Renting small watercraft can be a great escape

From paddleboards to kayaks to skiffs, there are many ways to get out on the water this summer and explore eastern Connecticut's scenic shores.
From paddleboards to kayaks to skiffs, there are many ways to get out on the water this summer and explore eastern Connecticut's scenic shores.

Editor's note: To page through the entire issue of the summer Sound & Country online, click here. The issue features a special 12-page boating section.

Up ahead, on a by-way angling into salt marsh west of New London, adventure waits.

Who knows what? Maybe a not-so-quick getaway. Maybe something unknown. Maybe a personal revival.

On a road course along Connecticut’s southeast coast, landlocked visitors who left the boat at home or never dreamed of owning one can find small watercraft for rent — and big fun.

The most adventuresome and still convenient way, mid-May through October, starts at places that rent water-craft for a few hours or a day. Drop in, head out.

Following U.S. 1 eastward from New London to Mystic through Stonington and neighboring Westerly, R.I., you can double-back westward through New London to State Highway 156 through Niantic and Lyme into Old Saybrook, poking into places as a boat-rental sampler. Rivers, coves, inlets and islands abound.

Charters for fishing and sight-seeing and partying are another animal, and so are public cruises.

For rental boats, look to the row-or-paddle-your-own kind. Motor craft, including jet-skis, go faster and cost more. Rentals are scarce. Anything with a motor dramatically boosts risks and insurance costs, and Connecticut’s Safe Boating law mandates passing a safety course. In Westerly, under Rhode Island law, Purple Ape offers Misquamicut jet-ski rentals (and paddleboats and kayaks) at the beach, but the go-fast, big-thrill crowd won’t find much else along the coast for show-up-and-rent.

Sailboats, a sublime draw, take at least a little experience. New England Science & Sailing (NESS), a non-profit in Stonington Borough focusing on education, offers “discovery” classes in sailing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. Students passing a “check-out sail” of basic maneuvers can take out one of NESS’s 23-foot keelboats or 21-foot centerboard boats. Groton Parks and Recreation has public sailing programs, too.

Day-boat rental, meanwhile, has gone through a sea-change. Rowboats for rent are as rare as typewriters. They can seem just as finely crafted, just as elegant, too, but they take a little more muscle and, to the fast crowd, can seem slow and heavy.

Along with powered craft, they bring other rental burdens. As Grant Westerson, a charter-boat captain and president of the Essex-based Connecticut Marine Trades Association says, “Liability (insurance), fuels and products costs have risen so far as to make boat rentals very difficult to do.”

He adds this word of caution: “The Connecticut Safe Boating program (which requires a Safe Boating Certificate [SBC] or a Certificate of Personal Watercraft Operation [SBC/CPWO] for anything motorized - see story on page 42) has had an impact, but I’m not sure if it’s positive or negative. There’s an exemption from having a certificate for (non-motor) boat rentals, but there is some pressure to lift the exemption.”

Regardless, a search uncovers a surprising number of boat-rental choices. Kayaks are king, including the kind that can seat a few fishing buddies or a family of four. Paddleboards are becoming popular, too. Even the oldest of old-school craft, wood-and-varnish dories and ketches, skiffs and pulling boats, have their outlets.

For tourists and day-trippers, the epicenter of wooden boat rental has to be Mystic Seaport, spread along the Mystic River north of downtown Mystic’s drawbridge on U.S. 1.

You’ll never find a better array of classic rowing boats. It’s pricey but convenient and secure. Pay the $24 general entry ($22 for 65-and-older and college students; $15 ages for 6-17; children younger than 6, free) and you can play among the Seaport’s many attractions. Small boat rental costs extra, visitors $10 for a half hour, $15 an hour, members $7 and $10. And the restrictions include staying within sight.

Al Burnett, manager of the Seaport’s Boat House and its flotilla of rentals, says day visitors and families can find plenty to rent (he can’t help promoting low-cost escorted day-trips, too, on the likes of the coal-fired steamboat Sabino and the Herreshoff ketch Araminta).

On a walk around the grounds in late March, he points to a host of classic rowing boats, most still shrouded in their winter tarps but some being freshly scraped, painted and varnished. Think about it: you can literally swing yourself into history, into legendary designs, into the shoes of fishermen and whalers and yacht tenders. These are copies of proven and celebrated wooden boats. He can name each one.

“The Waldo Howland, we use that as a good little skiff,” he says. “There’s the Pea Pod, shaped like that, double-ended. And the pulling boats ... there’s Captain Hook. The Chamberlain dory skiff is the Raven. That’s a flat-bottom. The Helen Packer is a round-bottom boat, a Seaford skiff, beautiful, and you can sail her, too. Here’s a Whitehall. They’re famous rowing boats. Used to be used as ferries, down in New York City and in Boston. Very nice.”

Though he has sailed much of the world, Burnett especially appreciates rowing these days. Hip trouble prevents running, so his main exercise is rowing, in a shell. Most sailors he knows first headed onto water in a rowboat.

Burnett knows that inexperienced day-renters, especially of sailboats, can get themselves in trouble. He and the staff are glad to watch them, glad to help them. “If you have any trouble, we’ll come and get you,” he says, adding, “the majority of people who rent a boat here don’t know when they walk in that they’re going to do that.”

Institutions such as the Seaport provide inspiration but also, he concedes, remove some of the chance and risk.

Among rental places, separating the buoyant from the bummers takes a little leg-work.

On U.S. 1 west of Stonington, for instance, Don Michaud has recast King Cove Marina as Stonington Marina & Outfitters. He proves a man of wide knowledge and good humor.

His specialty, if you don’t count bait-and-tackle, is kayaks. He can send you out the back door, in a recreational or touring or ocean kayak, one with a cockpit or a sit-on-top, made of roto-molded plastic or a lighter composit, into a thumb of the Wequetequock River, out into its cove and beyond.

“Most of the fishermen utilize the sit-on tops.” Michaud says. “They’re self-baling. You tip it over, you just climb back on it, the water goes through the scupper-holes. So it’s a great recreational kayak. Kids love ‘em, because they can go swimming off of ‘em.”

Rates vary, but his seem competitive: introductory paddles Tuesdays through Thursdays starting at $25 for two hours; a four-hour half-day at $38 for recreational sit-inside or sit-on-top, $45 for tandem or touring kayaks or the kind you can fish from.

Not far away, in Westerly, R.I., Watch Hill Outfitters sends kayakers into the Pawcatuck River and, if they like, on into Block Island Sound. Back in Mystic, on Holmes Street just north of the drawbridge, Marine Consignment abets its inventory of nautical hardware and novelties with roto-molded kayak rental, singles $20 for the first hour, doubles $30.

Anyone who wets a line knows that boats can carry their cohorts into places of friendly celebration and also of peace and reflection. At Boating on the Thames in Quaker Hill, across the river from the Nautilus submarine memorial and New London, a visitor can look up-river to coves, Mamacoke and Smith and Long and Mill, and down-river to downtown and its harbor. They’ve had to abandon standard boat rental, but their kayaks, single and tandem, are more popular than ever, $10 and $15 an hour to rent with a $50 returnable deposit.

In Niantic, on Smith Cove above Niantic Bay, Three Belles Marina rents kayaks, sailboats and paddleboards.

The paddleboard rentals skew young. Though a far cry from the surfing that inspired them or from wind-surfing or kite-sailing, stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) offer full-body freedom and take some vigor. They can also prove skittish. Greg Pacquin of Kayak Waveology in Killingworth, famed for its kayak school and tours, says, “If you get out there in grips of the wind and currents, you’re not getting back very easily.”

He vastly prefers British-style sea kayaks, good for anything from esturaries to open ocean. First-timers, he says, would do better nestled into the cockpit of a recreational kayak.

Along Highway 156 toward Old Lyme, Black Hall Outfitters proves a destination of choice for renters. Here’s where rivers and estuaries open up. At Black Hall, Gene Chmiel looks into the mouth of Connecticut River and up to Great Island National Wildlife Area and down into Long Island Sound. His father, Gene Sr., a retired New York City firefighter, founded Black Hall on a site that most renters can only envy.

The younger Chmiel has seen his family’s paddle sport rental business change.

“Row boats are history, yeah,” he says. “The newer kayak-canoes are so much more efficient. The old row boats are too cumbersome, too heavy, push too much water.” Their fleet of Old Town canoes and tandem kayaks can hold up to a family of four, and they also rent fishing kayaks.

The boats are made of a roto-molded plastic. “They’re really durable,” he says. “They’ve gotta be.”

If finding your own way onto the water is vacation-mandate number one, try a rental row or paddle, a sail or drift. If you want get-away, if you want peace, wise hands say, this is where you’ll find it.

Woodenboat show celebrates storied vessels

During the last weekend of June in Mystic, finding a watercraft to rent can take a back seat to finding some of the most storied and successful wooden boats ever made, ever rowed, sailed or powered.

The 23rd Annual WoodenBoat Show, set for June 27-29, will fill the grounds and halls of Mystic Seaport with designers, builders, sailors, rowers and enthusiasts of a universe of boats. Social events and dinners, workshops and exhibitions on boat-building and upkeep and restoration, displays of self-built boats and family boat-building from kits are prime draws.

Highlights include tributes to, and displays of, three yachts designed by N.G. Herreschoff, the 12-1/2, the Newport 29 and the Buzzards Bay 25, and also to 40 successful years of the bi-monthly WoodenBoat magazine, out of Brooklyn, Maine.

The event also will open the Seaport museum's peerless collection of nearly 500 classic and celebrated wood boats, its Watercraft Storage Area, to view during pre-arranged tours.

The most spectacular include the likes of the Gloucester fishing schooner L.A. Dunton and the Noank yacht-like smack, the Emma C. Berry. One favorite happens to be among the plainest: an oyster-tonging dugout canoe from Fairhaven, Conn., looking something like a large hollowed log, 27 feet long, paddled from the back. It's the oldest boat in the collection, built in 1824, preserved partly by a wood grain running in the same direction, so it could shrink and swell without damage, and no fastenings to rust or corrode.

A legion of staff and volunteers put in uncounted hours documenting and cataloguing and moving and displaying the collection. These boats were built for leisure, for racing and, often, for work. The best designs endured.

Members of the John Gardner Chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association, many of them Seaport volunteers, promote and build, and sail or row and enjoy, wood boats. They often meet on Friday evenings at Avery Point to work on boats and trade tales.

Wood rowing boats, especially, they say, seem fundamental. “When I was growing up,” one member said, “everybody rowed. We learned to row a boat first.”

He and his friends, he says, benefit from the labors of generations before them. The art and hard work and craftsmanship of those generations will be on full view in Mystic's show.

For more, call the Seaport at 860-572-0711 or go online at the Three-day advance tickets sell for $36 for adults, $22 for children ages 6 to17, 5 and under free, online at or by calling 800-273-7447. Daily tickets are sold at the gate, and Mystic Seaport members get in free.

— Tim Norris


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