So many ports, so little… well, you know the tune. Here are the top ports on the East Coast.
East Coast boaters have a tremendous number of substantial ports to investigate. But other than checking out those closest to home, how do you decide which ones truly merit a visit by sea? For me, at least, a splash of history often seals the deal. These top east coast ports have some history behind them.
I want to cruise where famous battles once raged, boating achievements were made and a sense of yesteryear is felt yet still enjoy the conveniences of the modern boating era. Add in a few tales I never learned in school, great restaurant choices plus scenic views, and I’m hooked.
With just those parameters in mind, here’s a quick overview of four historic boating destinations worth adding to your cruising calendar. Each is also a busy port from both commercial and recreational standpoints, so you’ll need to stay on the lookout for tankers, ferries, tall ships, and cruise ships in addition to novice sailors and other pleasure craft. So take a cruise to these top ports on the east coast!
Two peninsulas and a smattering of islands broke the power of the Atlantic Ocean providing a safe haven for ships when Europeans first settled Boston around 1630. The original is around Town Dock and most of the Great Cove where early sailors arrived have been filled in over the centuries. Now, it’s home to Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, and the Custom House Tower. When it was completed in 1721, Long Wharf jutted nearly a third of a mile out into the harbor.
Today, the towns of Hull and Winthrop buffer the ocean’s onslaught. The 34 remaining islands are part of the Boston Harbor Islands State and National Park, which includes lighthouses on Long Island, Little Brewster Island and the Graves. The filled tidelands have shortened Long Wharf to half its original length, but it’s still a bustling place. Watch all the action from the Chart House restaurant or grab a drink at The Landing. Just south of the pier is the New England Aquarium.
As early Boston bustled downtown, the surrounding waterfront neighborhoods became home to major shipbuilding facilities. That explains why you’ll find the USS Constitution docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard, where ships were constructed through WWII. In addition to climbing aboard “Old Ironsides,” visitors can explore the yard and learn about the history of boatbuilding.
Amid the modern, glass buildings that line the city’s shore, the historic Fish Pier still processes seafood caught up and down the coast. The waterfront highlight here is the Institute for Contemporary Art, which sits cantilevered over the harbor. Down the street is Fort Point Channel, ringed by the Barking Crab, Hook Lobster, Tea Party Museum, and the Boston Children’s Museum.
Newport, Rhode Island
Known as both The Sailing Capital of the World and the nation’s “first resort,” Newport was founded in 1639 and immediately established itself among the most productive coastal colonies. For nearly 400 years, commercial, military, and pleasure craft have patrolled its port waters.
This, of course, was the long-time home of America’s Cup Trophy, which was held by the New York Yacht Club from 1857 to 1983—the longest winning streak in global sports history. The 132-year record was held until Australia II took top honors for the Royal Perth Yacht Club. Though the departure of The Cup broke the hearts of American sailing enthusiasts, it spurred the birth of Sail Newport later that year. The nonprofit organization provides hundreds of children with sailing lessons and instructional programs. Sail Newport was instrumental in luring some of the most highly touted regattas to the area. That includes the America’s Cup World Series in 2012 and the Volvo Ocean Race in 2015 and 2018.
There’s plenty to explore here, both cultural and nautical. Check out the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport Art Museum, Fort Adams State Park, and the Redwood Library & Athenaeum (America’s oldest lending library). For true shipbuilding aficionados, the Herreshoff Marine Museum & America’s Cup Hall of Fame in nearby Bristol is one of the nation’s most important historic maritime treasures.
Finally, be aware that the City of Newport has a Maritime Center for transient boaters to do laundry, take a shower and get on the Internet. It’s located in the basement of the Armory Building on Thames Street.
Newport Harbormaster, and to obtain transient dockage (first-come, first served): 401-845-5815; VHF 16
discovernewport.org: For all things about visiting Newport
sailnewport.org: Sail Newport is RI’s public sailing center
herreshoff.org: Herreshoff Marine Museum & America’s Cup Hall of Fame
fortadams.org/visitfort-adams: Fort Adams State Park
Norfolk is the northernmost port on the eastern seaboard that doesn’t freeze in the winter months. It’s also home to the largest naval complex in the world, situated in the Sewells Point area near where the Monitor and Merrimac had their historic encounter. You can see remains of the Monitor and discover additional maritime history at the Mariner’s Museum and Park.
Norfolk also hosts the “Mile Zero” mark on the ICW. A new, 3,000-square-foot mural representing the Magenta Line on ICW charts was unveiled at Nauticus Pier last September and shows how proud this port is of its seafaring community. The pier marks the waterfront for downtown Norfolk> You’ll also find the National Maritime Center with its museum, aquarium and the battleship for which it’s named.
To grab a bite while surrounded by history, pull in at Nauticus Pier and take a short walk or cab ride to Freemason Abbey Restaurant and Tavern. Originally dedicated as a church in 1873 by the congregation of the Second Presbyterian Church, it later housed the First Church of Christ Scientist and then served as a meeting hall for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Today, wait staff serve an award-winning she-crab soup.
Be sure to take a look, too, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church. Following defeat at the Battle of Great Bridge, England’s Lord Dunmore attacked Norfolk from the sea while fleeing Virginia on January 1, 1776. In retaliation, Patriots set fire to the homes of loyalists and the fire destroyed almost the entire town. The church was the only major building to survive, although a cannonball did strike its wall and can still be seen today.
Norfolk Harbormaster: 757-625-3625; VHF 16 or 68
watersidemarina.com: For transient dockage and easy access to the new waterside district restaurants, stores and bars
visitnorfolk.com: Plan your trip to Norfolk
freemasonabbey.com: Freeman Abby Restaurant and Tavern
Charleston, South Carolina
Colonists sailed into Charleston Harbor in 1670. Tales of merchant traders, pirates and naval foes have been told ever since. While the city skyline is now speckled with church steeples and ship-loading cranes, a leisurely cruise across this large harbor is a panoramic experience that harkens back to the era of cannons and rum casks.
The “Lowcountry,” as locals call the shore aligning this harbor, spans 90 miles of coastline, salt marshes, barrier islands, and pristine beaches. The last manned lighthouse built in the U.S. was Charleston Light, an iconic black and white tower first lit in 1962 that still shines from Sullivan’s Island. The harbor’s most visited ship—the USS Yorktown—doesn’t move, but many folks are moved by the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum located in the hanger bay of this decommissioned WWII aircraft carrier. At Charlestown Landing, the S.S. Adventure is a reproduction of a 17th-century merchant vessel.
Two Charleston forts offer a bow seat to history. Fort Moultrie traces America’s coastal defense from 1776 to 1947. The original 1776 Palmetto-log fort came under fire from the British before it was even completed. A century later, it served to defend both Union and Confederate forces.
Across the harbor, Fort Sumter drew the opening volleys of the Civil War from Confederate troops. Today, the Fort Sumter National Monument features one of the country’s greatest collections of 19th-century seacoast artillery. Charleston Harbor was also the site of the first successful submarine attack in history in 1864 when the H.L. Hunley ambushed the USS Housatonic at night during the Civil War.
By Tom Schlichter, Southern Boating November 2018