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Burlington, Vermont

Coastal cruiser is Burlington-bound

The cruise was just miles from being over. After four years and 7,000 miles of coastal cruising, I was coming home, and I liked what I saw.

On a broad reach with a southerly breeze just shy of 20 knots, Dream Weaver was flying over the cool, fresh clean water of Lake Champlain with the Adirondack Mountains to port, the Green Mountains to starboard.

Read the other stories in this package: Burlington - Champlain Canal   Burlington - Lake Champlain information   

I was rediscovering what I had taken for granted.

Sails dotted the horizon; people actually sailed here instead of endlessly motoring as I had done on the ICW. The depth sounder was reading in three digits, often more than 200 feet … not like the days of sailing the inside route through the Keys where a reading in two digits brought comfort. There was no tidal current to boost or frustrate my progress, unlike South Carolina and Georgia, where I had run aground at high tide with expensive consequences.

I knew when I reached my homeport, Lake Champlain Yacht Club just south of Burlington, Vt., I could dive over the side and emerge feeling clean, not crusty. Nothing in this lake bites people. I remembered this fondly while on my first nervous crossing of the Gulf Stream to Cuba, where the fishermen catch things that could, in reversed circumstances, eat them.

Cruisers taking the Great Circle Route up the Hudson River and Erie Canal to the Great Lakes have discovered that instead of turning west at Troy, New York, they can continue north up the Champlain Canal to Lake Champlain’s sheltered anchorages and cruiser-friendly ports like Burlington — an alternate route to the Great Lakes via Montreal and the St. Lawrence River.

A day earlier, my sailing pal, Didier Delmas, and I had exited the lock system of the Champlain Canal and sailed under the commanding presence of New York’s Fort Ticonderoga, just one monument to Lake Champlain’s history as a battleground. Fort Ticonderoga is perched high on a bluff so its cannon could control traffic on the lake. In July 1758, during the French and Indian War, it was held by the French and attacked by 15,000 troops commanded by British Gen. James Abercromby.

It was a dramatic and bloody day, and is re-enacted from time to time now that the fort is a museum and tourist destination.

Among the troops was a Scottish Black Watch Regiment, which marched into battle in kilts and full regalia to the sound of bagpipes. Assault after assault failed. The 4,000 French defenders held the fort and inflicted 1,600 British casualties, including fully half of the Black Watch Regiment — 500 men. But their bravery became legendary along the lake. The French called them Les Sauvages Sans Culottes — the savages without trousers.

The French were finally driven out by the British, but the fort became the scene of the first armed conflict of the Revolutionary War in 1775 when Ethan Allen and a ragtag army of Americans, described as “rabble in arms,” seized it from the British in a surprise night raid.

Some cruisers tuck into the anchorage below the fort and hike up for a tour.

The French influence is still strong along the lake. Cruisers from neighboring French-speaking Quebec fly the Canadian and Quebecois flags, and chat in French on VHF channels.

The swinging season

Lake Champlain is not only beautifully cradled between the mountains of Vermont and New York, but cruisers are also in a perfect position to take advantage of an exuberant summer schedule of events. Like Scandinavians, these northerners know what comes after the leaves fall, so they jam their summers with lakeside activities ranging from classical music festivals to Latino dance parties and food and brew fests. Much of the action is on Burlington’s waterfront, a short dinghy ride from a mooring area managed by Burlington’s parks and recreation department.

From these moorings, tucked behind a breakwater made of granite blocks the size of Volkswagens, cruisers float between sunsets over New York’s Adirondacks across the lake and the bustle of waterfront restaurants. It’s hardly the tropics, but there are tiki bars with canvas instead of thatch roofs, and you’ll hear salsa and Jimmy Buffett drifting across the water.

A well-kept secret

Lake Champlain is not quite a Great Lake, but it’s 108 miles long, 12 miles wide at its widest spot, and covers 490 square miles, making it the sixth-largest body of water in the United States. The lake separates Vermont from upstate New York and pokes its way north into Quebec.

This waterway has provided a handy route for invaders beginning with warring Indian tribes, then smugglers dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s administration.

With 587 miles of shoreline and 70 islands, Lake Champlain has some anchorages that look like fjords — like Willsboro Bay across from Burlington — and others near sandy beaches, like the north end of Burlington harbor.

“We come here every summer,” says the skipper of a 42-foot cabin cruiser on the docks at Burlington Community Boat House. The Florida-based skipper hails from Vermont, so knew what the lake has to offer. “This lake has some of the best cruising in the world, and hardly anybody knows about it.”

Sailing through history

Although best known for cows, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and liberal politicians, Vermont and the lake have a rich maritime history. The first naval battle in U.S. history was fought on the New York side during the Revolutionary War, with a quickly built American fleet commanded by Benedict Arnold taking on the British. The Americans got pounded, but delayed the British advance toward New York long enough to make them retreat back into Canada for the winter. The Americans regrouped and beat them the next year at the battle of Saratoga, halting their advance toward New York.

Those plucky Brits tried to use the lake again during the War of 1812. Again, Americans cobbled together fleets for battles that raged back and forth past Burlington. The British were turned back at the Battle of Plattsburgh in September of 1814, and the last big guns to fire on the lake did so in a salute to young Commodore Thomas MacDonough’s decisive victory. The war ended three months later. Sailors race in the Commodore MacDonough race each September.

The lake’s maritime history is commemorated at a small park a stone’s throw from the Burlington dinghy dock. Here a replica of “The Lone Sailor” bronze statue at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington faces across the lake, the first civilian location approved for such a replica by the Navy Memorial Foundation.

Yesterday and today

Although sailors and geography buffs realize that New York City and Lake Champlain are linked by water, today’s cruisers travel a commercial route that was made possible with the completion of the 63-mile Champlain Canal in 1823, two years before the opening of the Erie Canal launched shipping trade to the Midwest.

Potash and lumber headed south to New York City on centerboard canal schooners, returning with manufactured goods and spirits. Schooner shipwrecks dot the bottom of the lake. Two are state park dive sites just outside the Burlington breakwater.

The gritty industrial Burlington waterfront left over from the days of lake commerce has been transformed in the last decade to a waterfront park anchored by a Community Boat House modeled after the Lake Champlain Yacht Club, which occupied the location from 1887 until it moved to nearby Shelburne Bay after World War II.

For cruisers, the boat house and nearby facilities at the Lake Champlain Transportation Company ferry dock are the gateways to a lively city that rises up the hill through a busy pedestrian marketplace to the University of Vermont campus. A few miles beyond is Burlington International Airport, served by major airlines, including JetBlue. Crew travel to and from the city is easy. Another option, Amtrak, has a station in Essex Junction on the county’s bus route.

Restaurants dot the waterfront, the Coast Guard is very visible and the dinghy dock is directly in front of ECHO — Ecology Culture History Opportunity. This lake aquarium and science center is home to live lake creatures, 20 aquatic habitats, interactive displays and information on the history, geology and ecology of the lake (once part of the ocean, with whales). The east wall is attached to the University of Vermont’s lake science center, and the research boat Melosira is docked in the canal just south of the Center. Lake science emerges from this complex and is interpreted in the ECHO center in clever ways designed to appeal to kids as well as adults.

At the cruiser’s disposal

What about the basics of cruising life? A laundry, hardware store and grocery store are within walking distance. Ice and fuel are available on the south side of the ferry dock. Showers are hidden behind an unmarked door in the Community Boat House. Boats and dinghies can pull up at the waterfront restaurants Splash and the Breakwater Café. Beer, wine and liquor emporiums are within a walk, and a West Marine store is a 1.8-mile uphill hike to Staples Plaza.

A full-service shipyard is a few miles away in Shelburne Bay, where cruisers can also find sheltered anchorages at Sledrunner Cove and south of Lake Champlain Yacht Club behind Allen Hill.

A colorful farmers’ market happens on Saturdays, a few blocks up from the waterfront near the Church Street Marketplace.

The marketplace is a delightful place to discover why Burlington is so often ranked among the Top 10 cities in which to live. Years ago, Church Street was turned into a pedestrian marketplace that now offers sidewalk cafes, street entertainers, and serious shopping at stores ranging from the department store Filene’s to Apple Mountain, the place to buy the essential Vermont products or T-shirts.

The marketplace is fun, full of people who range from fashionable (people from out of town) to out-of-the-ordinary (people who live here), and populated with stores that sell things you really don’t need. This is not the place to look for a hammer or a toilet plunger. It is a place to look for outdoorsy stuff at North Face, the Outdoor Gear Exchange and the little Army/Navy store on Center Street, all one block east of the marketplace. Next door to the Army/Navy store is The Daily Planet, a favorite locals’ restaurant that looks like a dive from out front, but is, as Hemingway might have said, a good and true bistro.

The marketplace has a place that sells only pots of wonderful tea (Dobra) and restaurants for every taste, from sushi to burritos. If you look closely at the bricks in the center of the street, you will find granite blocks carved with the names of their sponsors’ loved ones, along with cities worldwide that share the longitude of Burlington, Vt. At the head of the marketplace is a much-photographed fountain and classic New England church.

When they were in town making movies, Harrison Ford and Jim Carrey hung out at the Irish pub Ri-Ra’s, and Red Square across the street.

One pleasant surprise for cruisers is City Market, one block east of the marketplace, a good grocery store with a nice wine and beer selection in a downtown area within walking distance of the waterfront.

Barely a summer weekend goes by without an event on the waterfront: a jazz festival, a food sampling called the Green Mountain Chew Chew, the Brewers’ Festival, a Latino festival where the boom-boom-bah beat of salsa brings out dancers, and some new reason to party every year. “We’re a small city with a big attitude,” Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle has said.

A little local knowledge prompts cruisers to head a few miles south on certain evenings and anchor off the Inn at Shelburne Farms, where a Newport-like mansion hosts frequent concerts, many of them part of a July Mozart Festival. With an offshore breeze to carry the sound, a boat is a free ticket to the concert.

Cruisers can explore north from Burlington to Grand Isle — a Vermont island county — historic Valcour Island on the New York side, boater-friendly Plattsburgh, and all the way to the St. Lawrence River, then to Quebec City, the Gaspe and Newfoundland, or west to Montreal and the Great Lakes, an alternate leg on the Great Circle Route.

By mid-September, the days get short. Vermont and New York sailboats headed south begin to appear on the water with masts down. Nights grow chilly and Vs of southbound geese warn that winter is on its way. It comes fast here in the north, and it’s time to leave if you’re on a cruising calendar that says you should be in Beaufort, N.C., by Halloween.

Dave Schaefer lives in Burlington and sailed his 32-foot sloop Dream Weaver from Lake Champlain to Havana, Cuba, to track down Ernest Hemingway’s haunts. He is the author of “Sailing to Hemingway’s Cuba,” (Sheridan House, 2000).