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Exploring the peconic estuary

One of the great joys of cruising is to explore a sparkling body of water embellished with safe harbors, secluded gunkholes and interesting port towns. Cruising boaters who haven’t been there — or if they have, sampled only a few of its offerings — should consider heading through Long Island Sound toward Orient Point, hook a right at Plum Gut (preferably at slack water) and enter the world of the Peconic Estuary.

One of the great joys of cruising is to explore a sparkling body of water embellished with safe harbors, secluded gunkholes and interesting port towns. Cruising boaters who haven’t been there — or if they have, sampled only a few of its offerings — should consider heading through Long Island Sound toward Orient Point, hook a right at Plum Gut (preferably at slack water) and enter the world of the Peconic Estuary.

Four beautiful bays — Gardiners, Noyac, Little Peconic and Great Peconic — link to create the special ambience of the estuary. Peaceful coves and creeks that haven’t changed much since Colonial times are a short hop from such popular destinations as Greenport, Sag Harbor and Riverhead.

One can spend a weekend or a week in the bays and not see all they have to offer. Family cruisers enjoy the comfort of being enclosed by the north and south forks that give the east end of Long Island its unique character. The bays are not deep and a strong wind can kick up a short chop, but there are numerous harbors to duck into if the weather turns foul. On weekdays, it seems you have the bays almost to yourself.

The estuary is well-marked and if you pay attention, with the help of NOAA chart 12358, even boaters new to the waters should be safe. Several companies that make marine software have good programs for electronic navigation.

We’ll take a tour of the estuary and some of its attractions, from waterfront restaurants to quiet anchorages in which to contemplate the sunset.

Cruising east to west

Locals know to be careful going through Plum Gut, especially if a strong wind is running against the tidal current, which can reach 4.5 knots. Flood tide sets northwestward and ebbs southeastward.

Through Plum Gut lies Gardiners Bay, which takes its name from the big private island on its eastern side (another spot where legend has it the pirate Captain Kidd buried some of his ill-gotten treasure). Gardiners is more open than the other bays, but provides access to several attractive harbors.

If you need gas or diesel and an informal meal, Orient-By-The-Sea Marina and Restaurant, (631) 323-2424, just west of the Orient-New London Ferry slips accommodates boats up to 50 feet. Arrange a slip and walk to Orient Beach State Park nearby where you can swim from the beach. Farther along the inside of the north fork is Orient Harbor, which is wide open to the southwest. Be on the lookout for fish weirs close to the beaches. Orient Point Yacht Club at the far northeast corner of Orient Bay offers reciprocal privileges.

Or skip Orient Harbor and head across Gardiners Bay about six miles to lovely Coecles Harbor on Shelter Island. The narrow entrance between spits of beach looks off-putting, but boats drawing 5 feet regularly use it. Stand off until you find the outer buoy, Fl G “1,” then line up green C “3” and the entrance. Once inside, you’ll discover a large, unspoiled harbor surrounded by woods and a sprinkling of fine homes. A “special anchorage” is located immediately inside, south of the channel, where you can drop the hook for up to 48 hours. Be sure to avoid the point and rocks farther ahead to the left marked by green C “7”; otherwise the harbor is friendly.

The Ram’s Head Inn on the western end of Ram Island, known for its large restaurant with outdoor dining, maintains a dinghy float for visitors up against a narrow causeway. Coecles Harbor Marina, (631) 749-0700 and Ch. 9, on the far west shore offers extensive services and just added electric cars you can rent to explore the island.

On to Greenport

West from Orient Point (when cruising west in the bays keep red markers to starboard) with Shelter Island on your port, you’ll quickly come to Greenport, one of the major harbors in the entire estuary. An abundance of welcoming services is inside Stirling Harbor to the right around the breakwater. Brewer Yacht Yard and Marina, (631) 477-0828 or VHF 09 and 10, maintains two large operations that supply everything from fuel to a pool to a picnic area to an excellent restaurant alongside the fuel dock halfway down the harbor on the right. They’ll also take you to Greenport Village nearby.

If you bypass Stirling Harbor, a little farther west are the docks of various Claudio’s food emporiums and Greenport’s recently completed transient dock basin, (631) 477-2200 or VHF 09. It doesn’t offer fuel, but you can stay overnight for $3/foot or $1/foot day rate and walk to a great mix of shops and restaurants, including the sophisticated Fifth Season on Front Street, and a charming maritime museum next to the North Ferry to Shelter Island. There’s even a carousel nearby if you’re cruising with kids, a dog run, a swimming beach and pump out station. (The entire estuary is a no-discharge zone.)

On your way out of Greenport, as you motor across to Dering Harbor on Shelter Island, stay in the middle of the entrance. It’s a lot quieter than Greenport. At its southern end, Picozzi’s Dering Harbor Marina, (631) 749-0045, furnishes slips and moorings, and rental bikes to pedal around this beautiful island. They’ll also take you to a beach. In “downtown” Shelter Island nearby you can walk to The Dory and the Chequit Inn. The Shelter Island Yacht Club on the west side of Dering Harbor reciprocates with other clubs.

Continuing on from Greenport and Dering Harbor the channel runs generally southwest to Jennings Point, the western end of Shelter Island. Along the way you’ll see Crescent Beach on the left and probably some cruisers who dinghy or swim ashore to enjoy the long strand and the hip Sunset Grill. If you need marina services, almost straight ahead on the right and only two-thirds of a mile away from Jennings Point is Port of Egypt Marina, (631) 765-2445, a big facility with fuel, mechanics, a pool and playground, even a motel if you need a night off the water. There are three restaurants to choose from inside its entrance channel, which is well marked by several sets of private buoys.

If you turn south around Fl G “11” and Jennings Point you’re into Southold Bay. Most waters of the bay are far to starboard where Tom Creek and Jockey Creek are used by local boat owners. You can find shelter, but no facilities. Entering the common entrance to the creeks, watch out for wooden jetties to port.

Harbor hideaway

When you come out of Southold Bay, heading generally south, watch for Fl R “12” to starboard. Joe Frohnhoefer, CEO of Sea Tow, which is headquartered nearby, says this is a problem spot for cruisers unfamiliar with the area. A long sand bar runs out to it from Paradise Point on Great Hog Neck. To port on the south shore of Shelter Island is West Neck Harbor, which affords protection from almost any direction. This makes West Neck a popular destination and on a weekend the designated mooring field along the beach at left can get crowded.

If you prefer a marina, take a right at N “4” and head into Menantic Creek to the Island Boatyard & Marina, (631) 749-3333, which has almost anything you could need, including gas and diesel, slips and a restaurant.

Few visiting boats motor to the far end of West Neck Harbor and turn right into a broad channel that winds its scenic way up about a mile past moored boats and waterfront homes until it turns left into West Neck Bay. There are no services but it’s a lovely anchorage for getting away from the crowd and taking a swim. Stay on the northern side of the little bay where a few locals moor their boats.

Cutchogue Harbor

To continue west into the estuary, when you leave West Neck Harbor turn to starboard and steer for Fl G “17” almost three miles away, which marks the north end of Jessup Neck. There are often tidal rips in the narrow gut right at the bell but they won’t last and then you’ll be in Little Peconic Bay. Anglers love the neck where the fast current and a deep hole attract striped bass and blues.

On the south shore of Great Hog Neck, the chart indicates Laughing Water Harbor, a hideaway surrounded by marshes. The entrance is buoyed and there’s up to 6 feet of water inside but last year a boat drawing only 2 feet touched the sand and gravel bottom at the entrance.

From Jessup Neck’s Fl G “17” it’s only 3-1/2 miles across Little Peconic Bay to Fl R “22” marking the southern end of a long spit coming off Nassau Point. The bar reaches quite far out, so don’t cut inside the buoy. Take the red bell on your starboard before turning north into Cutchogue Harbor, which is really a small bay encompassed by Nassau Point and New Suffolk, a village on the North Fork.

East Creek and Mud Creek at the top of the bay share a common entrance that the chart says isn’t marked. But a visit last summer found privately maintained buoys leading inside to a network of 6-foot channels penetrating lush marshes lively with egrets and ospreys. A “Private Beach” sign stands at the entrance.

More prominently marked and busier is Marsh Point Harbor just a little west. Inside is Cutchogue Harbor Marina, (631) 734-6993, and New Suffolk Shipyard, (631) 734-6311, where you’ll find a gas dock. Legends Restaurant is nearby.

Just south of Cutchogue Harbor is a popular anchorage on the east side of the long sand spit jutting from privately owned Robbins Island. On a summer weekend a line of boats, many rafted up, anchor here in the lee from the prevailing southwesterly. The bight was good for scalloping in 2005, but the season doesn’t start until the first Monday in October.

Heading west again, Sea Tow warns about keeping Fl G “3,” marking the tip of the sand spit, on your port side and staying off the New Suffolk shore which gets shallow.

West Creek and Deep Hole Creek between New Suffolk and Mattituck are shallow and offer no amenities. To find the entrance to Mattituck Harbor (not to be confused with its bigger twin, which is entered from Long Island Sound) look for a long sandy beach and houses on the east side and a gray bulkhead and large green-roofed house on the west. Before you head in, line up the entrance buoys while still a third of a mile offshore to avoid shallow water on both sides. You won’t see boats inside as you approach because the channel makes an immediate right turn before opening up. A large Strong’s Boatyard and Marina may have transient slips, (631) 298-4770, and can provide gas and full mechanic services. There’s a supermarket nearby and if you don’t mind a mile-and-a-half walk you’ll find several good restaurants on Route 25.

A stop in Jamesport

Leaving Mattituck, it’s best to set a course for Fl R “2” less than three miles away, which will take you safely offshore. Pass close by R “2” then proceed to R “4” about 1.3 miles away. Stay near it to avoid the shallows coming off Red Cedar Point. The next stop west is South Jamesport Harbor, close to a pretty North Fork village. It’s a little hard to find. Maptech’s Embassy Guide advises proceeding 330 degrees from G “5.” You’ll see small boats moored outside to starboard and a big white “Welcome” sign at the entrance. An immediate turn to starboard takes you to the floating dock of the Great Peconic Bay Marina, (631) 722-3565, that can accommodate craft up to 55 feet. Gas and diesel are available as is a pump-out station. Stretch your legs and walk to quaint Jamesport less than a mile away, where you’ll find a gift shop, post office, liquor store, three restaurants and a small grocery. Transients can use a private beach and playground at the marina.

Coming out of Jamesport, proceed past the two greens just outside the harbor to Fl R “8,” just a little way off. You’re now in Flanders Bay approaching Riverhead. There are shallow areas in this bay so pay close attention. From Fl R “8”, steer 305 degrees to Fl G “9.” Continue straight ahead to Meeting House Creek marked with three red and two green private aids, a “No Wake” sign, a long bulkhead and finally a red stake at the entrance marked “2.” Inside, bear right to a surprisingly big and attractive harbor, passing an oyster boat dock and private homes. You won’t see markers so stay in the middle of the broad channel. You can’t miss Larry’s Lighthouse Marina, (631) 722-3400, with its shingled lighthouse, along with transient slips up to 65 feet, gas and diesel, the Meeting House Creek Inn, a pool and tiki bar. You can either walk or take your drink to a mini-mart at the head of the harbor.

The Peconic River and Riverhead

Just outside Meeting House Creek Harbor, Fl R “2” begins a long, well-marked and attractive approach to the Peconic River and Riverhead. The narrowing channel takes you past lush marshes and flocks of swans and under a highway bridge. There’s nothing particularly daunting here if you stay close to the reds. Soon you’ll see the green-topped tower of the Atlantic Marine World Aquarium alongside Treasure Cove Marina, (631) 727-8386. The aquarium features a coral reef, shark lagoon, sea lions and penguins. The marina pumps gas and can take transients up to 65 feet.

This is a great place for kids. Besides the aquarium, Treasure Cove presents a pool, volleyball court, a ship’s store and kayak rentals for exploring the little creeks feeding into the river. Restaurants in downtown Riverhead are within easy walking distance. A deli is close by and a big grocery store is about a mile away. The Tanger Mall and a water park are about three miles away.

After the “big town” excitement of Riverhead, you should be ready for some quiet gunkholing. There’s a pleasant anchorage area with plenty of water on the east side of Flanders Bay protected on the east by Red Cedar Point. Many cruisers spend the weekend there and explore surrounding creeks in dinghies. For an even more protected spot, retrace your course from Riverhead until you reach R “4” then bear right at 125 degrees for about a mile. You’ll need binoculars to spot the private aids leading into Red Creek Pond, where there are no facilities, only boat moorings and a few homes on the shore, but it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot. Low tide depths of 5 feet and good protection in all directions make it a fine refuge.

You’re now heading back east and may want to venture through the Shinnecock Canal into Shinnecock Bay. From the bay you have access to the ocean by Shinnecock Inlet.

Farther eastward, you can poke into Sebonac Creek and Bullhead Bay marked on the west side by a windmill at the National Golf Club. Stay a half-mile offshore until you line up three sets of entrance markers beginning with Fl R “2” and G “1.” Maptech reports 5 feet of water in the channel, an anchorage area, and a Southampton Town dock at West Neck, northeast of Ram Island opposite G “7” where you can tie up for two hours. This is a snug harbor without services.

An interesting feature is the opportunity to explore in a dinghy. Enter Little Sebonac Creek to the left of the channel at a red and green can and motor slowly through pristine marshes and woodlands through West Neck Creek to Scallop Pond, which is just behind Cow Neck. There are no navigation markers, probably because the owners in the few houses on shore want to keep this spot for themselves.

North Sea Harbor

Following the coastline from Sebonac you’ll pass between Fl R “26” at the southern end of Robins Island and Cow Neck Point into Little Peconic Bay. Once through the race, turn east and head for North Sea Harbor, a little over a mile away, passing a high sand bluff on the right. You may need binoculars to spot entrance buoys Fl R “2” and G “1.” A bulkheaded town dock on the left, immediately after you enter, lets you tie up for two hours.

Once inside the bay follow the red markers to Conscience Point Marina. This is a Southampton Town-owned operation that on a Tuesday in July last year posted a “Closed” sign, so if you’re looking for fuel, better call ahead. The Town of Southampton Parks & Recreation Dept. can be reached at (631) 728-8585. The main harbor is spacious but watch the depths. The eastern and western edges are good for clamming and you may see locals wading and trailing inner tubes. According to Southampton Bay Constable Chris Kohnken, shellfishing inside harbors requires a resident permit, but waters outside harbors are state controlled and you can dig clams along the shorelines.

Only a mile east of North Sea Harbor is the smaller but very attractive little harbor of Wooley Pond. Find Fl G “1” and R “2” near a modern, white house that juts into the bay and follow the narrow entrance past modest summer homes to the open bay inside. Peconic Marina, (631) 283-3799, at the south end has gas and diesel, a few transient slips, a small town dock and the Coast Grille serving dinner. It’s a comfortable, well-protected anchorage.

Into Noyac Bay

Except for tiny Fresh Pond nearby, there’s no other harbor along the south side of Little Peconic, so set course for Fl G “17” at the north end of Jessup Neck, which you passed on your way west. The buoy will seem far north of wooded Jessup Neck because a long sandbar runs up to it from the south. Jessup separates Little Peconic Bay from Noyac Bay and is part of the Morton Wildlife Refuge. If you feel like a swim, make a long sweeping turn past Fl G “17” into Noyac Bay and snug up to the beach on Jessup’s eastern flank, sheltered from the summer southwesterly. Keep an eye out for fish traps coming off the shore.

At the southern end of Noyac Bay is Mill Creek, a sizeable harbor with at least 4 feet of water in most places. A radio tower will help locate the entrance about a mile east of the base of Jessup. Look for Fl R “2” on a stake and G “1.” There’s a reef to starboard near the shore so stay in the middle of the narrow channel and pass between a spit of sand on the right and a grassy beach on the left. Mill Creek Marina, (631) 725-1351, sells gas and offers a few transient slips. To look for an anchorage in the eastern half of the harbor around to the left, make a turn to port between the red and green in front of the marina docks. After 5 p.m. you can take your dinghy to the fuel dock at Mill Creek and dine at the upscale Oasis Restaurant just behind the marina. If you have a yen for another swim off a sandy beach, motor about a mile farther east along the bottom of Noyac Bay to aptly named Long Beach. It’s deep close to shore. Favor the west end.

This time as we head west, we’ll pass south of Shelter Island and you might want to pay another visit to popular West Neck Harbor on its southern shore. Otherwise proceed through the channel between Shelter Island and North Haven peninsula where you’ll give way to the South Ferry boats as they shuttle back and forth. If the wind is blowing hard against the tide in the channel, be prepared for a nasty chop. Rounding Fl G “15” and heading south you’ll pass R “14.”

Directly east of it is a bight in the southern arm of Shelter Island that forms Majors Harbor, a pretty spot to anchor and swim depending on the wind since it’s open to the west. Stay away from rocks on its northern end.

Charming Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor is two miles directly south of R “14.” In 1845 it was homeport for more than 60 whaling ships. As you approach you’ll see several markers, so slow down and be alert. Pass both R “12” and green-red “SH” on your port side. Up ahead you’ll see the breakwater. Pass between it and R “2” to the inner harbor where 5 mph is strictly enforced. Entering or leaving Sag Harbor, be aware of the well-charted crop of rocks northeast of the breakwater. Sea Tow’s Joe Frohnhoefer says this is a definite hazard for first-time visitors.

In season, Sag Harbor is crowded with many big yachts, so if you’re looking for a slip, mooring, or anchorage call the Sag Harbor dockmaster on “09” when you enter the harbor. You can also try the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, (631) 725-0567, or Waterfront Marina, (631) 725-3886. Or anchor for free just outside the breakwater. In this case take green-red “SH” on your starboard and continue past Fl G “11” and G “9A” also to starboard. Go a little bit farther east to make sure you clear the reef south of “9A” then turn to starboard and look for a spot.

There’s an opening in the middle of the breakwater that you can go through in a dinghy. Sag Harbor Dockmaster Ed Barry says that the village has added dinghy space at the transient dock on the west side of Long Wharf. You can tie up there for free while you visit this lovely village, but don’t leave your dinghy overnight.

A little farther west of Long Wharf is the Sag-North Haven bridge and if you clear the 20-foot-high span you can anchor in Sag Harbor Cove or stay at one of the marinas there — Malloy Sag Harbor East, (631) 725-1605, and West (631) 725-3939. All of these marinas are within an easy walk of “downtown” Sag Harbor with its variety of restaurants, interesting shops and galleries, the preserved first Customs House in the United States, a whaling museum, and lovely old homes along Main Street. Sag is also a “working” village so there’s a grocery, two hardware stores that sell marine supplies, bookstores, a pharmacy and several banks. The Chamber of Commerce windmill at the base of Long Wharf will give you all the information you need.

Entering or leaving Sag Harbor be aware of that clump of rocks and be sure to stay in the channel.

Heading east you pass between Mashomack Point on Shelter Island and Barcelona Neck on the South Fork into Northwest Harbor. The chart identifies Northwest Harbor as the large body of water between Cedar Point on the north and Barcelona Neck on the south. It’s a fine little bay except when the prevailing southwesterly blows hard. When locals refer to Northwest Harbor they usually mean Northwest Creek, a small inlet formed by Barcelona Point and the south fork mainland. If you draw more than 4 feet, be careful going through the narrow entrance. To anchor in deeper water turn to port at G “5.” You’ll be in a pretty hideaway surrounded by woods and marshes and protected on all sides.

To exit to Gardiners Bay, pass Cedar Point to the north marked by a Fl Green tower on the point to starboard and R “6” to port. Don’t be surprised if the water is rougher in Gardiners Bay.

Sandbar off Three Mile Harbor

To get to Three Mile Harbor, turn east after clearing Cedar Point and keep G “3” and G “1” to starboard about 800 yards offshore. You then can head directly for R “2” and G “1” marking the entrance to Three Mile Harbor about two and a quarter miles away. As you draw near you will also see RW “TM” bell to port. A wide-open entrance channel between breakwaters leads into a large bay.

Most boats are moored on the west side but you can’t get there without rounding a sandbar that juts south from Sammy’s Beach. Don Bousson, an East Hampton Town Harbormaster says to turn right to the anchorage when you pass R “22.” Take your dinghy to Sammy’s Beach and enjoy a swim in the clear water.

Close to the entrance is Harbor Marina straight ahead on the left. Maptech’s Chartbook lists eight marinas with transient slips, two supplying gas and diesel — Harbor Marina, (631) 324-5666, and East Hampton Point Marina, (631) 324-8400 — one serving gas only: East Hampton Marina, (631) 324-4042. You can also try them on VHF 9. Farther south in the harbor, through another neck, are more marinas, including Halseys, (631) 324-9847, Gardiners, (631) 324-9894, and Three Mile Harbor Boatyard, (631) 324-1320.

A strict “no discharge” policy keeps the water delightful for swimming. Marine police are also strict about the 5 mph speed limit. The commercial center of Easthampton Village is several miles away, but there are a number of restaurants within walking distance, including Michael’s, Bostwick’s Seafood Grille at Harbor Marina, Ricardo’s Seafood House at Maidstone Harbor Marina, and the upscale restaurant at East Hampton Point Marina.

Last stop

There’s a final gunkhole nearby that you can poke into if you draw only a couple of feet. Come out of Three Mile Harbor and head for G “13” marking Lion Head Rock at the northern tip of Hog Creek Point. Go a little farther east to clear the point and head for G “11” and R “8” to the south. You’ll see the large mass of Gardiners Island as you round the point. There are no harbors on privately owned Gardiner’s Island and, except for lee in an emergency, there’s nothing to recommend it.

Bousson warns boaters heading for Montauk not to make the mistake of cutting east across the long shallows that run below Gardiners Island all the way to R “8.” The entrance to Acabonack Harbor is almost due west of R “8” and Cartright Island which extends well below Gardiners. Search carefully for the small entrance marker, a red and green then another green. Favor the starboard side as there’s a rock to port. There are no facilities here but unspoiled beaches and marshes. Inside are more markers and deeper water.

Montauk is only 11 miles away. If you decide to go to “The End” as local bumper stickers call it, be careful to follow the red buoys through Promised Land Channel, taking them on your port side. Napeague Harbor along the way looks inviting on the chart but is shoaled in and should be avoided. Once you get to RW “S” bell, head for Montauk by steering 76 degrees for nearly six miles to the entrance markers and the wide-open breakwaters.

Peconic facts and figures

The Peconic Estuary takes in an area that is 46 miles long from Montauk and Orient Point in the east to Riverhead and the Peconic River on the west. It encompasses 453 miles of shoreline and more than 100 distinct bays, harbors and tributaries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the Peconic as an estuary of national significance, one of only 28 in the National Estuary Program. The agency defines an estuary as a partially enclosed body of water formed where fresh water from rivers, streams and creeks flows into the ocean, mixing with seawater. Estuaries are influenced by the tides but are protected from the full force of ocean waves, winds and storms. Their ecosystems are distinct from all other places on earth.

The tidal, sheltered waters of estuaries support unique communities of plants and animals, specially adapted for life at the margin of the sea. Shore birds, fish, crabs and lobsters, marine mammals, clams and other shellfish make their homes in and around estuaries. Wayne Trothe of the Nature Conservancy asks boaters to slow down near wetlands where marine life gets its start.

Health of estuary waters is of great concern as growing populations build houses close to attractive seascapes. Kevin McAllister, head of the non-profit Peconic Baykeeper organization, has concerns about pressure from new developments, especially in the western section.