A replica of a 17th century Dutch wooden sailing ship – handsomely rigged with a single mast and decked out in the bright colors of her homeland – was stalled more than an hour on the Connecticut River last week as she waited for the East Haddam Swing Bridge to open. Welcome to Connecticut!
“I’m not sure why the wait was so long,” says Dan Thompson, skipper of the Onrust, a replica of the 44 ½ -foot sloop the Dutchman Adriaen Block sailed up the Connecticut River more than 400 years ago. “But what are you going to do?”
Otherwise, the voyage of Onrust up the Connecticut, past huge oil storage tanks, power plants, and under the steel arches of highway bridges — to dock with the modern Hartford skyline in the background – was largely uneventful.
“We made it to Adriaen’s Landing, Thompson said with a grin, noting that Onrust spent a few days in Hartford before heading back down the river to Middletown Sunday afternoon. There, excited crowds cheered as Thompson and his crew fired off a welcome salute with a deck gun, which echoed in the surrounding hills. Onrust was at Middletown today, where free tours were being offered in the morning. The vessel is spending the summer at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.
“It took about eight hours to travel from Essex to Hartford,” Thompson said. “I know we could have done it in seven, maybe even six hours if it wasn’t for the hold up at the swing bridge. It’s tricky sailing on the river. The wind is fickle. You can’t really tack back and forth without running aground.”
Thompson described Onrust as a “sloop-rigged Dutch jacht,” from which is derived the modern word “yacht.” However, the Dutch words means, “to hunt,” and jachts were designed as light, fast attack boats employed by the Dutch navy. The replica was built largely of white oak, using recently re-discovered 17th century Dutch building techniques. She was launched on the Hudson River in 2009 for the non-profit Onrust Project.
The new Onrust has a few modern conveniences — like a 130-horsepower diesel engine, as well as an on-board GPS, and sonar depth finder. “We mostly travel under power,” Thompson said. “We can raise the sails when the wind is favorable, but it’s a challenge on the river. We do have a traditional sounding lead, which we use for fun and to show how it was done in the past. It’s pretty minimal, which is the way we like it.”
Adriaen Courtsen Block is credited with being the first European to explore the waterway Native Americans called Quonehtacut, or Quinatuckcquet, meaning Long Tidal River. The Dutch navigator sailed up the Connecticut perhaps as far as Enfield in the spring of 1614, after losing his ship Tyger to fire during a fur trading venture on the Hudson. Violent clashes among rival traders in the Dutch-controlled territory had forced Block to strike out on his own. (The Dutchman was after beaver skins, used to make felt hats, especially broad-brimmed Cavalier’s hats, then all the rage).
Using timbers salvaged from the burned Tyger, Block built a new ship — a 44-foot vessel he christened Onrust, which some translate as “Restless,” others as “Trouble” or “Strife” — closer to the actual situation. When the ice cleared, Block piloted Onrust into Long Island Sound, through the treacherous currents at the head of the East River, appropriately named “Hell Gate.”
Traveling along the coast, Block found the Housatonic River, which he called “River of Red Hills,” from the iron-stained basalt ridges rising to the north. The wide Connecticut River he called Versche Rivier, the “Freshwater River,” in contrast to the brackish Hudson. Block explored the Connecticut as far up as present day Hartford, and a little beyond. As if to confirm his successful fur trading, the town of Windsor claims Block established a fur trading post there.
Block’s voyage and mapping of the territory the Dutch would call “New Netherland,” opened the door to the English colonization of New England. Still, he remains something of an enigma. Thompson often gets puzzled looks when he recounts Block’s story. “People say, ‘Adriaen who?’ And then I say, you know, Adriaen’s Landing in Hartford? And then you see a glimmer of recognition. But I think he’s much better known in his native Holland.”
Onrust is visiting the Connecticut as part of a cooperation between the Onrust Project of New York and the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. The vessel is expected to be here until October.