Joy Ride

Joy Ride

It’s a warm summer evening on Milford Harbor, and the 20 of us gathered at the docks below Fowler Park don’t need to be pressured to board the Pier Pressure, a Miami blue boat with a pink paddle wheel promising two hours of music, camaraderie and BYO drinks on the Sound.

Under the auspices of Pedal Cruise Connecticut, the first mate checks IDs and waves us on with our coolers of beverages and bags of snacks, and soon the captain is reviewing rules—like no jumping overboard—and directing those who want the full feel of this unusual vessel to the dozen seats in the center, each perched above a pair of pedals. (Note: You don’t have to pedal. There’s a motor that will pick up any slack.)

I hop aboard one of them and wait until the captain gives the OK to pedal, when I realize it actually feels like riding a bike. This could definitely be a night of exercise on the open sea, but I stop after a few minutes and join others on the comfy cushioned seats at the bow. This is a pontoon boat specially built by Trident Pedal Boats out of Florida, according to Colin Caplan, a local historian, food guide and serial entrepreneur who also runs the popular Elm City Party Bike with partner Christian Bruckhart. Naturally, it was the pedal-driven party bike that spurred this latest venture. “We figured if you could do it on land, you could do it on sea,” Caplan says. For Pedal Cruise, the two were joined by a third partner, Rob Paul.

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The New Haven Health Department

My experience suggests they were right to take the party to the water. Fellow riders unpack their coolers as the boat carries us through the harbor, passing the NOAA Fisheries Milford Laboratory and people relaxing on a long line of private boats docked for the evening. It’s low tide, so we can see the remains of an old submersible built by the pioneering submarine engineer Simon Lake, and then we glide by the Milford Yacht Club, where people on its deck wave to us as we emerge into Long Island Sound.

Our excursion has already become a festive affair, all of us imbibing our drinks or nibbling our snacks, the ride remarkably smooth even when a boat speeds by, creating a wake. The sun hasn’t yet set, and many of us pull out cameras or cell phones to snap pictures that you can only get from out here: fishermen appearing to walk on the water as they cast their lines just beyond the jetty, a cotton candy sky hovering over the neat line of shoreline homes in the distance. The boat’s sound system is streaming Coldplay’s Viva La Vida as the captain steers the boat toward Charles Island. A fisherman aboard a canoe turns to look at us as the women beside me shift into full party mode, laughing and toasting. They pull out a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” just as string lights near our feet light up to add even more sparkle to the night.

We’re close to Charles Island now, and I’m surprised at how barren it looks. Its once massive canopy is sparse, reportedly ravaged by invasive plants and a soil fungus that compromised the trees even before Irene and Sandy assaulted them in 2011 and 2012. A woman sitting near me recalls seeing a 19th-century photo of people riding in horse-drawn carriages over the low-tide tombolo that connects the island to the shore, and we chat about the island’s history.

Now the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil is streaming over the sound system and the bike pedals are turning more slowly, in sync with the paddle wheel. We’re slowly circling the area between the island and the mouth of the harbor, enjoying the sounds and merriment of this floating bar as fireworks erupt to the west—probably Stratford’s Fourth of July show—and a crescent moon smiles down.

As we reenter the harbor, the party begins winding down. Before disembarking, we tip our captain and first mate who, by the way, do all the steering and operating of the boat, say goodbye to our fellow boaters and make our way home. The price tag for the excursion, about $45 per person depending on the timing (not including gratuity), felt totally worth it. The boat can be rented for parties, too, and has already hosted bachelorette parties and even a 90th birthday celebration. Shorter rides are planned for the city’s Annual Milford Oyster Festival on Saturday, August 20, and the owners hope to stretch their Pedal Cruise season into October.

My advice? Don’t wait to book if you want to give Pier Pressure a try. Rides are already largely sold out through the end of August, so cruising opportunities, for this year anyway, are quickly pedaling away.

Pedal Cruise Connecticut
Launching from the base of Fowler Park along Shipyard Lane, Milford (map)
Bookings available through October
~$45 per person depending on timing

Written and photographed by Jill Dion.

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