Essex, Connecticut

Essex, Connecticut

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Connecticut River Museum, Essex, Connecticut

Cruise one of America’s Best Small Towns and feel your blood pressure fall.

A quintessential New England small town on the banks of the tree-lined Connecticut River, Essex is a mix of white-picket-fence charm and colonial history, all with a heavy nautical overlay. Six miles up the river from Long Island Sound, Essex offers some protected and picturesque coves, an inviting Main Street, and a boating-centric culture that makes visiting cruisers feel more than welcome. Indeed, Essex today has more transient moorings for boats than it does parking spaces for cars. And if Essex itself isn’t enough of an attraction—even though it’s on almost everybody’s list of Best American Small Towns—then head up the river another mile and drop the hook in Hamburg Cove, one of the most protected and alluring gunkholes on the East Coast, if not the entire U.S.

Like many other great cruising destinations in the Northeast, Essex is easy to get to. On Long Island Sound, about six miles east of Duck Island Roads off Westbrook you’ll see the Saybrook Breakwater Light. It’s 58 feet high and on the end of a 1,000-foot-long breakwater. The wide channel between it and the matching breakwater to the east leads north up the Connecticut River to Essex, and then another 40 miles or so to Hartford, the state capital.

After the breakwater you’ll pass two large, full-service marinas off to port—Saybrook Point Marina and Harbor One Marina—and in two miles you’ll reach the Amtrak train tracks on the Old Lyme Drawbridge, with a vertical clearance of 19 feet. Contact the tender on Channel 13. Just north of the drawbridge is the I-95 car bridge, but it has an 81-foot vertical clearance.

This part of the river is rich in history. The Algonquin Indians fished and farmed here until 1590, when the more warlike Pequots from the north drove them out. The first

European recorded to have landed here was Adriaen Block in 1614 after he had explored Block Island farther east. Over the years, the small village of Essex grew and prospered because of its protected location with access to both Long Island Sound and to the increasingly productive Connecticut heartland. Essex also became a major shipbuilding center; by the time the Revolution ended Essex had launched some 600 vessels for the patriots.

But it was the War of 1812 that put Essex in the history books, largely as a result of one of the British Navy’s most successful raids of all time. During the war, Essex shipbuilders were busy producing privateers that attacked British ships in the Caribbean and western Atlantic. The British sent some warships to attack the town, but they couldn’t get past the sandbar off Old Saybrook. So on the night of April 7, 1814, 137 British marines rowed the 6 miles up the river on 6 well-armed boats, arriving off Essex at 3AM. The British captain in charge told the villagers that if they did not fire on his men he would not harm them, but he did intend to destroy all the privateers. Within a few hours, the British had burned 27 ships before rowing back down the river. For the past 46 years, Essex has honored this event with an annual Burning of the Ships Parade, complete with period uniforms and a fife and drum corps.