An insider’s guide to the Isles of Shoals

A bird’s-eye view of Star Island. Photo by Bruce Parsons

July 2022

By Jack Farrell

The Isles of Shoals have loomed large in my life since my father first took me to Star Island in 1959 at the age of four. As I have previously related in these pages, my recollection of the Oceanic Hotel rising from the green lawn at the end of the pier is one of my earliest memories. My father was a history buff, an avid reader, a writer in the tradition of the New England Transcendentalists, and a lover of regional lore and history. He spent many of his early summers at Boar’s Head in Hampton, where the loom of the lighthouse on White Island at the Shoals would dominate his nightly view across the water. He was naturally drawn to the Shoals for their history, mystery, and connection to the arts in nineteenth-century America (with the likes of Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, Jewett, Hassam and many more).

Our annual trips to Star Island were the highlight of my early summers, and in many ways, they shaped my life to come. My father, who had high professional hopes for my younger brother and me, might view the last fourteen years of my working life with a trace of chagrin. But I’m certain he would also understand how I could have been drawn into working in and around these quirky, wondrous, mythical islands which meant so much to him. Either way, I’m a Shoals insider now – no longer a tourist on the day-tripper boat. Here is my brief and rambling insider’s guide for cruising visitors to these islands:


Anchoring challenges

One of the biggest challenges to cruisers visiting the Shoals is the lack of moorings and the poor holding ground for anchoring. There are no public or rental moorings available in Gosport Harbor – or anywhere else at the Isles of Shoals. The private moorings belong to local yacht clubs, individuals and the islanders themselves who use them regularly throughout the summer. The bottom is mostly rocky and kelp-strewn. The water is very deep through the harbor, and where it isn’t, the moorings are too close together to allow secure anchoring with sufficient swinging room. In a strong westerly, the harbor becomes a dangerous maritime box canyon with an unforgiving lee shore of boulders and ledge. Because of these limitations, my advice is to avoid Saturday visits altogether when chaos reigns, as too many visitors compete to stake false claims on other people’s moorings. On other days of the week, there are always vacant moorings and some room to anchor carefully. The unspoken tradition is that a vacant mooring may be used by a visitor if the rightful owner is not in need of it. Stay with the boat or keep a close eye out in case you need to move. In a strong westerly, capable cruisers anchor in the cove between Smuttynose and Cedar to the east of the breakwater in shallow water with a sandy bottom.



Approach to the islands from the west is straightforward. Run for the red and white IS bell and continue into Gosport Harbor. From the southeast, come in between Star and White, paying close attention to the red nun marking Halfway Rock between Star and Lunging. Leave it to starboard to avoid the rock. (I have personally rescued more than one pilgrim who left it to port.) Approaches through the Gut between Smuttynose and Appledore are feasible but challenging in big seas from the east. Favor the Smuttynose shore, as a ledge works out halfway into the Gut from Appledore. If you are coming from the east, be very careful around Duck Island, especially on its northern, southern, and western edges, as ledges make out a long way from shore, and the swell can be impressive.

Star Island is the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals. The site of a family conference center operated under the principles of the Unitarian and Congregational Churches, Star discouraged outside visitors for many years. (I have my own stories of unwelcoming behavior at Star from the recent past.) But all that has changed, and visitors are welcome throughout the season. On summer weekends, the island runs a launch service on the comely Thomas Dudley, which can be hailed on VHF channel 9. Landing of skiffs may be possible, but the dock can be very busy, so check with the dock attendant or go to the front desk up the grand stairs of the Oceanic Hotel and check in. Star Island may also have a free guest mooring available for use at your own risk. Star Island is a struggling non-profit, and the conscientious visitor will make a generous donation to support the services and maintenance of the historic island.


A rich and often dark history

The Oceanic Hotel on Star features a snack bar, a bookstore and a gift shop. The bookstore provides island history and guides which reveal some of the rich stories, traditions, and myths of the Shoals (piracy, murder, smugglers, shipwrecks, European conquest and ghosts, to name just a few) and should not be missed.

If space is available, cruisers may dine and even stay the night at the hotel. There is a snack bar and a shoreside grill with open hours and other information available at the hotel’s front desk. Ask there also about sustainability tours of island infrastructure (including the largest off-grid solar array in New England), access to the Vaughn Museum and Rutledge Marine Lab, and the weekly staff variety show. Do not visit Star Island without at least looking into the historic stone chapel. My recommendation is to spend a few quiet moments inside with a backdrop of calling gulls, and waves rolling in from Portugal to encourage relaxation and reflection.

Star is also the place for emergency aid. In summer, there is a professionally staffed medical clinic. Water, ice, gasoline and diesel may be available for those, especially in need. Mainland ferry connections and delivery arrangements can also be made at the hotel front desk to Portsmouth and Rye, New Hampshire.

Dogs are not allowed on any of the islands, except for Malaga. Malaga is joined to Smuttynose at low tide. Smuttynose and Malaga are owned by a Shoals legacy family, now under conservation easement and managed by volunteer stewards. Access is by small boat only, on the beach, inside the breakwater. The stewards will greet you and show you the ropes. Smuttynose was once the site of great commerce and the Isles’ first hotel. Some say it was also a haven for smugglers. It is also known for the grisly murders of the late nineteenth century made famous in the book and film “Weight of Water.” The original and unadorned story of the murders is available at the Star Island bookstore. A recent archeological dig on the island revealed evidence of human habitation going back 10,000 years. A walk from the beach on the rugged trail to the eastern tip of the island is worth your time.

Between Smuttynose and Star Island, and connected by breakwaters, is privately-owned Cedar Island. Visitors to Cedar are discouraged, but if you see the big, red lobster boat, Norman and Mary, in the harbor, you may ask to purchase some Shoals lobster from one of its owners or his children.

You may notice that the Gosport Harbor breakwaters are losing their battle with the waves. The Army Corps of Engineers is planning a rebuild of these essential structures, likely for 2023. Imagine how challenging maritime activities would have been in this harbor before the breakwaters were first constructed in the 1830s, at a time when the islands were the base for scores of large schooners exploiting the rich cod fishery and supporting the islands’ eight hundred or more residents.

Lunging Island is a small private island to the west of Star. It was the site of a sixteenth-century British trading post. The main structure, known as the Honeymoon Cottage, was frequented by wedding guests from the nearby hotel on Appledore Island in its heyday. The owner tells me that visitors will be welcomed when he is on the island. Access is by skiff only in the cove on the eastern shore.


Appledore Island

Appledore Island, owned in large part by the Star Island Corporation, is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which is operated jointly by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. The lab provides a research base for scholars and summer undergraduate programs in ocean sciences. A wind generator, a radar tower from World War II, and the remains of a lifesaving station dominate the Appledore skyline. A visit to the reconstructed garden of poet Celia Thaxter makes a nice outing. Four private homes are located on the southern shore, the only evidence of a failed real estate development that would have built a hundred summer cottages on the 95-acre island in the early twentieth century. In the middle part of the nineteenth century, Appledore was home to the expansive luxury hotel that provided the base for the legendary arts and social scene of the Shoals. Steamships from Boston, New York and Philadelphia brought visitors throughout the summer as guests of the Laighton family. When the hotel was lost to fire, the desperate Laightons tried to keep the banks at bay through lot sales but eventually lost the fight. The undeveloped portions of Appledore are now being considered for a conservation easement. The Marine Lab monitors VHF channel 80 and may allow landing in your dinghy.

White and Seavey are connected at low tide. Seavey is the site of a successful habitat restoration project for terns. The terns are noisy and aggressive, especially in the first half of the summer. White Island is the site of the Isles of Shoals Lighthouse, commissioned by George Washington but not constructed until the Jefferson presidency. In the worst storms, waves crash over the top of the light tower. Landing on White is extremely difficult due to the rocky shore and constant surge. Approach – if you must – from the north in a small and nimble boat. A state mooring may be available just off the ledges. Land in the cove where the steel ramp descends from the keeper’s house. You will likely need to wade. The island is usually managed by tern program scientists and volunteer stewards who will escort you to the impressive tower with its equally impressive view.

Duck Island is barely an island at all, though it once supported a fisherman’s cottage and was favored by early Shoalers for the abundance of waterfowl. Duck was a target site for Naval bombing practice until the 1960s, and unexploded ordinance is said to be a continuing threat to visitors. The outlying ledges make an approach from any direction dangerous except in a small boat. The island is home to an expanding seal population of over five hundred in peak season, most grey seals. Along with the seals come the sharks. For all these reasons, the mariner is advised to view Duck and its wildlife from a respectful distance. Duck Island is under conservation easement managed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Working to keep these islands safe and functioning is tiring and often frustrating. But the rewards of being out here to experience the variety of scenes and seasons, from the sublime to the terrible, keep us coming back and draw more and more visitors every year. A retiring colleague from Appledore sent me a nice message the other day recognizing my own contributions to this special place. I wish I knew my father’s address in whatever Transcendental heaven he landed those fifty-two years ago so I could forward it to him. But maybe he already has it. Or maybe he’s been out here the whole time. Either way, I invite you to come out and feel the magic of the Isles of Shoals sometime soon.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Islands at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.