Nantucket Destination "The Grey Lady"

By Tom Neale, 11/13/2008


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Sperm whale exhibit in Whaling Museum
From the island of Nantucket came the seeds of the saga of Moby Dick. For many years the most successful whaling fleet in the world sailed from its harbor on voyages which spawned legends. At one point there were at least 88 whaling ships. Often the voyages lasted up to three years and extended to the South Pacific where Nantucket seamen discovered and named at least 20 islands. If you love the sea and you haven’t discovered Nantucket yet, you should go there.

But, back to Moby Dick, one of the greatest sea stories of all time. If you visit Nantucket’s Whaling Museum, you’ll see logs, memorabilia, photographs and other relics of the voyage of the Essex. This ship departed Nantucket in August, 1819. She was in the South Pacific when she was rammed by a sperm whale on November 20, 1820, culminating in loss of the ship, days of floating about in small boats by some of the crew, and the death of many of the crew. While struggling to survive in the ship’s small boats, some of the men died by cannibalism, as lots were drawn to see who would feed the others so that at least some would remain alive. Nathanial Philbrick wrote “In the Heart of the Sea” about the Essex, and it’s said that this tragedy and other parts of the history of Nantucket helped to inspire Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

There’s more to the museum, just as there is much more to Nantucket. In the museum there’s also a whale boat and actual harpoons and other whaling gear. The centerpiece of the museum is a skeleton of the 46-foot sperm whale which foundered and died on one of Nantucket’s beaches in early 1998. The islanders tried desperately to save it, and when it died, they labored for days to save its oil and clean its bones to preserve it. A movie, played in the museum, tells the story. If you love the sea, Nantucket is an island you should know.

Of course, you can visit Nantucket by one of its ferry lines or by plane, but, from the perspective of a cruiser, it’s always best to go by boat. If you do, you can stay in the Nantucket Boat Basin, a first class marina, with 243 slips. ( The marina caters to transients and George Bassett, the Director of Marina Operations, (he’s retired Coast Guard and an avid boater and fisherman) says that approximately 85% of its business is repeat. This marina can accommodate more than 25 boats over 100 feet long, as well as smaller sizes (like you and me!). The summer occupancy rate is around 95%, so reservations are important. The marina has a fully staffed Concierge Service, all the amenities you could imagine and is within a brief walk from the center of the historical town of Nantucket. There are also 125 moorings in the harbor, owned by Nantucket Moorings, another organization. Call 508 228 4472 or for Nantucket Moorings on VHF 68.  A launch service also stands by on VHF 68.

This marina has a very unique feature, which you’ll like if you decide to go without your boat—or if you go by boat and want a nice break or expect friends to visit. In various locations around the docks are The Cottages at the Boat Basin ( These are one, two and three bedroom suites in renovated cottages, some at wharf level, some as lofts. They have modern kitchenettes, daily room service, and concierge services. You have the quietness and privacy of your own home, but you’re where the action is, most of which is within walking distance.

Nantucket Harbor

The Cottages and the marina are both owned by Nantucket Island Resorts, ( but you must book separately. However it’s often possible, with notice, to arrange dockage close to or in front of the cottage that you or your guests will use.  Nantucket Island Resorts also owns several other first class resort facilities each of which blends resort living with the island’s maritime character background.

For example, the Jared Coffin House, built in 1845 by one of the most successful ship owners of the time ( ) is in the heart of the downtown historic district but, as you sit in its gardens you feel the quietness of the days when the original owner lived there.  This home is now a fine inn with the very popular Harbor Wok restaurant on premises where you can enjoy, seated inside or outside under the beautiful trees, authentic Chinese cuisine, prepared on site.

The Wauwinet, named after an early Native American chief who lived on the island, has luxurious guest rooms, access to both ocean and harbor beaches, a spa and many other amenities, not to mention the superb fine dining at TOPPER’S where you can watch the sun set over the harbor, from the lawn.

The trip to The Wauwinet is too far from the marina and town for walking, but the inn, also owned by Nantucket Island Resorts (NIR), provides land and sea transportation. The Wauwinet Lady is a 26 foot launch that docks at the shore end of Straight Wharf which is very close to the marina. The ride through the main harbor and mooring fields and then out to the Head of the Harbor takes around 50 relaxing minutes. During the trip you can study the menu and purchase beverages including very fine champagne. The waters in the harbor through which you’re traveling are where the famous Nantucket Bay Scallops are harvested in season. When the launch docks, the manager of TOPPER’S meets you at the dock, describes some of the possibilities of the evening, and escorts you up the grassy green hill, past the chef’s personal herb garden.

Nantucket Waterfront in the Fog

Within a short walk from the marina you’ll find the elegant White Elephant. You’ll probably have noticed its grand columns and green lawn as you came into the harbor. With its 53 rooms and suites and 11 garden cottages, a full-service spa and dining, it’s an island landmark. The Brant Point Grill in the hotel has dining inside or outside on the spacious porch overlooking the harbor. Next door is “Children’s Beach,” so named because it’s in town, inside the harbor and isn’t affected by ocean waves, so it’s perfect for young kids and families. While we were there a Shakespearean play was performed one evening on the beach and the public could watch, including those on many boats out in the harbor.

There’s far more to the island than the town where you landed.  For example, the small village of Siasconset (called “Sconset”) is living proof of that age old truth of mankind: never tell another where the fish are biting. The Indians told the British, soon after they came, that the fishing was good off what is now ‘Sconset Beach. This is because of the currents racing back and forth there. The British wasted no time in checking it out and found fishing to be so good that they began to build shacks along the beach. Much later, a railroad was built across island to facilitate getting there.

The tiny village of Madaket is on the western end, on Hither Creek where there’s a marina and yard.  Here lived an island heroine “Madaket Millie,” who passed on in 1990. Her reputation was that of a kind person with a heart of gold but who could put the severest of frowns on you if you gave her cause. Millie also scalloped, sharked, fished and would sometimes go with little or no food to feed the many animals she loved. And she saved lives. The Coast Guard closed the watch station on the western end of Nantucket and within days she reported to them a freighter aground on the shoal; its captain was confused and calling in a distress from a far different location.  She continued this watch and service throughout her life. Millie was eventually awarded the Guard’s most esteemed civilian designations as honorary Chief Warrant Officer-4 and honorary Commanding Officer for her dedication to helping the Coasties and saving seamen.

Tom’s Tips About Nantucket

1. Thousands of pleasure boats make the trip to Nantucket each season. It’s about approximately 30 miles offshore. But there are many shoals and cross currents that can cause trouble if you don’t exercise prudent navigation.

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And then there are the beaches. Nantucket has around 80 miles of beaches and they’re not only spectacular but, unlike many beaches in that section of the world, the sand is soft—not rocky or grainy. Some, such as Surfside have great waves for surfing or body surfing. ‘Sconset Beach lies beneath an approximately 90 foot high sandy cliff, some of which caved in during the 1991 Halloween Storm (also known as “The Perfect Storm”) when the wind blew around 80 MPH for 4 days. At the Whaling Museum you can see video of this, and houses being washed into the waves. Nearby Sankaty Lighthouse recently had to be moved back to keep it from falling over the edge.

Some beaches remain little known to most visitors. They’re off Smith’s Point at the western tip of the island. They’re isolated, with no power or electricity and only a few vacation homes. Such is Tuckernuck Island where you often see harbor seals. Captain Tobey Leske (508 221 1059) is native to the area and he loves and knows the waters. He’ll take you around as you want, including to these secluded places, and tell you about what you’re seeing as you go. I wouldn’t recommend taking your own tender to many of these places because, without local knowledge you’re likely to go aground or get lost in the shallows.

Nantucket is a great destination. And if you’re too far away to come in your boat, you can come anyway and still be on an island, in the ocean and having many of the experiences you might have if you came by boat.


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