A Mystic state of mind

The 81-foot schooner Argia, at Steamboat Wharf near the drawbridge in Mystic, awaits her next charter. Photo by Mike Camarata

By Michael Camarata
For Points East

Mystic is not a municipality with an independent government. The village is partly in the town of Groton and partly in the town of Stonington. It is divided by the so-called Mystic River, with Stonington to the east and Groton to the west. But the Mystic River is not a river, but rather, a narrow estuary extending three-plus miles into southeastern Connecticut from Fishers Island Sound. What Mystic represents, however, is the No. 1 tourist region in all of Connecticut – and a premier New England boating destination. All with good reason.

By car, exit 90 off I-95, will put you on Route 27. Heading south, you will pass the Mystic Aquarium and the Mystic Seaport Museum on your way to Route 1 and the center of Mystic Village. But we are going to come to this beautiful destination by boat, and we’ll have a lot more fun arriving that way. The highway is just far enough away from town not to be heard except for in one, northernmost anchorage. Trains, however, are another story. More on that later.

Mystic is the second-most-eastern harbor in Connecticut. Only Stonington Harbor is farther east. Opposite Mystic Harbor is Fishers Island, N.Y., which also has several spots to visit. A cruise to this area gives one many terrific options, but Mystic will be the place for an extended stay.

Coming from the east, you will enter Fishers Island Sound from Block Island Sound via Watch Hill Passage. An adverse current in this narrow passage can really slow you down, and Maine-type fog is an occasional hazard when added to heavy traffic and lobsterpot floats.

Once past Napatree Point Ledge, marked by R “6” bell, look for the red (western) end of the outermost breakwater protecting Stonington Harbor and the entrance to Little Narragansett Bay. However, we’ll go past this attractive detour and proceed a hair south of west, leaving Latimer Reef Light to starboard.

Once past R “20”, at Ram Island Reef, look for the small C “1” that starts the channel toward the Mystic Harbor entrance. Pay close attention to the channel markers: A mistake here might put you on one of our rocks. Once you leave lighted beacon G “5” to port, the channel is easier to follow all the way into Mystic.

A direct route from Stonington to Mystic leaves Ram Island to the south, and entry to the harbor is at C “7”, off the northeast end of Ram Island Shoal. Enders and Masons islands will be to your north. This brings you to the beacon G “5”.

Some rocks and reefs are along this route from Stonington, so it’s best not taken by first-timers.

If coming from Long Island Sound and points west, you leave Seaflower Reef to port and North Dumpling Island to the south as you enter Fishers Island Sound. You will come to the same C “1”, marking Ram Island Shoal, mentioned earlier. A more direct route from Seaflower Reef passes south of N “22” off of Groton Long Point and leaves Mouse Island to port before coming to beacon G “5”. But this is another route best left to locals or those experienced in this area.

Many marinas cater to transients along the shores of the Mystic River. Some are resort-like, and others are more basic. From the southern end, proceeding upriver, major marinas include Noank Shipyard and Noank Village Boatyard, both on the western shore. These are a bit far from the center of Mystic, but they may have some moorings available.

A little closer, on Masons Island to the east, is Mystic River Marina. Just south of the railroad swing bridge is Mystic Shipyard on the Groton side and Safe Harbor Mystic (formerly Brewer’s) on the Stonington side. Once north of the railroad bridge and before the Route 1 bascule bridge are several smaller marinas with some transient space available. Once through the bascule bridge, you’ll find Mystic Seaport Marina.

If you prefer to anchor, you can set the hook to the west of Mason Point, outside of the mooring fields, in about eight feet of water. Watch for a couple of five- or six-foot spots. There is good protection from the north and northeast. This has fair protection from the northwest, but not much from the south at all.

Another option is just to the east of Ram Island in about 10 feet of water. Here, there’s excellent protection from the southwest through the north, but northeast to southeast is not so good. The swimming is outstanding here, but don’t wander past the high-tide line on the beach; it’s a private island. You are quite far away from Mystic itself in these two anchorages, but dinghy rides to dining options can be fast and easy.

Closer-to-Mystic anchoring for smaller and shoal-draft vessels is off Pine Point, opposite Mystic Shipyard, and south of the Safe Harbor facility. The best anchoring possibility is north of Mystic Seaport Museum and C “53”. Around eight feet of water can be found for six boats or more. A free dinghy dock is between the two bridges you passed through (just south of the Mystic bascule bridge on the Stonington side of the river) and the one at the museum can be used for the price of a membership.

The Amtrak Northeast Corridor Railroad Swing Bridge (call Mystic Railroad on VHF Ch. 13) has 13 feet of vertical clearance and is said to be always open except for passing train traffic. In reality, it is mostly closed because of the many trains that use these tracks, but it will open on request between trains. There has been a bridge here since 1819; the first was a single-track, wooden bascule span. The sounds of passing trains carries far, and there are some whistle restrictions at night.

The Mystic River Bascule Bridge, upriver of the railroad bridge, is in the center of Mystic activity. There is only about four feet of clearance at mean high water, so dinghy passengers may have to duck their heads. Between 0700 and 1900, the bridge only opens on request at 40 minutes past the hour (call Mystic Highway VHF Ch. 13). At night it may open for you on request.

If the railroad bridge has not had a timely opening due to train traffic, the highway bridge may delay its opening a few minutes to allow boats to get up to it. It won’t hurt to call and ask. Both bridges have different restrictions during boating’s off-season.

The bascule bridge was built in 1920, and, for its first eight years, carried streetcars. Its large counterweights are in themselves a tourist attraction, and, when the bridge opens, people – even wedding parties – scramble to get photos taken in front of it.

If you’ve taken a slip at the southern end of the Mystic River, you’ll be beyond walking distance to the village. You may be provided with courtesy transportation; if not, a taxi will be required. Another choice is to take your dinghy upriver to the dinghy dock between the two bridges. This is in the midst of the restaurants and shops. Within a few blocks in either direction from the bascule bridge will be most anything you could need – except provisioning.

The post office is nearby, as are two ice-cream shops. I can’t decide which one I prefer, so I go to both – sometimes on the same day. There are two bake shops, one on each side of the bridge. One is merely excellent; the other has won multiple national awards. You might not want to visit both bakeries on the same day: You could die. You would, however, die very happy.

The number and variety of restaurants in these few blocks is impressive. Almost all of them have been in business here for a long time, establishing their credentials. Oriental, Mexican, Italian, American, and more are represented. Then there is the seafood. Ah, the seafood. The Stonington fishing fleet is just a few miles away, so your meal will be fresh.

After your lunch or dinner, you can visit high-end boutiques, antique stores, art galleries, a traditional Army-Navy store, or a large, independent book shop. Those last two are becoming rare. Numerous opportunities exist for “nightlife” experiences, including savoring the live-music scene. We are too old to know much about this: To an aging mariner, 2100 is the midnight of our younger days – maybe 2000.

Speaking of nightlife, two major casinos are within about a 30-minute drive from any of the Mystic marinas. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods would be happy to try to relieve you of some of your boat-maintenance budget. The Connecticut Sun has a WNBA franchise if you like watching excellent professional basketball.

Two major attractions are in the Mystic area: Mystic Aquarium and Mystic Seaport Museum. Mystic Aquarium is just beyond walking distance from town. This is a must-see for cruisers who want to learn more about marine mammals – like beluga whales, dolphins and seals – as well as penguins and other seabirds. A large tank there contains fish, sharks and rays as well as smaller local sea-life displays. There is much to see and do for mariners of all ages.

Mystic Seaport Museum is the premier maritime museum in the world. This writer has some bias, having been a member for more than three-and-a-half decades – and a volunteer, too. However, I have been to maritime museums in England, Europe, South America, and in Maryland, Virginia and Florida. I can say with a clear conscience that this is the best there is, and we’re lucky it’s so close.

It takes a couple of days to really get to know the place, but, after all these years, I’m still learning more with each visit. If you’ve come to the area by boat, you probably have more time to explore than the average tourist. You’re a traveler, a voyager, not a mere tourist. Lucky you.

Consider spending a weekend at the museum’s marina. It’s not inexpensive, but you will have access to the grounds during all daylight hours, well before and after the public is allowed in. You can also anchor just a little beyond the Seaport and come by dinghy. The fee is the normal daily admission of about $20 or a (recommended) annual membership. Admission to the museum is included for all crew if you get a slip here.

The museum was formerly a shipyard, complete with textile mills, but now it’s a re-creation of a 19th-century seafaring village. The shops and buildings of the village are authentic, but most were moved from other New England locations to prevent their destruction due to “progress.”

Here, you can board the Charles W. Morgan, which was restored to sailing condition in 2014. According to the Seaport, the Morgan is the last whaleship from an American fleet that once numbered more than 2,700 vessels. Built in 1841, she is now our oldest commercial ship still afloat. Go below and see how crews worked and lived at sea for years at a time.

You can also board the wooden fishing schooner L.A. Dunton, built in 1921. This engineless 121-footer sailed out of Gloucester and other New England ports to the rich Grand Banks fisheries. Hearty men fished with hand nets and lines from the small dories. She’s in good condition, but, still, a major restoration project will soon start on her at the on-site DuPont Preservation Shipyard. The Dunton was an “extra” in the classic movie “Captains Courageous.”

Mayflower II, the queen of Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, Mass., was also recently restored in the Shipyard. The replica of the storied vessel Amistad was built from scratch here in 2000. And, at the Shipyard, you may view firsthand maintenance projects on other historic vessels. Have you ever cruised aboard a coal-fired, National Historic Landmark wooden steamboat, built in 1908? You can do that here aboard the Sabino.

Once you’ve seen the Seaport village, visited all the children’s activities, chatted with an 1876 role-player, climbed aboard a historic ship, and visited the planetarium, then you can go to the indoor exhibits that portray America and its centuries-old relationship with the sea, including ship models and figureheads. You will find yourself coming back time and time again – perhaps, like me, over the course of more than 35 years.

You’ve come to the Mystic River. Perhaps you anchored out in the quiet areas and took the dinghy or kayak into the scenic beauty. Maybe you stayed at a marina with other folks and watched the river go by while sipping cocktails from your deck. You almost certainly found the hustle and bustle around the bascule bridge to shop and dine. And you may have gone to the outlying casinos or the aquarium. Good.

I just hope you visited one of my favorite places in the world, the Seaport. Maybe, like me, you’ll make this your summer, live-aboard home. One thing is certain: You’ll come away with a Mystic state of mind.

Michael Camarata and his wife and co-captain Carol Zipke are full-time liveaboard cruisers, mostly snowbirds, whose home is the 44-foot catamaran, Infinite Improbability. They have been boating for about 35 years, and, Mike says, “no longer do we own any dirt-based property.” They are both Senior Navigators and Past Commanders of the Waterbury (Conn.) branch of the United States Power Squadron.

Comments are closed.