Stephen Jones leads Sunday cruise to Block Island

Local historian Steve Jones stands in front of the New London Maritime Society Custom House Maritime Museum's collection of Ellery Thompson's paintings Thursday, March 24, 2016. Jones will serve as a tour guide on a high-speed ferry cruise to and from Block Island on Sunday for New London Maritime Society's 34th annual Meeting, Lunch & Cruise. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Local historian Steve Jones stands in front of the New London Maritime Society Custom House Maritime Museum's collection of Ellery Thompson's paintings Thursday, March 24, 2016. Jones will serve as a tour guide on a high-speed ferry cruise to and from Block Island on Sunday for New London Maritime Society's 34th annual Meeting, Lunch & Cruise. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Spend a sea-scented Noank afternoon with Professor Stephen Jones, sitting on the weathered wooden porch at Carson's Store in neighborly October sunshine. Listen to Jones' amused but rapid delivery as he spins witty anecdotes and observations, pausing appreciatively whenever small groups of kids race by, just out of class, many modeling the costumes they officially would wear on Halloween.

Jones is discussing the myriad ideal qualities required of someone who conducts a boat tour — as per his assignment Sunday aboard a ferry trip to and from Block Island. The occasion is the 34th New London Maritime Society Annual Meeting & Cruise, and Jones will regale his audience with stories of Long Island Sound as they apply to our section of the world.

A renowned historian, author, boat-builder, railroad worker, filmmaker, publisher of Flat Hammock Press, lighthouse keeper and raconteur, Jones, in his mid-80s, retired last spring after years as a professor of writing, English literature and coastal and maritime studies at UConn Avery Point. With this resume and charismatic presence, Jones has for decades been in demand for tours and lectures about Noank Island, the Sound and the Niantic, Thames, Mystic and Connecticut rivers.

On Sunday's cruise, Jones' remarks will touch on, among other topics: his friend Ellery Thompson, the renowned dragger-boat captain, writer, painter and trumpeter; Lawrence Malloy, the youngest of a six-generation Mystic boat- and shipbuilding family; Bill McCoy, whose fascination with and expertise aboard sailing ships led to a legendary career as a rum-runner in the 1920s; and Sir Thomas Hardy, the British admiral defeated in Stonington during the War of 1812.

With all of Jones' experience, then, it seems reasonable, in advance of Sunday's cruise, to ask how he distills all this source material into a distinct presentation for maritime enthusiasts.

"You know, my father (Edward Jones) did similar tours as well, and he taught me two things," says Jones, dressed in a straw hat, black blazer and blue denim shirt. "One was that he would never think of doing this sort of thing inland. There's a different rhythm on a boat and a different quality of light being on the water, and the sea as a venue itself transforms the experience in ways you could never achieve on land. Oh, and, also, stay focused."

Teaching the Bard

In one-on-one conversation, though, focus can be a challenge. Jones' conviviality, knowledge and history are such that he seems a sort of biologically alchemical blend of Falstaff, George Lyman Kittredge and G.W. Blunt. The listener can't help but interrupt with follow-up questions — thereby twirling the conversation in all sorts of directions.

He speaks fondly of Shakespeare, for example, acknowledging that an ability to regale groups of folks can be decidedly heightened if one has spent quality time speaking aloud the Bard's work. It's something Jones gravitated to as a child when his father would recite Shakespeare around the house. Later, various English teachers would quote Shakespeare in a machine gun monotone, significantly lessening the power of the words.

"I spent a lot of time reciting Shakespeare or reading him aloud," Jones remembers. "Let's face it, you can get bored with Shakespeare if you're not interpreting the words. Anyway, I developed a perhaps unwarranted confidence in my ability to teach and speak Shakespeare." He describes efforts in his teaching days where he would grow a beard throughout the semester so that, by the end of the syllabus, he had the appearance necessary to portray the course-ending King Lear.

"Of course," he adds, "just as often, someone would want me to be Santa Claus. But I wanted my own students to be able to read Shakespeare when they graduated. And I used those same principles teaching maritime literature. And, working on the water, with long stretches of time, reciting Shakespeare works very well with the rhythm of the sea. There's a quality to hearing words aloud, and so that helps on the boat tours, as well."

Jones generously acknowledges the work of various tour guides in his past whose work has been valuable in his own evolution, citing humor, timing and history as integral elements to the ideal presentation. He references, for example, a tour past a small island in Maine's Frenchman Bay, where the chef Julia Child liked to sunbathe on rocks, adorned by little more than the glass of wine she'd hold aloft in toast to passing vessels. Or a story about Teddy Roosevelt at his family's Long Island summer home in Sagamore Hill on Oyster Bay. Then president, Roosevelt, a lifelong boxing enthusiast who was mostly blind in one eye due to a well-placed punch, once mistook a fisherman landing in the local oyster yard as a sparring partner, greeting the bewildered man on the beach with a pair of boxing gloves.

Jones also transfixes with quick, interwoven stories about the construction of Race Rock Lighthouse; the Vermont Central Railroad and its connection to New London; Sarah Bernhardt's observation that no man can properly portray Hamlet (by the time they understand the character, they're too old to play the role); patrolling beaches for the Coast Guard to see if any dead bodies had washed up; attending famed clarinetist Alphonse Picou's second-line funeral in New Orleans; and why it's not a bad idea to have a grandmother who was an elocutionist.

It all plays into the art of the boat tour guide. Jones says, "After a time, you know each rock and bend in the river, you know all the stories and the history, and the temptation is to tell 'em everything you know."

In that sense, Jones warns against the temptation of a memorized spiel. "There's a performance and spontaneity to a good harbor tour. You can get too slick with pre-written jokes and a certain type of humor that become shtick. It sounds like a recording," he says. "Of course, there ARE tours that use pre-recorded commentary. It doesn't work if the wind or water aren't cooperating and suddenly the tape gets ahead of the pilot."

In the end, Jones says, each tour is unique — and that's part of the fun. "The true art of the harbor tour is to not download them with data, or dazzle them with personal performance, but to quietly help them see what can be there." He chuckles. "And it helps to know when to shut up."

r.koster@theday.com

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