Alex Whittaker travels to Yorkshire to explore this fascinating gem of the north.

Upper harbour looking to East Cliff.

Whitby is a famous old seaside town and port situated on the east coast of Yorkshire, at the mouth of the River Esk. It is celebrated for its maritime history, its ruined seventh-century gothic abbey and its fish and chips. It is also the place where the ‘Fanged One’ leapt straight from his ship into the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Captain James Cook, the incomparable navigator, was apprenticed here, learning how to sail in these very waters.

Approach from sea

Whitby is a welcome haven if running before bad weather, and also a great staging post on any North Sea coastal cruise. All in all, it is a superb port for family crews and a great location for summer trailer boating adventures. Whitby Harbour is a busy working harbour, and as such requires all skippers to observe the minimal but necessary harbour rules: maximum speeds of 8 knots between the entrance and Scotch Head and 5 knots in all other areas are enforced. Also bear in mind that a strong easterly set may be experienced across the harbour entrance two hours preceding high water during spring tides.

Otherwise, in settled weather, Whitby Harbour may be approached safely from any direction except south-east. When approaching from the south-east, Whitby Rock Buoy must be rounded and kept on the port hand. At the rock buoy, approximately three-quarters of a mile from the harbour mouth, the tide turns some two hours after high or low water. On approaching the prominent harbour piers, care should be exercised. This is because a strong set to the east will be experienced across the entrance during the two hours preceding high water. Harbour watch-keeping is on Channel 11 VHF. Note that dangerous sea conditions can develop at the harbour entrance during strong north-westerly to easterly onshore winds. Most significantly, entry to Whitby Harbour for small craft is not recommended during this time. On approach, leading marks should be visible, consisting of a day signal of a white triangle for the lower mark, and a white circle with a black vertical line for the upper mark at night, while exhibiting a signal of FL.Y 4s (synchronised). Sited on the east side of the harbour, these give the channel in from the sea on a bearing of 169 degrees true. This course should be held until two similar leading marks/lights sited on the east pier are observed. At night, a signal of FL.Y 2s (synchronised) will be observed. Your course should now be altered to 209 degrees true, bringing the second set of marks/lights in line astern. This channel is, as far as possible, maintained at a depth of 1.4m below chart datum. 

Dredging

Whitby Harbour has its own dredger, Sandsend, which was converted from a dumb barge in 2003. Depths on private moorings are maintained where possible at the depths listed below. However, these cannot be guaranteed due to occasional rapid silting, and note that all depths are below chart datum:

• Private moorings on pontoons below Spital Bridge: 1.5m

• Eskside Wharf: 1.5m

• Endeavour Wharf: 2.0m

• Fish Quay: 2.0m

Swing Bridge

The Swing Bridge links the inner and outer harbours plus the east and west side of the town. It opens on request each hour, and for half an hour two hours either side of high water. Vessels with larger air draughts arriving outside the bridge opening times are requested to wait in the lower harbour alongside the Fish Quay/fishing vessels, or on the waiting pontoon on the east side, at the end of the fish pier. Boats on the quay must remain manned at all times to facilitate the movement of fishing vessels. When transiting the bridge, craft upstream should give way to vessels proceeding from seawards. Precedence should be given to larger vessels, and no craft should attempt to transit the bridge when a vessel under pilotage is entering or leaving. Both leaves of the bridge will be opened to smaller craft in busy periods – such vessels will be expected to proceed through simultaneously upstream and downstream in an orderly line keeping to the starboard side of the channel. VHF communication should be established on Channel 11 with the bridge operatives prior to transit. All craft equipped with VHF should maintain a listening watch on Channel 11 when approaching, and within Whitby Harbour limits.

Spates

Spates are a fact of boating life in Whitby Harbour. Notices warn of the phenomenon. This is when a large volume of fresh water (due to heavy rainfall) comes down the river and floods through the harbour and out to sea. During these spates all boats must stay tied up on their berths, moorings or pontoons.

Whitby Marina

Whitby Marina has a range of river moorings, quay berths and pontoon berths. Prices and availability vary considerably, so it is best to consult the marina website for the details to suit your vessel. The marina welcomes visiting boats and trailer boaters. This means that you can sleep aboard your own boat, essentially within the historic town! The marina and its office are situated just beyond the harbour master’s office, at the southern end of Endeavour Wharf, on the west bank of the estuary. This is below the A171 bridge. Since this whole area used to be a commercial quay, access by road when trailing your boat to Whitby Marina is straightforward. 

Parking

Parking for your car and trailer is available on the quay, next to the slipway. These parking bays are generous in length, allowing you to leave your trailer hitched. Top marks!

Fuel

Whitby has no alongside petrol berth. Marine diesel is available from the fuel pump next to the marina office. You will require suitable containers. Diesel is also available from W. Eves & Co. – telephone: 01947 602255.

Waste oil

This must be left in closed containers on the grid at the environmental compound next to the marina office.

Security gates

These are fitted to the west and east side of floating pontoons – keys can be obtained from the marina office.

Daily weather forecasts 

These are posted on the marina noticeboard.

Chandlery

There is a comprehensive chandlery at Coates Marine: 01947 604486.

Slipway

As you know, there are very few people in the country who adore slipways quite as much as I do. The good news is that although Whitby has a choice, the council-owned one at the south end of the marina car park is easily the best. Broad and sheltered, with a comfortable gradient, few trailer boaters would have trouble launching from here. It is accessible at most states of the tide, except low-water springs. Generally, the slipway is accessible four hours either side of high water. 

Victuals

The Co-Op food convenience store in Langborne Road is actually a good-sized supermarket, conveniently to hand for the marina. There is no need for a taxi – unless you’re provisioning for a transatlantic voyage.

Cash dispensers

There is a dispenser right on the quay outside the Angel Hotel. The aforementioned Co-Op also has a cashpoint.

The town

Hidden gem: Whitby Brewery just beyond the abbey.

In summer, Whitby is full of day trippers, weekenders and cultural tourists. Besides the obvious attractions of the port and town, the gothic bulk of the ruined abbey dominates the whole town. You need to climb all 199 steps and pass the Church of St Mary the Virgin on the headland to get the full effect. The views along the coast from the wonderfully atmospheric graveyard, high up on the cliffs, are superb. The abbey itself is both awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. It represents a way of life that continued uninterrupted for the best part of a millennium, but which nowadays seems impossibly remote. The purity of the gothic remains really is impressive – well worth the climb. No wonder modern-day goths gather at Whitby twice a year. When you stand on this windy headland and take it all in, the whole Dracula vibe really is potent. Almost as potent is the beer from the Whitby Brewery by the abbey. It’s a great place for an afternoon pint in the sun, but only if you know it is there. It is just past the abbey further long the headland.

Jet

Jet, a famous local product, aeons in the making.

The Jurassic cliffs hereabouts often crumble after heavy rain and deposit ammonites and other fossils on the beach. Also deposited is a black resinous substance called ‘jet’. This has been traded as jewellery for many years. I made sure that I bought Mrs Whittaker some from one of the many jet jewellers dotted about the town. I chose some nifty items from Abbey Jet, which I felt were classier than most. Mind you, you can let your romance run away with you in Whitby. After all, this is Yorkshire, the traditional home of being careful with your cash. The simple fact is that lovely Whitby jet, when compared to diamonds, is extremely affordable.

Fish and chips

No evocation of Whitby could pass without a mention of its celebrated fresh fish and chips. In the old days, fish were landed straight onto the fish quays and then transported a very short distance to the many restaurants and chippies. However, nowadays this may not always be quite what it seems. I noticed a huge Dutch-registered refrigerated lorry delivering fish to local shops. But the fact remains that the fish and chips we tried were truly superb, and even better with the traditional northern accompaniment of mushy peas, bread and butter and a pot of tea (with the traditional spare pot of hot water to adjust the strength of the tea to taste, naturally). At this point, one might also mention the Magpie Café, called ‘the best fish and chip shop in Britain’ by celebrity chef Rick Stein. Others tend to bestow this honour on the Angel Fisheries, just by the famed Angel Hotel.

Riverside ramble

Whitby RNLI Station on the Sandgate side.

You have two contrasting banks of the River Esk available for your gentle gongoozling, each as interesting as the other from a boater’s point of view. Helpfully, the central Swing Bridge makes exploring each bank very easy indeed. The lower harbour, with the Fish Quay, the boat tours, the pirate vessels, the replica Bark Endeavour of Whitby, the pier and all the fun of the seaside, is a good bit busier than you might expect. However, the inner harbour also has its own special charms. I liked the way mellow terraced houses came right down to the water. I also liked examining the floating dry dock through my binoculars from the marina pontoons. Then there were all the half-hidden mementos one could discover from the harbour of this town’s workaday maritime history. Overall, Whitby is a boater’s dream, especially if you have arrived in your own vessel without a car. It is so compact that you can get everywhere pretty quickly on foot. On the Bridge Street/Church Street/Sandgate side of the river we soon explored the RNLI station, the Thomas Cook Memorial Museum, numerous shops and pubs, and the quaintly named Whitby Friendship Amateur Rowing Club. This latter comes complete with its own river frontage and slip. One could imagine earnest virile Edwardian gentlemen, with impressive moustaches, sculling and rowing from here. On this side of the river, one could spend a long weekend exploring just the eateries and hostelries.

The verdict

A great layover port on any cruise along this otherwise inhospitable stretch of the North Sea coast, Whitby is a fine landfall and a truly interesting town. You can experience Whitby as a bit of maritime history, a seaside resort or an excuse to explore the local gastronomy. It is a good trailer boat destination, and overall we found it very affordable. True, for the trailer boater it can seem a bit remote by land while traversing the North York Moors, but road communications are good. We found it a quite unexpectedly pleasant place to be. 

Cruising destinations from Whitby

This coast has a well-deserved reputation for being inhospitable, so arriving by trailer provides a good alternative for many powerboaters. The bottle-shaped estuary of the River Esk is the only natural harbour along the 100 miles of treacherous coastline between the rivers Tees and Humber. Hartlepool lies to the north, with Saltburn and Staithes intervening. To the south lie the famous Robin Hood’s Bay and Scarborough.

Access by road

The main road in and out of town is the A171. From the north, follow the A171 down from Guisborough. There are panoramic coastal views on this route. If you’re already on the Yorkshire coast, follow the A171 up the coastline from Scarborough to Whitby. From the south and west, take the A64. Then take the A169 around Malton, drive through Pickering and join the A171 just after Staithes. As hinted at earlier, trailer boats will have no issues on these main routes.

Access by rail

Whitby has its own railway station on the Esk Valley Line. This runs between Middlesbrough and Whitby via Nunthorpe. The station serves both seaside towns of Whitby and Scarborough.

Access by air

Leeds Bradford Airport, Durham Tees Valley Airport and Newcastle International Airport provide three possible choices. 

On site

Gas

Coates Marine immediately upstream of the marina stocks Calor Gas.

Pump-out 

This is situated on the trident pontoon – tokens are available from the marina office.

Chemical toilet disposal 

This is available at the quayside.

Refuse

Domestic refuse can be placed in the bin next to the marina office.

Electricity

The electricity supply is 240V – tokens are available from the marina office or the harbour office.

Laundry 

There is a coin-operated washer and dryer in the marina laundry.

Water

Available free of charge on the pontoons and at various locations around the harbour.

Toilets and showers

You’ll need a key fob and can get one from the marina office, the harbour office or the bridge operative. 

Storage 

Vessel storage is permitted from 1st November to 14th April. There is a daily charge. Contact the harbour office to discuss availability. 

10 Interesting facts about Whitby

  • Whitby comes from the Old Norse for ‘white settlement’.
  • Bram Stoker’s celebrated novel Dracula features Whitby and its abbey.
  • Captain Cook learned to sail from Whitby.
  • Whitby Abbey is accessed by no fewer than 199 steps.
  • Whitby has a long history of smuggling, secret tunnels and avoiding the excise men.
  • Whitby was once a whaling port. There is a whale bone arch on top of West Cliff.
  • Amazingly, Whitby was bombed by the German Navy in December 1914.
  • The London tavern Prospect of Whitby (1520) is claimed to be the oldest in the world.
  • Whitby jet, used for jewellery, comes from the resin of trees from the Jurassic period.
  • Whitby is one of the few places in the UK where one can watch the sun rise and set over the sea in summer. 

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