Boaters who cruise the lower Connecticut River often find themselves in a different state of mind—and place. In this world, friendly marina owners offer transients a ride into town; primordial forests embrace quiet anchorages; hidden creeks and coves invite small-boat exploration. This much traveled, border-defining waterway‚ the largest and longest in New England‚ is nothing if not scenic and accommodating.
Our tour of the lower Connecticut begins in Portland, an unassuming place with a surprising and seafaring past. Though few people know it, Portland was once a major shipbuilding center, and later became a leading source of tobacco and brownstone.
Portland welcomes boaters with several marinas, and serves as a convenient jumping-off spot for trips up or down the river, but it’s also a boating destination in its own right.
“I really think Portland is overlooked among boaters,” says Bob Petzold of Petzold’s Marine Center, a family-owned service facility and boat dealership some 20 to 30 miles north of Long Island Sound and the Connecticut’s more heralded ports. “It’s just an hour from Essex, and it’s complemented by many golf courses and the [Brownstone Exploration and Discovery] Park. So whether you’re old or young, it has something for everyone.”
Shoreside attractions aside, the river rules, and many boaters head straight for Gildersleeve Island. In summer, this wooded, 80-acre crescent of land that splits the river is surrounded by hundreds of boats at anchor, their crews enjoying the beach, splashing in the warm shallows, or lounging onboard. If you’re tempted to join the party, approach carefully, as the island is surrounded by shoal water.
Much of the land along Connecticut belongs to the state and various conservation groups, who have identified the river as one of 15 “wetlands of international importance.” For the 10 miles south of Portland, nary a bridge or development interrupts the forested banks.
Along the way you’ll pass Haddam Island State Park, where you’re welcome to anchor and go ashore. In the 19th century, 2 commercial fishing companies operated from this island. Piers were constructed by sinking large amounts of stone, brought across the river in winter and piled on the ice.
A mile-and-a-half farther south, you might be surprised to spy a bright-yellow shack on the west bank. It’s The Blue Oar, a celebrated burger and seafood joint in Haddam that serves as one of 2 eateries directly on the lower river (the other being Dock and Dine in Saybrook). The Blue Oar offers limited dockage, but you can also tie up at the Midway Marina next door if space is available.
Directly across the river is the entrance to Salmon Cove and the Salmon River, a lovely and protected spot to explore in a dinghy or kayak. There’s good fishing here, too, and a convenient public boat ramp can be found at the mouth of the cove.
Two miles farther south you’ll come upon the elaborate East Haddam swing bridge, which opens on the half-hour in season. At its base on the east side of the river is a grand 4-story Victorian building—the Goodspeed Opera House. This area makes an ideal overnight stop, especially if you’d like to catch a play or musical before it heads to Broadway. You can’t dock here, but transients are welcome at Andrews Marina, on the opposite bank (reservations are recommended).
Calling on Chester
Next stop is arty, boutique-filled Chester, where you can find dockage at one of the town’s 4 marinas, 3 of which are within walking distance of downtown. An inviting gazebo marks the entrance to Chrisholm Marina, a transient-friendly facility where the staff can give you a lift into town. Just south of there is Chester Point Marina, the Pataconk Yacht Club and Hays Haven Marina, all on quiet, scenic Chester Creek. If you’re game, you can take a dinghy up Chester Creek to access the restaurants and shops in town.
In downtown Chester, locals solve the world’s problems at The Blue Oar’s sister property, Simon’s Marketplace, which doubles as a gift shop. Grab a craft beer at the Pattaconk 1850 Bar and Grill or dinner at Six Main. Stock up on gourmet provisions at Wheatmarket or pick up some handcrafted clothing, furniture, jewelry, art or food at Button, Elle Design Studio, and Frock. Or spring for an original Leif Nilsson impressionist painting at Spring Street Gallery.
Selden Creek Seclusion
Opposite Chester Point Marina, at Buoy “37”, take some time to nose your bow into Selden Creek, which loops behind the nature preserve of Selden Island, a state park that offers waterside campsites. Towering sycamores, oaks, cedars, wild rice and cattails line the narrow ribbon of water, with beaver, muskrat, blue heron and coyotes going about their business within. The creek is arguably the most beautiful spot on the river, and a frequent subject for local artists and photographers.
Back on the west bank of the river, tucked behind Eustasia Island, Brewer Deep River Marina offers fuel, dockage and a quiet haven for transients. Though there’s not much of a downtown in Deep River, veteran visitors love the hole-in-the-wall Whistle Stop Cafe, which builds unusual and amazing omelets, and will deliver to boaters.
Continuing toward Essex, take care as you navigate past the mouth of Selden Creek and its shifting shallow sandbar, as well as Brockway Bar, which extends far into the river, forcing deep-draft boats through the narrow but well-marked Brockway Bar Channel.
Once through the channel and abeam of Brockway Island, keep your eyes peeled for the entrance to Hamburg Cove‚ a well-known gunkhole and boater’s hangout. This protected anchorage is accessible via a narrow but well-marked channel, and features a sheltered basin with depths of nine to 15 feet. It’s a popular, peaceful overnighting spot among self-sufficient cruisers, but can be rather lively during the day.
Another mile downriver brings you to one of Eric Clapton’s favorite ports: Essex (the famous musician visits the town on his yacht, Blue Guitar, every other year). Essex serves as a splendid, marshy enclave for a variety of wildlife. It’s also home to Steamboat Dock, where, in the 1700s, goods from Africa and the West Indies such as sugar, spices, rum and ivory (to supply the piano and billiards factories of nearby Ivorytown) were offloaded and stored in the building now occupied by the Connecticut River Museum. Main Street is steps away from all the local marinas and features the oldest continuously operating hotel and tavern in the country, the 1776 Griswold Inn, voted one of the top 150 bars in the country by the Daily Meal. Inside you’ll find a warm, homey atmosphere and an amazing collection of original nautical art.
Essex is a boating mecca, with more slips than parking spaces. Brewer Essex Island Marina, set apart from the mainland by a narrow canal, is a destination unto itself, while Brewer Dauntless Shipyard & Marina is home to some illustrious yachts. Both offer transient slips and moorings, and the former has a great little restaurant called Marley’s Cafe. If you just want to duck into town to grab lunch or stroll around, the Essex town landing and launch ramp, at the foot of Main Street, allows a 2-hour tie-up, space permitting.
It’s all in keeping with this river’s boater-friendly nature!
Learn more about boating in Essex, Chester and Deep River.
Watch an episode of New England Boating TV featuring the lower Connecticut River and Essex!