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Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island

“I told the town that I’ll be here until I’m dead, and I’ve followed that. I’m not going to get wiped out, but the road will. I’ll lose my electricity and then I’ll be an island. If that happens, I’ll just go get a generator.”

Across the island, Nantucket’s ‘Sconset Beach stretches out, a narrowing, often empty strip of sand that helps form the eastern bend that defines the shape of this island. It’s a summerlike fall day, and flat waves lap their way toward the bluff. At the base of one particular section, a small crew of workers builds a wall of sand-filled jute bags, each measuring half a football field long. It’s a mini–construction zone, with tractors moving earth and dumptrucks unloading sand from atop the cliff. But it’s just a stopgap measure, something that will only delay the ocean’s attack. Over the coming winter, this crew will be out here repeatedly to repair what the
water has done.

It’s pushing three o’clock and the men are getting ready to go. Two of them, Manuel and Juan, both from El Salvador, take a moment to assess the day’s work. “Seven years I’ve been doing this,” says Manuel. “We do the same spots over and over.” Just then an anxious Juan says something to his friend in Spanish. Manuel turns back and points to his wrist, pretending he has a watch. “We have to go,” he says. “The water is coming.”

And with that, the two scamper up the steep cliff, at times using their hands to claw upward, before a final ascent over the bluff’s bowed-out top section, where they disappear.

Here in Siasconset, or ‘Sconset as it’s known locally, home­owners aren’t fighting just the sea; they’re fighting their neighbors, too. At the center of this battle is a collection of some 50 lavish houses on Baxter Road, a quiet seaside street that dead-ends at Sankaty Head Light, to the north. Perched high on a sandy bluff with commanding ocean views, these homes, with names like “Luke’s Lair” and “East of Eden,” are the part-time addresses of people who’ve made their fortunes off-island. For the past 15 years, wind and waves have been shearing off the bluff and, for some folks out here, necessitating an expensive retreat from the water as homes are jacked up and moved to safer ground.

Millions have been spent on erosion research and mitigation work, too, with a good chunk of that money coming from the wallet of a tall, lean 71-year-old, a retired commodities trader named F. Helmut Weymar. Weymar, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, has entrenched himself in erosion battles over these past two decades with a doggedness that has earned him the local nickname “the Determined German.”

“It’s the single most time-consuming part of my life,” he says. I’m visiting Weymar on a stunning afternoon, when his place is abuzz with the sounds of saws and scrapers as carpenters repair a front porch. His home, which he and his wife Caroline bought in 1987, is a gem, a five-bedroom Colonial Revival with weathered gray cedar shingles, crisp white trim, and a widow’s walk adorning the roof. “Tallest house in the neighborhood,” Weymar says, lightheartedly.

But today, as on most days, his eyes are directed to what’s below. Out back, where perhaps 25 yards separates his house from the edge of the bluff, a narrow row of beach roses lines the back edge of the lawn — a final show of vegetation before the land drops sharply into a steep sandpit wall. In the distance a motorboat zips along the water; fishing boats dot the horizon.

“This bank right here was fully vegetated with about 200 feet of dunes before you got to the beach,” Weymar explains. “We had a walkway that went down there, and the yard went out another 10 feet.”

Like many homes along the bluff, Weymar’s was the creation of forward-thinking developers of the late 1800s who realized that ‘Sconset, a sleepy fishing community turning summer destination, needed more prominent residences than village shanties. Their homes featured expansive lawns separating each house from the bluff, with a public right of way. That’s why, even today, it’s perfectly normal to see stran­gers traipsing through the backyards out here as they follow mile-long Bluff Walk, which itself is eroding.

Weymar still enjoys walking the trail, in part because it’s like going back in time. To the south the beach is wider, the dunes still present, and the cliff’s gradual slope is covered with roses. Farther north, it’s a different story. With few dunes or shoals to stymie its energy, the ocean batters the bluff’s toe, strips away sand, and destabilizes the cliff. Big storms can bring disaster. In 2005, winter storms carved off 25 feet of bluff in less than a month and forced one homeowner to slice off the piece of his house that was hanging over the cliff. Over the past several years, a dozen homes on this road have been moved back or relocated.

Weymar’s house been lucky: It still sits on its original 1916 foundation. But nobody has to remind him of what he’s up against. Along with the scientists he’s hired, he’s made a careful study of the water and the land, familiarized himself with practically every erosion-fighting method available, and founded the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF), a nonprofit with more than 400 contributors, dedicated to addressing the community’s erosion issues.

Today ‘Sconset Beach is a reminder of lost battles. The mechanically doomed pumps and valve stems from a huge dewatering system that was supposed to lower the beach’s water table, and remnants of temporary terracing projects whose bags and posts storms have tossed about like little toys — they’re all in plain sight, $15 million in research and labor to fight the inevitable.

Even here on Nantucket that’s a lot of money. “It’s just stubbornness and arro­gance on their part, because they have money, so they think they can outsmart Mother Nature,” says one ‘Sconset native. “That’s the risk you take. I wouldn’t have bought property on an eroding bluff, but that’s just common sense to me.”

Still, the money comes. Since 2005, SBPF’s newest target has been a $20 million beach-nourishment project that would dredge the equivalent of some 200,000 dumptruck loads of ocean sand and pump it onshore to build out ‘Sconset Beach — ultimately, its proponents contend, protecting the bluff and the houses. The idea behind it is this: By building back the land, in this case extending a roughly three-mile section of sand 150 feet out into the water, you hold back the ocean. Essentially, two beaches are created: a sacrificial one to feed the sea, and a permanent base behind it.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Ian Aldrich


Ian Aldrich


Senior editor of Yankee Magazine: Ian, a native New Englander who has worked and freelanced for Yankee for the past decade, writes feature stories, home pieces, and helps manage the magazine's up-front section, First Light. His stories have ranged from exploring the community impact from a church poisoning in a small town in northern Maine to dissecting the difficulties facing Nantucket around its problems with erosion. In addition to his connection to Yankee, Ian worked as a senior editor of Cincinnati Magazine for several years.

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2 Responses to Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island

  1. chet holmes September 13, 2008 at 12:19 pm #

    hello, read the article on the erosion problem in nantucket,im afraid there fighting a losing battle,and that mother nature will prevail, i for one would like to see a moratorium on any more building on the coast? other than state and federal parks so everyone can enjoy the coast,i remember when they ran the poor portugese fisherman out of new bedford and put in dockominiams, for the select few that could afford them,wazzup with that? gloucester and cape ann is starting the same thing, owell tyme will tell i imagine cheers chet ps i love your magazine

  2. Steve Merrill October 22, 2008 at 7:32 pm #

    I will never understand the building of homes and the thought process of government leaders/elected officials that allow these actions to take place.the New England way of life is disappearing fast.As a recreational fisherman I can empathise with Mr.Eldridge and others who appreciate the wondrous beauty and the bounties that nature has to offer.Ecological destruction,let’s be honest, that’s really what it is, on the coastlines and inland in forests change this planet forever.I am amazed at the silence most times of environmental groups,some of which I am a member and/or contributor to.I wonder at times when I see mansions or developments built what contributions were made by these folks to environmental groups for there “silence”.Pristine coasts and forests where access was available to all,shut out forever for the few to enjoy.People have a right to develop their land but that right stops with me when it becomes a detriment to others.But what do I know.I am not a bleeding heart liberal or right wing.I am just a working stiff who is amazed at the wonder and power of mother nature everytime I go to the sea and forests to fish or take a walk.i pray the stripers are there 100 yrs from now in ‘sconset for all to fish and enjoy and the cobble not destroyed for the sake of a house.

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