The first time my family and I motored into Onset Bay in Massachusetts, we were traveling from Maryland to Maine via the Cape Cod Canal and needed a place to stop to await friends. We’d had a boisterous sail up Buzzards Bay and entered the canal on a tidal flume that roiled us north until Hog Neck, and the marks denoting the entrance to Onset, came abeam.
The turn from the current-ripped canal into the narrow channel was suitably invigorating. If a boat can leave a skid mark, I’d swear ours did. But as soon as we’d cleared the first marks and backed off the throttle, there were deep breaths all around. The well-marked, if slender, channel led past gently sloping shorelines into a broad, beautiful bay. In the bay’s center stood the steep, wooded cliffs of Wickets Island, and beyond that, a long curve of beach wrapped around the village of Onset like a white lace collar on a Victorian dress. It was a startling oasis, small and welcoming. And that evening, when the locals placed flares along the shoreline to create a warm, magical glow—the annual illumination night put on by the Onset Bay Association—my crew knew we had stumbled into someplace special.
That first impression was confirmed the next day when we took the dinghy into the town pier next to the beach and walked up the hillside into the village. With its Victorian cottages and storefronts, pedestrian-friendly streets and bandstand on the bluff overlooking the harbor, it ticked all the boxes for quintessential New England charm. But unlike so many other waterfront towns stuffed with T-shirt shops and overpriced eateries, Onset had a down-to-earth, real-people kind of vibe. It was evident in the simple fact that you could still walk easily from the town pier to a local market, hardware store and laundromat to find the basic necessities of daily living that generally disappear in more “upscaled” places. We also discovered stunning views of the bay and that beautiful beach that’s free for everyone. We were hooked.
“Onset is a generational destination,” says Chris Kuppens, a fourth-generation local and vice commodore of Independence Point Yacht Club. “The houses tend to stay in the family and get handed down. A lot of people come back to Onset. They may summer here as kids and come back and buy houses. It’s a blue-collar town. We love it; it’s a great community, safe. You can walk down the street at night and you don’t have to worry.”
The club, an Onset fixture since 1908, is “an all-volunteer Navy,” Kuppens says. “We’re sort of a real working-class type of club. A lot of policemen, firemen, electricians, carpenters. What it’s all about is sharing the burden to keep boating affordable. We do a lot of the work on the club ourselves. We pull together 150 people with all their talent and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot. We’re really proud of that.”
Pre-Covid-19 (and presumably post-Covid too), the club invites visiting boaters to its weekly Friday night fish fry. “A local restaurant cooks out of our kitchen, and the bar is open,” he says. “It’s a real casual evening.”
The village of Onset is part of the town of Wareham, Massachusetts. It landed on the map as we know it today in the 1870s, when the Onset Bay Grove Association chose it as the site of its Spiritualist summer meeting camp. It grew “into a popular planned summer community of over 1,000 small lots interspersed with communal parks and beaches,” notes discover-wareham.com. “Houses were modest Gothic Revival, Stick, and Queen Anne cottages with commercial development around Onset Avenue. The railroad played an important role in the development of Onset as a vacation area, as did a trolley service for local transportation.” In the 1890s, Cape Verdeans who came to work the cranberry bogs settled in Onset’s Oak Grove neighborhood. Today, Onset has one of the fastest-growing Cape Verdean populations in the country, and the Oak Grove Cape Verdean Cultural Center is based there.
Tourism grew with steamboat ferries that plied the waters from Nantucket to New Bedford. Hotels, theaters and restaurants thrived, and top artists including Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington performed in town. “The bathing pavilion had the capacity to rent 1,000 woolen suits to bathers, comfortable dressing rooms and large Turkish towels,” according to a history on the Onset Bay Association’s website.
After a hurricane destroyed the original pavilion in the 1930s, a new bath house was built. It never captured the grandeur of the first, and the town was having difficulty maintaining it when the Buzzards Bay Coalition—a nonprofit aimed at restoring and conserving the bay and its watershed—chose it for the site of its new Onset Bay Center. After working with the community to sign a 99-year lease and completing a major renovation, the coalition opened the center this summer.
“It will be a community meeting space and a way for us to engage people to get out on the water,” says Director Katherine Garofoli. Its goal is to provide greater water access to local families and to educate young people about their bay’s ecology and environment. The coalition also purchased 100 acres on the bay—including Wickets Island—making them publicly accessible and using them in the center’s programming. This summer, working with local schools and clubs, the center provided a limited but entirely free slate of programs including paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing and sailing. “We’re creating a fun and adventurous way for youth and families to understand how their home is so special,” Garofoli says.
The Onset Bay Association typically has a busy slate of events, among them Thursday Movie Night, Wednesday Night Summer of Love Music Series, Shakespeare in the Park, Onset Harbor fireworks on July 4, the Onset Blues Festival and the Cape Verdean Festival.
Visiting boaters have several options including two full-service marinas (Safe Harbors Onset Bay and Stonebridge Marina), the Point Independence Yacht Club, town moorings and slips, and a protected anchorage with excellent holding between Wickets Island and the privately owned Onset Island.
Wareham manages a dozen transient moorings for vessels up to 50 feet and 7-foot draft, as well as limited transient slips for vessels up to 75 feet and 7-foot draft. The Onset pier can take vessels up to 110 feet. The town provides a complimentary launch service (VHF 68), and there’s a dinghy dock at the pier.
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.