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DESTINATION - Nantucket, Mass.

New England charm and pristine beaches make tying up at this island a must when cruising the Northeast

New England charm and pristine beaches make tying up at this island a must when cruising the Northeast

When you spot the Rainbow Fleet sailing gracefully around Brant Point Lighthouse, you’ll know you’ve arrived in Nantucket — a beautiful New England island with much to offer visiting cruisers. You can still experience what it was like when

Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world, with its cobblestone streets and 18th-century buildings, as well as miles of pristine beaches and some of the best sailing and fishing on the East Coast.

Nantucket is about 30 miles south of Cape Cod, and although you can get there by plane or ferry, nothing beats approaching Brant Point in your own boat. Coming across Nantucket Sound is best done in daylight, due to the many shoals, strong tidal currents, commercial and fishing vessels, and frequent dense summer fog. The channels are well-marked.

Sailing from north of Cape Cod, Pollack Rip Channel and Butler Hole form the most direct route to Nantucket, and you will see Great Point Light on the northeastern end of the island. Coming from the west, you pass through Cross Rip Channel, between Cross Rip Shoal and Horseshoe/Halfmoon Shoals.

Keep Tuckernuck Shoal to starboard as you approach the entrance to Nantucket Harbor, marked by the red and white “NB” bell buoy, and stay within the channel markers. The channel between the east and west jetties is narrow, and you may see harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks. The end of the west jetty is partially submerged at high tide. As you enter Nantucket Harbor, Brant Point Lighthouse is to starboard, and you’ll pass the Steamship Authority commercial pier to starboard just inside the harbor. NOAA chart 13241 covers the approach through Nantucket Sound, and chart 13242 shows the detail for Nantucket Harbor.

Once inside, you’ll find gray-shingled shops and cottages lining the wharves, a quaint town center that wraps around the harbor, and a skyline graced by church steeples. Boats of all types and sizes populate the harbor, including the famous colored Rainbows (Beetle Cats), family daysailers, working fishing trawlers, classic wooden yachts that have been lovingly restored to their prior glory, and majestic cruisers and megayachts from around the world.

Local artist Eric Holch is known for his bold prints, often featuring sailboats and nautical themes. “I’m on the water virtually every day in either Blue Moon, a Dyer 29, or Owl, an Alerion,” he says. “You can do an entire daysail and never leave the protection of the harbor, although there are plenty of challenges with the tides and shoals.”

Holch says he likes to sail around the harbor between the boats to see who has come in. “If you’re into boats, which I am, it’s so much fun to see the big J [Class] boats such as Endeavor, Ranger or Shamrock, the classic wooden Opera House Cup boats like Ticonderoga, the America’s Cup boats, or other famous round-the-world boats. It’s great,” he says.

Bob Constable grew up sailing on the island and carries on an 80-year family tradition of racing in the local Nantucket Indian fleet, a class designed by John Alden specifically for sailing in Nantucket Harbor.

“Nantucket has one of the largest natural harbors in the world, and it’s one big nature preserve,” says Constable. “With its sandy bottom and wide channel that runs the length of the harbor, it makes for relaxed and forgiving sailing.”

Hundreds of local and visiting sailors participate in Nantucket Race Week in August ( Spectators can watch the smaller boats race inside the harbor, while the 12 Meters and other big boats compete outside the jetties, where steady winds and deep water provide perfect racing conditions. Local sailors say you can set your clock by the 12- to 18-knot sea breeze that comes up out of the southwest every day just after noon during summer.

Staying on the island

There are plenty of facilities for cruisers on the island. The full-service Nantucket Boat Basin — (508) 325-1350, VHF channels 9 and 11, — has 240 slips and concierge service. Dockage fees range from $5 to $6.75 a foot per night.

George Bassett has been dockmaster for 21 years and has seen a lot of changes with visitors to Nantucket. “When the Boat Basin was built in the late 1960s, a 40-foot boat was considered large,” says Bassett. “Our customers used to be the elderly statesmen yachtsmen who founded yacht clubs and saw boating as a family activity. Today’s boats are bigger, and the yachtsmen are younger and in a hurry. They want to plug into the TV and phone lines as soon as they dock, and get right into their business activities. I wish they’d relax and enjoy their stay more.”

The Boat Basin has continued to improve its concierge services to support the needs of visiting cruisers. “We charge a premium and deliver premium hospitality and services that our customers expect, including everything from the morning coffee cart, immaculate restrooms and showers, golf and tennis reservations, and even arranging for a veterinarian who will come to your boat,” says Bassett.

Nantucket Moorings — (508) 228-4472, VHF channel 68, — has 125 rental moorings for $60 to $100 per night, depending on boat size. Hail them as you round Brant Point, and they will escort you to your mooring. “We will do everything we can to make your visit enjoyable, whether you’re here for a couple of nights or a couple of weeks,” says owner Dennis Metcalf.

The town also has 60 slips and 125 rental moorings. Contact the harbormaster on VHF channels 9 and 14 or call (508) 228-7261. Anchorages are on the northeast side of the harbor, behind the mooring field near First Point.

Whether you stay at a marina, on a mooring or are anchoring, you’ll have access to two free dinghy docks at the town pier, showers and bathroom facilities, a fuel dock, the harbor launch service and free pumpouts. Nantucket waters are federally protected as a no-discharge zone because of commercial and recreational fishing, scalloping, clamming and oystering. No black water or gray water may be discharged into the harbor. If you wash your boat, use only environmentally safe, biodegradable cleaning products.

Free bilge socks are available to collect oil and fuel from your bilge, and trash must be contained in transparent plastic bags. Nantucket recycles glass, plastic, metal and paper. Trash and recycling bins are available in front of the Ship’s Chandlery and at the town pier.

While away the hours

Nantucket has miles of wide, sandy public beaches for swimming, exploring and relaxing. Those along the harbor and north shore are shallow and gentle, while the south shore ocean beaches are known for their strong surf. Most are easily accessible by dinghy, walking, bike or shuttle bus.

“[The harbor has] 360 degrees of beach, so you can pull your boat up on the shore almost anywhere and go exploring or have a picnic,” says Constable, the Nantucket Indian fleet sailor. “There are some really beautiful places, such as Coatue or Coskata Pond at the head of the harbor — a tidal inlet rich in bird life, shellfish and pristine vistas.”

Families with young children will enjoy Children’s Beach for swimming and ice cream. Or dinghy over to Jetties Beach, where there’s a concession stand and rental kayaks, sailboards and sailboats.

The harbor is right at the base of Main Street, so there is easy access to the island’s shops, galleries and restaurants. The Chamber of Commerce publishes a free visitor’s guide that not only explains how to get to Nantucket (if arriving on your own boat), but also describes things to see and do. There is dining and entertainment for everyone — nightly music, outdoor seating, world-class cuisine, fine wines and family-friendly eateries. If you’re not up for a potentially expensive night out at one of the many fine restaurants, there are plenty of options for sandwiches, ice cream or a bite on the go. Everything is within easy walking distance of the harbor.

Local newspapers, television stations and magazines also highlight what’s happening on the island, and there are several fun public events, many of which raise funds for local non-profits. Don’t miss visiting the newly rebuilt Whaling Museum or strolling up Main Street to see the “Three Bricks” and other historic homes built by former whaling captains. Many homes are adorned with window boxes and gardens that flourish in the salt air.

The local Historic District Commission enforces a strong design standard for buildings on Nantucket, and the fruit of their efforts is a beautifully maintained central historic district, with new buildings adhering to historic-compatible design criteria. Outside of town you’ll see mostly gray-shingled homes that nestle into the moors. Even the hospital is covered in gray cedar shingles.

If you want to explore beyond town, you don’t need a car. The island is only 14 miles long and about 3.5 miles wide, and about half of it has been preserved as open space, so hundreds of acres of beaches, moors, wetlands and grasslands can be appreciated by the public. There are bike paths (and bike rentals), or you can take a taxi or private tour van (available on Straight Wharf), rent a moped or use the shuttle bus service that runs throughout the island from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

One excursion that is sure to please is an over-sand-vehicle tour through the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is only reachable by boat or four-wheel-drive vehicles with a special permit. A nature guide leads tours through the salt marsh and dunes, discussing the geology, ecology and history of the refuge. The refuge is a haven for birds and home to the endangered piping plover, as well as hundreds of nesting gulls. You also get to climb the Great Point Lighthouse.

Fishing is another great island activity. Nantucket is well known for striped bass and bluefish, and you can fish from Great Point, the south shore beaches or charter one of many several boats from local skippers. In addition, tackle shops offer plenty of gear and information on what’s biting.

If you want to spend a night on dry land, the folks at visitor’s services will help you find lodging. Nantucket has no large hotel chains, but it does have many intimate bed-and-breakfast establishments, as well as some very nice small to midsize hotels.

The island is a busy place in the summer, so harbor reservations are strongly recommended. However, even in August there are usually some slips and moorings available for those making last-minute travel plans. Keep in mind that September and October can be a great time to visit; the crowds are gone, prices go down, the water is still warm, and the weather tends to be clear and sunny with light breezes.

Diana L. Brown, 49, is development director for Nantucket Community Sailing and has lived on Nantucket full time for three years. She fishes for blues and stripers on the western end of the island in her Maritime Skiff and is determined to spend more time sailing this summer, too.