The Piscataqua River is a force of Nature as imposing as anything on the coast from Pollock Rip to the Kennebec. The entrance is fifty feet deep and a half mile wide, so when the tide empties and fills Great Bay, eight miles inland, a tremendous volume of salt water flows past the rocky shorelines. And those shores are mostly steep and well defined — not the dissipated marshes and rounded-over islands that characterize a majority of the significant harbors along the Massachusetts coast.
Fort McClary overlooks Pepperrell Cove. Some type of fortification has stood here on Kittery Point since 1689.
The line dividing Maine from New Hampshire runs down the middle of the river, with the town of Kittery on the right and the city of Portsmouth on the left. As you progress up the river, the scale of the man-made structures grows to match their surroundings. First come the granite walls of Fort Constitution, then the industrial buildings of the Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard. Two low lift bridges and the tall highway bridge span the river in quick succession, behind the historic urban landscape of Portsmouth.
If you want to stay along the vibrant Portsmouth waterfront, continue upriver right into town. Or if you’d prefer to spend the night in a cove that’s less developed and predictably quieter, turn right for the Kittery shore instead.
Entering the Piscataqua is not especially challenging. The mouth of the river is wide and deep, with only a few well-marked ledges on the starboard side. Currents at first are significant but not overpowering — running at a knot and a half or so in the stretch of river below Fort Point. As the river turns west and narrows above Fort Point, however, the currents get stronger, approaching three knots in the vicinity of Seavey Island.
The only anchorage for small boats in Kittery — and it’s a pretty good one — is in the western side of Pepperrell Cove, underneath Fort McClary. There is room here for maybe a dozen boats to anchor outside the mooring area and clear of the river in depths ranging from 10 to 20 feet at low. The anchorage is far enough out of the channel that currents are minimal.
Protection is good from southeast up to north and around to west; to the southwest the anchorage is exposed to the moderate fetch across the river. The Cove is essentially wide open to the south, however, down about two miles of river to the ocean. When low pressure approaches from the west Pepperrell Cove mostly becomes a lee shore.
Portsmouth Entrance range lights.
The mooring field in Pepperrell Cove.
The moorings in Pepperrell Cove are slightly more sheltered than the anchorage, as they are further in behind Fishing Island and the surrounding ledges. But they are still exposed to weather from the south.
The Portsmouth Yacht Club has six guest moorings (which may be reserved) in the Cove. The club launch serves their moorings here. As recently as 2010, some of these mooring balls were still labelled “PCYC” from the now-defunct Pepperrell Cove Yacht Club.
The Kittery Harbormaster may have a mooring available, but most of his are for resident boats. There is a plan for a string of town-controlled visitor moorings in the future.
The other source for moorings on the north side of the river is the Kittery Point Yacht Yard, the long-time Dion’s yard under current management since 2004. Their mooring field and shoreside facilities in the Back Channel behind Seavey Island are in the harbor’s most protected water downriver of the bridges. Not much weather can get in here, but the current does flow through with more than expected strength. Mooring landings that don’t take into account the force of the current here can get exciting in a hurry.
Note that the little cove between Clarks and Seavey Islands is a restricted area for the Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard. Boats may not enter the cove without Yard permission.
There are no slips in Pepperrell Cove. For short-term business you can land at the town dock, with better than 10 feet at low. There is a channel of small uncharted buoys leading the way in.
KPYY’s slips are primarily for their service business, but it’s possible that dock space is available for visitors.
On the Portsmouth side of the river, there are guest moorings at the Portsmouth Yacht Club and dock space for visiting boats at the city-owned Prescott Park, just downstream of the first bridge.
Not for navigation. Charts are not updated.
The main commercial part of Kittery (no, not the Outlets, the town) is a slightly inconvenient and not particularly inspiring walk from either mooring area — about a mile and a half from the KPYY and just over two miles from Pepperrell Cove.. If you do get to town, you’ll find dining options from a bistro serving locally-focused American cuisine, to pizza.
But you’re here on a boat. In Maine. So pull a chilled bottle or two of Sauvignon Blanc from the icebox and take your dinghy up Chauncy Creek to the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier. It’s a perfect old-school New England waterfront seafood shack offering lobsters, shellfish, and all the classic sides on their BYOB deck.
Kittery’s other primary waterfront attraction is Fort McClary, whose pre-Civil War hexagonal blockhouse stands above the anchorage at the northwest corner of Pepperrell Cove. Fortification fans can climb around caponiers, bastions and magazines built at various periods in the 19th century. A short walking trail meanders through the woods behind the fort; a picnic area sits in the woods across the street. And from the fort grounds there are wide views across the harbor entrance out to the Isles of Shoals.
The largest feature on the Kittery waterfront is the Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard, occupying all of Seavey Island. The yard was formed in 1800, and it built one of the Navy’s earliest ships-of-the-line, the 74 gun Washington launched in 1815. Since the period leading up to WWII it has specialized in building, and now maintaining, submarines. The yard is not open to the public.
Looking up Chauncy Creek from the floats at the Lobster Pier.
Frisbee’s market was family owned from its founding in 1828 until 2010, when family and economic setbacks forced the Frisbees to sell.
One Hour Ashore
Fort McClary is an easy half-mile walk from either the landing in Pepperrell Cove or from the KPYY. There’s an admission fee of a few dollars, but for an interesting and quick trip ashore it’s easily worthwhile.
In May of 1939 the newly launched submarine U.S.S. Squalus sank during a test dive in over 240 feet of water off the Piscataqua. Thirty-three of her fifty-nine man crew were saved in what has been called “the greatest submarine rescue in history”.
Indoor offerings are pretty thin in Kittery and not particularly convenient to the harbors. If you are looking for diversions in bad weather, you’re much better off on the Portsmouth side of the river.
The Portsmouth Yacht Club launch serves their moorings in Pepperrell Cove, but it’s a long enough trip that you won’t want to do it very often. On the Kittery side there’s no launch service for either mooring area, but there is room to land dinghies at both the town wharf and the KPYY. The William Pepperrell looks like a launch, but it’s a harbor tour boat.
There is a restroom but no shower at the town landing, plus a solid-looking outhouse at Fort McClary. The Portsmouth Yacht Club and the Kittery Point Yacht Yard have showers for their mooring customers.
Diesel, water and ice are available at the Portsmouth Yacht Club fuel dock across the river.
Enoteca, above the KitteryTown Landing, has a limited selection of groceries, plus deli, beer and wine.
For pumpout, call the NH State Pumpout Boat, or “Royal Flush” on channel 09.