Rediscovering The Connecticut

Yes, the days are growing shorter, but there is still plenty of light each day to take advantage of one of the most pleasant sailing outings on the lower Connecticut River. Whether it’s a daytime trip or the popular Sunset Cruise, the Onrust is likely to please anyone with a desire to be on the water.

The ship – a replica of an early 1600s Dutch coastal exploration ship – is based for the season at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. Because of the simplicity and traditional design of the ship, the modern sailing trips harken a bit back to the 1600s.

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The Onrust carries a large gaff-rigged (and loose-footed) mainsail. By design, it should also carry a long spit – a spar that reached from the tack (the lowest spot where the main attaches to the mast) up to near the end of the gaff, but it broke before the ship arrived in Connecticut.

405 years ago, Dutch explorer Adriaen Block completed his fourth and final exploration of the area in and around Long Island Sound, including the Connecticut and Housatonic rivers. On a chart, Block later labeled the area “New Netherlands.” The region would eventually come to be known as parts of New York and New England.  

Block had sailed from the Netherlands to help chart the Hudson and Connecticut rivers, and the coasts and water between them, as far east as the southwestern elbow of Cape Cod, and Block Island, which was named after him. He also worked to open a fur trade with the local Native people. Block had begun his explorations in the Tyger, which had been built in the New World, specifically for coastal travel – but that boat burned to the waterline in New York Bay during the winter of 1613-14. 

Block pulled together a crew that built a replacement, most likely using the salvaged remnants of Tyger’s hull to speed the process. The new boat was named Onrust, translating roughly to “restless.” 

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Passengers on board the Onrust.

Block’s Onrust was a sailboat – or more properly, a certain type of sailboat called a “yacht,” the Dutch word for hunt or chase. She was designed to be fast and able to sail in shallow water, perfect for coastal and river exploration. She was perhaps 44½ feet long, with a stable beam of about 11½ feet and quite a shallow draft – 4 feet or so. Launched in 1614, she most likely carried a large, gaff-rigged (but loose-footed) mainsail and a loose-flying forward staysail, or jib.

There was an urgency to Block’s work, as the Northeast was becoming a popular place for would-be colonizers and entrepreneurs. There were fortunes to be made with furs, and millions of acres to be “settled,” as the colonists saw it – even though those lands were already occupied by Native people.

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A passenger scours the shore, looking for birds or admiring the houses that line the river – or perhaps both.

On the Onrust, Block finished his fourth exploration in 1614, and soon after headed home to the Netherlands, where he died in 1627. He is credited, among other explorations, with being the first European to sail Long Island Sound from end to end, first to explore the Connecticut and Housatonic rivers, and first to demonstrate that Manhattan and Long Island are, in fact, islands. After  Block’s final voyage, the fate of the original Onrust is not known.

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Deckhand Beth Avery watches the jib – in this case, a staysail.

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In 2006, the not-for-profit Onrust Project was established. It undertook to build, in upstate New York, as much a replica of the original Onrust as could be managed. The precise dimensions and design of the Onrust have been lost to posterity, but some notes remain, and recent marine archaeology has contributed to an idea of what the original yacht probably looked like. 

The Onrust Project was established to cover the construction of the yacht, which was built in the Mohawk Valley of New York. She was launched in 2009, during the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that is named after him.

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Passengers crane to see a peregrine falcon living atop one of the giant stanchions that hold up the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge, which carries I-95 over the Connecticut River, connecting Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.

With a shallow draft of 4½ feet, the new 52-foot yacht “is perfect for use on coastal waterways and inland river and canal systems,” the project’s website reads. On deck and below deck, the new, larger Onrust can “accommodate up to 33 passengers,” the Project’s website says, “plus six working cannon.”

The yacht now shares its year between New York and Connecticut, with winters along the Hudson River and long summers on loan to the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.  From the museum’s dock, the yacht sets out for sailing tours of the nearby river area, and can also act as a dockside museum. For this season, visitors can purchase tickets for most any Thursday through Monday from now through Sept 30.

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The sailing tours are led by Capt. Dan Thompson and two deckhands, all of whom work for the museum. Thompson steers and makes decisions related to wind and weather, and the mates help tend the sails and the dock lines, among other responsibilities.

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Capt. Dan Thompson at the helm – a tiller, attached directly to the ship’s rudder.

According to Thompson, sailing the Onrust up and down the Connecticut River relies on favorable winds and a cooperative flow on the river. In Essex, the river is still tidal, meaning that at regular intervals, incoming – northbound – water can slow the natural southward flow of the river, but a slack or falling tide would let the river flow south at its maximum speed. Thompson believes that Block would have taken advantage of those alternating flows, anchoring and resting when the southward flow was strongest, and sailing upstream when it was at or near its minimum.

“I can’t see [Block] doing it any other way,” Thompson said in June. “I don’t think he would have fought the river all the way to Hartford.”

In fact, Block managed to get as far north as present day Hartford, where his legacy is a major waterfront development complex known as Adriaen’s Landing.

Block’s return trip, back south to Long Island Sound, could have been a cakewalk, using the powerful flow of the river.

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But the sailing is not all these day trips offer. Passengers are provided with binoculars to scan the shoreline, looking for birds that make their summer homes along the Connecticut. On a mid-August sunset voyage, passengers saw a bald eagle, an egret, a great blue heron, various gulls, and a peregrine falcon that has taken up residence under the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge, which crosses the river a few miles south of the Onrust’s summer home. The falcon watched from a perch on one of the bridge stanchions as the boat sailed past.

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A muted sunset can still be quite beautiful on the water.

On the way back north, with the sun on its way down, passengers also spotted the very beginning of a gathering of tree swallows, which stop to sleep in reeds on the eastern shore of the river. As the season goes on, more and more of the swallows will gather at the reeds as they prepare for their southerly migration to their winter homes. East Coast tree swallows most likely winter in Florida, according to the Audubon Society. 

But while they are here in the lower Connecticut River, they will continue to gather until they have formed a full-fledged murmuration – an enormous group, the numbers of which nobody seems to agree on, although The Connecticut Audubon Society estimates – perhaps conservatively – “hundreds of thousands.” The tree swallows’ habit of flying acrobatically in huge, rolling flocks will eventually draw more and more boats to the area, carrying people who want to catch the spectacle. And spectacle it is, indeed. To see a murmuration (not a Connecticut one), click here.

For your planning purposes, the Sunset Cruise leaves around 6 – but that time may move earlier as the days shorten. Be sure to check with the museum.

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The Connecticut River Museum is located in Essex, just north of Old Saybrook and only a few miles north of the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge, which carries I-95 across the Connecticut River between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme. Due to issues with some GPS systems, it is best to call for directions. Summer hours (from Memorial Day to Columbus Day) are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. The museum offers its regular collection exhibitions, special events, and more, along with a summertime visitor, the Onrust (a replica of Dutch explorer Adriaen Block’s ship). 

The museum also offers special programs, including summer camps for most youth ages.

Admission is free for members, and up to $10 for a non-discounted adult. Membership begins at $40 for one person, or $65 for a family. Special group rates and packages are available.

There is a nicely stocked gift shop, and you can also shop online. 

To reach the museum, call 860-767-8269, email crm@ctrivermuseum.org, or visit the museum’s website.

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