By Peter Swanson
A few years back Hollywood focused its attention to the remarkable fog-shrouded, legend-encrusted archipelago known as the Isles of Shoals. The movie was “The Weight of Water,” starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley and based on the best-selling novel by Anita Shreve.
The story is about a photojournalist and her novelist husband and another couple who sail to the Isles after finding an eyewitness account of a sensational double murder that occurred on Smuttynose Island in 1873. Past and present plots begin moving in parallel, eventually advancing an alternative theory about what really happened.
In real life, the killer was Louis Wagner, a German immigrant and one of the last men hanged in the state of Maine. Wagner rowed the six miles from Portsmouth to the island and strangled two fishermen’s wives, Anethe and Karen Christiansen, chopping one of them with an axe. His undoing was the escape of a third woman, Maren, who lived to testify against him.
The Smuttynose murders are just a morsel of the lore that surrounds these nine islands, five of which are in Maine, four in New Hampshire. Blackbeard the pirate left his bride behind there and never returned for her. She died on Smuttynose 15 years later, and her wailing g
host wanders the rocks awaiting his return.
Or maybe it’s just the shrieks of seabirds, who nest on these rocky bluffs by the thousands..
Treasure, too, is said to have been found there. If you get to the Isles of Shoals, you will likely anchor in Gosport Harbor, formed by the union of Starr, Cedar and Smuttynose islands, which are connected by breakwaters. Tiny Malaga Island also connects by breakwater to Smuttynose to form Haley Cove, named for King Haley, the man who built the breakwater in the early 1800s using proceeds from several bars of silver he found hidden under rocks.
Europeans began visiting the Isles in the 1500s; fishermen at the codfish-drying stations were safer there from the predations of mainland Indians. Pirates, shipwrecks, Indian attacks, dramatic rescues—the richness of history is fascinating to behold in so small a place. Though incredibly beautiful, the Isles are full of death.
Nineteenth century poet and journalist Celia Thaxter, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, held court on Appledore Island, entertaining such luminaries as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier and American impressionist Childe Hassam. Hassam painted Thaxter’s picture standing in her famous garden, which still grows today, nurtured by a mainland garden club.
Visiting cruisers are welcome to visit the islands that surround Gosport Harbor during daytime hours. Beside Thaxter’s Garden, Appledore is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory, Smuttynose is privately owned and Starr is a Unitarian-Universalist retreat center, dominated by a huge wooden hotel-likestructure.
Approaches And Moorings
If coming from the south, take White Island light close to port, head north to the eastern tip of Starr, then follow the shore around into Gosport Harbor. Stay well away from the ledge marked by the No. 4 nun and mind the lobster traps. From the mouth of the Piscataqua, the bell RW “IS” marking Gosport Harbor is about five miles on a course of 159° magnetic.
On weeknights you probably will be able to pick up one of the big metal mooring balls, marked PWC or PCYC, which belong to Portsmouth yacht clubs. On weekends, the Isles of Shoals tend to be busier, and you must surrender the mooring to yacht club members. In settled conditions anchoring should present no problems.
Gosport Harbor is an excellent place from which to stage a Gulf-of-Maine passage. No currents or bridge schedules hold you back. No honky-tonk tempts you. Here there is quietude, and maybe a chance to buy lobsters right off the boat. Consider the Isles of Shoals an appetizer for things to come. Here begins Maine.