Sail Away

The miniature ships of Blount Small Ship Adventures are based in Warren, but they travel the length of North America

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Blount Small Ship Adventures has two cruise ships, the Grande Mariner and the Grand Caribe, and they have been everywhere.

They’ve skirted the coasts of New England, explored Chesapeake Bay, and squeezed through the locks of the Erie Canal. They’ve journeyed from Chicago to Montreal, dropped anchor in Saguenay Fjord, and – most surprisingly – floated down the shores of Honduras and through the Panama Canal. Their passengers have enjoyed lobster bakes on the beach and hiked in the Darien jungle. They have snorkled with naturalists. They’ve partied in Roatán. They have sailed by the gleam of Maine’s lighthouses.

And of all the seaside towns in the world, their home port is Warren, Rhode Island.

“Our boats are not for everybody,” says Nancy Blount, president of Blount Small Ship Adventures. “We try hard to help people understand what the experience is.”

Compared to a mainstream cruise ship, which typically carries thousands of passengers, the Blount ships are lilliputian – they have cabins for about 80 people. The ships are so narrow, they can maneuver down the slimmest waterways. Thanks to a patented “retractable pilot house,” the ships can slip under low bridges. In the dining room, there are no assigned seats – travelers can mingle wherever they please. Most novel of all, the company pioneered the “Blount Bow Ramp,” which drops open like a toucan’s beak and invites passengers to walk directly onto the beach.

“It’s very casual, very friendly,” says Nancy. “Things start to really mesh [among the passengers] after day three.”

Most New Englanders recognize Blount Fine Foods, the trailblazing seafood company that popularized quahogs and currently supplies soups to Panera Bread. That company was begun by F. Nelson Blount, who also founded Steamtown, USA, a train-themed museum. Less familiar is Nelson’s brother, Luther Blount, an energetic shipbuilder and owner of Blount Boats.

“He was a tried-and-true Warrenite,” says Nancy, who is also Luther’s daughter. “He loved his work crew. And he was really ahead of his time.”

Luther Blount was a renaissance man on many levels. He had a lifelong affection for farming and fishing, and after the 1938 hurricane ruined the oyster beds of Narragansett Bay, he started cultivating clams instead. He built a range of ships, from a 77-foot steel catamaran (his first) to the 130-foot ferry Miss Liberty, which would carry 60 million passengers around Ellis Island to view the Statue of Liberty.

But the turning point was in 1972, when Blount built Le Bateau, a “dinner boat.” The concept was novel – to host diners and take romantic jaunts around the bay – and Le Bateau inspired a fleet of imitations. An avid traveler, Blount fostered his love of cruise ships, and soon he was running a new business, the American Canadian Caribbean Line (ACCL).

The way Nancy describes her father, and the way he appears in articles, Luther sounds irresistibly eccentric, a tireless tinkerer. He started his career whittling duck-shaped jewelry. He once paddled a canoe into a remote Guatemalan lake. A tree once fell on him, shattering his leg. Small wonder, then, that his cruise ships are so defiantly unconventional. But in an era of boutique travel, Blount offers something many people yearn for – the intimacy of a 184-foot vessel, exploring waterways for as long as a fortnight.

“The name was hard,” says Nancy Blount. “We had this cumbersome name, the American Canadian Caribbean Line, and we needed to rebrand. We did a lot of research on it.”

Like her father, Nancy has lived an unusual life. She was raised in Warren, in a house that has since been replaced by the Blount offices. As a youth, Nancy worked on her father’s ships, as a stewardess and assistant chef. Later, she would spend some time as a welder in the Blount shipyard. She left Rhode Island for a few years, then returned in 1979. She watched the business grow and evolve, then took over as president in 2001.

When Luther passed away in 2006, he left five children, who each had a stake in the company. Nancy spearheaded a series of updates, including the name Blount Small Ship Adventures, and had both ships refurbished. The many itineraries are more far-flung than ever, with journeys to New Brunswick, Chicago, Savannah, and Belize. The company still reflects Luther Blount’s original vision – putting a premium on individualized experience and high-end dining – yet the ships are equipped with modern conveniences like Wi-Fi and stair lifts between decks.

Nancy is right, of course: Small ships aren’t for everybody. Most routes hug the shore, far from mid-ocean swells, but motion sickness can still be an issue. Some cruisers prefer the anonymous crowds of a Carnival ship to the close-quartered familiarity of the Grand Mariner. But for that intrepid minority, the Blount experience can be life-changing. Nancy says that passengers have returned a dozen times, and one fan sailed on 30 separate trips.

After all these years of fostering her father’s legacy, Nancy still relishes the magic of those ships. “I love leaving my phone in my cabin,” she remarks. “I love not having any use for it.”

Her favorite destination is Maine. “It’s just so rugged and beautiful,” says Nancy. Then she adds, “Also Belize.”

To learn more about Blount’s 2019 itineraries, visit their website.