Isles of Shoals Offer a Break When Crossing the Gulf of Maine

The Isles of Shoals Light burned brightly through the pitch-black night ahead. Had I left Provincetown earlier, I might have had some dusk light left. But it occurred to me, after several stops at this archipelago off the New Hampshire-Maine border, I’d yet to come into the Isles of Shoals in daylight.

I’m sure I’m not the only New England sailor who takes advantage of the convenience of these islands in the Gulf of Maine located about midway between Cape Cod and Penobscot Bay. They are a welcome anchorage.

The cost is about twenty additional nautical miles to leave the straight line course between Provincetown and Monhegan Island to stop at these islands. But it’s more than worth it if you have the time. Not only can you break the Gulf crossing into two longish days(or more), the Isles of Shoals is a beautiful destination in and of itself.

The Isles of Shoals are an intriguing rocky small group of islands out at sea, yet sit only about six miles from the pale city lights of bustling Portsmouth, on the New Hampshire mainland. With the individual islands having names like Smuttynose, Appledore, and Star Island, it’s an alluring destination for sailors. A rich history has transpired on these small windswept islands over a few centuries — and a few dark events, as well.

Approaching from the south, I kept Andersen ledge well off to starboard and closed on the bright light on southern White Island. There is more than ample water between several hazards approaching Gosport Harbor, but give everything plenty of room, as there’s no need to get into trouble approaching.

Once inside, choose a path around Halfway Rocks. There is good room on either side, be aware of a charted six-foot spot between Halfway rocks and Star Island. Gosport harbor will open up to your starboard side and you’ll begin to see moored boats. Like in many harbors, there are quite a few private moorings in Gosport Harbor. As the boundary between New Hampshire and Maine runs right through the middle of Gosport Harbor, you could actually choose which state you’ll spend the night in!

I have anchored here, and would again IF conditions felt right(it’s open to a northwest wind). It’s a matter of finding a workable depth and swinging room. Holding(mostly rock) has a poor reputation here. Check the chart carefully and move slowly. The shoal edge comes up rapidly.

These days, knowing I’ll stay on the boat overnight and leave at first light, a vacant mooring, especially in September, is a better bet. In high season, I can imagine all of the moorings being taken. Some moorings are owned by local fishermen, and they will likely return in the afternoon. I try to find a mainland yacht club mooring (many are marked YC), thinking if it’s vacant at the end of the day, it’s likely to stay that way through the night. I’ll look for other options in case the mooring is reserved.

You can visit Star Island, with the large hotel, during daylight hours. They have a dinghy dock at the island and will instruct you about being on the island, which is private. If you have a dog onboard (we often do), he or she can go ashore at Malaga Island for a walk (dogs are not allowed on Star Island).

I came into the Isles of Shoals last September well after dark, very slowly, my port and starboard bow lights tracing a safe arc into the Gosport Harbor. Curiously, a lone flashlight on the shore of Cedar Island methodically scanned the shoal water ahead of me. A light in one small house burned in the background. The hand-held light continued to slowly brush the shoreline and shoals not far from my bow. While the event conjured the sailors’ myth of the Sirens, this was a comforting act by a stranger, I believe. A helpful light on shore. When I finally tied onto a vacant PYC mooring, the light casually went to the ground, and the person, perhaps satisfied, walked away toward the lone house.

After a good night’s sleep onboard, in the early dawn I lingered over coffee long enough to make out the shoreline, then slowly made my way out under power between Appledore and Smuttynose Islands. Two shoals bulging out from each island constrict this little passage a bit, but there’s plenty of room, in well charted deep water.

Once clear, I headed for the sunrise to the east, and home to Maine.