Gray and charcoal strata, blanketing the morning sky and the dense, dark green conifer cover of southeastern Connecticut, released deluges of rain and thunderous claps. Patches of ground-hugging condensation, like the smoke tendrils created by a multitude of campfires, spiraled upward.
New London, located on the Thames River and proudly displaying its heritage with several preserved, historic buildings, had been founded in 1646 by John Winthrop, Jr., developing into an important harbor. Boasting a fleet of 30 ships and some 900 employees by 1834, it had become the third-largest whaling port after New Bedford and Nantucket, and today is a small transportation hub: buses deposit passengers in front of the railroad station, its gently curving track, river-paralleling track carrying both Amtrak and Metro North trains, while the harbor serves as the Cross Sound Ferry Company’s water gateway to Block Island and Long Island, the huge, steel ramps of its boats releasing cars and trucks by the dozens every hour. Although the 2:00 p.m. run to Orient Point had just inched away from the dock on that sweltering August day, vehicles booked for the 3:00 departure had already taken their positions in the numerous boarding lanes.
Privately owned and operated by brother-and-sister team Adam and Jessica Wronowski and headquartered in New London itself, the Cross Sound Ferry Company was established to circumvent the geographical challenges posed by Long Island and Connecticut. Separated by the East River and Long Island Sound, Long Island extends more than 110 miles from New York, its northern coast roughly paralleling the southern shore of Connecticut, yet the two landmasses are only connected by means of the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges. Depending upon a person’s proximity, he could theoretically have to drive between 100 and 200 miles on the two easterly-westerly arteries-the Long Island Expressway and Interstate 95-to reach his destination.
Remedying these deficiencies, the Cross Sound Ferry Company inaugurated scheduled, passenger and vehicle service between Long Island’s East End at Orient Point and New London, Connecticut, in 1975, forging the vitally needed link for the first time.
Numerous factors, including Long Island’s population surge, the East End’s increase in vineyard-related tourism, the establishment of Connecticut’s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casino complexes, and the often traffic-choked roads, resulted in dramatic growth, with up to 23 daily departures in each direction during the peak season and more than one million annual passengers carried.
It operates a motley, eight-vessel fleet.
The Caribbean, sporting a 128-foot overall length and powered by a 1,440-hp engine, had been built in 1972 by Blount Marine in Warren, Rhode Island, for Caribbean archipelago and West Indian services, but was acquired by Cross Sound five years later. Accommodating 130 passengers and 22 vehicles, it was retrofitted with a new pilot house and loading ramp in 1995.
The North Star, constructed in 1968 in Morgan City, Louisiana, to serve as an offshore supply vessel, had been purchased in 1984 and converted for current use by Eastern Marine Shipyard in Panama City, Florida. Powered by a 1,800-hp engine, the 168-foot-long boat accommodates 300 passengers and 35 vehicles.
The 260-foot-long New London, resembling the North Star with its aft, elongated, exposed car deck, had been built in 1979 by the Thames Shipyard and Repair Company in New London itself, but was retrofitted with an upper cabin in 1992 and a 2,400-hp Cummins KTA38-M2 diesel engine two years later, affording speeds of up to 15 knots. It is one of only three vessels in the fleet to do so. Accommodating the same number of passengers as the North Star, it offers sufficient deck space for almost double its cars, or 60.
The 840-passenger, 80-vehicle, 250-foot Susan Anne, constructed in 1964, began its life as the Prince Nova, operating the shuttle service between Caribou, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Extensively modified by the Thames Shipyard and Repair Company after Cross Sound had acquired it in 1998, it received a new passenger cabin, airline-style and booth seating, hydraulic lift decks, renewed engine room systems, new electrical equipment, and an improved propulsion system. Now powered by a 4,600 hp GM turbo-charged diesel engine, the round-bilge hulled ferry also attains 15-knot speeds.
The Mary Ellen, built in 1983 and acquired 20 years later, is 260 feet long and carries 800 passengers and 85 vehicles. Powered by a 3,100-hp engine, it is the third to achieve 15-knot cruise speeds.
Dimensionally the largest, at 327 feet, and the most historic vessel in the fleet, the Cape Henlopen had been built in 1941 as a World War II tank-carrying craft in Jeffersonville, Indiana, then designated the USS LST 510, and partook of the D-Day invasion by landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, for which it won a battle star. Converted for civilian use as a passenger-vehicle ferry in 1966, it served the Lewes, Delaware, to Cape May, New Jersey, route, before being acquired by Cross Sound 17 years later. Retrofitted with a 3,000-hp EMD 12-645 diesel engine in 1995, the boat carries 900 passengers and 90 cars within its 55-foot beam, attaining 12.5-knot speeds.
The Sea Jet I, designed by InCat of Australia and constructed by the Nichols Brothers Shipyard in Seattle, Washington, in 1989, is the fastest and only pure-passenger vessel in the fleet. The 122-foot-long, wave-piercing catamaran, with a 5,000 hp engine and a Maritime Dynamics ride control system, had served three routes before being purchased in 1995: Boston-Nantucket, inter-Hawaiian island commuter service, and San Diego-Catalina Island. Its 400 passengers, accommodated in airline-style seats on two decks, cross the sound in 40 minutes at 30-knot speeds.
The largest-capacity, only specifically designed ferry for the Cross Sound system is the m/v John H, which was scheduled to operate the 3:00 departure to Orient Point. Constructed in 1989 by the Eastern Marine Shipping Company in Panama City, the boat, with a 240-foot length, 60-foot beam, and ten-foot draft, is the largest to be classed under the US Coast Guard’s Subchapter T regulations, certified for operation on lakes, in bays, and on sounds.
Delivered on June 22, 1989, the 98-ton ferry, built of steel, features a dual-level auto deck for 120 vehicles; a forward bar and lounge; a mid-cabin with a Cross Sound Deli venue; an aft cabin and game arcade; and an upper-deck with outside seating for a total passenger complement of 1,000. Flat-screen televisions are positioned throughout.
Recently retrofitted with a cleaner-burning, lower nitrogen oxide, 3,000-hp diesel reduction engine, it attains 13-knot cruise speeds. Its call sign is WAC 6768.
Swallowing the multitude of cars and flat-bed trucks lining the boarding lanes through its aft entry and ingesting them into its cavernous, main deck hold, the m/v John H retracted its hydraulically-actuated ramp and disappendaged itself from Connecticut soil, almost imperceptibly inching away from the dock with a low, vibrating growl from its engine.
Gliding through the dark blue surface of the Thames River, it departed New London Harbor, the east coast’s most accessible, deep-water port because of its Atlantic Ocean proximity, and passed the Electric Boat Shipyard Division of General Dynamics, located on the east side, in Groton. It is one of only two US sites where nuclear submarines are built and serviced.
Having sailed two miles, the boat passed a rocky point on the west side of the River Thames marking its entrance and guarded by the New London Harbor Light. The result of increasing seaborne traffic, the lighthouse, in its original form, had been constructed in 1761 on a 64-foot stone tower topped by a wooden lantern, itself replacing a temporary, mid-1700s beacon.
Secondarily replaced in 1801 by an 89-foot stone tower and cast iron lantern after a large crack had weakened the structure two years earlier, the octagonal brownstone lighthouse, the fourth in North America and the first on Long Island Sound, ranks as Connecticut’s oldest and one of the first to feature a flashing light. The keeper’s house, added in 1863, was enlarged at the turn-of-the-century.
Sporting a fixed white and red sector warning light, the New London Harbor Light today remains an active aid to navigation, alerting ships of dangerous Sarah Ledge.
As if serving as a first-generation GPS waypoint, the lighthouse became the first of many to be negotiated on the ferry’s southwesterly course across Long Island Sound, which it presently entered. The stately appearing, red brick New London Ledge Light, featuring a mansard roof and granite details, slowly moved by off the port wide, marking the harbor’s entrance.
Sparked by Industrial Revolution-created traffic, for which the New London Harbor Light had been deemed inadequate, because of a prevalence of invisible, outlying ledges and shoals, and dictated by coastal Connecticut home owners who wished to maintain the area’s elegant uniformity with its French Second Empire style, it had been constructed in 1901 by the Hamilton R. Douglas Company of New London. It was one of the last New England lighthouses built.
Its crib had been towed to the site and filled with concrete and riprap before being sunk in 28 feet of water, while its 50-square-foot concrete pier, rising 18 feet above the low tide, had been erected on top of it. Three levels of windows represented an equal number of floors. A cast iron lantern, originally sporting a four-order Fresnel lens and incandescent oil vapor lamp, rose from the mansard roof. A fog signal was added in 1911. Its light consisted of 30-second intervaled single-red and triple-white flashes. In 1987, it became the last Long Island Sound lighthouse to become automated.
Maintaining 13 knots, the m/v John H inched past Fishers Island.
The Gothic revival style Race Rock Lighthouse, perched on a round base, soon moved by on the left side. Located at the west end of the island, the mini-castle-appearing structure marked a particularly precarious area whose small rock spurs, penetrating 70 feet of water, had been the cause of numerous shipwrecks and collisions. It had first been lit on January 1, 1879.
Swallowed by the almost referenceless void formed by the dirty-white cloud mist above and the surreal mirror sheen of Long Island Sound below somewhere between New London and Orient Point, the m/v John H maintained a barely registerable 13 knots, its motion only verifiable by the frothy wake it trailed. But a thin pencil line marked its origin and destination, seemingly equidistant between its stern and bow. A strong wind, attempting to counteract the soupy humidity and sulfuric heat, was only marginally triumphant. Long Island Sound itself, bounded by Westchester County, New York, and the Bronx in the west and Orient Point and Plum, Gull, and Fishers islands in the east, measures 90 miles long by three to 20 miles wide, resulting in a 1,180-square-mile, semi-enclosed area sandwiched between the East River and Block Island Sound. It formed part of the Atlantic International Waterway.
Its basin, formed by pre-glaciation stream flows, lowered as a result of two glacial advances, increasing its water depth by more than 100 feet and transforming it from a fresh water, non-tidal lake to a saline, tidal area of the ocean.
The mouth of the Connecticut River, located at Old Saybrook, empties into the sound, while most of its drainage, along with that of the Housatonic and Thames rivers, rapidly flow out at its open eastern end through a drainage basin which is almost 13 times its area.
Its waters are rich in bluefish, lobster, crabs, clams, and oysters, while its watershed supports some eight million people.
In the forward lounge on the m/v John H, the passengers sipped alcoholic beverages, while others purchased a snack or late lunch from the Cross Sound Deli in the mid-cabin. Television watching and reading were prevalent in the aft section, and a handful weathered the rays and winds on the open deck above.
The Gull Islands, located seven miles northeast of Orient Point and midway between Plum and Fishers islands, steadily moved off the port side.
Once the site of a military fort, Great Gull sported a wildlife research station after the American Museum of Natural History established it in 1948 in order to study migratory terns.
Purchased by Samuel Wyllys in 1659, Little Gull, progressing through several owners, ultimately fell into government hands with its 1803, $800 acquisition of it in order to construct a lighthouse on an optimal, one-acre, high-tide location. Other than some existing, foundation-conducive rocks, all its other required building materials had to be transported to the island by sea.
The 59-foot tower, comprised of smoothly-hammered freestone laid in courses and internally featuring a wooden, spiral, lantern room-terminating staircase, became operational in 1805, and a separate, one-and-a-half floor, wooden keeper’s quarters contained two rooms on the main level and one on the upper level. A circular, 100-foot-diameter, 11-foot-thick stone wall, intended for storm protection, had subsequently been added during the summer of 1817.
A larger, 81-foot lighthouse, constructed in 1867 on a five-foot-thick, brick wall-lined base, replaced the earlier structure, and was attached to a wood and granite keeper’s house three years later. A second-order Fesnel lens was first used in December of 1869.
Ending 177 years of attendance, the station succumbed to automation in 1978.
Arcing into a left turn in the now-deep blue water reflecting the powder blue sky, the m/v John H entered “the race,” so designated because of the often-exceeding five-knot tidal water currents which combined with strong winds and heavy onshore seas to produce dangerous rip tides. Cracking sizzling white caps with its bow, it seesawed on its longitudinal axis.
Plum Island, the largest of the three atolls extending northeastward into the sound from Long Island, had, like Little Gull, been purchased by Samuel Wyllys in 1659 from Wyandanch, the Montauk Sachem. In 1775, it had been the site of an amphibious landing by continental troops under the direction of General David Wooster so that they could thwart potential livestock raids by the British, while a coastal artillery base had been built more than a century later, in 1899, during the Spanish-American War. Always assuming a protective role, it had guarded Long Island Sound and New York Harbor during the two world wars, occupied by some 1,000 soldiers during its peak, remainders of which include the smaller batteries and the brick quarters in which they had been housed. Utilizing some of the old officers’ and animal quarters until 1984, the US Department of Agriculture established a laboratory there.
A 40-foot, rough stone tower, topped by ten reflecting lamps, constituted the island’s first beacon in 1827, one year after Richard Jerome had sold three of its 840 acres to the US government. Replaced by a 23-foot taller, dual-floor, granite, and almost church-appearing structure in 1869, it marked the western point’s traditionally treacherous waters.
Emitting a barely audible hum, the m/v John H cruised past Plum Gut Harbor, moving abreast of the black-and-white, rock outcropping-perched Orient Point Lighthouse, located just off the point after which it had been named and indicating imminent arrival.
Constructed between 1898 and 1899 to mark the end of Oyster Point Reef and guide ships through Plum Gut’s dangerous currents, the lighthouse, comprised of curved, cast iron plates bolted together to form a truncated cone, rested on a circular, 21-foot-diameter caisson filled with concrete and externally lined with brick. It itself used a portion of the rocky Oyster Point as its foundation. The 64-foot structure, often-dubbed the “coffee pot” because of its appearance, listed five degrees toward the southeast. It became automated in 1966.
Reducing speed and the corresponding size of the turquoise enturbulation generated by its wake, the ferry departed Long Island Sound, passing through Gardiner’s Bay before initiating a right, final approach turn toward the tip of the North Fork, the departing, Connecticut-bound Mary Ellen, sporting its two aft, gold-and-black stacks, circumventing the m/v John H’s bow in a left arc as it passed the Orient Point Lighthouse. One more lighthouse “waypoint” remained before docking, the Orient Long Beach Bar Light, which marked the entrance to Orient Harbor.
Perched on a screw pile platform, which itself penetrated ten feet of sand on the bay’s bottom, the 60-foot-tall structure was topped by a fifth order lens with a fixed red light, while the wood-framed, dual-floor keepers’ house had been covered with a mansard roof.
During the winter, its spindly legs often became encased in two-foot-thick ice. In 1824, for instance, it tore way the dock, and in 1881 it broke three of its pilings and almost all of its braces.
The sandbar, increasingly distancing itself from the lighthouse, ultimately rendered it superfluous, and by 1963, it had been altogether destroyed by arson.
By 1990, a tri-section, working replica of the original, which was nicknamed “bug light” because it resembled a bug walking on the water, had been constructed and barged out to the site, where it was crane-assembled. Controlled by the US Coast Guard three years later, it was once again designated an official navigation aid.
Laboriously moving through the harbor, the m/v John H ceased motion, opening its forward, mouth-like boarding ramp and reappendaging itself to land after a 16.5-mile Long Island Sound crossing by means of its multiple lighthouses, and disgorged the parade of vehicles from its cavernous hold on to Orient Point, the easternmost hamlet in the town of Southold and gateway to the North Fork’s vineyards, farms, and the nautical village of Greenport.