Maritime Log #36 Harbor Has Always Been Full of Boats


By Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

Boating season is coming, and each year it appears there are more vessels in the harbor and on the Merrimack River.

Here is an early 20th century photo of the harbor with many small craft.

Harbormaster Paul Hogg says that about 1,500 boats register in Newburyport each spring. About 500 are registered in Amesbury and Salisbury, and hundreds more are launched each weekend from Cashman Park. The harbor in season has always been a busy spot.

One of the great challenges of the harbor entrance has been that it is shallow, and difficult to navigate.

City officials currently are looking into how they can obtain funds to dredge the harbor, which has a draft of about 16 feet.

Many harbor-watchers remember that the tall ship El Galeon tacked for several hours outside the harbor entrance a few years ago, waiting for a high tide before it proceeded into the port here. The captain did not want to run aground.

The river mouth has always been shallow. Historians say Newburyport lost its edge in boat-building in the late 19th century because the vessels became too large and heavy to navigate the entrance.

A new vessel might be able to leave Newburyport, but it could not return fully loaded. It drew too much water. For the same reason, ship builders did not build many iron vessels once the Age of Steam arrived.

The ships were too heavy to navigate the Merrimack.

Still, the ships of sail were things of beauty years ago.

E. Vale Smith, a historian who wrote a fine history of Newburyport in 1854, remembered a day in about 1820 after an easterly breeze had kept ships from leaving the harbor for almost a week.

When the wind was right, dozens of vessels raised their sails and went to sea.

“Those ships with their white sails heading out in a long line was a thing of beauty,” she wrote.

Note: The river has been dredged numerous times in the past. And the reason that the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the jetties in recent years was “to improve navigation.”

But the river has always had sand bars, and each year mariners have difficulty getting in and out of the entrance. The river current is strong; the incoming tide can be formidable.

Time will tell whether dredging actually happens again – and if it is effective.

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