People have long been fascinated by lighthouses. Throughout the centuries, their awesome towering beauty has captured the imaginations of artists and writers. We are intrigued by these glorious beacons of light guiding ships to safety in wild seas, as well as the romantic notion of lighthouse keepers living in dwellings accessible only by vessel.
Here on the Long Island Sound we have an abundance of historic lighthouses that have been painstakingly preserved because of their significance as icons of American history, despite today’s newer technologies replacing many of them as functional navigational aides.
And now, people have the opportunity to travel on a state-of-the-art, high-speed ferry to view up to a dozen lighthouses gracing the waters between Connecticut and Long Island on a choice of three distinctive, expertly narrated Cross Sound Ferry cruises.
“We had discussed offering lighthouse cruises for a couple of years. We were used to being in the ferry business, not the excursion business, for well over 40 years,” says Stanley Mickus, director of marketing and public affairs for Cross Sound Ferry. “We went ahead and started offering the cruises in June of 2015. The response was so great we expanded from two to five days a week and instead of ending in September, kept going through November.”
Mickus explains that Cross Sound Ferry has been working closely with the New London Maritime Society – which owns and maintains three of the lighthouses on the tours – as a valuable, historical resource.
“This is an opportunity to create awareness because most people don’t know much about the lighthouses except what they see in a photograph or painting,” he says. “When you go on one of these cruises, you’re getting a three-dimensional experience.”
The “Classic Lighthouse Cruise” is the first cruise that was offered by Cross Sound Ferry, departing from New London. It features views of nine lighthouses from New London to Long Island, including a stop at Long Beach Bar “Bug” Light – the pride of Long Island’s East End Seaport Museum – as well as two Revolutionary-era forts.
In 2016 the “Lights & Sights Cruise” was added, also departing from New London. In addition to viewing nine lighthouses, this cruise parallels the mainland coast out of New London Harbor to explore mansions and waterfronts from Watch Hill, R.I. to Fishers Island, N.Y.
This summer, “Long Island Lights” joins the offerings, departing from Orient Point, N.Y. This newest cruise includes views of eight lighthouses and historically significant sights around the waters of Plum Gut, Gardiners Bay, Long Island Sound, New London Harbor, and Fishers Island Sound.
Passengers are taken on the lighthouse cruises aboard one of two high-speed catamarans. The Sea Jet is capable of cruising at speeds of more than 30 knots (35 mph). The vessel is equipped with modern airline-style seating on two enclosed, air-conditioned decks with a spacious outdoor deck for viewing the scenery.
Because of the positive response to the lighthouse cruises, Cross Sound Ferry is greatly expanding the number for 2018, and this summer the Cecelia Ann joins the fleet.
“This boat has done sightseeing cruises in and around New York Harbor,” Mickus says. “It’s a little larger than Sea Jet with more outdoor seating and large, panoramic windows.”
Besides the opportunity to see the lighthouses, Mickus emphasizes that it’s the narration of the cruise that makes the whole experience so interesting and educational.
“We have three primary narrators and each has a different perspective on the trip [and] provides history and their innate knowledge about the lights,” he says. “They’re very interactive, they walk around the vessel engaging with passengers, answering questions.”
Ted Webb of Orient, N.Y. was the first narrator on the tours.
“This is something he’s been doing as a passion for years—working to preserve lighthouses,” Mickus says. “He’s past president of the East End Seaport Museum and has generated scripts for all these lighthouses.”
Also on board as narrators are Steven Cryan of Old Saybrook, a marine painter with an extensive knowledge of lighthouses, and Steve Purdy of Mystic, who is the lead interpreter on the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship at the Mystic Seaport.
“We have a really nice state-of-the-art PA system with a cordless microphone,” Mickus adds. “We also have enhanced listening devices and give out ear buds free of charge, which is particularly helpful for our older clientele with hearing issues.”
People of all ages enjoy the lighthouse cruises, Mickus says. “We get a lot of school-age groups because of the educational experience, as well as summer camp groups. You can’t get up close and personal to these amazing structures, the ones in open water, any other way.”
photography courtesy of Cross Sound Ferry Services, Inc.