Onwards Out of History Comes the ‘Onrust’
Unrest. Restlessness. It is what “onrust” means in Dutch and it’s also the name of a vessel that brought explorers, trappers, refugees, settlers, and tradesmen to the New World. After more than 400 years, a sailing ship named Onrust is returning to the river it was the first to scout, thanks to the Connecticut River Museum (CRM) and The Onrust Project.
The replica of explorer Adriaen Block’s 1600s Dutch trading vessel is now returned to the Connecticut River for the first time since The Onrust Project of New York first launched the ship on the Hudson River in 2009. On June 1, it docked at Saybrook Point, where CRM members, local historians, and local merchants and dignitaries joined the crew as they took the Onrust on the final leg of its voyage to its new home. The ship will be a floating exhibit at CRM through October, and is already open for visitors.
Before setting sail from Old Saybrook, CRM Board Chairman Tom Wilcox said, “This vessel is just the most amazing thing, it is a replica of something of tremendous historical importance, being the vessel in which Adriaen Block explored this part of the New World, including the Connecticut River.”
“I want you to go back with me for a minute, 403 years ago. Be on this boat then, 403 years ago in the spring of 1614, when Adriaen Block brought the ship he built the previous winter and named Onrust—restless—to the mouth of the river the natives called Connecticut,” added State Historian Walter Woodward. “Restless to turn his fortunes around, [Block] came up this river, possibly the first European to probe its courses and seek its opportunities, and in so doing, he opened up an era of restlessness that would change this river and its people forever.”
Members of the Onrust Project sailed from Kingston, New York, with members of the CRM crew to show them the ropes—literally—required to handle the vessel. The Onrust Project’s Tony Maffeo also treated those on board to a cannon display before the ship docked at Essex.
“I think [Adriaen Block] had a crew of maybe 12 to 15,” said Maffeo. “We sailed with six to seven—but we weren’t scraping hides either. But you can sail this boat with three people actually, using the motor. Under sail you’d want four or five minimum.
“It’s fun. I enjoyed coming down the river. I’ve been doing maintenance, learning the sailing little by little. I’ve always liked to be on the water. Before this I was on the Half Moon, a reproduction of Henry Hudson’s ship. That went over to the Netherland’s about three years ago,” said Maffeo. “The trip down was nice. We haven’t had the best weather, but you can expect that, prepare for that.”
Asked how the Onrust Project came about, Maffeo said, “It was done mainly for students. In New York, the 4th graders study New York history, and this was just to teach them a few things. We show them the steering, teach them port and starboard, and below they can see some of the furs and items they were trading.”
For those who didn’t learn all about the Dutch explorer in the 4th grade, Maffeo had this primer.
“Adriaen Block established the first trading post in New York—it was Fort Nassau—and then the British took over and it became Fort Orange, then became Albany. As far as the Onrust went, he used that to chart the Hudson River, then came through the Connecticut River, did some coastal charting as far as Cape Cod, and as far south as Delaware Bay. So the guy got around quite a bit, but he had incentive to do that—what he charted he could get trading rights to. But he went down to Delaware Bay and after that mention of it, it kind of ended. It might have rotted, there are some that say he might have gone over to Holland under a different name.
“A ship like this was good for coastal waters. It was a shallow draft; it was faster compared to bigger things, it could get in and out of a lot of bays and coves,” continued Maffeo. “We have copies of his maps and they’re pretty accurate compared to what you see now.”
The ship will be open for tours daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the museum is currently looking for volunteer docents or interpreters to act as custodians to the living artifact and teach guests about the vessel. The Onrust also will be taking three cruises a day Thursday through Sunday, at 1:30, 3:30, and 6 p.m. It will also function as a learning laboratory for both historically and ecologically focused school programs on the water from June through September.
“It’s a historic day for the Connecticut River Museum to host the Onrust,” said CRM Director Chris Dobbs. “What an amazing gift, to be able to put this vessel together, to be able to maintain it to the level she is maintained. The scholarly research of how a vessel like this should be made, what it should look like, had to be rediscovered in archives and historic artifacts. It took over 250 people to build, and it’s been going up and down the Hudson since 2009. What an amazing thing to have the first ship to ply Connecticut’s waters.”
When it comes to volunteers, the most important thing that the museum is looking for is people who have a passion and a respect for history.
“The interpreters are caretakers of the vessel. It’s not just a replica, but a replica with artifacts,” said Dobbs. “The tilework on the fireplace dates to the 1590s and was brought over from the Netherlands.”
Also in the works for summer programing are scout programs and possibly even museum sleepovers, where guests would come for evening programs on the ship, stay the night at the museum, and get back on board the Onrust in the morning.
“We’re very excited because we had a great experience in the past with the Mary E., but she didn’t have a dynamic below deck experience, and this one has a spectacular story to tell,” said CRM Education Director Jennifer White-Dobbs. “Some will go out for the purpose of learning about Adriaen Block, and explorers and the history of ships in the River Valley. They’ll do their sail on the Onrust in connection with our valley shipyard workshop that we do in the museum, where they learn how ships were built and can actually use the tools and be a part of the shipyard. Other groups will use her as part of our environmental programs, to go out and learn about the ecosystem of the lower river valley. Both groups will learn how the boat works, learn about steering, how to read a chart, and how the sails work.”
“It’s exciting,” continued White-Dobbs. “It’s a great way to share the river whether you’re talking about the present and the environment, or whether you’re talking about the past and the development of communities and the changing nature of people along the river. This boat is sort of a spokesperson for that. It’s always an ‘ooh-ahh’ moment for groups, whether kids or adults. You get on board and you sort of just feel transported back in time. It’s fun and going to be a great opportunity to get people connected to those stories.”
“Anything that we can bring to Essex that is going to bring people in to visit the shops is important, so building the tourism in the area is vital,” said Essex Selectman Stacia Libby. “I didn’t know anything about the history of the boat at all, so everything has been interesting. It’s been really cool.”
For more information on visiting the Onrust or volunteering, contact the Connecticut River Museum at 860-767-8269.