Thimble Islands, Conn.

Posted on 10 November 2008
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The Thimble Islands are a cluster of rocky outcroppings on the Connecticut coast reminiscent of a scene in Maine, complete with a quaint New England village. Ask a visiting cruiser for their favorite destination on Long Island Sound and many times the answer is the Thimble Islands, because of the beautiful scenery and the friendly nearby village of Stony Creek.

Depending on the height of the tide and your definition of an island, there are anywhere from 100 to 300 islets within three miles of Stony Creek, which is located between the towns of Branford and Guilford, Conn. These pink granite islands range in size from less than a half-acre to 12 acres, with around 23 of them inhabited. Locals attribute the name of the chain to the thimbleberry, a relative of the black raspberry said to be previously found here.

Like an antique thimble collection jutting up from the water, the islands are different in appearance. Some are bare granite, while others are thickly wooded, and still others are elaborately trimmed with houses, gazebos and docks. Houses range from small, rustic cottages to gingerbread Victorians and even a Tudor-style mansion. Many of the islands have city water piped from the mainland, though only a handful have electricity, and there are no automobiles. All but one is privately owned, and there are no hotels or public lodging.

Dutch explorer Adrian Block discovered the Thimble Islands in 1614. American Indians inhabited and fished the islands and aptly called them Kuttom-quosh, or “beautiful sea rocks.” The islands were used for sheep grazing, boatbuilding, granite quarrying and by the late 1800s were a popular summer destination for city folks. A number of the islands have passed through families for generations and some have been purchased by the rich and famous.

In 1976, party goods magnate John Svenningsen purchased West Crib Island. After his death in 1997, his widow, Christine, purchased Wheeler Island in 1998, followed by Rogers, Phelps, Jepson, and Cut-in-Two East in 2003; Reel in 2004; Cut-In-Two West in 2005; Beldens in 2006; and East Crib in 2007 — at a total cost of more than $36 million. She is currently renovating the properties, rather than turning them into new developments. Celebrities who own island homes include Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and his wife, newscaster Jane Pauley.

Today, the islands continue to be a wonderful summer escape for relaxing at anchor off the main entrance channel, sightseeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and bird watching. There are a large variety of birds to see, and migrating harbor seals can be sighted in the winter months.

A boat ride to local lore

In addition to their beauty, the Thimble Islands are rich in history and local legends. One of the best ways to learn about the past and see the islands up close is to take a narrated boat tour. The tours respect the privacy of the islanders, and guides refrain from telling where celebrities reside, focusing instead on the history and stories passed down through generations.

The Volsunga IV, with Capt. Bob Milne, is a 40-footer with a covered deck and can accommodate up to 48 passengers (www.thimbleislands.com). Capt. Bob is a Stony Creek native and has been providing tours since 1987. His local knowledge of the waters allows him to provide an intimate view of the islands without the worry of encountering one of the rocks that are hidden at high tide. The 45-minute tour is both informative and amusing, as Capt. Bob weaves his stories while he winds through the islands at 4 knots.

Another tour option is the 44-foot Sea Mist with Capt. Mike Infantino, who’s also a Stony Creek native (www.thimbleislandcruise.com). Regardless of whom you sail with, here are some of the enchanting tidbits you might pick up on a boat tour:

The rocky composition of the islands was useful in industry. Shipbuilding was popular on West and East Crib islands for many years, and natural rock formations in the shape of boats and known as “cribs” were used to frame and launch vessels. Rodger’s Island was previously known as Granite Island and, along with Bear Island, it was used as a quarry in the late 1800s. The famous pink granite from the island quarries and the shoreside Stony Creek operation were used for the base of the Statue of Liberty, New York’s Brooklyn and George Washington bridges, Grand Central Station and many other important buildings and landmarks. And the Stony Creek quarry is still in operation after more than 150 years.

Houses on the islands come in many shapes and sizes. In the early 1900s a 3-1/2-story, 27-room English Tudor was built on Rodger’s Island. The home and extensive gardens have been restored to their early splendor. Money Island is the most populated, with approximately 30 homes on 12 acres. In the late 1800s, it was a self-sufficient summer community. Today, the village buildings have been converted to private homes.


Governor’s Island has more than a dozen Victorian homes, as well as an octagonal lighthouse-shaped building. The three-story Thimble Island House on Pot Island encouraged tourism by offering hotel rooms in the mid-1800s, though today it is a private residence. Potato Island was nothing more than five rock bumps that bore a resemblance to baked potatoes. Builders filled in around the largest of them and created a man-made island with a home and gardens. The house has a pagoda-style roof rather than the Victorian style of its day.

Davis Island is almost 5 acres and is home to a beautiful Victorian mansion. For two summers, it served as the “Summer White House” for President William Taft, who discovered the Thimbles as a Yale undergraduate. Gazebo Island has nothing but a boat dock and a small gazebo for picnicking.

Two of the islands are nature preserves. Horse Island, the largest island in the chain, is owned by Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. The museum is allowing the island to return to its natural state and is using it for marine and ecological research. Outer Island is the farthest from shore and is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. It was gifted to the federal government by Elizabeth Hird in 1954 to be used for research and education. Through a partnership with Southern Connecticut State University, students visit the island to learn about its unique ecology. It can be toured with advance reservations — (860) 399-2513 (www.fws.gov).

Nature took its toll on the Thimbles during the New England Hurricane of 1938. Many of the island’s buildings and boats were destroyed, and the wooden foot bridge joining Cut-In-Two East and Cut-In-Two West islands was wiped out. Seven people were killed on Money Island.

There are a number of legends about the Thimbles. Just prior to his capture by the British navy, the pirate Capt. Kidd is said to have buried treasure that’s never been found on Money Island (Pot Island, too) in a cave with an underwater entrance. High Island, with its view of Long Island Sound, provided a lookout and headquarters for Kidd. The protected cove between the two ends of High Island provided a lair to hide his sloop. Today, you may still see a Jolly Roger flying on High Island.

Cut-In-Two East Island is the former home of Little Miss Emily, who in the mid-1800s worked for P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus. Tom Thumb is said to have courted Miss Emily until Barnum allegedly ordered Thumb to marry Miss Lavinia, another performer. Tom and Emily’s names are purportedly etched on a rock on the island.

Village of Stony Creek

Stony Creek remains a quiet village, as there is no deep-water channel to the town. Depths are only about 3 feet. You can tie your dinghy at the town dock, where you’ll find a few spaces marked with a 4-hour limit. Thimble Marine Service — (203) 481-0590 — is near the boat ramp and offers outboard engine repair and service.

A half-mile-or-so stroll along the waterfront takes you the length of the village. There are two deli-style restaurants in town: Stony Creek Marine and Cuisine, also known as Creekers, and Stony Creek Market and Catering. Both offer breakfast and lunch. During the summer season, Stony Creek Market and Catering also offers pizza and salads Thursday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Shopping and provisions in town are limited, so come prepared for your stay. Next door to Creekers is Stony Creek Marine and Tackle for your fishing and other nautical needs.

The Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library (www.wwml.org) has a helpful, friendly staff that can provide information on Stony Creek and the surrounding area. Throughout August the library hosts the Stony Creek Art Show, which includes art with a Thimble Islands theme in any medium. If art is your obsession, the town also has a few galleries. Stony Creek Antiques offers antique artwork, furniture and jewelry.

The Stony Creek Fife and Drum Corps, founded in 1886, performs both locally and internationally, each year participating in several events within Stony Creek as well as marching in Branford’s Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day parades. For information, visit www.stonycreekdrumcorps.org. The Puppet House Theater has rare 4- to 5-foot-tall, 80-pound hand-made Sicilian puppets. They are part of a collection of 300 crafted in the early 1900s by Sebastiano Zappala, considered the greatest craftsman in his field. The puppets have starred in productions here since the 1960s. For information about possible shows or seeing the puppet collection, call (203) 488-5752 or visit www.puppethouse.org.


A summer favorite is peach shortcake at the Church of Christ Peach Festival, which will be held Aug. 16 this year. The castle-like northern Gothic-style  church was built in 1903 with local pink granite and has distinctive stained-glass windows. There is also a Blessing of the Fleet in late July/early August. The town library or Church of Christ — (203) 488-7827 — can provide information.

For outside activities there is a small park with a boat ramp and small sandy beach. You can launch your kayak here or arrange for lessons or tours from Connecticut Coastal Kayaking (www.ctcoastalkayaking.com) or other local rental companies. For an easy hike on pavement and gravel through a tidal estuary, Stony Creek Trolley Trail is near the library at the north end of town. The trail starts at Thimble Islands Road and West Point Road. Stop in the library for information and a trail guide.

Approaches and anchorages

Whether approaching the Thimble Islands from the east or west, be sure to stay in the marked channel. There is a tidal range of approximately 6 feet, so many rocks are visible only at low tide, which can be hazardous without local knowledge. Charts 12372 and 12373 are essential when visiting the area. As you plot your course, note that some buoy positions may have changed slightly from their charted positions.

If you are coming from the east, pass south of Sachem’s Head, red nun 20, and south of Goose Rocks Shoals, red nun 22. Head northwest to red nun 4 off Wayland Island. Follow the marked channel from red nun 4 to green can 11. Work your way south into the anchorage between High Island and Pot Island. The main anchorage is between green can 11 off East Crib Island and green can 1 near High Island.

Approaching from the west, stay south of Negro Heads, red nun 28, and Gangway Rock, green can 1. Proceed east/northeast to red nun 4 on the southwest corner of Inner Reef. Once safely past Inner Reef, turn north, leaving Outer Island to starboard, then northeast into the main anchorage between High Island and Pot Island. Green can 1 marks a 3-foot rock south of High Island, so be sure to leave it to port.

When anchoring, be careful of cable and pipelines running between the islands. The main anchorage is protected, except from the southwest. It can be quite crowded on summer weekends, and there is much activity to keep you entertained as tour and shuttle boats pass by. The anchorage usually quiets down after sunset.

Boats also can anchor north of Cut-In-Two Island, with local knowledge and an eye on your chart plotter. Calvin Ohidy, the Branford harbormaster whose jurisdiction includes the Thimble Islands, advises that you also can anchor to the side of the main channel as long as you leave plenty of room for traffic. There are moorings in the anchorages and around the islands, but all are private and not for rent. Be mindful of the no-wake 6-mph speed limit in the Thimbles and within 100 yards of shore.

If the Thimble Island anchorages are crowded and you are looking for nearby alternatives, the harbormaster recommends anchoring south of Green Island in Branford Harbor, near the Branford River entrance, and also farther west to Kelsey’s Island, near the Farm River in East Haven. For shore access from the Branford Harbor anchorage, take your dinghy farther up the Branford River and ask at local marinas for dinghy dockage. As you continue up the river to where it turns to a backward C, there is a state boat ramp. From here, it is a 25-minute walk along Harbor and Maple streets to Main Street and town, where you will find several excellent restaurants.


Marinas

While the Village of Stony Creek does not offer overnight dockage, you will find marine facilities in the nearby Branford River.

• Branford Landing — (203) 483-6544 — has transient dockage for boats to 45 feet with 5 to 6 feet at mean low water. Slips include power and water, though there is no fuel. Nellie Green’s Restaurant is on site. Call for rates.

• Branford Yacht Club — (203) 488-9798, VHF channel 16, www.branfordyc.org — has transient dockage for boats to 50 feet, with 5 to 6 feet at mean low water. Slips are $75 a night, including water and electric. Mooring stakes to tie between also may be available, but no launch service is provided. Fuel is available on site, and pumpouts are $5.

• Brewer Bruce and Johnson’s Marina and Brewer Bruce and Johnson’s West Marina (formerly Pier 66) — (203) 488-8329, VHF channel 9, www.byy.com — has transient slips to 65 feet with 8 feet at mean low water, showers, heads, laundry, pool, picnic area, Internet and cable TV. Of these two marinas, fuel is available only at Bruce and Johnson’s West. There is a restaurant on site, and you can dock your dinghy while you eat if you aren’t staying at the marina, but call for a dock assignment. Call for rates.

• Indian Neck Yacht Club — (203) 488-9276, VHF channel 5, www.indianneckyc.org — may have slips or moorings available for boats from 22 to 40 feet ($35) when members are away. There is no launch service for moorings. Gas is available, but not diesel.