A Cruising Guide to the MAINE COAST
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The Southern Coast

Isles of Shoals to Cape Elizabeth

The Southern Coast: Isle of Shoals to Cape Elizabeth

On a large chart, the southern coast of Maine, from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth, appears almost featureless, sweeping northward from Cape Cod in a series of shallow bays, punctuated by an occasional rocky headland or tidal river, dotted with relatively few islands. Clearly this is not the fabled rockbound coast of Maine.
Instead, here are Maine’s great beaches: Old Orchard Beach, favorite of French-speaking Canadians, Moody, Wells, Kennebunk, Scarborough, and others, some stretching for mile after mile. Here too are tidal rivers, from the mighty Piscataqua to the meanders of the York, the Kennebunk, and the Saco.

In comparison to the rest of Maine, this portion is short on harbors, and only a few are first-rate. But there are a number of interesting anchorages that are perfectly adequate in summer conditions and delightful to explore. The Isles of Shoals cluster offshore, and the thriving towns of Portsmouth and Kittery flank the surging Piscataqua at the very beginning of Maine.

Then come historic York and the contrasting harbors of Kennebunkport and Cape Porpoise—one swarming with “summer complaints,” as tourists are known locally, and the other, only three miles away, a working harbor aswarm with lobster buoys. Farther north are the marshes and birds and beach of Biddeford Pool and the tranquil anchorages from which you can watch the sheep graze on Richmond Island.

Over the lower half of the coast broods old Mount Agamenticus, a landmark for Europeans from the early days of exploration. Several of the earliest settlements in America were attempted along this inviting coast. In the terrible winter of 1616-1617, ten years after the discouraging failure of the Popham Colony on the Kennebec River and three years before the Pilgrims would land at Plymouth, Captain Richard Vines wintered over at Biddeford Pool to prove that the Maine climate was not too severe for Europeans. He called it Winter Harbor. He returned to establish a permanent settlement on the Saco in 1623, the same year Kittery was founded. York was settled eight years later. During six Indian Wars, from 1675 to 1763, however, mainland farms were wiped out time and again by the Indians.

A slaughter of a different kind took place at the funeral ceremony of the revered Pawtucket Indian Aspinquid, who died in 1692 at the age of 94. He is said to be buried atop Mount Agamenticus, where more than 6,000 animals were sacrificed in his honor.

For those coming to Maine from points south, the southern coast is a wonderful alternative to the overnight passage across the Gulf of Maine and much more than a stopover en route to better cruising grounds. Here, along the stepping stones of history, sailors with the time and inclination will discover what the early explorers found—abundant beauty, safe harbors, expansive beaches, offshore islands, tidal rivers, and an ocean as bold and challenging as any.



Isles of Shoals

In 1614, when the venerable Captain John Smith dropped anchor among the Isles of Shoals, he was so captivated by them that he named them “Smith’s Isles” for himself. “Of all foure parts of the world that I have seene not inhabited,” he wrote, “could I have but the meanes to transport a Colonie, I would rather live here than any where.”


York Harbor

York Harbor is the most secure harbor between Portsmouth and Portland, a fact that did not escape explorer Christopher Levett in 1624. “This is a good place for a plantation,” he wrote, “a good place for ships.”


Kennebunk River

Kennebunkport is a madhouse, perhaps the epitome of tourist Maine. The sidewalks are jammed with people, the cars creep along the crowded streets, and the waterfront is more boat than river. The fact that it is the location of George H. W. Bush’s summer compound adds to the fervor. Nevertheless, Kennebunkport has appeal for visiting yachtsmen, with places to explore and tranquil oases here and there.