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Portland Riverside: Our Seasonal Trips
Down the the Connecticut River and Back

Part III

Each season, at the end of October or beginning of November, we sail back along the Sound and up the Connecticut River to our boat's winter home at Portland Riverside Marina.

The marina's friendly staff, good services, and reasonable rates make it a great place to store a boat over the winter. It's a good marina for working on a boat, too, with a well-stocked store and helpful, knowledgeable staff members and fellow boat owners. 

We're looking forward to seeing Karen, the marina's manager, and catching up on the news from friends who keep their boats at the marina, on all their summer voyages and adventures.

We're up on Saturday before sunrise for the trip from Noank to Old Saybrook and then up the Connecticut River to Essex, where we'll pick up a mooring for the night. We pass North Dumpling Island, and it's just barely visible in the predawn haze.

The temperature isn't much above freezing as the sun rises, and we keep a pot of hot coffee on the stove.

West of New London, beyond Seaflower Reef, the seas are calm, with too little wind to raise the sails.

Even after the sun is well up over the horizon, we have the Sound mostly to ourselves this time of year, with no other sailboats in sight -- just a passing barge heading toward New York:

In a couple of hours, the Saybrook Breakwater Light comes into view. On Sept. 21, 1938, the keeper of the light, Sidney Gross, noted in the log a light southeast breeze after a period of perfect calm. It turned out to be the first warning of the most severe hurricane in New England history.

But on this fall day, the seas remain calm, the wind still, the mainsail down and the genny furled.

Katharine Hepburn's former home in Fenwick, incidentally, is hidden behind Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse in the picture below. One white chimney is visible to the right of the base of the lighthouse. You can see more of the house in a better photograph here (the third photo down on the left).

Here's a photo of Hepburn's house from a later voyage of ours, in the spring of 2008:

"Can you put the camera away?" the navigator asks the helmsman. "We've got to focus on something else, like staying in the channel."

"Can't get a decent shot anyway," the helmsman says. "The boat's rolling and my hands are freezing. Want to stop in Essex? We can warm up with lunch at the Gris. Then maybe we could even pick up a mooring for the night in Essex and finish the trip tomorrow."

"Sounds like a good idea," the frozen navigator says, perking up a bit with the thought of lunch.

We head toward the Old Lyme Drawbridge, and it performs its usual trick of closing just before we reach it. We wait for an Amtrak train to pass over the bridge, and we're soon passing under the raised bridge.

Then there's the nerve-racking adventure of sailing under the 81-foot-high I-95 bridge, which always gives every appearance of being about 49 feet high just before we pass under it with our 50-foot mast.

The helmsman's heart skips a few beats in the final few seconds before we pass under the concrete span. 

"It's a matter of perspective," the helmsman says to the navigator. "And you'd think after all the times we've been under it, we'd be able to get the right perspective on it. The trick seems to be not looking up the mast, but I always do."

"I was afraid to look," the navigator says, nose buried in the chart.

We pass Old Lyme Marina, where there are still quite a few boats in the water late in the season.

We round the bend in the river past Goose Island, and Essex harbor comes into view.

Essex, one of the few harbors in the United States to come under attack by a foreign power, has been called the "Pearl Harbor" of the War of 1812. In the spring of 1814, the British rowed six rowboats upriver from four warships in Long Island Sound and destroyed 28 vessels in the harbor. The British marched to the Bushnell Tavern, now the Griswold Inn, and seized stores of rope and rum.

All's peaceful in the harbor when we arrive, but we, too, plan to march to the Griswold. We pick up a mooring and then head to the town dock in the dinghy. There's a welcoming committee waiting for us at the town's boat ramp:

The real welcome awaits in the bar at the Griswold Inn, though, which is always a warm, inviting spot after a sail up or down the river. There's already a Christmas tree up on the bar.

After lingering over a long and blessedly hot lunch, we wobble back down Main Street, admiring the houses in the beautiful 19th-century shipbuilding village.

We return reluctantly to the mooring field, which seems cast in a cold, wintry light in the mid-afternoon. "Back to the seagoing life," the helmsman grumbles.

To heat up the boat, we try a tip passed on to us by a friend, Capt. Rob: turning a clay pot upside down over a stove burner. It works fine until it's time to turn the lights out, when we have to turn the stove off. After that, we can warm ourselves with thoughts of a cozy bed at the Griswold Inn, or memories of a hot summer night in Great Salt Pond at Block Island.

The deck is covered with about a quarter inch of frost at dawn, but the rising sun casts a warm glow over the river.

"Rosy-fingered dawn, Odysseus," the helmsman says to the navigator.

"Or more like blue-fingered dawn," the navigator says, throwing off the frozen mooring pennant.

Tendrils of mist move over the river as the sun rises higher:

Day markers guide our way back up the river:

By midmorning, we're approaching the East Haddam Swing Bridge. There's a delay with the opening, the bridge tender tells us on VHF 13, so we stop at the dock below the bridge and the Goodspeed Opera House.

The opera house was actually designed to present plays, not operas. It was built in 1877 by William Goodspeed, a merchant and banker. Many well-known musicals, such as "Annie," "Shenandoah," and "Man of La Mancha," premiered at the Goodspeed. The grand old building has been through some hard times: It was also used as a militia headquarters in World War I, a general store and a storage facility for the state Department of Transportation.

The swing bridge opened for the first time on Flag Day in 1913.

"Two antiques, joined together in marriage," the navigator says, looking at the bridge and opera house.

"One dressed in her white finery and the other in utilitarian gray," the helmsman adds.

On the dock, we meet a couple on another sailboat headed up to Portland, and we walk into town together for coffee. The couple, a retired minister and his wife, tell us about their summer adventures on their Bristol 30. By the time we're back at our boats, the bridge is ready to open. We wish our new friends goodspeed and cast off our lines.

The river is still and gray, anticipating winter, but along the banks it's cheered by the lingering colors of fall.

At times the sun fades behind clouds and the river darkens.

We pass the Chester Ferry and look up toward Gillette Castle.

William Gillette first saw the property while sailing up the Connecticut River in 1913. He bought 115 acres overlooking the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry and built a castle based on a Norman fortress. Gillette, who died without a wife or children, wrote in his will that he would consider it "more than unfortunate" if his property came into "the possession of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded." The state took possession of the property in 1943.

On another day that fall, we'd looked down on the river from the castle. The Chester Ferry crosses the river to Hadlyme:

The photo above gives an idea of how our boat would have appeared from atop the cliffs, except that we didn't unfurl our genny on the last trip because of the lack of wind. No matter -- there's plenty to keep us occupied besides sails, most especially the scenery.

The journey upriver, with its spectacular scenery, is one of the highlights of our sailing season, and among the reasons we like keeping our boat at Portland Riverside in the winter.

We're making good time, despite the current against us and the delay in the bridge opening, and we should be in Portland by mid-afternoon.

The clouds are passing, and by the time we reach Bodkin Rock below Portland, it's turning into a sunny day on the river. Portland lies just around the next bend. In fact, the first inhabitants of the area were named after the bend in the river: They were the Wangunk, or "Big Bend," tribe.

Like Essex, Portland is a town with a shipbuilding history. Many U.S. Navy vessels were built there during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Later, brownstone quarrying became the town's principal industry, and ships carried the stone up and down the Connecticut River. The brownstone was then shipped as far away as San Francisco, Canada,  and England. New York City's brownstones were constructed with stone from Portland's quarries. 

After reflecting on history, the helmsman and first mate start to look busy again. The bend in the river is the point when we have to begin getting the boat ready to enter a slip at Portland Riverside Marina. The first mate retrieves the bumpers and dock lines from the lazarette. The helmsman tries not to tangled in the mess of lines underfoot.

Once we have Portland Riverside in sight, we focus on crossing the river at just the right spot, and letting the current carry us right to an open slip. Everything goes smoothly, and we pull into the marina at about 2:30. It's a warm, quiet afternoon, without a hint of the cold, cloudy weather downriver earlier in the day.

"Welcome home!" a friend calls from shore, and he rushes down the dock to help take our lines.

Our friend is wearing shorts and a T-shirt, but the helmsman is still bundled up in a winter jacket, woolen hat and scarf -- and might just look a bit nutty in that getup on what's turned out to be a fine Indian summer day. There's no explaining that the previous night and morning were the coldest of the season so far, below freezing. You had to be there on that memorably frosty -- and scenic -- journey upriver.

We spend the rest of the afternoon unbending the sails, removing the dodger and its frame, taking down the boom, and securing all the lines, but the work's not done yet: First, the boat has to be hauled out. Wayne and his capable crew will take care of that.

Over the next week, we set to work on a wooden frame for the boat, and it's soon covered for the season.

Winter has arrived, and we leave the boat in the good hands of Portland Riverside Marina.

It won't be long before we're back among friends at the marina, preparing for launch in the spring. We feel grateful to Portland Riverside Marina for helping to make our sailing season so pleasurable.


Text and photos by Brooke Martin.


For more information about Portland Riverside Marina,
(860) 342-1911 or send an e-mail.



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