A quart in a pint pot

A gander down Bow Street in Portsmouth, which, especially on a nice day, always bustles with activity. Photo by Marilyn Pond Brigham

By Marilyn Pond Brigham
For Points East

Cruising along the New England shoreline is always pleasurable. But, for us visually, cruising some sections of the southern New England coast can get a bit repetitive and monotonous. Perhaps this is because these are our home waters – rocks and hardscrabble, low-lying marshes, sandy shores, white steeples and gray shingled homes do have their charms – and familiarity has bred a little indifference.

But cruising the along coast of New Hampshire is anything but boring. Of course, there’s not as much shoreline along the edges of the Granite State. Some cartographers say New Hampshire has only 18 miles of “Atlantic” shoreline. Others count 235 miles of “estuarine” shoreline, including the littoral of the great Piscataqua River, its tributaries, and inland Great Bay. Cruising its coast is fascinating – large bluffs, rocky ledges, seaside homes perched on rocks, the salty Isles of Shoals, and, in the distance, the mountains of Maine.

Perhaps one of the more distinctive landmarks to any harbor on the coast is the huge, red roof of a historic, grand hotel – Wentworth by the Sea – that can be seen on the approach to Little Harbor on New Castle Island. Our seasonal voyages take us to the New Castle/Portsmouth area about every other year. We’ve used the marina in Little Harbor as both a waypoint on our way to Maine and as a destination. We can recommend both.

When traveling to New Castle for an extended stay, we hope to get a slip at Wentworth Marina, in Little Harbor, though I know there are other options. When you first notice the big, red roof on a majestic, white building on a hill 60 feet above sea level, right above the harbor, you’ll know you are nearing the marina.

Leave Bell G “1” on Gunboat Shoal to port and head for R “2KR” off Kitts Rocks. That area around the harbor’s entrance has lots of rocks and generally lots of lobster pots, so set a watch on the bow. The tidal and river currents of the Piscataqua River at the entrance are swift indeed, running six knots at times. We’ve found it’s best to time your arrival at the harbor around slack tide.

We’ve briefly grabbed a mooring at Gosport Harbor, in the Isles of Shoals some six miles southeast of Portsmouth, while waiting for a favorable tide. You’ll see Whaleback Light in the middle of the Piscataqua River, not far from Fort Constitution and the Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle.

The town of New Castle is comprised of one main island and several smaller ones in the Piscataqua River. New Castle is home to a couple of historic forts, a Coast Guard station, Portsmouth Harbor Light, the famous Wentworth by the Sea hotel, and Wentworth Marina (www.wentworthmarina.com).

To get to the marina, follow the channel, R “2” to C “5”. At the breakwater, hail the marina on VHF Channel 71 for your slip assignment. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more hospitable and well-equipped marina. It offers over 150 slips and dockage for vessels up to 250 feet, with all the amenities we mariners have come to expect. Not only does it offer impeccably clean heads, Wi-Fi that actually works, fuel, grills, ice, bait and a restaurant at the top of the dock, it also is dog-friendly. And it offers the use of two free courtesy cars.

The facilities of the adjacent Wentworth by the Sea hotel – that majestic, red-roofed building – are available to marina guests as well, and this includes the use of the hotel’s spa, restaurants, swimming pool and tennis courts. One could easily make this a long-term vacation destination.

One year, we stayed at the marina for several days before continuing on to Maine. A nasty storm was rolling up the coast, which kept most mariners hunkered down. We were in the marina’s office, determining whether we would be able to stay in our slip another day, when a woman at sea, off the Isles of Shoals, called the office. Seems her husband was thrilled with sailing in five-foot seas, while she was terrified. She was hoping there was space for the boat at the marina. The office manager couldn’t have been nicer in calming her and assuring her they’d make a slip available and “catch” them at the dock. We were most impressed with their empathy for this damsel in distress.

While in the office, we picked up the keys to a courtesy car. On that rainy day, we drove around New Castle, viewing the historic homes, the small village, Fort Constitution, and then driving to Portsmouth for lunch. Imagine driving off in someone’s car for a couple of hours, the only stipulation being that we replenish the gas we’d used.

Little Harbor is charming. It has a broad channel and anchorage, and it is nothing if not picturesque with numerous sailboats moorings. The area directly across from the marina – a golf-course community – is lush and green. There’s a feeling of openness in the harbor, and with numerous islands accessible in and just off the Piscataqua River, exploration beckons.

The mighty Piscataqua itself marks the boundary between New Hampshire and Maine. The islands in the river “divide” it. On the other side of New Castle are Goat, Shapleigh and Peirce Islands, and the towns of Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine, with all their busy-ness, docks, yacht clubs, and a Navy installation. Here, also, is the river, with its strong currents and ever-present tankers, tugs, Navy ships, lobsterboats, and all manner of pleasure craft.

On the west side of New Castle Island, in the back channels behind the islands, the current is not quite as formidable. It’s quiet and residential, with sandy beaches and parks, herons and shorebirds in abundance, kids sailing their knockabouts, and kayakers threading through the cuts.

We always find it fun to explore all this in the dinghy. Our first time on the river, equipped with a good-sized outboard, we made our way upstream to Portsmouth. Our first Piscataqua dink trip should probably have been our last. New-found friends on the marina’s dock told us to just head upstream. We did, but we took a wrong turn and found ourselves and our small inflatable in the powerful Piscataqua, not in the “back-channel.”

The water roiled, eddies churned, and waves slopped into the boat, and we were dwarfed by maritime traffic. We were clearly out of our element. We swung around behind one of the islands and all became quiet again. So much for exploration without a chart. Through the years, we’ve become more proficient at piloting and navigating, without incident, to Portsmouth.

Another iconic building right on the river, not far from the marina, is the ocher-colored Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, at 375 Little Harbor Road in Portsmouth. The 18th-century building and farm originally belonging to the first Royal Governor is now owned by the State. On the grounds, sometimes we see plein-air artists at work or kids playing, but we’ve never been ashore. It’s on our to-do list for our next visit, and we look forward to the house tour, gorgeous grounds, walking trails and a private marine lab. All along the river salt creeks abound, with lovely homes and pretty boats at their docks, just begging for exploration.

Once past Shapleigh Island, and under the Route 18 bridge, the shoreline becomes more densely populated and commercial (fish and lobster markets), but many historic homes and businesses are seen along the water. This is now Portsmouth, and there’s great fun to be had along the Portsmouth waterfront. Consider a sail aboard the Piscataqua, the Gundalow Company’s replica of the 17th- to 19th-century Piscataqua River freighters; a stroll through the Graves Burial Ground; or, perhaps, a walk among the flower beds of Prescott Park. You can tie up your dinghy at the town dock, right at the Prescott Park Dock. A dockmaster is on-site, and a small fee is levied to leave your dinghy for several hours to explore the City of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth is a walkable city, laid out in a large grid between two mill ponds and, of course, along the Piscataqua. The city honors its illustrious shipbuilding past and highlights the historic architecture of its downtown buildings. You’ll find many fine examples of Colonial-, Georgian- and Federal-style houses, some of which are maintained as museums. Many of downtown Portsmouth’s structures are built of brick with slate roofs. This construction was once mandated by the city after a devastating fire destroyed many of its wooden buildings.

No end of fine restaurants, coffee shops, brew houses, interesting shops and art galleries exist here for your pleasure. No visit to Portsmouth should end before a visit to Strawbery Banke Museum, a stunning recreated assemblage of period homes and stores cross the street from Prescott Park. It encompasses 10 acres and has 32 buildings and several gardens.

Farther down the river, you can see where the faithful and indefatigable tugs are berthed, and then the Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. ferry dock. Back down the river, toward its mouth on the opposite side, is Seavey Island, in Maine, home of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

A trip to New Castle and Portsmouth can be quite an adventure if you think just a bit outside the box. In a very short stretch of coast, a wondrous variety of experiences is accessible to the visiting cruiser. For a smallish state with a tiny shoreline, New Hampshire has a disproportionately large offering of rewards.

Marilyn Brigham and her co-captain/spouse Paul sail Selkie, a Catalina 445, out of Quissett Harbor, Falmouth, Mass. A lifelong sailor, she’s a current member of both the Quissett and Cottage Park yacht clubs.