The ultimate guide to Poole Harbour

Brownsea Island Ferries

Brownsea Island Ferries - Credit: Archant

With its enchanting wooded islands, hidden creeks, sleepy rivers and golden beaches Poole’s natural harbour offers miles of sheltered waters for the holiday sailor to explore

Sandbanks Peninsula with Brownsea Island beyond

Sandbanks Peninsula with Brownsea Island beyond - Credit: Archant

Poole Harbour is the very embodiment of a long summer holiday, with its miles of sheltered water, winding channels and golden beaches. It is also the largest natural harbour in Europe and, after Sydney Harbour, the second largest in the world. As you come in by boat between Sandbanks and South Haven Point, an enticing vista of islands and creeks unfolds, with ships, ferries, daytrip boats and yachts milling about in all directions! Ahead are the wooded shores of Brownsea Island and to the west the smaller islands and marshy inlets beyond Goathorn Point.

Opposite Brownsea you pass the Royal Motor Yacht Club and the prosperous leafy villas on Sandbanks peninsula. Following the buoys north and east past Salterns Marina and Parkstone Yacht Club, you’ll see the spectacular Twin Sails opening bridge up ahead, linking Poole and Hamworthy and letting boats through to Holes Bay and Cobb’s Quay Marina. Poole Quay Boat Haven has good visitor moorings near the hub of town.


Exploring Poole’s Islands

The main ship channel is dredged to six metres but the rest of the harbour can be very shallow. At high tide the glittering expanse looks vast, but much of it may be only a metre deep and will soon dry. Many of Poole’s creeks and inlets are called ‘lakes’ and moderate draught boats have plenty of interesting possibilities for mooring to buoys or anchoring in secluded corners. For canoes and kayaks or boats that can easily slide ashore there are lots more places to explore.

Brownsea is the most famous island in the Harbour, well-known as the first ever Scout Camp venue in 1907. It was also the inspiration for Enid Blyton’s mysterious Whispering Island which was explored by the Famous Five. Brownsea has no buoys or pontoons for private boats but you can easily get ashore from the anchorage south-west of the island. Kayaks can come ashore along the South Shore near Pottery Pier. For more details about landing on the island visit the Poole Harbour Commissioners website

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Wandering Brownsea’s sandy paths you might spot one of the red squirrels that have made their home on several Poole islands. The National Trust owns Brownsea and runs Villano Café and an intriguing second-hand bookshop by the ferry quay ( The north part of the island is a Dorset Wildlife Trust Reserve ( Brownsea Castle and grounds, south-east of the quay, are leased to the John Lewis Partnership as a staff holiday hotel.

You can anchor peacefully south-east of Green Island by following South Deep channel from the harbour entrance towards Goathorn Point. Continue past Furzey Island, home to Britain’s largest onshore oil extraction business, avoiding various oyster beds on the way. Green Island is an SSSI and in 2003 the TV programme Time Team found evidence of an Iron Age furnace here.

Just over a mile west of Brownsea, the beautiful anchorage off Shipstal Point is a Poole Harbour gem, a shallow creek behind Long Island at the head of the Upper Wych Channel. There are moorings here but also room to anchor between the saltings. Neap tides are best and you need high water to get in, but there are reasonable low tide depths opposite the north end of Long Island. Curlews, egrets and shelducks are your neighbours in this secluded retreat. Nearby Round Island is privately owned but has four cottages to rent for a delightful away-from-it-all holiday (


Up the River Frome to Wareham

From Poole Quay up to Wareham town is seven nautical miles, a fascinating cruise through the wide upper harbour and along the twisting River Frome through marshy flats and reed beds reminiscent of the Norfolk Broads. There are attractive visitor moorings right in the heart of Wareham or you can moor at Ridge Wharf Marina further downstream.

At first the Wareham channel is marked by red and green buoys, then spindly spar beacons take over as you enter the sleepy rural river where insects hum on warm still days. Wareham quay is surprisingly busy on summer weekends and its lower stretch is reserved for trip launches from Poole. This charming Georgian town was rebuilt after a fire in 1762, but retained its Roman street layout. Wareham was a busy port in an earlier era of smaller ships and barges, but the river gradually silted and by the 12th and 13th centuries Poole had taken much of its trade. Today you step back in time when visiting this welcoming corner of Dorset.


Out to Studland Bay

This often busy bay outside Poole harbour is a fabulous place to anchor, especially midweek. Studland village looks idyllic beyond its sandy beach, with the green slopes of Purbeck rising towards Nine Barrow Down. To the north, Bournemouth seafront curves towards Hengistbury Head and beyond Old Harry’s sheer white chalk looms the Isle of Wight. You can easily take the dinghy ashore to the beach and village, where the Bankes Arms garden has views of the bay.

Studland peninsula and bay are important wildlife areas, home to all six British reptiles and many rare birds. In winter, birdwatchers come to Studland to see unusual species of grebe and divers. Ashore, this is one of the best places in the UK to see and hear Dartford Warblers.


Charts and guides

• Imray charts are handy for all boats, even kayaks and canoes. Y23 is a detailed chart of Poole Harbour and chart C4 covers the area from the Needles to the Bill of Portland. (

• Inshore along the Dorset Coast by Peter Bruce is a great read for boaters and walkers alike, with many aerial and sea-level photographs. Detailed coastal coverage between Christchurch and Portland (

Navigation tips

• Strong currents run through the narrow entrance, up to 4.5kts at spring tides. The entrance can be dangerous for small craft when a strong wind is blowing against the direction of the tide.

• Large ships and ferries are often moving in the main harbour channel and through the narrow entrance. Never get in their way.

• A busy chain ferry shuttles across the narrows between Sandbanks and Shell Bay. Always pass behind it, never ahead, and not too close.

Safety first

• Check local weather and sea state forecasts. Force 3-4 winds are a maximum for most small boats, ideally blowing offshore. Avoid significant onshore (southerly) winds, though summer sea breezes are usually no problem.

• Have lifejackets for all crew members and put them on – useless unless worn!

• Certain areas in the harbour are designated for water-skiing or personal watercraft so watch out for high-speed boats.


Local Boat trips

The best way to experience this beautiful area is from the water. Several boat companies offer trips to Poole Harbour islands or out to Studland, Swanage and along the Dorset coast. Brownsea Island Ferries (01929 462383) leave from Poole Quay or Sandbanks regularly throughout the day to the island or upriver to Wareham. Greenslade Pleasure Boats (01202 669955) run from Poole Quay to Brownsea or Wareham and Blue Line Cruises (01202 467882) offer trips from Poole Quay to Bournemouth, Old Harry Rocks and Swanage. Poole. Sea Safari (07792 820245) has a fast 12-seater RIB for trips out to Old Harry Rocks, Tilly Whim Caves and Dancing Ledge.


Useful harbour contacts

Poole Harbour Office: 01202 440200

Cobb’s Quay Marina: 01202 674299

Lake Yard Marina: 01202 674531

Parkstone Bay Marina: 01202 747857

Parkestone Yacht Haven: 01202 743610

Poole Quay Boat Haven: 01202 649488

Ridge Wharf Yacht Centre: 01929 552650

Salterns Marina: 01202 709971


Local sailing clubs - Most sailing clubs will give helpful advice to anyone wishing to explore their local waters. Don’t be afraid to ask.

East Dorset Sailing Club, Poole: 01202 706111

Lilliput Sailing Club, Poole: 01202 740319

North Haven Yacht Club, Poole: 01202 708830

Parkstone Yacht Club, Poole: 01202 743610

Poole Yacht Club, Poole: 01202 672687

Redclyffe Yacht Club, Wareham: 01929 551227

Royal Motor Yacht Club, Sandbanks: 01202 707227


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