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Trip Report: Boston Harbor Islands Lighthouse Tour

Posted by on March 31, 2012

The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area has been a mainstay destination for many of my paddling adventures over the years. The Recreation Area encompasses over 30 islands in the greater Boston and Hingham Harbors. Each island offers a unique experience whether it’s exploring historic forts, relaxing at cast-away campgrounds, or attempting to understand the paradox of an “untouched” wildness with the view of a major metropolitan city in the background. With all of the interesting things that the Boston Harbor Islands have to offer, there’s one thing that stands out for me above all else: Lighthouses.

The Boston Harbor Islands is home to no fewer than five lighthouses. The classic kayak tour includes a visit to two of them.

The first is the historic Boston Light which is situated on Little Brewster Island in the outer Boston Harbor Islands. This lighthouse was established in 1716 (the second oldest in the US), was named a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and continues as the only lighthouse to be actively operated by the US Coast Guard Auxiliary as a navigation aid. The island is open for visitors and tours are available during the summer months. This is a “must do” for anyone exploring the best of the Boston Harbor Islands!

The second is the mysterious and secluded Graves Light. It’s situated on a god-forsaken pile of rocks known as The Graves located 9miles offshore of downtown Boston. The Graves Light is the tallest lighthouse in the Boston Harbor cluster and serves as an important navigation aid for sailors seeking entrance to Boston Harbor via Presidents Roads. This is the hardest one of the three to get to as it involves the most exposure and open water crossing. Once you get there you feel like you’ve gone to your grave!

The idea for the Boston Harbor Islands Lighthouse Tour had been on my mind for many years but was reborn in an unlikely place: on an airplane. I was gazing out my window upon Boston Harbor as the plane circled Logan International Airport in a holding pattern when I spotted The Graves. It was the first time that I had ever these rocks and they were out there quite a ways from the Outer Islands. I just had to paddle there to see it up close and I wasted no time in contacting my partner in kayaking crime. It didn’t take much to sell Rick on the idea and within two weeks we found ourselves standing on the shores of Pemberton Point in Hull, MA with a dozen eager MITOC members gazing out past Boston Light toward The Graves.

It was 9:00am when we shoved off from Pemberton point. The winds were light, the seas were calm, the tide was moving low to high, and the skies were clearing. Out morning trip across Nantasket Roads proved uneventful as the current was slack and there was little traffic to speak of. We tucked in behind Georges Island before changing course to ENE toward Little Brewster Island. The idea was to follow the Black Rock Channel out towards Great Brewster Island, shoot the gap between Great and Little Brewster and then try to find a take out on Outer Brewster before the open water crossing to The Graves. Our return trip would include a stop on Little Brewster Island to investigate Boston Light up close.

The conditions were about as gorgeous as the view during this part of the trip. The outer islands were sprawled out in front of us with Boston Light standing prominently right of center. This was my first trip to the outer islands and I was surprised at how desolate they seemed compared to the inner islands. Signs of yesteryear’s human activity were obvious as the shoreline of Great Brewster was spotted with rusty metal, concrete and other debris. However these islands contained no dockage or well-kept trails like the Inner Islands and the vegetation and sea birds seemed to be their masters.

We made landfall on a narrow, rocky beach on the North side of Outer Brewster Island at about 10:15am. The rocks were slippery with seaweed and we struggled to get the boats moved up the beach to protect them against the rising tide. Everyone grabbed their lunch bags and we scrambled up the rocks to a cliff-side vista that looked out toward The Graves which sat almost 2 miles further out to sea. This was my closest view yet of the mysterious lighthouse and there was some eerie quality to its distant, rocky perch. From our vantage point we could also appreciate the contrast in conditions between where we had come from and what lay ahead. The Outer Islands had done a marvelous job of shielding us from the Atlantic ground swell earlier in the morning but now we would be awarded no protection from the 2ft seas. The wind also seemed to have picked up slightly since we had left Pemberton Point and we noticed waves crashing on the windward side of the Graves and over a small group of rocks called the Roaring Bulls.

With our bellies full we scrambled back down to the boats, launched, and set our course for The Graves. The bigger water proved to be quite fun and we covered the two mile gap in less than a half-hours time. I was one of the first to make it there so I tucked myself into the calm waters on the leeward side of the rocks and took in the scene. I found myself in the shadow of the Graves Light; its storm stricken granite towering above me and the rocks. There were a few diving boats anchored a few hundred yards away but despite this I still felt fairly secluded. The Boston skyline looked miniature on the horizon. We were pretty far out there!

The Graves turned out to be a pretty fun and interesting place. It was certainly far from the god-forsaken pile of rocks that I was expecting but it was a pile of rocks none-the-less. Ground swell would surge through the gaps in the rocks creating a sea kayakers dream playground. When the rest of the group caught up I lead them through one of the wider gaps to the ocean side of the Graves. From here we circled the entire rock pile to identify the most interesting gaps to play in. We’d punch through the gaps to the ocean side between swells and then ride the surges back through to our tranquil, leeward pool like a shot. It was exhilarating and we soon found ourselves zig-zagging in and out of the gaps. I could have spent an entire afternoon playing at the Graves but we were only one lighthouse down and our inbound tide ride had arrived. Reluctantly, I gathered the troops and we put the Graves on our stern surely to return someday!

Boston Light was to be the highlight of our return voyage. From the Graves we set our sights on the western tip of Outer Brewster Island. From there we turned WSW to the southern side of Little Brewster Island and Boston Light came into view. This leg also took us past shag rocks; a wind-swept and barren conglomerate unique to the Boston Harbor Islands and home to a frankly ridiculous number of seabirds.

It was about 2:00 in the afternoon when we stepped onto Little Brewster’s shores and there we were greeted by a squad from the Coast Guard Axillary. These lovely individuals hailed from Georgia and made their summer hobby attending to Boston Light. It didn’t seem to be a bad gig at all: a quaint island abode, a historic lighthouse, and a throng of interested tourists to impart your knowledge on (maybe I found a retirement job already!). They invited us into an open barn that served as a sort of classroom and began to enlighten us to the history of the light and what it’s like to be its keeper. We enjoyed the conversation as much as the cool shade that the barn provided against the growing afternoon sun. A few of us enjoyed the shade so much that they decided to curl up and take a nap in the barn. The rest of us followed our enthusiastic guides for a tour of the grounds and an up-close look at the Boston Light. A chill ran down my spine as I touched the stark-white tower. A lighthouse is more than a structure; it’s a guide and a monument to sailors. I’m glad that Boston Light will be preserved forever as a symbol of our maritime history!

After about an hour on the island we bid our hosts adieu. The afternoon crossing of Nantasket Roads turned out to be an excellent instructing opportunity for me as the channel was thick with boat traffic. I stopped at the edge of the channel and looked out to sea. That’s when I spotted the Boston-to-Provincetown high speed ferry on the horizon. I tracked its movement for a minute and made an easy decision; we were waiting for it to pass. Often times, when a boat is that far away it doesn’t seem too risky to make the crossing in front of it. This is not true with high speed ferries as they will be on top of you much faster than expected. Sure enough the ferry flew by us within 5 minutes and threw a huge wake that we surfed into the channel. Next up in the traffic line was a sailboat; equally as scary as a fast ferry but because they can’t see very well off the leeward side of their bow due to the sail (which is where we were). The captain definitely didn’t see us and we were held up again to wait for the sailboat to pass. Finally, we were clear to cross Nantasket Roads and arrived at Pemberton Point…a successful return from The Graves!

-Kayak Dave

Trip Details:

***This trip is not suitable for beginners or unguided paddlers without open water experience. Hull Gut, Nantasket Roads, and the open water conditions east of the Outer Islands can be treacherous to small craft and should be respected. A marine VHF radio is recommended as cell phone reception is limited in the Outer Islands.

Launch: Pemberton Point, Hull, MA

Landing: Pemberton Point, Hull, MA

Highlights: Playing at The Graves, Boston Light, Outer Islands picnic

Duration: 6hrs

Distance: ~12miles

Good Eats:  Jake’s Seafood, 50 George Washington Boulevard, Hull, MA

Kayak Dave Rating:



Marching to our picnic perch on Outer Brewster Island

Approaching The Graves

Boston Skyline from The Graves

Up close and personal with Boston Light

The MITOC crew on Little Brewster Island


See Also: Boston Harbor Outer Islands Trip Report

4 Responses to Trip Report: Boston Harbor Islands Lighthouse Tour

  1. adam

    i am planning a trip out of Pemberton this weekend as i am over from the UK for a couple of weeks. I note that you say you launched on a rising tide. So i guess the current was against you the whole trip? As i guess it would have started flowing east by the time you left the Graves. It only hits 1kn, but still. I was wondering about launching from Deer Island as this might give a small advantage on the ebb, especially as i dont want to be paddling against current in the gut mid afternoon. Can you cast some light on the tide times and decisions you made on this trip?

    • arrudad

      It’s true that some choose to launch from Deer Island but I tend to use Pemberton Point in Hull. The main reason is that the Deer Island launch requires one to cross Presidents Roads where there is more traffic and larger traffic (tugs, barges, cruises, ect). You can expect to encounter a lot of traffic while crossing Nantasket Roads from Pemberton Point too but it’s typically smaller craft aside from the occasional fast ferry.

      As for the tides they don’t really matter so much.. It would be ideal to leave Pemberton sometime after high tide setting course for Georges Island. The current will slip you to the east a bit and put you right off of the Great Brewster spit once you’ve crossed Nantasket Roads. At this point there is little current to speak of. Set course between Great and Little Brewster Islands for the Graves. Turn around at low tide for the return trip and re-trace your path through the islands to Georges Island or slightly east of there. To avoid the current in Hull Gut simply aim well east of Pemberton Point from Georges Island on the return crossing which will keep you east of the Gut. That way you can hug the shore and slip into Pemberton without having to deal with the Gut (there’s very little current on the edges of the Gut even at mean tide).

      Summary: Really any tide will work as the only places you’ll encounter significant current are Nantasket Roads and Hull Gut (if you’re more than say 50ft off of the shoreline) and these are easily compensated for with heading corrections. Remember that SW winds are pretty typical and may build in the afternoon so that will be something to contend with during the return trip.
      Hope this helps and enjoy the trip!

      -Kayak Dave

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