Isles of Shoals

What's perhaps most remarkable about the Isles of Shoals today is how easy it still is to get that sense of being 'apart from the main' here.

Introduction

Our islands, far at sea, held unusual attraction for visitors from the busy cities of the mainland. The bracing air came over miles of water, pure and invigorating, and there was perfect quiet except for the murmur of the ocean about the shore. . . {Laighton, p. 101}

Oscar Laighton, whose family owned and ran hotels at the Isles of Shoals throughout the second half of the 19th century, wrote this in the 1920s, looking back on a lifetime spent five miles offshore. The sense of remoteness that he identifies has characterized these islands since Europeans arrived in the New World.

Early fishermen used the Shoals to dry their catch for transport to markets around the Atlantic. (The best explanation of the Isles’ name is that “Shoals” refers to schools of fish rather than shallow water). As these shore stations grew in to modest settlements, they remained focused on the surrounding ocean and isolated from mainland institutions. The resort hotels which replaced fishing as the Isles’ primary activity did so, as Oscar Laighton suggests, by treating this isolation as an attribute.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about the Isles of Shoals today is how easy it still is to get that sense of being ‘apart from the main’ here. Even when the Thomas Laighton (named irreverently for Oscar’s father) cruises through the harbor at sunset blasting dance music, you know that in 15 minutes or so it will be gone.

📷 Geoff Rand
A tern population, resurgent over the past decade, nests and breeds at the Isles from late spring to early summer.
📷 Geoff Rand
Even when the Thomas Laighton (named irreverently for Oscar’s father) cruises through the harbor at sunset blasting dance music, you know that in 15 minutes or so it will be gone.

Navigation

Approaches

The Isles of Shoals rise abruptly from water that’s 50 to over 100 feet deep. The main islands that form Gosport Harbor — Star, Cedar and Smuttynose — are all rocky and sheer, with navigable water close to shore. If you’re coming from the north, west or south there is very little to worry about that isn’t normally visible. In the unlikely case that you’re approaching from the east, find the Cedar Island and Anderson Ledges (both marked) south and east of Star Island.

There is an unlit Red & White bell off the entrance to help line up an approach. Halfway Rocks (mid-way between Lunging and Star Islands, marked by a nun) show more prominently on the chart than they do on the water. The rocks uncover 2 feet at mean lower low, but on a light-air day with a modest swell they may not break obviously, even at half tide.

Gosport Harbor is well-enough protected from north around to southwest. But in a stiff northwest wind, especially an extended one following an early- or late-season cold front, it can feel uncomfortably exposed.

Not for navigation

Anchorages

Anchoring in Gosport Harbor is widely discouraged. The Coast Pilot states that “the bottom is reported to be rocky and foul. . .” Hank and Jan Taft, in their delightful and authoritative A Cruising Guide to the Coast of Maine go further: “Holding ground is very poor, in kelp and rock beds. In most harbors, you can trust your anchor more than unknown moorings, but in Gosport Harbor it is better to pick up a mooring.”

 

It’s further complicated by the shape of the harbor. Most of the water inside the 30-foot contour is taken up with moorings, so to find swinging room you’ll likely be trying to anchor in depths over 40 feet at low.

Not for navigation

Moorings

The Portsmouth Yacht Club has about eight moorings in Gosport Harbor. Some are labelled for member use only; others are used informally by visitors when not occupied by members. There is no mechanism for reservations.

Kittery Point Yacht Club maintains a few moorings here as well. They are not actively managed by the club, and are available first-come first-served to visiting boats when not being used by KPYC members.

Given the Isles’ popularity with local boats out of Portsmouth from June through September, and the lack of reservable moorings, it’s best to plan your stopover for weeknights or the off-season. Visiting boats should not pick up the private moorings belonging to the Star Island Corporation or to the local fishing families.

There are no slips at the Isles of Shoals.

The breakwater between Star and Cedar. Even when seas from the east are shooting spray above the top of the wall, the harbor inside is tranquil.

Breakwaters

Three different breakwaters contribute to the protection of Gosport Harbor. Without them, the anchorage would be closer to an open roadstead than to anything resembling a secure harbor. It’s daunting to think that all three were built after the heyday of Gosport as an active fishing community.

The smallest and oldest of the breakwaters connects Smuttynose with Malaga just to its west. The story goes that Captain Samuel Haley “in turning over a flat stone to repair a wall. . . found under it several solid bars of silver from which he realized three thousand dollars. With this money. . . he built the seawall and stone wharf that make the safe little harbor at Smuttynose.” {Laighton, p. 20} Various sources date the Haley’s Harbor breakwater anywhere from the 1780s to the 1820s.

Next was the breakwater connecting Smuttynose to Cedar, built with rock from Smuttynose in 1821 and substantially rebuilt after 1902. The final section connecting Cedar to Star was constructed by the US government with granite from Rockport, Massachusetts a few years later.

It’s irresistible to contrast the initial promise and ultimate result of the breakwaters here and in Sandy Bay.

📷 Geoff Rand
Isles of Shoals light on White Island.
📷 Geoff Rand
This WWII observation tower is the most prominent feature on Appledore.

Charts

Not for navigation. Charts are not updated. 

Going Ashore

When Robert Carter visited during his Summer Cruise in 1858, he noted “we went ashore to look at the curiosities of the isles, which are all of a melancholy and sinister nature.” {Carter, p.129} And it is tempting to imagine the Shoals through a collection of macabre or tragic stories (For examples of shipwreck, murder, pirates, ghosts, see photos & more below).

But the larger story of the Isles of Shoals can be summed up in four words: fishing, hotels, conferences, laboratories. The center of activity has shifted from one island to another maybe a half-dozen times over the four centuries of English/American settlement. If there isn’t a single, simple narrative for the islands, the development of these four primary historic businesses comes close.

📷 Geoff Rand
View from the center of Star Island.
📷 Geoff Rand
Celia Thaxter was a formidable poet in her era, but today she is most frequently remembered for An Island Garden, the intimate book (with delightful illustrations by Childe Hassam) that she wrote about her cultivation of flowers on Appledore. A version of the garden in it’s original location has been recreated and maintained since the 1970s.

Appledore

Appledore is the largest of the Isles, and its history in many ways is the most convoluted. First known as Hog Island, it held the greatest early population — maybe several hundred inhabitants supported by fishing. About 1680 the residents of Hog decamped to Star Island, crossing state lines from Maine (then a part of Massachusetts) into New Hampshire. The common story that they moved to avoid Massachusetts taxes fits neatly into modern stereotypes.

When Thomas Laighton, a successful merchant and politician from Portsmouth, bought Hog, Smuttynose, Malaga and Cedar Islands the 1830s “. . .there was not a house on Appledore.” {Laighton p. 19} He established a small fishing business on Appledore while serving as lighthouse keeper on White Island from 1839 to 1847. Appledore then entered the most prominent period of its history in 1848 when Laighton opened a hotel with 80 guest rooms — and gave the island its melodious present name.

Appledore House thrived during the middle part of the 19th century. Thomas’s daughter Celia Thaxter was a widely published poet and writer, and a vivid hostess, who helped attract to Appledore many of New England’s leading figures. By 1900, however, all but one of the Laightons involved in managing Appledore House had died and the business was running at a loss. The island was being divided into lots for sale when the hotel and seven outlying cottages burned in 1914.

Appledore kept a low profile in the middle of the 20th century, until the joint Cornell/UNH Shoals Marine Laboratory arrived shortly after its founding in 1966.

Star Island

For most of its history since English settlement, Star was home to a little fishing village eventually named Gosport. When Nathaniel Hawthorne visited the Shoals in 1852 he observed of Star:

It is the most populous island of the group. . . The number of voters is variously represented as from eighteen to twenty-eight. The inhabitants are all, I presume, fishermen. Their houses stand in pretty close neighborhood to one another, scattered about without the slightest regularity or pretence of a street, there being no wheel-carriages on the island. Some of the houses are very comfortable two-story dwellings. I saw two or three, I think, with flowers. There are also one or two trees on the island. There is a strong odor of fishiness, and the little cove is full of mackerel-boats. . . {NH/AN}

By 1872, an entrepreneur from Massachusetts (named with ironic foreshadowing John Poor) bought up all the individual lots on Star and built the fairly opulent Oceanic Hotel. The original structure burned to the ground within two years of its opening, to be replaced by the hotel complex that remains in use today. The business quickly failed, however, and Mr. Poor sold Star Island and the Oceanic to the Laightons of Appledore in 1875.

In the 1890s, groups affiliated with the Unitarian Church started coming to the Oceanic for vacations and conferences. They eventually organized as the Star Island Corporation and bought the hotel along with the rest of the island in 1915. They continue to offer a wide range of family-friendly conferences on Star Island each summer from June through September.

Visiting sailors who want to explore Star can do so between 8am and sunset. There’s room to tie a dinghy on the back side of the float and a box for a modest suggested donation at the landing. Trails fan out across the island. The hotel has a basic snack bar with pizza, hot dogs and the essential ice cream, but note that it’s closed during meal times. Meals for conference attendees are served family-style in the hotel’s dining room, and there is one table reserved for visitors. If you need a break from ship-board cooking and enjoy talking with other cruising sailors, it’s a good option.

Smuttynose

Of all the Isles, Smuttynose best evokes the Shoals’ early fishing days. Most of it is now undeveloped, but with old foundations and stone walls and graves throughout the island testifying to the extent of former activity. Over the years it’s recorded as having a ropewalk, a saltworks, a hotel, a tavern, a brewery and a bowling alley.

The iconic (at least for fans of Shoals Pale Ale) Captain Samuel Haley house, an 18th century cape, looks out over the western end of the island. Land your dinghy underneath the house, in Haley’s Harbor, formed by the breakwater between Malaga and Smuttynose. The house has been restored and may be open sporadically when an island caretaker is present. There are swimable tide pools for the kids by the harbor and paths leading to the interior beyond the houses..

In May and June, nesting gulls will make a very loud case that Smuttynose is entirely theirs.

White Island

The island’s most prominent feature is the Isles of Shoals Light, now (like the island itself) owned by the State of New Hampshire.

Since the mid 1990s, White and attached Seavey’s Island have been the site of a notably successful tern restoration project. Working now with Shoals Marine Lab, Dan and Melissa Hayward have over that time helped the terns grow from only 45 nesting pairs in 1998 to a relatively steady population of about 2500 pairs in each year since 2003 — primarily by driving away predatory gulls.

It’s possible to land your dinghy at the old Coast Guard ramp on White Island. But during the May – August nesting season the (friendly!) tern team will be as vigilant keeping you away from the ground-level nests with their vulnerable eggs and chicks as they would be with any seagull.

Cedar, Lunging and Duck Islands

Cedar and Lunging are privately owned. Duck was formerly used by the Navy for bombing tests, and it is now conserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust as a wildlife sanctuary.

📷 Geoff Rand
Samuel Haley’s repaired gravestone. Old transcriptions of his epitaph read: In memory of Mr. Samuel Haley who died Feb 7th, 1811 Aged 84. He was a man of great ingenuity Industry, Honor, and Honesty, true to his Country & a man who did A great Publik good in Building A Dock & Receiving into his Enclosure many a poor Distressed Seaman & Fisherman In distress of Weather {Rutledge, p. 49}

One Hour Ashore

Smuttynose, both convenient and quiet, offers the best reward for a short visit. Star has more to see if you have more time.

Off the Beaten Path

During conference season on Star, the area around the wharf and hotel will be busy. But a quick hike to the other side of the island will get you to a rugged, rocky coastline that’s likely to be deserted for large stretches.

Maritime History

John Smith’s voyage along the New England coast in 1614 is regarded as the first record of the Isles of Shoals in English. He tried to name them after himself:

“Smyths Iles are a heape together, none neere them, against Accominticus.”

Smith may have given the entire region its name, but his eponymous title for the Isles of Shoals never stuck. 

Rainy Day

For extended bad weather, the protected moorings and warm taverns in Portsmouth offer a pretty enticing alternative.

Services

Facilities

Dinghy landings are described in the text for each island.

There is a little guidebook to Smuttynose at the landing.

Otherwise there are no public facilities per se on the Isles, and access to the various buildings isn’t reliable or predictable. Visiting sailors should plan to be self-sufficient and, as with any small island, take trash back to the mainland.

Fitting Out

There are no supplies or services available.

Photos & More

The Murders on Smuttynose

In March of 1873 occurred the terrible murder of two Norwegian women on Smuttynose Island. It seemed that the men folk of the family there had sailed to Portsmouth with a load of fish, leaving their three women alone on the island. A man named Louis Wagner, a Prussian, was on the wharf in Portsmouth when the men arrived. . . knowing the situation there, Wagner rowed out to the islands during the night in a dory. . . and attempted to rob the Norwegian home. The women discovered him, and he killed two of them. . . He pulled back against a head wind, landing before daylight at Newcastle, where he was seen and recognized by several people. . . He was tried and found “guilty” and hung at Thomaston, Maine.
Oscar Laighton, 1929

The ‘Spanish Graves’

I walked with Mr. Thaxter over the island, and saw first the graves of the Spaniards. They were wrecked on this island [ie Smuttynose]. . . and lie buried in a range about thirty feet in length. . . Mr. Laighton says that the Spanish wreck occurred forty-seven years ago. . . Some of the dead bodies were found on Malaga, others on various parts of the next island. One or two had crept to a stone-wall that traverses Smutty Nose, but were unable to get over it. One was found among the bushes the next summer. Mr. Haley had [them?] buried at his own expense. [from Passages from the American Notebooks]
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1852

Captain Kidd’s treasure

This island is said to be haunted by a spectre called “Old Bab.” He was one of Captain Kidd’s men, and was slain for the protection of the treasure. Mr. Laighton said that, before he built his house, nothing would have induced the inhabitant of another island to come to this after nightfall. The ghost especially haunts the space between the hotel and the cove in front. There has, in times past, been great search for the treasure. . . Mr. Thaxter had once a man living with him who had seen “Old Bab,”. . . and describes him as dressed in a sort of frock, and with a very dreadful countenance. . . “Old Bab,” the ghost, has a ring round his neck, and is supposed either to have been hung or to have had his throat cut, but he steadfastly declines telling the mode of his death. There is a luminous appearance about him as he walks, and his face is pale and very dreadful. [from Passages from the American Notebooks]
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1852

Miss Underhill

Not far from the spot there is a point of rocks extending out farther into the ocean than the rest of the island. Some four or five years ago there was a young woman residing at Gosport in the capacity of school-teacher. She was of a romantic turn, and used to go and sit on this point of rock to view the waves. One day, when the wind was high, and the surf raging against the rocks, a great wave struck her, as she sat on the edge, and seemed to deprive her of sense; another wave, or the reflex of the same one, carried her off into the sea, and she was seen no more. This happened, I think, in 1846. [from Passages from the American Notebooks]
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1852

Betty Moody

I have often heard a story of a widow, named Betty Moody, who lived here with her three small children near the Cove at Star Island. . . Sometime before George Washington was born, there was a tribe of Indians camped at Breakfast Hill in Rye, New Hampshire. These Indians. . . decided to make a raid on the islands. . . They were seen by the islanders who rushed for safety into the fort — all but Betty, who was delayed in hunting up her children. . . Betty hid with her children in a cave on the other side of the island. While the Indians were hunting for her. . . Betty’s youngest child began to cry, and poor Betty held her hand over the child’s mouth so long that it was smothered before she realized her terrible misfortune.
Oscar Laighton, 1929

Oceanic Hotel Yacht Race, 1873

Five hundred yachts were soon in our harbor. The Race was around Boon Island. . . and back around a spar buoy at Appledore. The race was won by the yacht ‘America’. . . The race brought so many objectionable people to the Oceanic that their exclusive guests moved over to Appledore to escape the noise and confusion.
Oscar Laighton, 1929

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Isles of Shoals

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