All Hands on Deck

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2023 /

Writer: Susanna Graham-Pye

A storied past and a vibrant future provide fair winds and following seas for Pleasant Bay Community Boating.

Photos courtesy of Pleasant Bay Community Boating

For thousands of years, Pleasant Bay has been many things to many people. A source of sustenance, a safe port during violent storms, a sacred meeting place, and a recreational haven. It has been the seasonal home for gilded-age wealthy, and a year round workplace for generations of fishermen. It did and does inspire painters, poets and writers. The Bay—as I see it, a book written by the late W. Sears Nickerson, is just one of those works—a history, but more so a love letter to Pleasant Bay. Looking out at its ever-changing waters Nickerson asked his readers to stand by the shores of Pleasant Bay with reverence for its “bounty and beauty.” That he understood what the bay can mean to individuals is evident in Nickerson’s title alone, in the words “as I see it,” where the emphasis is on the individual’s perspective, for there is something remarkably beautiful about Pleasant Bay. An indefinable convergence of land and sea uniquely touches all who encounter it; the bay is a place at once deeply personal, and universally moving. 

For 20 years now, Pleasant Bay Community Boating has been creating and maintaining access to the estuary for a vast array of people, young and old alike, nurturing the kinds of relationships that allow each person to truly see the bay, each in their own way. “We are committed and connected to the community, to bringing people together to preserve this treasure, our estuary and the uniqueness of it,” says Development and Communications Director Jennifer Curran. “We’re not just about boating, what we do is about love of Cape Cod, love of the water.”

Today, PBCB, as it’s fondly called, is located on a campus along the shores of Pleasant Bay in Harwich, backing up to Route 28. The organization, however, didn’t always have this brick-and-mortar home. Founded in 2004, the sailing group met for a decade on the shores of Harwich’s Jackknife Harbor where it offered sailing lessons and participated in the bay’s vibrant racing community using a fleet of Flying Scots that were donated to the group. In 2014, the club cobbled together funding to acquire the old McClennen property; a parcel including just over three acres of land and a number of quintessential Cape cottages that had been a retreat for an august Harwich family since the turn of the 20th century.

With 10 years now on the campus, and celebrating its 20th anniversary, PBCB continues to expand its program offerings, while staying true to its original mission of offering the experience of sailing on Pleasant Bay to as many people as it can. 

To that end, PBCB recently completed the installation of its ADA accessible dock, which allows people to get out on the water, no matter their physical condition that could make accessing a boat challenging. Since its acquisition of the property, this has been a major focus, Curran says. Local senior centers regularly collaborate with PBCB to create programming for older people from the community. In addition to the universally designed dock, PBCB runs classes aboard the Friend as their floating classroom. The vessel, a pontoon boat donated by the Friends of Pleasant Bay, is entirely electric, and is accessible for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues. The boat and its classes have been used by Cape Abilities as well. Schools are bringing students to the Friend too. In the shoulder seasons, more than 700 children from classrooms across the Cape will take part in programming. Additionally, PBCB is working to have every Cape child experience their first sail before they leave third grade. “The students we see are mostly from the lower Cape, but that’s changing and growing,” Curran says. “We want to reach as many children as we can. We are also focused on stewardship through our marine science classes, and by offering local schools field trips. They can go on the Friend, and learn about how it is solar powered. We’ve got a whole slew of coolness for kids.” PBCB’s broad sweep of programming offers a host of learning opportunities and chances to participate in citizen science. The Speaker Series cover topics like navigation (teaching people to chart their own courses on the bay), environmental science issues and natural history. A sampling of speakers includes an artist turning trash into art, or a biologist teaching the ecology of kelp and eelgrass and its role in the marine environment. Sailboats and kayaks are available for rent, there are Thursday night cookouts, evening family sails, and the chance to learn sailing at one’s own pace, Curran says, “A new offering this summer is Women on the Water,” explaining that the funding to create the program was donated by a local family foundation. “The family wanted women to have the chance to gain experience. This program has been designed by women, will be taught by women, and is focused on women gaining skills and experience that will allow them to be independent at the helm.”

“There’s really something for almost anyone and everyone,” Curran emphasizes. “It’s so much more than boating. I’m not sure people understand that. It’s a unique nonprofit organization with the unique idea that everyone who wants to can get out on the water.”

Curran goes on to say, the more PBCB fosters a love for boating on the bay, the more commitment will grow to protect the beauty and bounty of this rich resource. Pleasant Bay is a classic estuary system: fringed by a sprawl of whispering marsh, behind an ever-shifting rolling stretch of barrier beach, which protects the system from the Atlantic. There are rivers, saltwater ponds, and islands preserved for conservation. The area is sacred to native people, filled with archaeological testimony to how long appreciation for this area has held true. Harwich, Chatham, Brewster and Orleans share ownership and stewardship of the bay. How the shoreline was divided up is not clear, though an old tale about the boundaries of the bay say it was with a poker game where the players—one from each of the towns that own property on Pleasant Bay: Orleans, Chatham, Harwich and Brewster—were betting for frontage. Brewster lost. That the towns are united in protecting the bay—despite the amount of beach frontage each has—is a testament to the uniqueness of the area. That reality is celebrated at PBCB where the points at which the towns converge lies at the top of the hill overlooking a sprawling view of the Bay, the islands and ocean beyond. Pleasant Bay was designated by the state as an area of critical environmental concern, thanks to the foresight of representatives from all the towns and the nomination for the designation they made in the late 1980s. Its marshes are the nurseries of the ocean, the bay is the dwelling place for a fantastic array of wildlife. The bay’s watershed reaches far into each of the towns and what happens there has tremendous consequences for the whole.

PBCB offers group sailing lessons and a variety of private sailing experiences. Boat rentals are available as well. There are also homes on the property, once a part of the McClennen family bayside retreat, that are available for rent. The homes are quintessentially grand old summer cottages and offer a classic Cape vacation for those who rent there, while providing needed funding for the organization.

“The goal is to keep growing our outreach and to bring in more and more people here—this is a true nonprofit focused on education, community and sharing a love of place,” Curran says. 

All that PBCB offers, however, comes at a cost; funding is challenging. The jigsaw puzzle of pieces put together to purchase the site was an enormous undertaking. Today fees support programs, yet those fees cover only 48% of PBCB’s budget. Membership, sponsorship, fundraising and donations are critical in making up the remaining 52% of what it takes to keep the organization afloat. “It really is an incredible place,” Curran expresses. “What I see is such a desire and willingness from people who get involved here. I believe that will keep this incredible treasure going.” PBCB’s big fundraiser, Sailabration Gala, will be held at Wequassett Resort & Golf Club on June 28th.  

Susanna Graham-Pye is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.