As readers of ‘Lectronic likely know, some Latitude staff have ties to the East Coast. Our publisher makes an annual pilgrimage to Maine, but Latitude’s newest editor also has New England roots.
I moved from San Diego to York, Maine, in 2001, and over the next four years, got to know New England through sailing, surfing, snowboarding, and simply being there through the seasons, in all their glory and grind. It’s an experience that I would recommend for every Californian, especially sailors. Last week, I was back in New England for the first time in three years, and was a bit stunned by how much it’s changed.
Just 20 minutes from York lies Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a picturesque town nestled against the Piscataqua River, which separates the Granite State from Maine. Thirteen years ago, Portsmouth was a relatively sleepy town. Like much of the “Sea Coast,” it certainly had its touristy side, but was affordable and felt like a homey place for locals, many of whom worked in the service industry. You could always find parking (and most of it was free), it was $4 for a pint, and a young, hardworking couple could afford to buy a house.
Now, there are parking meters everywhere (and parking at peak hours has become impossible), many of the cherished dive bars have been replaced by chic, craft-brew-slinging establishments, and there are hordes of hipsters and antique-hunting retirees roaming the streets. My local friends told me that they rarely went into town and were put off by all the new condos, trend-setting youth and other affectations of change that make a once-familiar place seem distant and foreign.
But we don’t believe in “back-in-my-day” stories at Latitude. As we talk about the changing demographics of the Bay Area and the world at large, we simply try to note the change taking place, and assert our values about what type of world we want to live in and what it should look like — namely, that people are sailing. Nostalgia will not save you, nor keep you anchored to a time when everything seemed perfect. The world will move on, with or without you.
I can’t definitively call Portsmouth a “cruisers” town, but while drinking rum punch on the (now ultra-touristy) decks along the Piscataqua, I saw a few tiny inflatables powering through the hefty current gurgling between Maine and New Hampshire. Portsmouth has two new bridges connecting the two states. The ancient World War I Memorial Bridge was recently replaced by a newer version, as was the Sarah Mildred Long (or Bypass) Bridge, which is just upriver, and was also recently rebuilt. A quick drive across the Memorial Bridge puts you in Kittery, Maine, where, as we wound along the coast, there were an astonishing number of sailboats on the hook.
Flocks of boats out of their slips and nestled in a picture-perfect cove was truly a sight to behold. The state of cruising in New England, by my extremely unscientific calculation, seemed quite healthy — although the exquisiteness of the area has, of course, long been known. “The best way — in keeping with the wildness of the [Maine] coast — to explore is under sail,” wrote Susan Butler in the New York Times in 1983. “And the very best time of the year to do it is in September, just after Labor Day. There is, historically, less fog than in the summer months, school has started, the crowds have gone home and the harbors and coves are as deserted as they ever will be while the weather is warm. For days you can sail, it seems, alone. Hours, a whole morning, can go by without another cruising boat in view.”
Thirty five years later, we certainly wouldn’t call the harbors and coves we saw “deserted,” nor can we imagine any length of time without another boat in view. And even in 1983, New England was struggling with what it wanted to become. “There are towns on the Maine coast, of course, tourist towns, but they differ in degree and size from those in more populous, gentler climes; fishing villages are more the norm,” Butler wrote in the Times. “Even the charming but busy (by Maine standards) town of Camden [two and a half hours north of York], for instance, with its antique stores, restaurants, inns, windjammer cruises, is looked at askance by many of its neighbors.”
Butler quoted cruising authority Roger Duncan, who would go on to write A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast. “‘Having seen what happened . . . to Camden, Stonington people are in no hurry to promote tourism.’ Everywhere Down East there is a genuine helpfulness about the people, but also a deep reserve, a feeling of ‘respect me and I will respect you.’ A feeling of privacy.”
Stay tuned for the next installment of the New New England. And if you’re from the East Coast — or a place that’s experiencing its share of change (i.e.: everywhere) — we’d like to hear from you.