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Gunkhole getaways: Damariscove Island, Maine

By Mary R. Drake

Contributing Writer

Damariscove Island, outermost in the archipelago of low treeless islands south of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, captivates with infinite ocean views, unimpeded swells that pound its shore, and a beautiful and quiet harbor.

 This 210-acre lump of granite was a prominent European fishing settlement in the 1600s, one of Maine’s earliest. Damariscove later sheltered 18th-century mainland settlers escaping hostile American Indians. A fishing and farming community thrived in Victorian times, then faded away. Now, the uninhabited 1/3-by-2-mile island is a National Historic Landmark and a major bird refuge.
Visiting Damariscove involves cruising five miles of open water. The Motions, the rock ledge off the island’s south end


that protects Damariscove Harbor, creates a continual chop …

or worse. Give the bell buoy plenty of clearance.

You enter the harbor between the former U.S. Lifesaving/Coast Guard Station (to port and renovated as a private home) and the 70-foot headland topped by a former watchtower. The harbor, a narrow half-mile-long slot, is unexpectedly quiet after The Motions and the open sea.

“You have amazingly good protection in the inner harbor [tucked between the low hills], despite the prevailing winds,” says Boothbay Harbor attorney Carl Griffin, 49, who has visited Damariscove since childhood. “It’s flat calm inside, even when rough outside.”

If available, you can pick up one of two moorings in the inner basin (in about 5 feet at mean low water) set out by the Boothbay Region Land Trust, which owns and preserves the island. A few boats can anchor nearby in mud and rock, or closer to the entrance in deeper water with less protection. Locals recommend setting bow and stern anchors if it’s crowded.

Dinghy to the wooden float, ramp and kiosk to port on the inner harbor, not to the dangerously deteriorated stone pier. In this former village area you can visit with the summer caretakers, tour the small museum, and obtain the trail map pointing out various natural habitats. On the southern portion of the island, trails loop around a pond and scale the east headland to the tower. Poison ivy, berry bushes and low scrub partially obscure the house foundations, stone walls, quarry and other sites Griffin says he explored as a boy.

Before European fisherman seeking “King Cod” arrived, Abnaki tribesmen fished and collected eggs here. In the 1620s a permanent English settlement supplied dried cod to Plymouth, Mass. Three centuries later Damariscove fishermen sold their catch in Boothbay Harbor. Today, local lobstermen work out of Damariscove and have priority on moorings and anchorage space.

The mammoth U.S. Lifesaving Station was built in 1897, when vessels plying coastal waters and rivers frequently wrecked on nearby ledges. It was abandoned in 1959.

Damariscove’s northern half is closed from April 15 to Aug. 15 to protect Maine’s largest colony of common eider ducks. Some 1,500 pairs, as well as other waterfowl, nest here. Many bird species migrate through during spring and fall.

Griffin, who lobstered around the island in the 1970s and now visits in his 21-foot inboard-outboard, marvels at “Damariscove’s expansive and treeless terrain and its grassy landscape against a sea and sky of blues and grays. It’s a wonderful place just to be,” he says.

On a nice summer weekend, a half-dozen boats may be in Damariscove Harbor. Off-season, you may have the island to yourself. On a foggy day or in the coziness of your cabin, you can almost feel the presence of the those who eked out a living here generations ago.

Consult NOAA chart 13293, Damariscotta, Sheepscot and Kennebec Rivers. For information, visit


Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:

Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:

Learn The Art of Gunkholing

Or introduce yourself to "Mr. Gunkhole."