On the Water

A perfect day on the perfect beach

Good Harbor seashore is a perennial favorite

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By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2011

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GLOUCESTER - They call him Walker. But on Thursday, the unofficial captain of Good Harbor Beach was sitting alone in a low plastic folding chair near the east end of this half-mile stretch of sand, tanning in a pair of blue shorts.

Carl Connelly, 70, has had his share of bad luck and good. The bad includes a faltering hip that, for the first summer in 25 years, is preventing him from making his customary 8-to-10-mile crisscross of the Cape Ann beach, daily treks that earned him his nickname.

The good includes learning to “crawl here, walk here, swim here’’ at Good Harbor, returning summer after summer to sit near a community of Gloucester natives whose families have come to this beach north of Boston for as long as anyone can remember.

They are joined by people from all over the region who are drawn to the wide vistas and cold Atlantic water of this quintessential New England beach, sunny day after sunny day.

“It’s a special place,’’ said Connelly, a retired sea captain who looks the part with a trim white beard and deep, leathery tan. “I’ve traveled around the world, but I prefer here.’’

He knows what he’s talking about. Unlike the legions of towel- and folding chair-toting beachgoers who retreated, 5 or 10 feet at a time, before the encroaching tide all afternoon, Connelly has learned where to plant his beach chair so that the waves only nibble at his toes.

He knows exactly what happens at low tide, too: The beach is so exposed that children can walk to a small island about 50 yards out and dive for lobsters, just as he did as a child.

Connelly is a prominent member of Good Harbor Beach society. He knows all the regulars on the east end, and they know him. If they squint at one another, they can see the faces of their great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents, who all came here, too.

They mourn the 2009 death of William McKay, known to them as Uncle Bud, who died at 84 after years of serving as the beach’s unofficial caretaker. His ashes were scattered in the tide.

McKay gauged the water depth several times a day and posted each day’s tide schedule on a blackboard near the snack shop, where his portrait hangs today.

The regulars say the east side is breezier than the rest of the beach, a blessing this week, when temperatures soared. Not that the west end doesn’t have its partisans.

“It’s quick, it’s easy, and kids love the river,’’ said Regina Pacor, 44, of Melrose, referring to the creek that spills from the ocean into a pool near the road. As she spoke, two boys raced each other to the pool, riding the current on boogie boards.

But whether on the west side or the east side, hundreds of colorful umbrellas, chairs, and towels had sprouted over the pale sand Thursday afternoon. As the sweltering day wore on, people gave up dragging their chairs back from the encroaching water and simply sat with the waves eddying around their calves, book in hand or mouth open in a light nap.

For Cheryl McCarthy, 54, who was born and raised around Gloucester, it does not matter which end of the beach she sits on, as long as her family is sitting with her. These days she sets up camp on the east side, where her daughters and three grandchildren like to sun.

“Our family has always come together at the beach,’’ said McCarthy, who has photos of her parents, four siblings, and herself standing on Good Harbor sand.

“If there’s a breeze anywhere, it’s here,’’ McCarthy said. “If it’s hot here, it’s hot everywhere. I’m not in any hurry to leave.’’

Neither were Holly Waite and her sister, Karen Ritter. After several attempts to evade the waves by moving their chairs toward the dunes, they dug into the wet sand, chatting while the waves moved ever higher.

Waite, 50, of Topsfield, and Ritter, 55, grew up going to Good Harbor and never tired of its clean sand, bracing water, and breeze. Ritter usually returns every summer, but this was her first time back in two years.

Ritter, a painter who lives in Tulsa, Okla., had given a painting of a house overlooking the water to her parents for their birthdays this summer.

“I still feel like a kid out here,’’ Ritter said, showing a little boy how to build a sand castle.

The battle against the rising tide was nowhere more stark than midway down the beach, where Alex Gillespie, 7, was trying to save the “hot tub’’ he and 9-year-old Cameron Martin had carved out of the sand and filled with water.

With every surge of water, the sandpit’s walls eroded a little more, and Alex dug a little more determinedly with his pink plastic shovel. To no avail. Within half an hour, the boys’ hard work had melted into the beach, leaving an ankle-deep hole.

Alex’s mother said it was time to go. He cast one last look over the sand, stippled with battered hot tubs and ruined castles, then ran off, away from the tide.

Vivian Yee can be reached at

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