Rockport Cruising Guide


Excerpt from Embassy Guides RI, MA, and NH. Also, see an article published in Offshore Magazine (PDF)

(Note: This guide was written several years ago, and some of the information is outdated.)

Rock Solid

When you think of Rockport, think of rocks, lobsters, and trees - for they are the foundation from which the town's history and character have grown and molted. The first settlers harvested timber for the region's voracious shipbuilding industry, but when all the prime cuts were consumed, their attention turned to the sea. The well-stocked fishing grounds nearby brought lots of boats, and in 1743, a timber wharf was crafted to shield the vessels from the ravages of the ocean.

Around 1800, residents began to harvest the area's most obvious and abundant natural resource - rock - and the wood pier was subsequently replaced with stone barricades. It took 20 years to work out all the marketing quirks, but granite soon became the cornerstone of the town's economy. For more than a century, quarriers pitted the north of the cape, shipping blocks of bedrock all over the Atlantic Coast. Cape Ann's stone was hewn into wharves, buildings, and streets for many of the eastern seaboard's thriving cities and towns. In the 1920s, however, cement became the construction material of choice and the rock market crashed. Luckily, Rockport was already evolving from its stone age.

Artists had been gravitating to the area since the mid-1800s, drawn by the colorful seaside scapes - both natural and fisherman-made. Like lobsters to a fish head, the tourists soon followed, lured by all the aforementioned and the artists' interpretations thereof. Over the years, the "starving artists" clawed ahead of the seafood-harvesting folks, and galleries and shops now fill the stone wharves' fishing shacks.

Today, Rockport is a funky combination: part artists colony, part fishing port, and part shopping haven - all of it fodder for the tourists.

But look deeper, and you'll find friendly, hardworking people who've somehow managed to preserve both the town's aesthetics and integrity while eking out a living by the sea.

Many visitors come to breathe in this colorful seaside village, vicariously enjoying the "simple life" of the remaining fisher-/lobstermen. Others are just happy to get a snapshot before spending a day in the shops.

Motif No. 1

"Motif No.1" has drawn more than its share of attention.
© Embassy Guides

What To See & Do

Whether you're toting your camera or carrying a canvas, your first stop should be the town pier (T Wharf) in the center of the harbor. This is the spot to survey the cornucopia of brightly painted lobster and other boats and enjoy a fine perspective of "Motif Number 1". Artist/tutor Lester G. Hornby ordained this red, lobster buoy-draped building as the perfect first subject for his striving students. The famed fishing shack apparently exhibited an optimum balance of weathered color and form until a 1978 blizzard tried to enhance its look a bit too much, forcing the town to completely rebuild the landmark. (Not to worry, with the way nor'easters roll in around here, it shouldn't be long before it regains its form.)

When in Rockport, it's hard not to do as Rockport visitors do - shop. Bearskin Neck is the heart of the gallery district, with myriad shops stretching out along Main and Beach Streets. Since half the fun is finding the good ones, we'll let you do your own exploring.

If you'd like to try your hand at snatching traps, Captain Fred Nelson 978-546-9876 will be happy to haul you aboard Dove for a lobstering trip through Thachers or Sandy Bays.

The best and closest sand is found just north of Bearskin Neck on Front Beach. The rockier Back Beach, further to the north, has band concerts in the adjacent gazebo on Sunday evenings during the summer. For a complete billing of activities and attractions, stop into the Rockport Chamber of Commerce at 978-546-6575 at 3 Main Street.

If you grow weary in your travels, hop aboard a Cape Ann Trolley 978-283-7916 for service throughout the area.

Harbor Chart

Restaurants & Provisions

There's one name you should know before you order a highball at any local restaurant - Hannah Jumper. On July 8, 1856, Miss Jumper and her band of not-so-merry women jumped the town's too oft' visited grog shops. Hatchets in hand, they smashed every last keg and bottle. To this day, Rockport remains a dry town, so it's a good idea to check about a restaurant's BYOB policy. (Note: In 2005 Rockport voters approved the sale of alcoholic beverages in local restaurants).

On Bearskin Neck, head to Hannah's namesake restaurant, along the Harbor Deck 978-546-3600, for sandwiches, salads, seafood, chowder, and one of the best vistas out of the harbor. If you're looking for a more creative/romantic choice, try My Place By The Sea at 978-546-9667 at the end of the neck.

At the central T Wharf, Ellen's Harborside Restaurant 978-546-2797 offers hickory smoked pit barbecue and fresh seafood selections. This is good ol'-fashioned-cookin' with prices to match. You'll find many other notable eateries in town - just follow your nose and be sure to check the daily specials boards.

Head up to the Whistlestop Mall on Railroad Avenue for groceries at the IGA, or basic boating needs at Smith's Hardware next door. The town's merchants don't want anyone caught short of cash so you'll have no trouble finding a bank.

Navigation & Anchorages

Use MAPTECH electronic charts or NOAA paper charts 13279 (1:20,000), 13274 (1:40,000), and 13278 (1:80,000). Use tide tables for Portland, Maine. High tide at Rockport is 4 minutes later, low tide is 2 minutes later. Use Portland, Maine predictions for height at high or low water. Mean tidal range is 8.6 feet.

Rockport Harbor is protected by two breakwaters: one extending east from Bearskin Neck, the other jutting north from the Headlands. Even with this protection, the harbor is exposed to strong easterly and northeasterly winds. Rockport is 11.5nm by boat northeast of Gloucester Harbor, 19.1nm south of Gosport Harbor (Isles of Shoals), and 7.7nm east of the entrance to Essex Bay.

Approaching from Portland, the Isles of Shoals, and the north, it's a straight shot to flashing green gong "1 AHP" north of Halibut Point. Then head for flashing green gong "3" [WP-270] at the northwest end of the submerged breakwater. In the late 1800's, Congress authorized the construction of a 9,000-foot breakwater to enlarge and protect Rockport's harbor. Six thousand feet of base and part of the superstructure were laid before the money stopped, creating a million-dollar navigational hazard. Be sure to leave it to port.

From gong "3", head south-southeast to red nun "4" at the harbor entrance, being sure to stay east of Harbor Rock (covered 2 feet at mlw).The flashing red 4sec "6", topped with red dayboards, marks the breakwater at the entrance.

If you happen to be coming from England or the east, avoid Flat Ground (.5nm long covered by 3 to 15 feet water) and Little and Dry salvages (awash and bare). The safest route is to pass well north of both green bell "1", at Flat Ground and flashing green gong "3", [WP-9815] marking the submerged breakwater.

Coming from Gloucester and the southwest, head northeast from flashing red 4sec whistle "2", south of Eastern Point, to just east of Thacher Island (marked by 166 feet flashing red 5sec horn). In good weather, it's impossible to miss the imposing pair of 124-foot gray granite towers.

Caution: Be sure to avoid Londoner Shoal (1-foot mlw) to the east-southeast. It's marked with only a black cylindrical cage on a spindle - no light.

Swing north-northwest after clearing Thacher Island and Londoner Shoal, and head for flashing red 4sec bell "2" at Avery Ledge. Give Straitsmouth Island (low and grassy), marked by a 46-foot flashing green 4sec horn, a wide berth. At bell "2" bear west-southwest for the harbor entrance. Pass green can "3" marking a 9-foot rock, on either side, and mark flashing red 4sec "6", topped with dayboards, at the harbor entrance. There are many enticing coves and beaches along your trip from Gloucester. They make for great exploring in optimum weather and sea conditions - otherwise, stay offshore.

Rockport Harbor is compact, filled with boats and, appropriately, shaped like a lobster. The opening between the breakwaters (the tail) is approximately 50 yards wide with depths from 10 to 14 feet mlw. The inner harbor splits at the town wharf into the north basin (right claw: commercial boats) and the south basin (left claw: mostly small sailboats).

For years, Rockport has been bypassed by cruising boaters because it doesn't have a marina or boatyard. Well, two new Harbormasters and a more transient-friendly attitude have done a lot to improve the situation. While there aren't any official transient slips or moorings, the Harbormasters are very accommodating. If you contact them ahead of time at 978-546-9589 or VHF 9, they'll do their best to arrange space for you.

If there's no room inside, your best bet is to anchor off the beach just to the north of Bearskin Neck. It gets a little rough in high northwest winds, but like the cove just south of Sandy Bay Ledge, it offers very good holding.

Granite Cove is chock full of moored boats. You can tie your dinghy at the town dock and walk to the end of Granite Pier for a commanding view of Sandy Bay and Rockport. Pigeon Cove to the north is used solely by commercial fishermen. The LEGO-stacked, pink granite blocks aren't the remains of a giant kid's game; they're real-life fortifications - when the nor'easters come rolling through, it's WAR. If nothing else, take warning - if east or northeasterly winds are forecast, get out. Head for Gloucester.

If you have any questions or concerns, hail the Harbormasters. They're always on call, ready to help.

Shoreside & Emergency Services

  • Airport: Logan International, Boston, MA. Phone: 617-561-1919
  • Coast Guard: Gloucester, MA. Phone: 978-283-0704 or VHF 16
  • Harbormaster: Phone: 978-546-9589 or VHF 9 and 16
  • Hospital: Addison Gilbert, Gloucester 978-283-4000
  • Police, Fire, Ambulance: 911
  • Radio Telephone: Gloucester Marine Operator: VHF 25
  • Taxi
    • Atlantic Taxi Phone: 978-546-7297
    • Cape Ann Yellow Cab Phone: 978-283-9393
  • Tow Service
    • Sea Tow Newburyport, MA. Phone: 978-462-8855 or VHF 16
    • TowBoat/U.S.-Merrimack River. Phone: 800-391-4869 or VHF 16
  • Train: Rockport: MBTA Phone: 800-392-6100

For information regarding the Embassy's beautiful cruising guides, contact:

  • Maptech Inc.
    1 Riverside Drive
    Andover, MA 01810
    Phone: 888-839-5551
    Fax: 978-933-3030

Please be sure to visit the Maptech Website for information on these guides, Maptech navigation software, Chartkits, and more.