Harbor LIFE: Chatham Harbor
Ever changing to remain the same
This is the second installment of a new series exploring the vibrant harbors across Cape Cod and the Islands.
By the entrance to the Chatham Fish Pier stands a statue about 10 feet tall called “The Provider.” At the top is a hand that’s pulling up a net filled with fish and shellfish. At the base is a plaque that includes a dedication to “the Chatham fishing industry—ever changing to remain the same.”
Michael Ryder understands that change well. After a couple of years based in Chatham with the Coast Guard, he fished out of Chatham Harbor for 20 years. His uncle fished there for over 40 years and his grandfather for 57 years. For the past seven years, he’s worked for the Chatham Harbormaster Department, most recently as wharfinger (or keeper of the wharf).
“The boats have gotten bigger and the technology for fishing has gotten better,” he says. “The fisheries are more highly regulated than they used to be. The fishermen have also gotten older. You don’t see a lot of young people in the business compared to when I started. The species have changed. Back then it was codfish and haddock. Now it’s just about anything but.”
The main catches during the summer are dogfish and skates; during the spring and fall it’s monkfish and later in the fall it’s mackerel. Lobster and scallop boats also offload at the pier. Chatham is the Cape’s top fishing port, so there’s a lot of action.
What makes this appealing to visitors is the observation deck above the offloading area. “The Chatham Fish Pier is one of the few places you can actually observe fishermen as they unload their catch, and the deck provides the best vantage point for this,” says Ryder.
Adding to the entertainment factor are the seals that follow the boats in. “When the boats are unloading, there are always seals swimming around the boat, picking up scraps, so visitors can see seals up close,” Ryder says. The fishermen may not see the seal population as a benefit, however, since gray seals eat 35 pounds or more per day, and some of that is seafood fishermen would prefer to see in their nets.
With 85 fishing boats operating from the pier and 3,000 visitors on a summer day, it’s a busy place. “It’s an unchoreographed ballet, to make sure that the fishermen can come in, unload their catch and go home, but making sure at the same time that the visitors can come down, see the fish, see the seals without anyone getting hurt, and at the end of the day, we can just shut the lights off,” says Ryder.
During the summer months, the observation deck fills to its capacity of 100. If you have questions about the fishing industry, it’s best not to interrupt the hardworking fishing crew. Instead, you can talk to a volunteer from the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance Pier Host program. From late June through Columbus Day, seasoned fishermen are on the observation deck from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays through Mondays to talk about their work and the industry.
The fish pier is also home to Beachcomber Tours, which offers seal-watching trips and water shuttles to the outer beaches, and Abdow’s Magic Charters, which gives you a chance to reel in your own striped bass, blue fish or tuna. If all of this gets you hungry for a taste of the sea, walk next door to the Chatham Pier Fish Market (45 Barcliff Avenue Extension) for truly fresh fish or cooked seafood to go.
When you leave the pier, head south on Shore Road and you’ll see some of the Cape’s poshest real estate. Historic houses nestle elbow to elbow with modern mansions, all enjoying a spectacular view of Nauset Beach, a long peninsula that provides a buffer between Nauset Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
Kick back and enjoy a cocktail at the Chatham Bars Inn (297 Shore Road), built in 1914 as an elegant hunting lodge and transformed in recent years by a $100 million renovation. Cross your fingers that you’ll find an open seat among the white Adirondack chairs lined up near the gazebo bar and overlooking the harbor from high above.
About 1.2 miles south of the fish pier, you’ll arrive at a small parking lot overlooking Chatham Lighthouse Beach. Strong currents and sifting shoals make it treacherous to swim here, but the small dunes, patches of beach grass, and harbor and ocean view make it the vision of a Cape Cod beach. Make sure you have a quarter or two to use the telescopes for an up-close look at the harbor.
Across Shore Road from the beach is the U.S. Coast Guard Station Chatham. One of the Coast Guard’s most daring rescues took place in the waters off Chatham, after the SS Pendleton broke in two during a winter storm in 1952. The dramatic story was depicted in the 2016 movie “The Finest Hours.” Another rescue is memorialized by the Mack Monument, a tall obelisk that pays tribute to six members of the Monomoy Life Saving Station who drowned attempting to rescue survivors of a grounded coal barge in 1902. Behind the obelisk is a small seamen’s cemetery, surrounded by a 5-foot tall rectangle of hedges. It’s another reminder of the fickleness of the weather and the power of the ocean.
Also on-site, the Chatham Lighthouse is open for tours from 1-3:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of May, June, September and October and every Wednesday during July and August. The lighthouse that stands today was built in 1877, replacing earlier wood and brick lighthouses that fell to storms, and it continues to be an active aide to navigation.
You can’t visit Chatham without strolling one of the Cape’s best Main Streets. It’s a charming mix of boutiques and restaurants, along with a hardware store and a library designed by a student of H.H. Richardson, one of America’s greatest 19th-century architects. One local describes it as “Nantucket on the mainland.” On your way out of town, take a turn south and visit the Atwood House (347 Stage Harbor Road), home to the Chatham Historical Society.
Freelance writer Bill O’Neill is a Cape Cod native who lives in Yarmouth Port.
297 Shore Road, 800-527-4884. Chatham Bars Inn invites you to enjoy our exquisite Summer Guest Chef Series, where 11 renowned American chefs will create special menus and incorporate them into our Cape Cod culture, using fresh produce from our farm and seafood from the bay. Special events on the farm also available.
40 Kent Place, 800-547-4467. Stylish handcrafted quarterboards and house number signs in a variety of motifs feature durable marine enamels and 23-karat gold leaf. These unique home accents are truly delightful. Call for a free brochure. We ship worldwide. These are wonderful gifts for all occasions.
1603 Main Street, 774-840-4144. Mom is a California girl, Pops is a New Englander. Award-winning burgers, hand-cut fries and much more using only the highest quality, freshest ingredients. Every order is cooked to order. Enjoy a world-class craft beer selection in our outdoor biergarten. Open year-round.
423 Main Street, 508 945-3239. Artists Tom and Carol Odell established their home, studios and gallery on Chatham’s Main Street in 1975. Bright, attractive galleries in an 1860 Greek Revival building offer exhibits of original jewelry, bronze vessels and sculpture by Tom Odell and creative paintings and monotypes by Carol Odell. Parking is available.
432 Main Street, 508-945-0499. Meet your favorite authors over a gourmet lunch! Where the Sidewalk Ends Bookstore hosts bestselling authors at the five-star Wequassett Resort. Visit our post-and-beam bookstore and children’s annex for books, educational toys and unique gifts. A breezy, covered deck, parking, and seating make this bookstore a favorite for all ages!
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