Father and son bond through boat tours of the Thimble Islands
By Shelley K. Wong, Associated Press Writer | August 11, 2006
BRANFORD, Conn. --It's late summer and the Stony Creek dock is bustling.
Kayakers slice through the green water of Long Island Sound, paddling their way past the dock along the Connecticut shoreline.
A gentle wind blows across a boat that has set out on a 45-minute tour of the area, with captain Justin Infantino spinning tales of pirates and diminutive circus stars.
Off in the distance, his father, Michael Infantino Jr., is manning a water taxi, carrying people with groceries and overnight bags toward their respective island homes.
It's a typical summer day for the two in the waters of the Thimble Islands, an archipelago of some 25 inhabited islands and hundreds of smaller islands off Connecticut's coast. To many people, the islands are a place to vacation, to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. But to the father and son team, the Thimble Islands is their workplace.
"It's the best place to grow up in the world," Michael Infantino Jr. said. "I hung out with a lot of the island kids and we did nothing but play in boats all day."
Michael Infantino Jr. grew up in Stony Creek, a village of Branford, as did his son. The 56-year-old said he learned the ropes from his uncle, who began running the Sea Mist in 1960. After working for several years, he bought the boat from his uncle in 1978. Now, his son is following in his footsteps. Last year, Justin Infantino became partner of the Sea Mist, allowing him to take charge of the ferry boat service to and from the islands.
The island chain, within a three-mile radius of Stony Creek, has long attracted the rich and reclusive, the famous and infamous, from President William Howard Taft to P.T. Barnum's circus star Tom Thumb to cartoonist Gary Trudeau and his wife, television journalist Jane Pauley.
During the Victorian era, the Thimble Islands were hopping with people traveling on steamboats from New Haven to day trip or spend a weekend at one of the island hotels that sprung up during that period.
At one point, there was such a demand for islands that people began building manmade ones. Development continued on through the early 1900s until 1938, when a hurricane destroyed the Connecticut coastline and took the lives of several islanders.
The history of the islands has been told orally for generations but there is very little written documentation. That makes the line between fact and fiction somewhat blurred.
Many of the islands have stories tied to them, as Justin Infantino explained during a recent afternoon boat tour of the islands.
As the Sea Mist, a 40-foot, black and white, double-decker boat, wound its way through the water, the 31-year-old talked about the legend of Captain Kidd, who apparently lived on one of the islands and left buried treasure, and told the history of Money Island, the most populated of the islands.
Money Island was supposedly its own village back in the late 1800s, with its own chapel and general store. There was also a post office, hotel, barroom and bowling alley on the island. Now, there are some 30 privately owned homes.
In fact, all the islands are privately owned. Some are just dots of pink granite bedrock where seagulls perch and where bright, orange-beaked American oyster catchers stop by to feed. Others are more than 10 acres, with dozens of houses from which people wave casually to passing boats and kayakers.
Passing to the left of an island overflowing with lush vegetation, Justin Infantino explained that Yale University bought Horse Island back in the 1960s for ecological research. The captain said nearly three quarters of the island is covered in poison ivy.
Justin Infantino began helping out on his father's tour boat in the 1980s. He became a captain five years ago. Infantino remembers coming down to the dock to visit his father, who was busy working. He says being able to work alongside his father, in such a beautiful place, is a wonderful family bonding experience.
His brother and many of his cousins even help out on the boat, he said.
"It's great for me," he said. "I was brought up here on the boat. A lot of times, I didn't see my dad unless I came down here onto the boats. I love being here."