Seacoast Secret: Rye Harbor, NH

This small working harbor on the New Hampshire coast makes a fun day trip option for adventure-minded trailer boaters, fishermen, and paddlers. By Holly Parker • Photography by Benjamin Boynton

The New Hampshire seacoast may be New England’s shortest, but it has boating treasures to share, among them a tiny harbor known as Rye. Tucked between the honky-tonk of Hampton Beach to the south and the racing currents of Portsmouth’s Piscataqua River to the north, Rye Harbor stubbornly holds onto its working port identity, while also making room for those who boat for fun.

While overnight boating accommodations are nil, Rye has a large launch facility and serves as an ideal jumping-off spot from which to explore some of New England’s earliest history at the Isles of Shoals, just six miles offshore, or to chase dinner with a rod and reel. With plenty of onshore distractions, including sandy beaches, surf shops, natural paddling venues, and a neat marine science center, Rye makes a great destination for the whole crew.

Working Hard

Rye has earned its stripes as a working harbor over almost four centuries. In 1623, European fishermen first put down roots at Ordione Point, New Hampshire’s first settlement. Drawn to the enormous schools of fish encountered at the beginning of the 17th century, these fishermen worked the waters between the mainland and the Isles of Shoals, six miles offshore. Almost 400 years later, Rye remains primarily a commercial fishing port, its breakwaters protecting a small but busy fleet.

Turning off Route 1A into the dirt and gravel parking lot at Rye Harbor, those working roots are readily apparent. A fisherman carefully letters “Ocean Girls” on the port side of his lobsterboat. On jack stands next door, the beefy Bridget Leigh is easy to spot, a fish-gulping pelican adorning her transom. Tidy shacks line the entrance, each advertising fishing charters, whale watches or excursions to the Isles of Shoals. Fishing boats taking a Sunday off bob on their moorings.

Many Flavors

Captain Susan Reynolds of Island Cruises has called coastal New Hampshire home for well over 40 years. Having sailed from New Brunswick to the Bahamas, she chose Rye as her homeport due in part to its rich history.

“When I first visited Rye, I felt it had a distinct character that separated it from boating communities to the north and south,” says Reynolds. “Rye is one of the smallest, but probably the busiest, harbors on the Seacoast. It’s got a mix of fishing, whale watching, sightseeing and recreational boats. Although change is a constant, somehow Rye has maintained that traditional feel of a true working harbor. In my mind, it’s the most picturesque harbor, with a definite reflection of times gone by.”

Fleet First

In Rye Harbor, the focus is on safe, courteous boating that lets the fleet do its work unimpeded. There are no public marinas, transient moorings, or dockage available, although the harbr does feature a large ramp for trailer-boaters. The floats are public, but commercial vessels get priority.

Boaters will find the basics in Rye Harbor—fuel and pump-out are available, as well as restrooms. Human fuel can be purchased at Rye Harborside, a small breakfast and lunch operation where you can also stock up on ice. The focus here is on getting boaters out on the water.

Shoals in Sight

As the fog burns away, the Isles of Shoals come into view. Some six miles distant, these nine islands have attracted mariners for centuries. “Shoals” of fish attracted the first visitors in the 17th century. Nearly 300 years later, the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island continues the islands’ connection to the sea. Nearby Star Island is home to the Oceanic Hotel, an early-20th-century inn that serves as a family retreat and conference center. Boaters are welcome to visit Star for the day by anchoring in the harbor and using the public dinghy dock. If conditions are rough, don’t leave your boat unattended, as the rocky bottom provides a notoriously shifty hold. The effort is worth it, however, as a trip ashore will transport you and your crew back in time.

Back on the mainland, Rye offers plenty of distractions for family and crew who may not be up for a long day on the water. Ordione State Park, at Rye’s north end, offers 135 acres of walking trails that meander through marshes, past saltwater and freshwater ponds, and along the rocky shore. The Seacoast Science Center, located inside the park, is a great spot for young boaters eager to learn more about everything salty. The enormous skeleton of Tofu the humpback whale will certainly put the ocean world in perspective for small crew members.

Rye Harbor at a Glance


Harbormaster

  • (603) 365-0509

Dockage, Moorings & Service

  • There are no public marinas in Rye Harbor. However, the state pier offers fuel, pump-out, restrooms and limited tie-up based on needs of the commercial fleet.

Launch Ramp

  • A large, all-tide launch facility with courtesy floats and plenty of parking makes Rye Harbor a major trailer boat destination. The daily launch fee of $10 includes parking for vehicle and trailer.

Kayak Rental

Where to Eat

Things to See & Do

  • Seacoast Science Center
    (603) 436-8043
    At Odiorne Park. Features fish tanks and other exhibits and programs that focus on healthy oceans.
  • Summer Sessions
    (603) 319-8207
    Surfing and paddleboard lessons and camps; rentals of SUPs and surfboards, too.
  • State Parks/Beaches
    There are several state parks and beaches in Rye. Check out the New Hampshire State Parks website for descriptions and directions.
  • Island Cruises
    (603) 964-6446
    Isles of Shoals cruises and lobster tours, Star Island ferry and private charters.
  • S/V Persistence
    (603) 778-1372
    Custom day sails and extended cruises aboard a 32-foot Freedom. Lessons also available.

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