Early American history is inextricably linked with maritime history, and there’s no better way to get a feel for it than to take a summer cruise on one of New England’s many waterways.
The islands off New England were the site of some of the first settlements and fortifications. Wars were fought and commerce flourished along the region’s rivers, lakes and harbors. Lighthouses alone have a rich history, as do the fishing villages that became thriving cities and summer resorts.
We offer suggestions for 6 historic boat rides, one for each state, from Lake Champlain to the Long Island Sound.
Schooner Mystic Whaler
Visitors to the 107-ton schooner Mystic Whaler will get a look at what a 19th Century coastal cargo schooner was all about.
Coastal schooners were extremely profitable investments for their owners during the age of sail, supplying the cities up and down the eastern seaboard with cargo and passenger service.
The schooner Mystic Whaler is a reproduction built in 1967 and refitted in the 90s. And for comfort it has some modern amenities, including showers and comfortable cabins for overnight trips.
Each cruise offers a tour of the Thames River’s historic waterfront, including its famous forts and lighthouses, and passengers are invited to help raise sails, sing along with an old sea chantey and even take a turn steering the boat.
The ship offers regular 3-hour sailing trips in Fishers Island Sound as well as longer multi-day excursions.
All cruises sail from City Pier in New London, Conn. For more information, click here.
Maine Maritime Museum
A trip to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine, offers a fascinating look at what the Percy & Small (P&S) Shipyard was like during the heyday of the coastal schooner era.
From 1894 to 1920, the yard built 45 vessels; 42 were four-, five- or six-masted schooners, including Wyoming, the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built.
For a water’s-eye view of the scene, the museum offers regular cruises that explore the lighthouses of Merrymeeting Bay, complete with some history about the lighthouses that guided the vessels coming in and out of the Kennebec to Bath.
For more information, click here.
For a taste of what fishing the Grand Banks was like in the age of sail, you can book a trip on the schooner Adventure out of Gloucester, Mass.
The Adventure measures 121.6 feet and was built at the John F. James and Son Shipyard in Essex, Mass. She was a fishing vessel from 1926 to 1953 hauling in more than $4 million worth of fish in her day before she retired as the last American dory fishing trawler in the Atlantic.
Following a refit as a windjammer operating in Maine, the Adventure returned to Gloucester to be restored. With the restoration almost complete, the ship hosts regular sails and visitors will learn about life aboard a Gloucester fishing vessel as well as the history of the ship and her restoration.
For more information, click here.
Star Island Walking Tour
The remote and beautiful Isles of Shoals are barely inhabited today, but they have a long and fascinating history. They are an archipelago of nine islands, eight miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.
In the early 16th century, Basque, French, English and Portuguese fishermen fished the waters off the North American coast. So did Native Americans. By 1623, French and English fisherman lived on the islands seasonally to take advantage of the teeming schools of cod. It was fully incorporated as the town of Appledore in 1661. By the mid-19th century, the fisheries had fallen off, but a new hotel built by Thomas Laighton attracted tourists and 19th century celebrities. His daughter, Celia Thaxter, was the most popular female poet of the era, hosted an arts community that included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Childe Hassam.
Now, the islands are privately owned. UNH and Cornell have a marine lab on Appledore, and Star Island is home to a religious and educational conference center. It’s owned by the Star Island Corporation, affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.
The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, operating out of Portsmouth, N.H., offers day trips and walking tours to Star Island. The islands’ history is narrated on the cruise and by a guide on the island. For more information, click here.
Rhode Island Bay Cruises
In 1776, the guns of Fort Adams drove British warships from Narragansett Bay. By the 19th century, Newport became an ostentations summer resort for America’s super rich.
Rhode Island Bay Cruises takes passengers past some of the most beautiful and historic coastline of Narragansett Bay on a state-of-the-art catamaran.
The sightseeing cruise of Narragansett Bay features 10 historic lighthouses, 10 islands, Fort Adams and Hammersmith Farm, where John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier. The rich history and folklore of Narragansett Bay will be narrated by local historian Arthur Strauss.
Rhode Island Bay Cruises leaves from North Kingstown, R.I. For more information, click here.
Spirit of Ethan Allen
Spirit Of Ethan Allen, a 363-passenger cruise ship, cruises Lake Champlain past historic sites among the Adirondack and Green Mountain ranges. The ship sails along water highways used by Native Americans and unique geographic formations such as the Champlain Thrust Fault and Rock Dunder.
The captain will tell the story of Ethan Allen’s adventures, recount Indian lore, point out sights of historic shipwrecks and describe famous battles fought on the lake during the American Revolution. Passengers may also get a glimpse of Champ, the lake’s elusive monster.
Photos: New London from the waterfront, by By Iracaz at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17470662; Maine Maritime Museum, By Maine Maritime Museum CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21493216;; Annisquam Harbor Light by By User:Magicpiano - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23028235; Gosport Chapel, By The original uploader was Shoaler at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Howcheng using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11338999; Newport, R.I., By MVASCO - Aerial Photo From Robinson R44 Helicopter by Michael Kagdis, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28626105; Lake Champlain lighthouse By Nagaraju.ramanna - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19728487.