Bustling New London harbor hosts numerous ferries that travel to Block Island, Fisher’s Island and Long Island. Photo by Tom Richardson

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In summer 2011, I took a tour of the lower Thames River and New London Harbor in a 16’ Amesbury-style skiff provided by Boating on the Thames (BOT), a small marina located on Harrisons Landing, about a mile north of the railroad and highway bridges (Note: As of 2013, BOT no longer rents skiffs, but does rent kayaks).

New London Harbor chart

I left the marina and made a quick stop on Mamacoke Cove, just upriver. The shallow cove features a gravel beach that’s part of a protected swath of land. It’s open to the public, and is a great place to picnic or swim. The cove also features exposed granite ledges to scramble on, as well as walking trails. Just watch out for the poison ivy growing along the shore.

The USS Nautilus can be viewed from the river, but don’t get too close! Photo by Tom Richardson

Directly across the river, in the town of Groton, is the Navy submarine base and USS Nautilus Museum. TheNautilus is clearly visible from mid-river, lying partially submerged alongshore. Don’t get too close, however, or you’ll invite a visit from the ever-vigilant military personnel who patrol the facility’s perimeter in well-armed RIBs.

After visiting Mamacoke Cove, I headed downriver, skirting the Coast Guard Academycampus and passing its tidy boathouse and extensive docks lined with sailboats. One of the boats crewed by some fresh-faced cadets was on the river, but they weren’t going anywhere fast in the windless conditions. I left them in my wake.

State launch ramps are located on either side of the river below the I-95 bridges. Photo by Tom Richardson

Continuing south, I soon passed below the towering spans of the I-95 bridges. Launch ramps are located on either side of the river here, below the southernmost bridge, and offer quick access to the open waters of the Sound, as well as downtown New London, which starts just below the Amtrak railroad bridge.

Chart of Thames just above New London

New London has a decidedly industrial look when approached from upriver, due to its long commercial piers and ferry terminals, not mention the crane barges that were working on City Pier during our visit. However, once you get past these structures the place begins to look more inviting, boasting an eclectic mix of architectural styles and a downtown that’s close to the water.

New London Harbor Light guards the western side of the river mouth. Photo by Tom Richardson

New London is still rebounding from its seedy period of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and is making a big effort to attract boaters. It maintains 40 transient moorings near the southern end of the harbor. Incidentally, you can also anchor in this area.

The city also installed a new dinghy dock at Custom House Pier, where boats up to 20’ can tie off for several hours at no charge. Adjacent to the dock is a restroom and shower facility, which shares a building with a police outpost. You can’t get more secure than that.

Coast Guard cadets take a lazy sail aboard one of the Academy boats. Photo by Tom Richardson

Lastly, the docks at City Pier, near the Long Island ferry terminal, are currently being renovated, and were ready for use in 2013. The docks accommodate larger vessels overnight, with electric and water hookup available. Also, boaters can tie up to the pier for up to 4 hours at no charge while they go ashore to dine, shop or explore the city.

All of this was explained to us by Barbara Neff, the city’s waterfront event coordinator. Neff and her staff have a remarkable array of events scheduled throughout the year in the harbor, including dances, concerts, arts festivals and the popular SailFest, held each July.

The New London Amtrak station is a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal and City Pier. Photo by Tom Richardson

As mentioned, New London’s downtown area is a short walk from the waterfront. New London’s Amtrak rail station is a great place to pick up and drop off friends and family from out of town. They can simply hop off the train and onto the boat for a getaway to Block Island (24 nm), eastern Long Island (15 nm) or Fishers Island (5 nm).

New London’s waterfront area is packed with restaurants and bars, and is home to several shops and boutiques. Also of interest is the Custom House Maritime Museumat 150 Bank Street. Housed in a 175-year-old stone building, the museum is home to the nation’s oldest continuously operating U.S. custom house, and also serves as an educational institution, offering exhibits, lectures, re-enactments and more. It recently became the steward of New London Harbor Light, the 4th-oldest lighthouse in North America.

While New London’s moorings and dock space will do much to attract boaters, conditions in the mooring field/anchorage will no doubt find conditions a bit rolly due to all the traffic. Boaters who wish to stay at a marina have several to choose from, but the closest to downtown is Crocker’s Boatyard, on Shaw Cove, just south of the mooring field. The cove is guarded by a railroad swing bridge (vertical clearance 6’), which opens on request barring train activity. Smaller vessels can pass below the span without problem.

Shaw Cove is also home to Capt. Scott’s Lobster Dock, a good place to dock and dine. Boaters can usually find an open slip along the dock where they can pull in for a bite to eat or an ice cream. The slips feature a clock that tells you when the owner plans to return.

Boats up to 20′ can tie up to the dinghy dock at Custom House pier at no charge. Photo by Tom Richardson

More marinas, including the Thamesport Marina and Burr’s Marina, are located just south of Fort Trumbull, the large granite fort overlooking the river and home to theU.S. Coast Guard training ship, the Eagle. Unfortunately, boaters can’t tie up in front of the fort, but Trumbull is worth visiting by land.

Given the calm conditions, I took the skiff past the mouth of the Thames and into the open Sound, stopping to take some photos of Ledge Light, one of the most beautiful and unusual lighthouses in the country. From this vantage point I could see why New London makes a logical stopping or jumping-off point for boaters. After all, it’s a relatively short run to Block Island, eastern Long Island and numerous Connecticut ports, including Mystic andStonington, plus it’s close to some great fishing spots, such as The Race, Watch Hill, Fishers Island and more. The river mouth and harbor are wide and deep, with no major obstructions to worry about. The main concerns are the near-constant ferry traffic—and the occasional submarine.

Magnificent Ledge Lighthouse is just outside New London Harbor. Photo by Tom Richardson

After cirumnaviagting Ledge Light and the mouth of the Thames, I retraced my course, surfing the ferry wakes on my way back to Boating on the Thames. By the time I docked the skiff, I had a much better sense of New London as a boating destination. It’s certainly worth a visit, whether you’re stopping on the way back to the launch ramp or spending the night on a cruise along the coast. I give New London city officials kudos for reaching out to the region’s boaters.

To read New England Boating’s full destination feature on New London, including information on fishing, places to keep your boat, launch ramps, places to eat and more, go to New England Boating: Focus on New London, Connecticut.

A launch shuttles boaters past the Thames Yacht Club pier. Photo by Tom Richardson
The Amtrak swing bridge guards the entrance to Shaw Cove, home of Crocker’s Boatyard and Capt. Scott’s Lobster Dock restaurant. Photo by Tom Richardson
The Coast Guard Academy boathouse, just north of the I-95 bridges. Photo by Tom Richardson