Explore Portsmouth by Boat and Water
You’ve probably walked Portsmouth’s charming streets, but have you ever explored it by sea? From kayaking to cruises, water adventure awaits.
Portsmouth and the communities of the Greater Seacoast Region were shaped by water, not just physically, but culturally, economically and historically. The bounty of the vast Atlantic immediately led early settlers to success in fishing and shipbuilding, while a network of rivers, including the swift-flowing Piscataqua, quickly opened the door to trade and industry. Trade led to settlement as people followed the waterways inland and embarked on further enterprises. Yet all paths still led to the sea, and to some extent, that has not changed.
Even today, more trade goods traverse up and down our rivers then we can imagine, and many ships, from wooden vessels to nuclear submarines, still test their worthiness with a voyage down the Piscataqua. Restaurants, shops, historic sites and other attractions lure more people to the waterfront than ever before and, in summer “tourist traffic” is not confined to the roads as everything from kayaks to sailboats and yachts parades down the river.
Whether you are a local, a repeat visitor or a newcomer, consider seeing Portsmouth and the Seacoast Region through a different lens — through her connection to the mighty river that surges along her eastern border and her ties to the waters around her.
Icons of the Working Waterfront
Photo by Phillip Cohen
Look beyond the trendy riverside bistros and you will see that Portsmouth still maintains a working waterfront. The commercial side of the river is perhaps best represented by the bright red Moran tugboats, whose Ceres Street dock is a popular stop for tourists. However, the hard-working boats contribute far more than a fun photo op, they play a critical role in Portsmouth’s success as a port. The Piscataqua River has the second-fastest current in the nation, and her narrow channel, swirling currents and strong tides make this point of entry extremely challenging. Portsmouth’s skilled river pilots expertly guide as many as 270 ships up and down the river per year. The ships carry road salt, heating oil, propane, jet fuel, biodiesel, kerosene, low-sulfur diesel, gypsum rock, asphalt, and occasionally coal, high-fiber optic cable and GE Westinghouse power plant components.
According to Dick Holt, vice president and general manager of Moran Towing/Portsmouth, the horizontal clearance beneath the Piscataqua’s two lift bridges, the Memorial Bridge and the Sarah Long, is only 260 feet wide. “It often seems like the big ships won’t fit, but we know that they will,” he says. “I think the captains are always a bit relieved to have us there to guide them.”
The tugs also service the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, helping to dock submarines. Even though the subs are on the surface during this process, the tug’s hull and the submarine’s hull still touch each other underwater so the tugs are fitted with rubber submarine fenders to keep metal from touching metal.
The tugs range in age from the 1949 Fort Macon, which has been refurbished and repowered, to the Handy 4, which launched in 2016 and is currently undergoing upgrades and painting. Holt would like to see more commerce on the river, nothing that there has been a significant decline over the last decade. “Everyone loves the tugs,” he says, “but these boats are meant to work. We hope to see more opportunity for Portsmouth as a port in the years to come.”
Cruising into the Past
Photo by Dave Thompsen
In Colonial times, dozens of gundalows would have been moving up and down the Piscataqua River on a daily basis, their decks loaded with all manner of cargo, and their big sails set to catch the breeze. A gundalow is a flat-bottomed barge that can be poled or rowed using sweeps (extra long oars), or go under sail. These simple but sturdy boats helped settle the Piscataqua Region as they allowed people to move farther upriver yet stay connected to other towns. Before there were roads, people used the river to go from place to place and to carry needed goods. A boat such as the gundalow — which could easily navigate not just the main rivers, but the myriad shallow creeks that fed into them — was a game-changer and fueled the growth of the region.
“Gundalows were traveling along the Piscataqua River starting in the 1650s,” says Molly Bolster, executive director of the Gundalow Company, a nonprofit organization. “They were used commercially well into the late 1800s. Traveling on one today is experiencing a piece of living history. You can see how these boats connect our past, present and future.”
The Gundalow Company offers a variety of regular tours on a recently built Coast Guard-certified gundalow, the Piscataqua, which typically sets sail from Portsmouth and heads down river to New Castle, New Hampshire, and Kittery, Maine. (Ask about special sails up the Cocheco River and into Great Bay.) There is a trip for every taste, from sunset sails with breathtaking views to acoustic concerts on the water, or immersive experiences that explore a single topic, such as navigation. Guests are invited to bring a picnic to enjoy and passengers are always welcome to interact with the boat in a hands-on way by helping to set the sail and even steer.
“We want people to soak up the experience of being on the river on a gundalow,” says Bolster. “That’s why our talks are not lectures, but more like conversations about the boats and their unique impact on the region. Even our Discovery Sails, where we go more indepth about topics like the arts of the sailor or marine life are very interactive. We want people to take in the sights and sounds of their outing on the water and feel like they participated in a bit of a journey through time.”
Check out gundalow.org for a complete description of all tours and special offerings. Families should make note of the Kids Sail Free tours, which offer one free child’s pass for each adult ticket, and the various Gundalow Summer Camps for kids that feature a wealth of amazing experiences.
Portsmouth Harbor Cruises
Up Close and Personal
A tour aboard Portsmouth Harbor Cruises’ vessel the Heritage. Courtesy photo
The Heritage, Portsmouth Harbor Cruises’ classic 1963 60ʹ Deltaville Deadrise, has been a familiar site along the Portsmouth waterfront since 1982. The Heritage seats just 49 passengers, giving the cruises an intimate feel, and the crew has a friendly, informal style that welcomes interaction. (Guests are even invited to converse with the captain.) While the Heritage does provide a nice excursion to the Isles of Shoals, its specialties are various trips through local waters.
“With our smaller boat, we can go a lot of places that bigger boats can’t,” says Andrew Cole, owner and captain. “We can explore in and around New Castle, and go up into the creeks where you get great views of places like the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion. In the fall, we do foliage cruises up the Cocheco River all the way to downtown Dover, and into Great Bay. Even people who have lived here all their lives see things they haven’t seen before because they haven’t come by water. Seeing this region from a waterway is a completely different experience, and one that appeals to locals as well as tourists.”
Portsmouth Harbor Cruises makes three very popular harbor cruises each day, offering wonderful close-up photo ops of everything from lighthouses and islands to the waterfront. The narration covers about 400 years of history from Colonial times to the nuclear submarines at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, all in about an hour. They also offer a cocktail cruise, a sunset cruise and a harbor lights cruise, which is fast becoming a favorite.
“The harbor lights cruise showcases the waterfront in an entirely different light,” says Cole. “You see the city lights, the lighthouses and the stars.” In late summer, you might even see the eerie glow of phosphorescence in the water that Cole describes as “magical.” He says it’s hard to beat on a hot night as “temperatures on the water will be nice and cool.”
Portsmouth Harbor Cruises sells snacks and sandwiches on board and offers a full bar.
Isles of Shoals Cruises
Where Legends Come to Life
The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company offers cruises to the islands that lie 7 miles offshore. Courtesy photo
Portsmouth has long had a connection to the storied Isles of Shoals, which lie 7 miles offshore. In Colonial times, those who fished from the Shoals brought their catch into Portsmouth, then shopped in the city for supplies. Today, fishermen still ply these waters, but it’s not just harvesters who have fallen under the Shoals’ spell. Beyond their stark, natural beauty, this group of nine rocky islands have a fascinating past filled with tales of pirate treasure, murder, and a historic hotel that attracted the notables of its day. Their gorgeous light and sweeping vistas inspired poet Celia Thaxter, who in turn created a famous artists’ colony. Thaxter’s splendid flower garden lives on today, and many make the pilgrimage to Appledore Island just to see her creation. The Shoals are also home to the Shoals Marine Lab, a research collaborative between the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, and Star Island’s Oceanic Hotel still welcomes guests.
The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company specializes in trips to the Shoals, with two crafts making daily trips, the flagship M/V Thomas Laighton, a three-decked vessel carrying 275 passengers, and the 85-person M/V Challenger. There are several cruise options that allow you to disembark on Star Island for a guided walking tour or to explore on your own for several hours.
“Going out to the Shoals is so peaceful,” says Tanya Gahara, sales manager with the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company. “If you have never spent time out there, I highly recommend it.” She recommends you bring your camera and a picnic to fully experience “a place that is like nowhere else. It’s rugged and beautiful, and there is so much history.”
The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company gets high marks from guests for its narration, explaining the unique features of the islands, and all Shoals trips include interesting facts and anecdotes about Portsmouth and the coastal sites seen enroute to the Shoals.
While the island journeys are favorites, you can experience the local waters with cruises of a different flavor, thanks to the company’s sunset cruise with acoustic music and a popular reggae cruise. “People love this cruise!” says Gold. “We get people of all ages. Reggae is fun music, and it’s perfect to experience it on the water.”
A Paddler’s Perspective
The more adventurous may wish to grab a paddle and get a truly close-up look at Portsmouth Harbor and adjacent waterways by exploring via sea kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Paddleboarding may seem like a fairly recent trend in boating, but Portsmouth Kayak Adventures has been offering guided kayak and stand-up paddleboard tours for more than a decade.
All tours are led by a professional guide who also provides basic instruction. Various tours are available and each one is ranked according to recommended skill level. Some popular beginner tours take paddlers in and around New Castle and Little Harbor, while journeys up into Portsmouth Harbor with its strong currents and eddies are best for those with advanced skills. Portsmouth Kayak Adventures also offers a wide range of specialty tours including sunset and moonlight tours, foliage excursions, a fireworks tour and more. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are also available for rent.
The Tall Ships
Timeless Beauty Under Sail
The Oliver Hazard Perry docking at the Portsmouth Fish Pier in 2016
Tall ships will once again enter Portsmouth Harbor as Sail Portsmouth returns July 25-29. This year, the schooner Roseway and the Oliver Hazard Perry (pictured), a three-masted square-rigger, will headline Portsmouth’s Parade of Sail. The schooner Roseway, well-known for her red sails, is technically not a tall ship, but is historically important.
The 110-foot wooden schooner is like those used for fishing up and down the coasts of Canada and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Oliver Hazard Perry is similar to the ships that braved the North Atlantic to bring settlers from Europe to the Colonies. It’s the first ocean-going, fully-rigged ship built in the US in more than 100 years. The ship is named for the Rhode Island naval hero of the War of 1812. While the vessel looks historic, it is outfitted with modern, state-of-the-art features for performance and safety. Both schooners and square-riggers would have been common sights around Portsmouth’s waterfront back in the day.
The Oliver Hazard Perry will be docked at the Portsmouth Fish Pier on Peirece Island and open for tours during Sail Portsmouth weekend, while the schooner Roseway will dock in New Castle at the University of New Hampshire pier and will offer two-hour cruises throughout the Sail Portsmouth event. The Parade of Sail will take place on July 25, with the time yet to be determined, as it will be based on the tides. Check sailportsmouthnh.org closer to the date for the parade start time, and for details about tours and cruises.
“Forerunner of the Future”
Photo by Phillip cohen
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has a legendary history when it comes to building submarines, and one of its crowning achievements is the USS Albacore, a pioneering research vessel now berthed at Albacore Park on Market Street in Portsmouth. After World War II, renowned submariner Admiral Charles “Swede” Momsen knew that America’s submarine force needed to rethink its design if it wanted to maintain superiority under the seas. He pushed for a design that would provide greater speed, endurance and maneuverability.
After years of work, the USS Albacore debuted in 1953 with her unique teardrop-shaped hull, a design that would influence the shape of future nuclear subs. Designed, built and maintained by the skilled engineers and craftsmen of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the Albacore was also the first sub engineered to operate completely underwater; previous subs were designed to be primarily surface-going vessels that could submerge if necessary. To Momsen’s great satisfaction, the Albacore proved to be everything he envisioned — the sub could easily achieve speeds of 27 knots in short bursts, she could do tight turns and dive like a jet plane, and she easily outmaneuvered and outran all who came after her.
The Albacore broke many records during her nearly 20 years as a testing platform. She was decommissioned in 1972 and languished in a Philadelphia boatyard till a group of Seacoast citizens brought her back to Portsmouth in 1985 for lasting recognition at Albacore Park. Today, she is a National Historic Landmark, National Mechanical Engineering Landmark and in the Submarine Hall of Fame. Guests can tour the sub and see where the 55 submariners worked and lived. Audio panels inside and outside the sub relay key facts and anecdotes by crew members. The visitors center includes a museum of Albacore and submarine artifacts.
Mariners know the riddle of the sea — that nothing changes more unexpectedly than its currents and waves, but also nothing is more constant than its influence upon the lives of those who love it.
Like the sea, Portsmouth is a place of constant change, so the best way to navigate into the heart and soul of our city by the sea might just be to go aboard one of these vessels that call it home.