Hampton Beach Master Plan: Hampton Harbor and the Waterfront

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E. Hampton Harbor and the Waterfront

Hampton Harbor and the adjacent waterfront are located at the southern end of Hampton Beach along the Hampton River. Hampton Harbor is an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean that is formed by the confluence of the Hampton and Blackwater Rivers. The Blackwater River represents the southern portion of the harbor and is principally within the town of Seabrook. The northern portion of the harbor, associated with the Hampton River, is the focus of this section of the Master Plan.

The Harbor provides a variety of marine-related activities with recreational boating and commercial fishing the most common. One of the Harbor’s best assets, aside from its relatively deep water and protection from severe storms and waves, is its location on the New Hampshire seacoast. Vessels have direct access to the Atlantic Ocean with only several hundred yards of channel length. This section of the report describes the physical elements and current land and water uses and activities of this area.


Physical Conditions

Harbor Channel

Aerial View of Hampton River Channel and Hampton Harbor Looking West
Aerial View of Hampton River Channel and Hampton Harbor Looking West

The entrance to Hampton Harbor is through a federal channel that is maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and is bordered by two stone jetties on either side of the inlet (see Figure 10). These jetties were installed in the early 1930’s to stabilize the inlet. This inlet, first dredged in 1965, allows navigation from the outer ocean through a relatively narrow channel that separates Hampton Beach State Park to the north and the Sun Valley section of Hampton to the south. Prior to the channelization by the ACOE, the inlet was actually south of the Sun Valley area.

Historical records indicate that the barrier beach system has shifted significantly over the past 150 years. Even today, this system is dynamic with sand transport moving predominantly from north to south along Hampton Beach. This sand is deposited in and around the existing channel. At present, there is shoaling on the north side of the inlet and a sand spit off the south side. Periodic maintenance dredging of this inlet is necessary to ensure that it remains at project depth.

A 40-foot wide bascule bridge stretches over the Hampton River. This bridge is operated and maintained by the NH Department of Transportation (NHDOT). During most of the year, the bridge is opened on demand from vessels that need to enter or exit the inner harbor. Under the bridge, there is a 17-foot clearance for vessels at high tide.


Figure 10. Hampton Harbor Area Condtions

Hampton Harbor Area Condtions


Travel within the federal channel and under the bridge can be hazardous. Flood velocity is 1.5 to 2.2 knots and the ebb velocity is 2 to 3.2 knots. In addition to the potentially fast current, there is continual shoaling and periodic strong winds. The US Coast Guard maintains five markers in the channel to guide vessels into and out of the harbor.


Wind and Tide Characteristics

Wind velocity, direction, duration, and fetch (distance the wind travels across the water) combine to create wave action within harbors that determine the quality of the area for anchorage. In Hampton Harbor, the fetch is generally limited since the harbor is semi-enclosed and protected from the east by the barrier beach.

Based on wind data from the Isles of Shoals Station from 1984 to 1993, the mean monthly wind speed ranged from a low in July of 10.7 knots to a high in December of 16.3 knots. Based on the same data, wind direction occurred most frequently from the west—20.11% of the time compared to the east, which was only 5.34% of the time. Other quadrants with relatively high wind occurrence included the northwest with 14.29%, the south west with 15.25%, and the south with 16.50%. As with much of this geographic region, the prevailing winds come from the west—typically from the southwest in the summer and the northwest in the winter. Since the harbor is generally exposed to the west over the low-lying marsh, high winds from a westerly direction can be a problem. Storms such as Hurricane Bob in 1991, which had a strong southwesterly wind component, caused significant damage to property in the harbor.

Tidal records are kept for Portsmouth Harbor and are adjusted for Hampton Harbor. The harbor has mean range of 8.30 feet—with mean high water at 8.63 feet and mean low water at 0.33 feet. The mean tide level above mean low water is 4.5 feet.


Harbor Uses and Activities

Hampton Harbor is principally an anchorage for numerous pleasure craft, as well as commercial fishing vessels, and charter boats for deep-sea fishing and whale watching. The harbor’s configuration and depth allow many vessels to use its waters. Several shallow areas in the harbor, such as near The Willows, restrict vessel navigation, which is fast becoming a major problem for boaters.

Controlling depth for navigation in the harbor is approximately 5-6 feet, although dredging is required at least every 5 years to maintain this depth. The last dredging was in 1998.

Continual sedimentation and shoaling creates a problem not only in the channel but also outside the channel. In an effort to guide vessels in the harbor, the state maintains three channel markers. With continual shoaling in various parts of the harbor, depths of 2-3 feet or less are common. These areas can change incrementally from year to year. Consequently, local knowledge is required for safe passage of vessels.

In an effort to better understand the dynamics of harbor circulation and sedimentation, the State has retained marine engineers from UNH to conduct a hydrodynamic study of the harbor to provide guidance for future dredging and harbor maintenance activities. No further dredging will take place in either Hampton or Seabrook Harbors until this study is completed in 2001. In addition, a Dredge Management Task Force, made up of representatives from relevant state and federal agencies and coordinated by the Office of State Planning, meets periodically to discuss and coordinate dredging policy and activity in the Seacoast, including Hampton and Seabrook Harbors.


Large Vessels and Moorings

The Pease Development Authority, Division of Ports and Harbors (PDA-PH) is responsible for permitting moorings within the harbor. There are now 183 permitted moorings in the harbor. Of these, 52 are classified as commercial, meaning that the mooring is used for business purposes. For example, Smith & Gilmore Fish Pier has three moorings and Gauron Fisheries has five. The mooring permits have an annual fee of $4 per linear foot of vessel. If a private entity, such as a marina, leases a mooring, the rate is $5 per foot. There are no leased moorings in Hampton Harbor. At present, the harbor is at capacity and the only new mooring permits that are issued come off a waiting list of 70 individuals. There is very little turnover of mooring permits, no more than one or two per year.

Most of the vessels are moored in the main harbor area, although there are some in Tide Mill Creek and Nudds Canal associated with Hampton River Boat Club or private land owners. The Harbor can accommodate relatively large vessels since the harbor is dredged approximately every five years to a controlling depth of approximately six feet. Vessel lengths vary from approximately 15 feet to 45 feet with drafts that range from one to six feet. The PDA-PH has a part-time harbor master for Hampton-Seabrook Harbor, who is responsible for setting moorings and maintaining proper navigation including the setting of the channel markers.


Small Vessel Activity

Over the past several years, there has been an increase in small vessel activity, especially with personal water crafts (PWC) and sea kayaks. These craft are either brought in on trailers and launched at the state marina or rented from one of the shoreside concessions. PWCs that are rented from Smith & Gilmore are taken out of the harbor and allowed to function in the near shore waters off Hampton Beach State Park. Individual owners of PWCs that launch from the state ramp have been observed to cause problems within the harbor due to speeding and reckless operation.

These vessels have adversely impacted the estuaries. Their wakes and the vessels themselves erode the marsh edges and destroy critical estuarine habitat. It is difficult to enforce vessel speeding laws and environmental regulations that help protect the estuaries on account of the following challenges:

  • Large size of the wetlands and extent of waterways
  • Relatively few number of enforcement agents
  • Vessel owners that are uneducated about the need to protect critical wetland habitat


Commercial Fishing

There are approximately 20 full-time commercial fishermen in Hampton Harbor. Most of these are members of the Yankee Fisherman’s Cooperative (Co-op) that is located in Seabrook Harbor. The Co-op provides a number of services for its members including bait, ice, cold storage and discounted goods from the Co-op store. There are also a number of part-time fishermen that use the harbor. Depending on the season, a given fisherman might fish for a variety of species—ground fish in the spring, shrimp in the winter, and finfish in the summer or fall. Lobsters can be taken year round, though stocks are more abundant in the late spring, summer and fall. Because of the federal limits on the number of catch for ground fish, many of the fishermen have moved solely to lobstering. The value of this fishery is indicated by the gross revenues of $3 to $5 million annually from the reported catch at the Co-op.



Recreational shellfishing is allowed in the harbor area under limited conditions on weekends from November to May. Most of the shellfish activity occurs on the Hampton/Browns Confluence Flat, Common Island Flat, and Middle Ground Flat. The latter two are in Seabrook Harbor. There is no commercial shellfishing permitted in New Hampshire.


Harbor Management

The harbor areas of New Hampshire, including Hampton Harbor, are under the jurisdiction of several state agencies including the PDA-PH, Department of Safety Marine Patrol, Fish & Game, NH Division of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Environmental Services (DES). In addition, several federal agencies have legal jurisdiction for specific activities that directly or indirectly affect harbor activities.



Pease Development Authority, Division of Ports and Harbors (PDA-PH)

This agency is responsible for permitting, locating and managing moorings in the coastal waters of the state. In addition, the PDA-PH is responsible for ensuring safe navigation of vessels through the location of navigational aids in state waters and the maintenance of channels for safe vessel travel. In Hampton and Seabrook Harbor, a part-time harbor master is responsible for these activities. The Authority also works with the Dredge Management Task Force to coordinate dredge activities in these harbors.

NH Department of Safety/Marine Patrol

In New Hampshire, personal watercraft (PWC) or Jet Skis are registered through the Department of Safety. The Marine Patrol, a Division of this Department, is responsible for ensuring safe operation of vessels in the coastal waters of the state. The Marine Patrol has three vessels that operate in the Seacoast that are docked at the Coast Guard Station in New Castle. The patrol also has an 18-foot skiff that is stored in Hampton. This vessel was recently added in response to the need to control vessels specifically in Hampton Harbor, especially PWCs. The Patrol operates from approximately late April to the end of October with three full-time patrols on the weekends during the season, including one patrol just for the Hampton skiff.

Since anecdotal information is inconsistent with the number of reportable vessel incidents or violations, especially for PWCs, and marine patrols are not on duty on a regular basis due to weather conditions and other factors, valid trends are difficult to assess. However, there appears to be general agreement that PWCs have become a nuisance in the harbor. By law, all vessels have to maintain headway speed (no wake or no greater than 6 mph) within 150 feet of another vessel, mooring field, swimmer, raft, dock or the shore.

NH Fish & Game

The New Hampshire Fish & Game Department is responsible for the management of living marine resources in the state and the Seacoast. In addition to its legal responsibility to protect and manage these resources, Fish & Game also issues licenses for recreational and commercial fishing and recreational shellfishing. There is a specific license for lobster and crab. The department has a ten-quart limit on soft shell clams.

NH Division of Parks and Recreation

The Division of Parks and Recreation of NH DRED manages the state marina, charges fees for parking and launching vessels into the harbor from the state ramp, and charges commercial fishermen for use of the commercial pier. DRED, however, does not have direct jurisdiction of water activities in the harbor. Management of the marina is discussed more fully below.

NH Department of Environmental Services

NH Department of Environmental Services (DES) is charged with maintaining and enhancing water quality in the Hampton-Seabrook Estuary including the harbor to provide greater opportunity for recreational fishing and shellfishing. DES also regulates harbor dredging and dock construction under RSA 482-A through its wetland permitting process. DES and Fish & Game determine when shellfish beds can be open during the season. At present, three shellfish areas are "conditionally open" and can be harvested on Fridays and Saturdays from November to May as long as there has been no rainfall event prior to a weekend opening and/or fecal coliform counts are below the threshold determined to be safe for shellfishing.

NH Office of State Planning

The New Hampshire Office of State Planning (NH OSP) is responsible for administering the state’s coastal program. This agency acts in a coordinating role to encourage Seacoast communities to adopt polices and regulations consistent with the state’s coastal zone management plan and program. It works with state and federal agencies to ensure that any actions by these agencies in New Hampshire coastal zone are consistent with the state’s coastal zone management plan and program. NH OSP coordinates the state’s Dredge Management Advisory Committee and manages the Federal Consistency program, and provides grants to local Seacoast communities and groups for projects that work toward achieving the goals of the state’s coastal program.



US Army Corps of Engineers

The Corps regulates work in, or affecting, navigable waters under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. It also regulates activities in wetlands and shorelands. The Corps is responsible for maintaining the federal channel and issuing permits for state dredging projects in the harbor.

US Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is responsible for navigational safety in the federal channel through the placement and maintenance of Aids to Navigation buoys and markers.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)

NMFS is responsible for management of marine mammals and fisheries and endangered species. This agency establishes legal limits for harvesting various species of marine life.


Landside Uses and Activities of Waterfront Area

The landside area of the harbor area includes all the properties south and west of Ocean Boulevard and Duston Avenue (see Figure 11). The area is comprised of residences, marinas, and some retail shops (see Table 5). Over 14 percent of the area (1.2 acres) is vacant property.

Table 5. Land Uses and Values Along the Hampton Harbor Waterfront




Size (acres)

Acres (%)




























Source: Town of Hampton Assessor Records, 1999.


Property Values

Waterfront areas typically have large ranges in property values due to the existing and allowable uses. Most of the properties in this area have direct water access. Residential lots also have higher property values than commercial lots based on lot size. This area includes two buildings that have a total of 12 condominium units. The value of these units may explain why the residential values are high.



Hampton River Marina

The Hampton River Marina located on the northwest portion of the Harbor is the only privately operated, full-service marina in the Harbor area. The marina, a large facility, built on filled and dredged wetlands provides 142 slips that average 30.5 feet in length as well as approximately 65 spaces in a 3-level dry stack storage facility. Almost all of the vessels are powerboats; only four are sailboats. Most of these are between 25 and 35 feet (97) while another 30 are greater than 35 feet in length.

This marina provides a variety of services including: a boat lift, a boat ramp, a seasonal restaurant, the only pumpout in the harbor, showers, a laundry, recreation room and repair services. It also provides fuel, electricity, ice, and services for transient boaters.

Figure 11. Properties in the Hampton Harbor Area

Properties in the Hampton Harbor Are


It is open in the off-season on a limited basis. A number of commercial fisherman dock their vessels at the marina during the winter to protect their vessels with the wind/wave screen that shelters one area of the marina. Basic marina services are available during the off-season.

Hampton Harbor State Marina

Hampton Harbor State Marina, a state-operated marina located on the southeastern portion of the Harbor, is currently managed by NH Division of Parks & Recreation (NH DPR), a division of DRED. It provides multiple uses including a recreational boat launching area, parking, a pier for commercial fishermen, a bait and tackle shop, and duck boat tour, parasail, and Jet Ski rental businesses.

View of the Hampton Harbor and Bridge Looking South
View of the Hampton Harbor
and Bridge Looking South
The commercial fishing facility includes a parking area that is adjacent to a timber-pier with approximately ten floats, parallel to the pier, and two hoists for commercial fishing activities. For the most part, fishermen use this facility to take on or off-load equipment such as lobster pots. The only service the state provides is a waste oil disposal facility. The fishermen use the Yankee Co-op in Seabrook for such services as ice, bait, and fuel and to off-load fish.

For recreational boaters, the marina provides a parking area for vehicles and a 25-foot concrete boat launch as well as a dock and float system for temporary tie-up. There are also bathroom facilities and a bait and tackle shop on premises. The shop leases space from DRED. A duck boat business also leases space from DRED.

The facility is open year round, but services are very limited in the off-season. NH DPR provides a manager only during the boating season from approximately May through October. This individual is available only on weekends in May, then full-time from June to Labor Day, and then weekends until closing, usually in October. The recreational floats are removed in October and re-installed in April. Fishermen continue to use the facility in the off-season, but there is little in the way of recreational boating activity. The seasonal manager is responsible for collecting parking fees, managing vehicle parking, and ensuring that the bathrooms and other facilities are cleaned. He also monitors the waste oil collection, a service that is provided by NH DPR for fishermen. Waste oil is disposed of in a collection bin and then hauled away by a DRED contracted hauler.

NH DPR charges for parking and use of the commercial pier. Fishermen pay an annual fee based on a $6.00/foot of vessel standard with a minimum of $150.00 per year. It also charges a parking fee to recreational boaters - $8.00 to park and launch a vessel or just $4.00 a day to park. Gauron Charters has an agreement with DRED that allows charter users to be charged only $3.00 per day. All money goes to the NH DPR as part of the self-funding policy of the state.

Recently enacted state legislation grants the PDA-PH with the responsibility of operating and maintaining the commercial fishing pier and facility. NH DPR will continue to manage the parking, boat launching, and the recreational piers and floats.

Gauron Charter Service

This facility operates three party boats for deep-sea fishing and whale watching, and is located at the state marina. It also has an agreement to allow tie-up at the state pier for 30 minutes at a time to load and un-load passengers.

Smith & Gilmore

This facility provides services for many types of water-based recreation activities including deep sea and coastal fishing, personal watercraft, parasailing, and whale watch and fireworks cruises. It has a bait and tackle shop and a parking area. The business also owns a marine railway.

Public Access

Other than at the State Marina, there is no other public access in the harbor area. Additional access points could be made at the town-owned property or possibly at the marsh located north of and adjacent to the Hampton River Marina. This marsh is known locally as the Willows.



Hampton Harbor has the capacity to support a variety of activities and uses. The area supports a substantial number of businesses (restaurants, charter vessels, jet-ski rental, fishing, tackle), and helps maintain the diversity of uses in the area. However, to better manage the harbor area to ensure a long term, sustained use of this commercial, recreational, and economic asset, constraints and issues must be addressed through a coordinated effort.

  • Predominant long shore drift from north to south along Hampton Beach creates continual shoaling in the harbor inlet.
  • Currents and tidal velocity in the federal channel and under the bridge can cause hazardous boating conditions.
  • Continual shoaling and sedimentation in the harbor requires frequent maintenance dredging.
  • The compact harbor area leads to conflict between harbor users; e.g., jet skiers in the harbor traveling above headway speed can create a hazard and in some cases erode tidal marsh.
  • Elevated levels of fecal coliform occur after significant rainfall events from direct discharge of stormwater pipes and other non-point sources into the harbor and adjacent tidal marsh.
  • Multiple agencies with responsibility and jurisdiction in the harbor area require continual coordination for overlapping responsibilities.
    • Local—Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Code Enforcement
    • State— PDA-PH, DRED, DES, Fish & Game, Marine Patrol
    • Federal—ACOE, National Marine Fisheries, EPA, EDA
  • There has been a continual record of storm and flood damage to marine waterfront users.
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