The Unexpected Connecticut River  
By Peter H Vanderwaart - Stamford, Connecticut - USA

I went up to Glastonbury the other day to look at a 27-foot sailboat. An unlikely destination for such a chore, Glastonbury is on the Connecticut River about 30 miles from open sailing water on Long Island Sound. The boat was sad and neglected, but the river was lovely. I thought to myself that most Duckworks readers would have little idea of the river is like.

One of the great mother rivers of New England, the Connecticut drains an area that includes central Connecticut, west central Massachusetts, and large portions of Vermont and New Hampshire. It is the largest flow of water into Long Island Sound, and, neglecting the influence of tides, the waters of the Sound east of Saybrook flow east to Rhode Island Sound, and those west of Saybrook flow west to Hellgate, New York Harbor and the Atlantic.

click to enlarge

Map of the Connecticut River

(click images to enlarge)

The River

Taking a quick look at a map of Connecticut, you might imagine that the Connecticut River flows directly south from Hartford along the highly developed central corridor to New Haven. In fact, slightly south of Hartford, the river veers east and flows through the rural country side to the river mouth at Old Saybrook. That’s 40 miles as the crow files. For this discussion, we can divide the river into two sections: the lower part from Old Saybrook to Essex, and the upper part from Essex to Hartford.

The lower section is an important component on the Long Island Sound yacht cruising circuit, and there are a number of large marinas, such as the Old Lyme Marina. The town of Essex, about 6 miles upriver, has all a cruising sailor could want for a stopover: big marinas, good restaurants, shoppes, museums, theater, riverboats, and even a steam train. Hamburg Cove, on the east side of the river about a mile north of Essex is also a popular cruising destination. I’ve been told the cove is nearly paved with permanent moorings.

The upper section of the river is notable mainly for the lack of development. From Essex to Hartford, there is little industry visible from the river, except for a couple of power plants (including the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee on Haddam Neck). The river varies from 100 yards to a half mile in width. For most of this section, hills rise almost directly from the river itself, leaving little flood plain or bottom land. Where there is room, the land is devoted to agriculture, growing corn and tomatoes for Connecticut’s roadside produce stands. There was a time when Connecticut was the source of first quality cigar wrapping tobacco, and a few of the tobacco aging barns can still be seen. This section of the river is not yacht-oriented, but there are many points of interest and plenty for visitors to do.

Photo of downtown Essex, CT. Marinas.

click to enlarge

There are number of state parks along the river. I was interested to see that the maps provided for Hurd State Park and Gillette Castle do not show the elevations. In both places, the hills rise sharply from the river, as can be seen in one of the photos here. Hurd is primarily a forest area set aside for hiking and picnicking, and the river views are gorgeous. Gillette Castle is the legacy of the moderately eccentric actor William Gillette. The castle is fun to tour, especially with children who connect with Gillette’s whimsy.

Although there are several boat ramps along the river, I was not able to find a good list on the internet. General information about boating in Connecticut is provided by the state in the “Connecticut Boater’s Guide”. (Confirm the availability of any facilities that you wish to make use of. I have seen conflicting information about the availability of camping in some parks.)

The biggest town between Essex and Hartford is Middletown, best known as the home of Wesleyan University. Yachtsmen can get the services they need across the river in Portland, CT. Some of the towns along the river maintain parks with ramps or picnic areas along the river, including Rocky Hill where Lew Clayman and Dave Colpitts introduced me to Mouse Boating.

click to enlarge

Lew on the left, Dave on the right. The width and tree-lined banks are typical of this stretch of the river.

An interesting feature of the river near Hartford is Wethersfield Cove. This is a round pond about a third of a mile across formed from an old bend (“oxbow”) in the river. It connects to the river via a channel running under bridges carrying I-91. Logically, it’s the home for the Wethersfield Cove Yacht Club.


Two of the best ways to cruise the Connecticut are by canoe, and by small powerboat.

Canoeing is popular on the river. It makes sense to canoe downstream, of course, to take advantage of the current. The lower river, being navigable by large vessels up to Hartford, is all flat water. There is white water on the upper Connecticut River. (The best white water in the State of Connecticut is on the Housatonic River.) There are places to camp, and it makes sense to plan ahead as best you can.

Powerboats of all sorts use the river. For the visiting cruiser, a good choice would be a low-powered outboard with a quiet, 4-stoke. A Bolger Tennessee would do very well.

Sailboats should research the bridges along their route. They are either high, or will open to permit passage.

Glillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, CT

click to enlarge


I had a chat with my friend Bernie Weiss about the difficulties of navigation on the Connecticut. His advice boiled down to three considerations: silt, current, and commercial traffic.

The river water is light brown due to the silt it carries from upstream, and drops just about anywhere. (There area also other typical river hazards such as floating debris and half-soaked logs.) The Coast Guard keeps the channel dredged and well marked, but elsewhere the water may be very shallow and the depths unpredictable. At the mouth of the river, there is big shoal area to the east of the dredged channel. West of the river, silt has built Long Sand Shoal, a hazard that is well marked and clearly shown on charts. In the river itself, boats with moderate or deep draft are advised to stay in the channel. As always, make sure your charts are up-to-date.

The current in the river is influenced by both weather and tide. In normal weather, the average current near Hartford is between one and two knots, but may be more after a heavy rain. (In the early spring, there is a period of much stronger current due to snow melt in northern New England.) The average depth also varies. Information on the state of the river is available from NOAA.

At Old Saybrook, the rise and fall of tide is about 3 feet, and tidal currents are significant. As you go up the river, the proportion of ebb time increases and the proportion of flood time diminishes, however the flooding current may be surprisingly strong. Note that current may flow across the line of the channel pushing a boat into undredged shallows; this is especially true at the river mouth.

Commercial traffic on the lower Connecticut is mostly in the form of barges, either self-propelled or pushed by tugs. They stay in the channel, and are in many cases so big they seem occupy the channel completely. Skippers should be alert at all times since they may appear at any time going surprisingly fast. Bernie strongly recommends that recreational boaters stay off the river at night due to heavy commercial traffic. He also recommends fighting the urge to cut back to the center of the channel in the wake of a barge because deep draft barges and the large tugboat propellers churn up all manner of neutrally buoyant objects from the bottom.

Any time in the summer would be good for visit, but it strikes me that if your significant other wants to see New England foliage, and you want to go boating, the Connecticut River can supply both at once. In Connecticut, plan for the third week in October for maximum color.