-foot sailboat (by the specification but 46 with the anchors, radar arch, and dinghy). We were performing a little recon, looking for a better spot to park the boat, locate some a good source of fresh water and find a dumpster.

The inside harbor was small, too tight in many places for the boats that were already moored there. Several boats over 30 feet had two moorings securing them; one on the bow and one on the stern, something that we have not seen before. Every mooring and inch of dock space was taken. We vectored around several stone battlements that reminded me of ancient Roman piers. Where boats once loaded equipment and stone or unloaded their catch stood a ramshackle of small buildings littered with souvenir paraphernalia. Beyond a mountain’s worth of granite and a crane arm fish scale, the small Rockport lobster fleet was moored securely within the inner harbor. One aspect of the economic engine of the local economy was kept safe within the fortress keep.

Clusters of pastel-clad tourists pointed at The Jack Burton Pork-Chop Express as we slowly worked our way around the moorings and headed back out of the narrow cut that served as the harbor entrance. Shredding through the slow ocean rollers, I pushed the tiller away from Caprica, turning towards yet another granite rampart with an unseen harbor behind. We slowed our approach seeing a jumble of rock where the old harbor entrance should have been. Underwater, lines of kelp shrubs waved in the heavy current hiding jagged rocks and old twisted lobster pots under the lush green fingers. I stood in the back of the Express looking for a path through the jumble of boulders. Above us a gaggle of families snapping pictures watched intently, trying to catch that special moment when we run the dinghy aground on rocks. They were disappointed. The current from the old harbor pushed against the inflatable hull, and we pumped up the jam. “Faster Dad!” Eleanor yelled as I goosed the throttle and we slid into the quiet confines of the old harbor.

There was a floating dock near the harbor entrance, small and nearly derelict it was long forgotten by the harbormaster. It was secured to a 15-foot wall of stone with a lumber ladder bolted to the granite embattlement. At low tide, the bottom several feet of the ladder was sharp with barnacles and slick with sea slime. The bolts holding the ladder close to the face were thumb thick but flaking with rust. Between the narrow rock strewn entrance, steady current, tired floating dock and the ladder of death; this landing was the most difficult and dangerous we have seen yet. It was also the primary dinghy landing that was accessible to us.

As I putted The Jack Burton Pork-Chop Express around the sharp walled corner, a series of powerboats and a small sailboat were tied to a maintained floating pier. I spied a water hose stretching down the gangplank and a picnic park style trash basket at the top of the landing. Score! We were less 90 gallons of water and had a week worth of garbage to dispose of.

We made a sharp turn and headed out of the old harbor lined with small houses and shops perched precariously on the edge of the rock wall towards Caprica. Back at the boat, it was all aboard with a full trash bag and three 5 gallon water jugs. We meandered back into the old harbor, tied up against the public pier and scaled the ladder. Eleanor climbed carefully, swiftly to the top where she expertly dismounted then said “I want to run!” seeing a tapered parking lot that resembled the top of a medieval castle flanked by a defensible parapet and mote.

Eleanor did continual laps, pumping her long legs across the 30 yards of gravel to a kayak rack and back while I spoke with a slip holder on the maintained floating dock about hunting/ gathering.

We walked the narrow streets and acclimatized to the cacophony of sounds, smells and sights after almost a week on Caprica in isolation in the Gulf and Isle of Shoals. Everything was new again, clearly when Eleanor casually ran her hand across the back of a woman’s flowing dress. The woman’s face hidden beneath a floppy hat and oversized sunglasses spun towards me. I watched her mouth twist into a scowl as I took Eleanor’s hand, then relax when she realized that it was the tactile need of a 3-year-old to touch her dress.

The streets were more like paved paths between tiny cottages and dozens of shallow shops that sat on the old pier, back to the main harbor. We ducked in and out of tourist traps, deciding that each shop sold the same assortment of items that came from the same night delivery truck. There were 3 ice cream shops and on that day, 1 truck delivered to each thus taking our theory to fact.

In a small “Genuine Native American” shop that sold trinkets and beads; I spoke with the long-haired dream catcher wearing attendant. He looked up from his crafting and showed off a rack of clothing circa 1950’s western TV shows then a few Alpaca wool hoodies. “Why did I come in here I asked myself?”

Several years ago, I was invited to a Sun Dance ceremony by a framily member. It was an experience that shaped my view on the world, people, and the human spirit. The truck traveled down a rutted dirt road around a series of hills on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation until we descended into a shallow valley where a few campers and a couple dozen tents lay on the outskirts of the ceremonial grounds. In the center of a stomped circle where the swaying prairie grasses were trampled by a squad of men and boys performing a ritual dance, a tall tree stood laced with yellow polypropylene rope. After a few revolutions around the sacred tree, a dancer was chosen by a tribal leader. A finger-thick dowel was inserted into the skin behind both shoulder blades and tied to the polypropylene rope. The rest of the dancers then pulled the man kicking and screaming off of the ground until the skin-popped. The sound is like a quick succession of deep clapping. There is a scream as the man, or sometimes a boy falls to the ground. By the end of the week of record heat, the prairie grasses stood bleached white from the sun, and the dancers wore rows of wounds over their shoulders and down their backs. At the end of the week, I participated with some of the dancers in two traditional ceremonies including a sweat lodge, something that pushed me to the edge of my endurance.

“Anything in here you like?” The shopkeeper asked. I smiled and said 
“Thank you for your time,” and walked out to the bustling street where I was surrounded by tourists dressed for a night out on the town or others sporting that latest in pastel fashions.

Further down the pier, we discovered the Ray Moore Lobster Co., a seafood market where I found the most beautiful tuna steaks imaginable, swordfish steaks that rivaled anything seen in the highest end restaurants and a tank overflowing with fat lobsters intently watching the cooker. For our two nights in Rockport, we feasted on tuna, swordfish, and lobster.

At night, the southerly breeze blew, and we were protected in the deep Sandy Bay anchorage. The smells of shore side restaurants drifted to us filled with the lure of fried goodness or a complex blends of delicate spices. The smattering of glowing and twinkling lights of the town reminded me of a Christmas tree. A few anchor lights swayed with the ocean swell and yellow, purple lightning exploded from a line of severe thunderstorms moving over the ocean. Their cloud tops, bursting with a yellow lightning in the darkening night towered over 30,000 feet. The VHF radio and radar screamed with warnings of heavy rain, damaging wind, hail and so forth. We watched the radar ready to pull anchor and head into the Atlantic to endure yet another storm.

A storm in an anchorage open to the ocean filled with boats shares its own set of hazards. We carry a large Rocna anchor and 250 feet of high test chain with a heavy plow anchor with its own significant accompaniment of rode in case things go sideways. Our anchor will reset in the wind and tidal shifts. It has held Caprica in severe situations, gales and storms when we have watched other boats drag fast across the channel to end up hard aground or worse.

Watching people anchor, how they work as a team, how they set their gear and the ground tackle aboard is a report card of sorts for their seamanship. At Sandy Bay, we saw boats charge in at full speed and rip through the anchorage, man at the helm, wife on the bow dangling the anchor over the pointy end before heading off somewhere else. We saw others drop the hook, jump in the dingy and take off without even setting their tackle. Others set tackle and drifted back towards us then tossed out 7 fenders at our side. They sat on the deck for an hour scowling at us until they decided to move. We watched a boat anchor in 10 feet of water at high tide. Unfortunately, tides here can be 10 feet. There were also several competent skippers that set their hook, stood anchor watch and had the right equipment. When the threat of heavy weather approached, we made ready to head out into the Atlantic. Fortunately, the storms passed us without incident.

Our departure morning began at 0500 after a night of little sleep. Throughout the evening, short steep waves rocked Caprica hard making uninterrupted sleep next to impossible. As the sun rose, the engine was warming up, visibility was good, and the anchorage was finally placid.

During the previous day, a powerboat entered the anchorage, dropped his hook and then with the west wind drifted above our own anchor. I stood at the bow cranking in the chain, as Alison worked the throttle moving us forward a few feet at a time. The cabin cruiser complete with windmill generator was getting close, and we were almost on top of a lobster pot. Alison spun the wheel, slipped the transmission into reverse and used the prop walk and anchor chain tensions to slide Caprica sideways. A parallel park maneuver with our 43 foot, a 20,000-pound boat with a freshening breeze to our stern. She throttled forward moving us to a quarter of a boat length to the Cabin cruiser just as I snagged a lobster pot with the anchor. Had anyone from the Cabin cruiser looked out the window, they would have seen me just a few feet away lifting a lobster pot towards the deck with our anchor. Alison reversed hard then turned the wheel over just as the lobster pot fell off the bow.


As I walked towards the cockpit, Alison was vectoring into the channel, and we noticed the audience from various cockpits starring. It felt good to leave Rockport but heading south meant a sad farewell to a valued crew member and the beginning of the journey to home port.

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