Whether Near or Far,
Connecticut Boaters Love Life on the Water
By Dawn Ennis
Boaters love to boast about the benefits that being a boater brings. That’s no less true for Connecticut’s boating community.
“It’s decompression,” explains Don Harwood of Wallingford, as he waxes his 2007 35-foot cabin cruiser. “It helps me disconnect.”
Says West Hartford native Christine Arabolu: “I enjoy the social life of boating. I remember as a kid going boating with my father. Most of our family vacations revolved around going to the shoreline. It’s very relaxing.”
“The salt air, the wind coming through the partition in the windshield, the sun streaming through the windows of the cabin in the morning,” adds her husband, Raja. “There’s nothing like it.”
“I spend a lot of time, and life, on the river,” Lawrence Stewart of Deep River told me, as I helped him install the diving platform onto the stern of the “Gypsy Soul,” his classic 1987 wooden boat. We stood in Midway marina in Haddam, on the shore of the Connecticut River, 10 miles from Long Island Sound. The river itself runs 410 miles, from the New Hampshire side of the Canadian border, south through Vermont and Massachusetts, down to the sound.
A cabinetmaker by trade, Lawrence has handcrafted exquisite cherry wood panels and features in the restoration of his yacht. With the platform firmly attached to the hull, he started to secure a new ladder, and began to spin a few fish tales, of growing up around boats.
“My grandfathers, both of them, were fishermen, so we’d always go to Scituate, Massachusetts, and go fishing,” he says. “I always had a love for boats. It’s never, ever stopped.”
He remembers finding a submerged wooden boat when he and his brother went snorkeling in a lake in the Berkshires.
“We pulled it ashore and dragged it halfway around the lake to where we were staying, where we patched the holes and dried it out and refloated it,” he says, smiling. They added their grandfather’s antique outboard motor. “It would push the boat just about as fast as you could row it, and it was loud as hell. But we just went everywhere in that thing, you name it. That’s where I really got hooked.”
In his song “Boats,” country singer Kenny Chesney calls them “vessels of freedom, harbors of healing.” And that certainly has been the case for Lawrence, 54. Forging a new life after a divorce, then a breakup, boating has long been a bond between him and his children, now adults. His son is with the Coast Guard, his daughter is a paramedic, and Lawrence works as a charter captain.
He doesn’t call himself a boater, but a yachtsman, and like his grandfathers before him, he’s given his children a lifetime of memories on the water. A favorite time was when he sailed them across the sound from Noank to Flat Hammock.
“We dropped anchor and the kids thought we were in Africa,” he said. He’s now living his dream of living on the water, something that – you’ll be surprised to learn – the vast majority of boaters in Connecticut don’t do.
Joyce Bonney of Coventry grew up around powerboats. Her husband, Bill, is a lifelong sailor, starting with the Sea Scouts as a young boy. Living more than 50 miles from the mouth of the Connecticut River at Long Island Sound, Joyce confessed that, these days, they mostly canoe. But when they do sail, she makes sure Bill gives them a wide berth from other boaters. She doesn’t like for other ships to get too close.
“I need my space or I don’t enjoy and relax,” says Joyce, 69. After we’re underway, the stress is over, and it’s relaxing and enjoyable. That’s sailing. Powerboating, on the other hand, is fun and adventurous.”
While it’s clear that Joyce prefers powerboats, it was obvious that a silly thing like a motor could never keep them apart. Joyce and Bill have many memories of ocean adventures from Connecticut to Mexico – some good, some in 21-foot swells.
The Bonneys work together as instructors for the United States Power Squadrons (USPS) chapter in Manchester.
“We teach a safe boating course which is so that people can get their certificate,” something that’s required in the state of Connecticut, says Bill, 68. “There’s a lot of people out there that don’t necessarily know what they’re doing.”
The USPS is rebranding as “America’s Boating Club,” focusing on the social aspects. But the Bonneys remain true to their calling, to educate boaters on water safety, basic navigation, and proper planning for emergencies. Their girls, now in their 20s and 30s, are blessed to have a seadog for a dad and a mom who loves adventure to provide a free education in sailing and canoeing.
For those not so lucky as the Bonney girls, seafaring is not so simple.
There are “rules of the road” to obey, just like in driving a car – except you obviously can’t “walk away” from a mishap, as you would after a minor automobile accident.
And unlike most cars, a boat can cost as much as a house to own and maintain, and that’s on top of the premium that boaters pay for marine fuel.
Now, if you can afford all that, owning a boat is like having a second home, a floating getaway with room to entertain, with space for overnight guests and scenery that is only limited by how far that tank of gas – or the wind – will take you.
And part of the experience, says Raja, 62, is getting there.
“It’s similar to when you go on vacation,” said the West Hartford insurance executive. “It starts as soon as you get into your car and start your engine.”
He invited me to join him in his minivan for a 45-minute trip from his hometown to Old Saybrook, to look over his three-year-old Monterey powerboat. “Route 9 is beautiful,” he said as we cruised along. “It’s a very calming parkway, and the drive puts me in the mood.”
So why does he keep his dreamboat so far from home? West Hartford does not permit homeowners to store boats of any kind on their property. While many towns do allow boats on residential property, it turns out most boaters in our state choose to commute. After all, there’s only so much shoreline.
Along the way to Old Saybrook, we stopped at the shop where Paul Zable and his wife, Diane Bassett Zabel, sold the 35-foot cabin cruiser to Raja in 2016. “About 90 to 95 percent of my customers are people who live far away,” Paul says. The day we visited him, another customer was on his way from Yonkers, N.Y., to look over his new purchase.
Paul and Diane own Bassett Yacht and Boat Sales, an offshoot of a family business started by Diane’s parents, who began making wooden boats in 1944. Diane and Paul met Raja in 2016, when he and wife Christine visited the Norwalk boat show to celebrate his 60th birthday.
“It was a dream of his, a passion, to want a boat,” Christine said, and being out there was something she’s enjoyed since she was a young girl. “I’ve always been drawn to the water.”
Her father – and their neighbor, Mark Kotyla – shared that feeling, too. They have since passed, and Raja and Christine talked about not only fulfilling his dream but honoring their memory while giving something to the next generation. Raja said Christine and their children, Sarah-Anjali, 25, and Krishna, 20, know that this is something he didn’t just do for himself.
“His decisions are to bring the family together,” says Christine, 59, “so that everyone can come together and enjoy it.”
With his children finally charting their own courses in life, Raja embarked on his own navigation. But he zigzagged, at first planning to partner with his neighbor Mark on buying a boat together, then to deciding to buy his own used boat.
That was, he says, until he stepped aboard the Monterey at the Norwalk boat show, where all the boats are already in the water. That’s where he met Diane.
“She threw the fishing line and hooked me,” he recalls. “She asked me, ‘Why would you want to sleep in someone else’s bed?’ We drove back home that day and I was talking to myself,” says Raja, who had realized he had to buy a brand-new boat. And so he did.
In December 2016, Raja and Christine held a Christmas party and asked friends and family to help them come up with a name. Given his Indian heritage, “Raj-Mahal,” was an early favorite.
But the winner turned out to be something another neighbor suggested. It’s the one that popped into Raja’s head when Diane asked him what name he’d chosen, just before they took delivery: “Indian Summer.”
Raja still recalls the purchase date – “It was April 28, 2017” – as proudly as he remembers the birthdays of his two children.
The dream of sailing, boating, yachting, or whatever you call it, doesn’t come cheap. Beyond the purchase price is a mooring, marina slip, or at least a trailer to get you to a boat ramp, plus that expensive special fuel boat engines require, and all the accessories: from life jackets to wax, and adult beverages to fenders, and more.
“I did the math, and from the loan to the marina fees, fuel, maintenance and upkeep,” Raja confided, “it all adds up to just about $100 a day per year to own my boat.” There’s also the cost of state registration, a state boating certificate, and the safety lessons required to obtain one, like those the Bonneys offer.
“We took a condensed course offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary,” says Raja. He, Christine and their son Krishna crammed a lot into two long days, rather than take several classes. “It doesn’t give you the practical experience of learning to operate a boat. Most of that I learned at the helm.”
Sometimes the best lessons are learned by making mistakes. Like that time last summer when he was rushing around and fell into the water; that was just one of three mishaps that made 2018 a painfully short season of boating. Raja said he’s learned his lesson: “No more rushing!”
We finally reached Island Cove Marina in Old Saybrook, which “Indian Summer” calls home year-round. From October until mid-May, it sits shrink-wrapped from bow to stern.
It has to be said, living here in Connecticut, you have to make peace with the fact that the climate makes this pricey sport a seasonal adventure. You’ll see the sea as few as five, perhaps six, months out of the year.
Raja drove up alongside the 35-foot vessel, which was perched upon wooden blocks and metal stands, ready to return to the Connecticut River.
His boat has already taken him to Block Island, Newport, Greenport, Montauk and Mystic.
“The seas were unbelievably calm, just gorgeous that day,” he recalls about a memorable trip with his marina neighbors. As he spoke, he reclined deeper into the cushions lining his cabin in the bow of the “Indian Summer.”
“This is my deflation, my decompression point of enjoyment,” Raja said with a satisfied grin, already planning new destinations to visit in the weeks to come.
After a pause, and a glance around at his floating palace, he confirmed that despite the distance from his street address, “Indian Summer” provided not just an escape, but another kind of home. “I am totally home when I’m here.”