A friend invited me to take a tour of Portland Harbor recently. The resulting 90-minute ride in a small outboard skiff was particularly illuminating for me, since I’d never had a close-up, water-level look at this interesting corner of Maine. Portland’s not a cruising destination like towns further Downeast, and while it’s fairly easy to launch a small boat and enjoy the place, it doesn’t have the quaintness you’d associate with, say, Rockport, or the fishing-harbor ambience one finds at Port Clyde, Vinalhaven or Cutler. It’s a commercial harbor for the most part, and when most of us get out on our own, we tend to head for other places on the Maine coast.

Our tour began at Southport Marine in South Portland, one of the facilities on the string of sites along the shore between the new bridge and Spring Point that were once devoted to industrial purposes. Nearby at various times in the past were shipyards and graving docks, small manufacturing operations, pipelines and the two yards where Liberty Ships were built during World War II. Oil tank farms are a highly visible part of the shore, along with dozens of condominiums, restaurants, marinas and a yacht club-definitely a mixed-use neighborhood.

We launched our aluminum Lund skiff from Southport’s ramp. The view of Portland’s waterfront opened up to port as we cleared an industrial-looking peninsula; then we turned west and headed for the Casco Bay Bridget; passing one of the new bridge’s massive abutments and the South Portland remnant of the former Million-Dollar Bridge (refurbished for recreation), we headed up the Fore River and then turned to port (south) into Long Creek.

This is one of Portland Harbor’s most unusual sights: meandering south and west in the general direction of the Maine Mall, Long Creek is remarkably wild, occasionally forested on its banks, and quiet-though surrounded by urban bustle on all sides. Interstate 295 and its widening project were to port; the former Maine Youth Center, now being developed into condos with a dock and float on the creek, was to starboard. On we went, past the back of a big car lot that we couldn’t see for the trees, nearly reaching Clarks Pond before we turned back.

Next, crossing under Interstate 295’s low-clearance bridge, we made a quick foray up the Stroudwater River, where in the distance we could see the large buildings where Congress Street crosses. Turning once again, we headed back down the harbor, past Merrill’s Marine Terminal, Sprague Energy and a steel fabricating facility owned by Cianbro, before reaching the first of the long series of piers that jut out from Commercial Street.

Some are in better repair than others; these piers host a variety of enterprises from high-end condominiums to the Marine Responder oil cleanup vessel, to lobster dealers and the operations of the Casco Bay Ferry District. The piers back up on Commercial Street, where you’ll find everything from Cumberland Self-Storage (in a huge former cold storage warehouse) to eating establishments such as Becky’s Diner and DeMillo’s Floating Restaurant. In terms of traffic at least, this side of the harbor was the busiest place we saw, with tugs, lobster boats, yachts and even Portland’s brand-new fireboat.

Dodging a ferry headed into the Casco Bay Lines terminal, we went alongside the fireboat for a look-it smelled like fresh paint. Then it was off to Spring Point, Bug Light and finally back to Southport Marine’s ramp. Out came the boat, a smoothly as it had gone in.

I’ve walked and driven all around Portland. I’ve landed many times at the International Jetport, which, with its approach lights on piles extending out into the water, is an integral part of the harbor. Once, shortly after the new bridge was built, I flew with a photographer over the whole place to document how the new bridge had changed the view. During my southbound trip last winter I passed under many bridges and wondered why Portland had opted to build a drawbridge rather than a high fixed one, as so many other communities have done. Putting this question to my tour host, I got a straightforward answer: a  higher bridge would have “landed right on my house,” he told me. Portland may have settled for the inconvenience and cost of a mechanical bridge that stops traffic when it’s up, but the much higher fixed structure that would have been required, given ship traffic up and down the Fore and Presumpscot, would have been harder on everyone.

Since my little tour I’ve learned-along with everyone else in town-that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wants to re-map Portland Harbor to reflect greater risk of damage by waves and, presumably, rising sea levels.

It’s part of FEMA’s flood insurance program, and on the surface would seem like a good idea. But as critics of the FEMA effort have pointed out, Portland’s working waterfront has been in place for a couple of centuries and has come through repeated hurricanes, spring tides and northeasters in pretty good shape. If the choice is between sacrificing this commercially vibrant and historic place’s future so it won’t be damaged by a 100-year storm, I’ll join the take-our-chances side of the argument. I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell idiots not to build mansions on sand somewhere, but already-developed Portland Harbor (which came to be because it’s in a protected place) ought to be allowed to thrive on its own.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.