Got witches? Salem does (supposedly), and plenty of them, along with warlocks, sorcerers and other purported practitioners of the dark arts. Yes, it’s true that this historic seaport on the North Shore of Massachusetts is best known as the site of the infamous “witch trials” of the late 1600s, in which 20 people were killed for supposedly associating with the devil, but boaters will find a lot more to love about Salem than its dark past.
When seen from the water, Salem is downright ugly. The Salem Harbor power station, one of the 10 largest powerplants in New England, dominates the shoreline, occupying 65 waterfront acres. Its 5 stacks extend upwards between 250 and 485 feet, and a 150,000-ton coal pile and 10 oil tanks sit adjacent to the massive plant building.
The plant does have its nautical benefits, however, as local mariners “steer for the stacks” when coming into port. Another unfortunate landmark is the city’s sewage-treatment plant, located just northeast of the powerplant. Last but not least, a sprawling, white, former mill building (now an office park) forms a visual wall near the southwest end of the harbor.
It’s clear that Salem, founded more than 350 years ago, has not made the most of its waterfront, at least when viewed through a wide-angle lens. However, the city’s charms come into focus once you draw closer.
Upon entering the harbor from Salem Sound, you’ll see Winter Island to starboard. The island, once home to a military installation, is now a marine recreational park featuring seasonal dinghy and rack storage, a boat ramp, RV and tent camping, scenic picnic areas and the Fort Pickering Lighthouse.
Pickering Wharf is home to condos, shops, restaurants and, most important to boaters, slips, moorings and a launch service.
Next to the powerplant is the Salem Harbor ferry terminal and dock, providing high-speed shuttle service to and from Boston Harbor. The town of Salem recently purchased the dock and property from the power company, and plans to use the dock for small cruise ships and other commercial vessels.
After making your way through the mooring field near Hawthorne Cove Marina (the first of 2 marinas in the harbor), you can get a glimpse of the famed House of the Seven Gables, the Custom House, the Hawkes House and other 18th- and 19th-century buildings along Derby Street.
Continuing southwest, you can’t miss Derby Wharf, punctuated by a distinctive squat, cubical lighthouse at its southern end. Built more than 200 years ago, the massive stone wharf stretches into the harbor for a half-mile. In Salem’s heyday as a commercial shipping hub, the wharf received some of the largest and grandest sailing vessels in the world. You can get a sense of what life was like aboard these boats by visiting the Friendship, a replica of a 1797, three-masted merchant ship that floats alongside the wharf.
Tucked behind Derby and Central Wharves is Pickering Wharf. Built in the late ’70s on the site of an industrial oil facility, Pickering Wharf is home to condos, shops, restaurants and, most important to boaters, slips, moorings and a launch service. It’s an ideal place to keep your boat, as it affords immediate access to the downtown area.
The National Park Service offers several walking tours of Salem from its headquarters at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site at the base of Central Wharf off Derby Street. Another option for touring the city is the Salem Trolley, which circles Salem’s popular destinations, allowing passengers to get on and off at will.
If you continue south of Derby Wharf you’ll come to the channel leading into Palmer Cove and the Palmer Cove Yacht Club, a private club offering reciprocal privileges. A bit farther south, at buoy G “3”, is the channel (8 feet MLW) leading to Dion Yacht Yard, a full-service boatyard offering haulout, engine repair and more.
While Salem Harbor naturally steals the spotlight, it should be mentioned that Salem also borders the Danvers River to the north. The river offers a couple of protected coves for small-boat exploration or anchoring, as well as the McCabe Marina and Recreation Area. Located west of the Rte. 1 bridge, McCabe features a launch ramp ($5 daily fee for residents) and dinghy storage. It’s a great place to launch a small boat or kayak for exploring the river or fishing the area’s many hotspots.