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A guide to the lower Piscataqua
By Mike Pothier
For Points East
In years past, I avoided New Hampshire's Portsmouth Harbor because of its well-earned reputation for ferocious currents and boating traffic. Today, I keep my boat berthed several miles up the Piscataqua River. What changed?
The tidal flow has certainly not changed. The geography and astronomical gods haven't lessened the incredible amount of water flowing in and out the river system. The boat traffic has not decreased. My perception of the difficulty must have been altered over the years. While the Piscataqua River can indeed be challenging, and the traffic can be heavy at times, it's nothing for sailors in underpowered auxiliaries to avoid. Most cruisers seem to stop at the Isles of Shoals overnight and move on to Maine. In fact, Portsmouth is a trip well worth taking because of the rich history and beauty of the area, which was settled around 1603.
Like all tidal rivers in Maine, the ebb currents are stronger than the flood currents, but both can be formidable. Five to six knots are common, and extreme conditions may max out at 10 knots. One needs only to look at the charts and maps of the area to see why: Numerous rivers feed into Great Bay and the Piscataqua River. These include the Squamscott, Exeter, Lamprey, Bellamy, Oyster, Salmon Falls, and Cocheco, to name just the major tributaries. Great Bay is a huge expanse of tidal water, and it also fills and empties with every tidal flow. Thus, it's very easy to see why the currents are swift.
Unlike most harbors south of Cape Cod, the currents are the concern here, not the water depth. At Dover Point, about five miles upriver, there is plenty of water as long as you stay in the well-marked channel. Tidal currents are caused by the tides, but they don't coincide with the time of high and low water. Slack-water times can vary up to an hour from the mouth of the river to Dover Point. You must still consult a good tide table for current strength and timing.
I like to use Tidelog (www.tidelog.com) for northern New England. It graphically displays the time and strength of the current and slack water for the mouth of the river and gives corrections for various points up and down the river. For powerboats, with hundreds of horsepower and twin screws, none of this is of any real concern; they can just advance the throttles and go. For auxiliary sailboats with puny engines the size of a good blender motor, and max speeds of seven knots or less, this information can be critical.
I remember leaving the river years ago under sail in a 21-foot Sirius pocket cruiser, making five-plus knots through the water and minus-one knot over the ground. It's very disconcerting to be sailing full speed and going backwards.
One of the common mistakes visitors make is to say, "I'll time it to come in with the flood tide and go out with the ebb, and all will be well." That's possible if you're familiar with the currents, aren't going through the bridges, or aren't trying any complicated docking. With a four- or five-knot current flowing and lots of boat traffic around, it can be quite treacherous waiting for bridge openings. The set and drift will be different in each part of the river.
If you're unfamiliar with the area, it's best to stay within an hour of slack tide, give or take a little. Beware of opposing current and wind conditions at the river mouth at Henderson Point, and even upriver near the power plant in Newington. Standing waves can form when the current is moving quickly and opposing the wind. At times eddies, boils and whirlpools can remind you more of whitewater kayaking than sailing.
The bridge tenders can entertain people for hours with all the horror stories of underpowered sailboats losing the battle to the rapid current. Not too long ago a small, visiting cruise ship was swept into the Sara Long Bridge, much to the chagrin of the skipper. But my mission here is not to scare you; indeed I want to encourage you to explore this area. If you are prudent, and pay attention to the slack water timing, Portsmouth and Kittery merit a visit during your coastal cruise.
As I mentioned earlier, you can expect some heavy boat traffic in the summer, particularly on weekends when the pleasure boats are out in force. But this is primarily a working harbor, and you can expect lots of lobstermen, commercial fishing boats, some large tugs, freighters and tankers at any time. The boat wakes can sometimes be a problem.
Give the larger vessels a wide berth, and talk to the bridge tenders on VHF Channel 13 if you plan on going through the bridges before or after the commercial traffic. The bridge tenders are most helpful, and will direct the boat traffic if necessary and warn you of dangers. They will also admonish you if you are proceeding too slowly and the road traffic has been held up too long. I responded to one bridge tender, while fighting a two-three knot current, "I'm pedaling as fast as I can!" I can still hear his chuckle.
Watching the Moran tugboats push, pull and cajole a large commercial freighter through these narrow bridges with a current running is like watching a ballet. They fill the bridge openings like a large man in a doorway. Enjoy the show, but beware of prop wash from the tugs when they are maneuvering – and give them plenty of room. They are working hard.
Now that I've scared the hell out of you, you're asking yourself, "Why should we go there at all?" So let's get to the good parts.
Before you enter the mouth of the river, you'll begin to see points of interest. Approaching from the south, FL G 4s BELL G "1" marking Gunboat Shoals. The name is derived from the Revolutionary War, when patriots fired from the shore on a British Gunboat anchored near the shoals and, according to legend, scared them off. On your port side is Odiornes Point, a World War II fortification to protect the crucial harbor and Navy Yard. Now it is Odiorne Point State Park, and it has a great view of the shoreline and Isles of Shoals.
It should now be easy to spot the harbor entrance between Whaleback Light – Fl (2) W. ev. 10 s. – and Portsmouth Harbor Light on Fort Point (fixed green, Horn 1 bl. Ev. 10 s.). You can also see the magnificently refurbished Wentworth-By-The-Sea Hotel standing watch over Little Harbor. As you continue into Portsmouth Harbor, still on the port side in New Castle, are more old fortifications presently converted into parks: Fort Stark, Camp Langdon, and Fort Constitution.
Originally built in 1631 and called Fort William and Mary, Fort Constitution is the present home of Coast Guard Station Portsmouth, and it is perhaps the most impressive fortification. One can easily imagine how daunting it must have been to enter the harbor with all those gun emplacements silently waiting for a British captain brave enough to make a run for it. The local Sons of Liberty, warned by Paul Revere, captured the garrison from the British in 1774 without firing a shot, and the booty of 16 cannons, powder and shot was eventually used in the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston in 1775.
Off to starboard is Wood Island, with an abandoned building and some deteriorating cribworks directly behind it. During World War II, submarine nets were placed across the entrance to the harbor, and the cribworks were placed in the shallows, where the nets couldn't be placed, to keep enemy torpedo boats from coming through at high tide.
Back to exploring! From this vantage point you can look over the bow and see another fort at the end of Kittery Point. This is Fort McClary with its distinctive white blockhouse up on the hill. The original fortification dates back to 1720 when it was called Fort William, after loyalist William Pepperell. To the right of the blockhouse are the range marks for the first leg of the harbor entrance. The range also is the dividing line at this point between New Hampshire and Maine. If you are starboard of the range you are in Maine and to port you are in "New Hampsha."
Sailing past Fort Point and green can G "5", you can look to port and see the range markers on Pierces Island, off the Portsmouth shore, that define the turn and next leg in a westerly direction. But this leg is quite obvious, and the river is wide here, the current "relaxed." An interesting change in weather usually takes place at this point; right at Fort Point, the cool ocean air usually gives way to a much warmer shore temperature. Fort Foster is on the Kittery side, to starboard, and many abandoned fortifications remain in the present-day park.
Pepperell Cove is ahead to starboard, and a small number of guest moorings are available from the Portsmouth Yacht Club across the river. More transient moorings and a fuel dock are available in front of the Portsmouth Yacht Club clubhouse just past G "5" and west of Salamander Point in New Castle. The dockmaster monitors VHF channels 16 and 78. The Kittery Point Yacht Club (hail the steward on Channel 68) is also in New Castle, on Goat Island as you approach Portsmouth.
There's usually some room directly in front of Fort McClary to anchor. It is one of the few places recommended for anchoring due to the currents and water depths in this harbor. Remember, you will approach moorings, anchor, and swing to both current and wind, under the influence of the former more than the latter. Kittery Point Wharf (207-439-0912) is to the east in Pepperrell Cove, and the harbormaster might be able to arrange for space for a night or two at the town docks. Kittery Landing Marina (207-439-1661) and Badgers Island Marina (207-439-3820), both upriver on Badgers Island, also may have slip space.
After you've made the turn to port, you'll see an imposing castle-like structure ahead. This is the former naval prison on Seavey Island. With its crenellated turrets and walls reported to be several feet thick, it's now unused and in a state of deterioration. One interesting side trip, if you stay here, is a dinghy trip up Kittery Point's Chauncey Creek to Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier for lobster in the rough. Bring your own beverages.
If you continue into the river and have slack water, or close to it, you can proceed with Seavey Island and the Portsmouth Navy Yard to starboard. Why isn't it the Kittery Navy Yard? The two states have fought about ownership of the Navy Yard for many years, and recently it went before the Supreme Court, which decided in Maine's favor. Maine gets the taxes, but New Hampshire gets to keep the name.
Passing Henderson Point, you will come close to shore on both sides and see how the current can really draw through this gut. I'm told it used to be called Haul or Be Damned Point. The river widens after this, but keep the green cans to port; they mark some rocks. There's plenty of water in the channel. Homeland Security now requires us to give the Navy Yard a wide berth to starboard. You'll most assuredly see armed patrol boats in this vicinity.
Submarines seem to magically appear here for repairs. I never see one coming or going, but there they are – as many as four at a time on occasion. While not at all scenic, the Navy Yard is an interesting sight for the curious. A trip on the north side of Seavey Island, through Back Channel, reveals a much quieter spot with less current. It's loaded with moorings and has two low, fixed bridges connecting the Navy Yard to Kittery.
On the south shore of the river is Portsmouth. Prescott Park municipal docks are in the center of the seaport, and the city controls the transient rentals. The dockmasters monitor VHF Channel 9. Dock space is also available at Harbor Place Marina (603-436-0915) off Bow Street, on the upriver side of the Memorial Bridge. Both docks are within walking distance of scores of good restaurants, and bars. Any imaginable type of cuisine can be found within walking distance here. There is also live entertainment in Prescott Park's outdoor theater, the Seacoast Repertory Theater, numerous clubs and eateries, and the Portsmouth Music Hall.
Portsmouth is a true "walking city," so it's perfect for visiting sailors. Visit the historic Strawberry Banke area for a taste of colonial Portsmouth. Bicycling is excellent in almost any direction. Kayaking and dinghy trips are great fun – if you are mindful of the current – in the many creeks and back channels, particularly toward New Castle and Little Harbor. It is also a photographer's paradise.
If you plan on continuing upriver, you must go through the bridges at this point. They are both center-span lift-bridges with vertical clearances of over 135 feet when fully open. The Memorial Bridge, built around 1920, opens during the summer on the hour and half-hour upon request. Call on Channel 13 and tell the bridge tender what you need for height. About a half-mile upriver is the Sara Long Bridge (call on Channel 13 to request an opening), which opens on the quarter-hour, requiring a 15-minute stay between bridges for sailboats. On busy summer days, there may be 10 or more boats waiting to pass under the bridges.
Once through the Memorial Bridge, look to port for a spectacular view of downtown Portsmouth, with the North Church spire, waterfront bistros, and the tugboat dock. The Portsmouth waterfront after this point becomes more industrial and commercial. Along the Maine side, you'll see some large, yellow navigation aids. These mark the turning basin for the large ships. Do not venture outside these aids. The water shoals pretty quickly. On the Elliot, Maine, shore, after you pass Long Bridge and go under the Route 95 bridge, with a fixed clearance of 135 feet, to starboard is a marina with about 100 boats. This is the Great Cove Boat Club where my boat, Dragonfly, has been berthed for the past four years. The powerboaters are charitable enough to allow a few humble sailboats to dock there (and make it more picturesque). From this location, I can easily cruise my favorite waters from Narragansett Bay to Mount Desert Island.
You can proceed all the way up to Dover Point and into Great Bay under the fixed General Sullivan bridge if you are adventurous and your mast is less than 46 feet off the water. Great Bay is vast enough for another several days of exploration. Most of the shore is undeveloped conservation area and, thus, a dramatic change from the busy Portsmouth and Kittery areas.
Mike Pothier has been sailing off and on for more than 30 years on a wide variety of boats. He presently owns Dragonfly, a 1990 Hunter Legend 35.5, which is berthed in Eliot, Maine. In the mid-'70s, he lived and sailed in the U.S. Virgin Islands and was a member of the St. Thomas diving club. He now sails with his mentally handicapped son Derek (known up and down the coast as "Big D") and sometimes with his good friend, and sailor in training, Elphis "the Hiking Goddess." You can find them sailing anywhere in New England Waters from Long Island sound to Mount Desert Island. Mike says he's too young to be retired, so he refers to his status as having "seven-day weekends" to go sailing.