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Destination Marblehead, Mass.

The cruising destination for the "discerning visitor"

The cruising destination for the "discerning visitor"


For more than a century, Marblehead Light has marked the point of entry for mariners, fishermen and cruisers coming to this historic community by water. Incorporated in 1629 and founded by settlers from England’s Jersey and Guernsey islands, many claim the narrow streets and rocky landscape of

Marblehead remind them of the region around Cornwall, England.

This town of 25,000 is a mere 4-square-mile peninsula that juts into the North Atlantic. It was once very isolated, and the independent streak of its citizens meant that a true ’Header was someone whose family had been living in town for six generations. Surrounded as it is by the sea, a visitor can truly appreciate what is unique about the town by making landfall here.

“When you walk around Marblehead, you follow the same streets and pass the same houses that Gen. Lafayette and George Washington did. You can hear the same church bell from St. Michael’s Church built in 1714 that our ancestors did,” says town historian and Marblehead native Bette Hunt, who organizes private walking tours through the Chamber of Commerce.

“The Chamber will hate me for saying this, but I love Marblehead’s lack of tourism,” says Hunt. “We don’t have witch museums and pirate haunts like they do in nearby Salem. This town is for the discerning visitor as far as I am concerned. You come here to hang out.”

As the 20th century dawned, Marblehead’s appeal as a seaside resort began attracting summer visitors and yachting enthusiasts, who held the first Marblehead Race Week 118 years ago this year. The increasing affluence of the yachting community, enhanced by the grand yacht clubs, cemented its transition from a fishing port to a center for boatbuilding and design, sailmaking and the trades around the sport of sailing and cruising.

Many boaters remember the great yacht designer and builder Nathanael G. Herreshoff — the wizard of Bristol, R.I. — but his son, L. Francis Herreshoff, who designed the famed 60-foot ketch Ticonderoga, chose to live in Marblehead. L. Francis lived and worked just off Front Street in the stone castle that abuts CrockerPark which is now a bed and breakfast. Starling Burgess, another Marblehead resident, was the consummate yachtsman and a brilliant engineer. In 1904 he organized the W. Starling Burgess Company and built a string of successful yachts, culminating in the J Class sailboats Enterprise, built in 1930 by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. in Bristol; Rainbow built in 1934 by Herreshoff Manufacturing; and Ranger, built in Bath, Maine, in 1937. These men left a legacy that later inspired Marblehead yacht designers and industry leaders, like 1974 America’s Cup winner and sailmaker Ted Hood, designers Jim Taylor and Dieter Empacher, and sailmakers Robbie Doyle and Bruce Dyson, to mention but a few.

Marblehead is a fantastic destination for cruisers and is increasingly the choice for those chartering for a day or weekend on Massachusetts Bay. The area around Salem Sound is well-marked and well-traveled. On a typical summer day, you might see the historic pinky schooner Maine from Gloucester, Mass., owned by shipbuilder Harold Burnham of Essex, Mass., or the schooner/privateer Fame of Salem, built by Burnham and owned by Michael Rutstein — both full of charter passengers.

Marblehead is a half-day or so from Boston, Cape Cod or Cape Ann, and visiting sailors should note that the harbor sometimes breezes up — some call it a “harbor hurricane” — where the warm air from land blows across the harbor entrance, making for some spectacular gusts there. There is a well-marked channel along the western shore from the entrance off FortSewall to the town landing. But keep in mind that you may encounter the local commercial fishing fleet.

“There is still a vital lobstering and fishing community here in Marblehead, as I hear the boats leave the town dock every morning,” says Madeleine Anderson, who lives above the Marblehead Trading Company. “Fishermen here have two licenses so they can fish and lobster, and will keep working year round. But on weekends in town, it is all about sailing and boating. The smaller sailboats get launched right off the dock, and the bigger boats head out for weekend sailboat racing. There is always racing on Saturdays and Sundays, and Wednesday nights.”

Marblehead is home to five yacht clubs — including the Corinthian, Eastern, Boston, Marblehead and Dolphin clubs — and the harbor holds 1,800 moorings. Moorings are available through these clubs and are acquired on a first-come, first-served basis (more on obtaining one later). The town owns a handful of moorings at the mouth of the harbor, but cruisers prefer the more sheltered areas closer to town.

The harbor is wide open to the northeast, which prompts most boaters to haul out by mid-October, but summers are very tranquil here. There is a town dock adjacent to the harbormaster’s office with enough room for a 180-foot expedition yacht and tie-ups available for as long as a week. Additionally, there is a fuel dock just off the Landing Restaurant, adjacent to the town landing along Front Street.

Marblehead is ideal for cruising boaters, as the basics are all here — marine facilities such as Doyle Sailmakers, Lynn Marine Supply, Marblehead Boatworks, Wells Yachts and the Marblehead Trading Company, as well as Crosby’s Supermarket and the creative shops and art galleries on Washington Street. So when you’re in town, take care of the supplies you need, then put on a pair of sneakers and roam the beloved “downtown.”

“Marblehead has wonderful gardens and, like the Swiss, they don’t have much to plant on, so they plant everywhere,” says town historian Hunt. “Additionally, the shops and galleries on Washington Street have fantastic window displays.”

There is a great Marblehead tradition — particularly at night — where people walk through the historic district to look at the beautiful interiors of the antique homes, viewed through the windows, of course. But, as Hunt firmly stresses: Marbleheaders don’t gape.

“There is an etiquette involved here,” she says. “We don’t stand and peer into windows, but we all glance at the fine Colonial paneling, floorboards and fireplaces as we walk by.”

A visit to Marblehead includes at least one must-see: the Spirit of ’76 painting in the Selectmen’s Room of Abbot Hall on Washington Street. Painted in 1875 by Archibald M. Willard of Ohio, it was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where it “stirred the heart of the nation.” It was sent on a tour of major cities and was purchased in 1880 by Gen. John H. Devereux of Marblehead, who made his presentation of the painting to his native town “whose history is so interwoven with Colonial and Revolutionary times and whose patriotism shone forth in every epoch.”

The painting depicts three brave men with a fife, drum and flag marching through a bloody battle scene. The model for the young drummer was a schoolboy, Henry K. Devereux, son of Gen. Devereux, who together with Willard hung this painting in Marblehead in 1880.

At Abbot Hall, there also is a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware, which is a point of pride in town. It was during the War of Independence that the men of Marblehead helped navigate Gen. Washington across the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. Further, Capt. Nicholas Broughton commanded the first naval vessel, the schooner Hannah, in 1775, under the leadership of Gen. John Glover. Although Marblehead’s claim to be the birthplace of the U.S. Navy is sometimes debated by other historic communities, when the USS Constitution made her historic return to Marblehead in 1997 the Secretary of the Navy quietly acknowledged the town’s claim as the Navy’s birthplace.

With all the historic preservation, this community has always attracted writers, artists and musicians. The high point of summer is the Marblehead Festival of Arts over the Fourth of July weekend. For more than 30 years, Marblehead has celebrated its artists during this four-day festival featuring live music at CrockerPark and painting, photography, sculpture and writing exhibits at various historic halls and churches. The arts festival wouldn’t be complete without a delicious lobster roll at St. Michael’s Church on Pleasant Street and the champagne reception at FortSewall.

The greatest spectacle is the harbor illumination and fireworks on July Fourth. Marblehead’s harbor illumination is unique, as flares are stationed around the circumference of the harbor about a foot apart. The effect is a fiery glow that dims just in time for the fireworks. Of course, the best way to view the harbor illumination is by boat.

A visit to Marblehead must include food and beverage. This town has a great variety of restaurants and — as townspeople might add — “too many bars,” the most famous being Maddies, also called the Sail Loft, on Front Street. Maddie’s is best known for its strong drinks and great chowder, lobster casserole, fried seafood and cornbread, as well as being a gathering place for friends. For early birds, nothing beats the Driftwood Restaurant on Front Street for breakfast and a great glimpse of the local scene. There are two good waterfront eateries: the Landing Restaurant and the Barnacle Restaurant. A little farther afield, try The Three Cods on Pleasant Street or Flynnies-on-the-Avenue on Atlantic Avenue.

Landside accommodations in Marblehead are mostly hidden gems, with more than 16 bed-and-breakfasts scattered throughout town, including the HerreshoffCastle. Check with the Chamber of Commerce for listings, which keeps an information booth all summer on the corner of Pleasant Street near the YMCA. For a real treat, try the Harbor Light Inn on Washington Street just down the road from the Old Town House and the OldNorthChurch.

If you’re staying on board, contact the dockmasters at the three main yacht clubs — Corinthian, Eastern and Boston — for available moorings. The clubs will make use of unoccupied member moorings but don’t accept reservations. The harbormaster can be contacted at (781) 631-1768 or VHF channel 16. As the moorings are first-come, first-served, it is best to radio ahead.

The Boston and Dolphin yacht clubs monitor channel 68, the Marblehead channel 71, and the Eastern and Corinthian channel 9. Moreover, if there is an approaching storm, the clubs won’t host guests and will suggest going to a more sheltered harbor, such as nearby Manchester or Beverly.

“It is very unique to be from Marblehead and live on this harbor,” says resident Anderson. “People love to visit and many stay here. The harbor is gorgeous, and there is always something going on. My children grew up on this waterfront and have done everything from working on the fuel dock to driving the yacht club launches. They learned to sail, run boats, swim and work right here on the waterfront. I believe they will always remain connected to this town.”