Christopher Rondina is a man of my trades. A tour guide for Gansett Cruises, an innkeeper at Cliffside Inn, and accomplished author with books about the paranormal and New England’s haunted history. Read below as we talk about Chris’ experiences, from hands-on lobster boat tours to his experience as part of the LGBTQ+ community in Newport, Rhode Island.
Chris: Gansett Cruises is a harbor touring company with two late 1960’s wooden lobster boats that have both been refurbished as touring yachts. Both have very different concepts. The Gansett is more of a classic tour boat that takes people out with cocktails and food on board for a full historic tour of the harbor. The second boat, Northeastern, is completely unique to Newport. That one actually goes out and does educational lobstering trips. We go out with guests on board, haul lobster traps, teach them about the biology and the industry, dimensions of the bay, things like that. We get a lot of kids which is fantastic because it’s extremely hands on. Guests don’t get to physically haul the traps because that’s potentially dangerous, but they get to handle the marine life and put bands on them. The traps pull up all sorts of different sea life so they get a lot of experience. It’s tremendous fun! And as I said we have a lot of families and kids which is something I had never done before and it’s been a very rewarding experience.
NPTOUT: You’re very passionate about the education aspect of the Gansett Cruises. Could you tell us a little bit about that they educate people on and maybe give us a little backstory on why Gansett Cruises thinks it’s important to share?
Chris: It’s a good question because, I am very passionate about the education aspect of both the history and the biology of the bay. I love the fact that we have kids that come aboard that begin the trip terrified to even touch the animals and by the end they are holding live lobster and all the other aquatic life we find. We even have some kids, it’s heartbreaking, but some cry because they don’t wanna get off the boat. To me, it’s an amazing and rewarding experience. Especially for somebody that comes from a less than stellar education background. I’ve turned it around for myself and for other people.
NPTOUT: It’s like you’re flipping a switch in the kids’ minds.
Chris: There is nothing in the world like it! They just get so excited! One of the things the kids help us do is put safety bands on the lobster’s claws, which they love doing. By the time we are almost done, I’m taking bands off and re-banding the animals because the kids get so excited about it.
NPTOUT: How long are the tours?
Chris: The tours are roughly an hour and a half. It fluctuates a little based on what we catch and how the people interact with them. But they are usually between seventy-five and ninety minutes. We are also proud to be a very welcoming company. We don’t have a specific LGBT focus but we have done fantastic LGBT weddings on our boats and our entire staff and management is very welcoming.
NPTOUT: You used to do ghost tours. Tell us about that.
Chris: I still do them but not on a regular schedule. I’ll do special groups and stuff. It’s tough though because I just wear so many hats. I work on the boats, I’m an innkeeper here in town, writing and speaking engagements, and so having a regularly scheduled tour was just a little bit too much to throw into the rest of that. Plus, there was another company doing the same thing. Rather than competing with them I sort of adapted it and incorporate aspects of my ghost tours into my other businesses. But I tell a lot of my ghost stories when I’m out on the boat. When I first signed aboard Gansett, I had never done any harbor tours but I had been doing the ghost tours previously so at the core it was the same. So, I started throwing in little ghost stories here and there and at first, my captain was worried that my stories were too long, I was losing my people’s attention. Soon though, other tour guides were repeating my stories and people even started requesting it. As a result, now if I go past something and it catches my attention and I don’t say anything my captain says, “How come you didn’t tell that ghost story?”. It’s been a nice turn around.
NPTOUT: How did you get invested into the paranormal? Is there a specific event or experience?
Chris: I’m not exactly sure. I can tell you that my father would tell me and my friends lots of ghost stories. These were not legends or anything, just stories he would make up, but we were kids and it was really fun. I started to fall in love with it. I remember as a teenager really loving everything from Edgar Allan Poe to old Universal horror movies.
Then, something kind of really changed which is when I was 15, I actually had an experience that I still believe, 35 years later, was a ghost. It was an extremely intense and profound experience and it changed the way I looked at everything. And I think my interest really took off at that time. It was many many years before I started doing tours or writing books. It became a passion for me then at that time. I never looked back.
NPTOUT: I was wondering if you had any paranormal experiences that stand out?
Chris: There have been some experiences that stand out relating to discoveries and connections I’ve made – these are mostly from a historical perspective. Even though I’ve been in this field for a long time I haven’t had that many experiences that felt paranormal, or ghostly. But there have been a couple that have stood out. One really interesting thing happened a few years ago.
When I was a teenager, in my “wayward youth”, my friends and I would frequently sneak into Fort Adams. It wasn’t as well maintained back then as it is today. We would sneak around in the tunnels and old buildings. It was fun and we weren’t not particularly destructive, we just liked to explore. But, one thing that happened a lot is that these stones would always come skittering along the floor, like someone was throwing pebbles. There were a lot of us in there at any given time. We always figured it was other kids in our group messing with each other. But sometimes it felt like maybe someone else was down there with us because sometimes the stones came from places where nobody seemed to be. It became an urban myth of our youth.
Years later, Fort Adams began to host ‘ghost hunting’ events as a way to raise funds for the preservation of the fort, and one year I was asked to be a guest speaker. During my talk I mentioned that story and several people immediately said they had the same ‘flying pebbles’ experience, and I remember thinking, “Well that’s curious”. There was a definite acknowledgement that it was ‘a thing’ there at the fort. I decided to do some follow-up research after that night, and I found an interesting story of a soldier by the name of William Kane who had been killed in the fort in 1819. The interesting thing is he was shot right outside the officer’s barracks which was where some of these events took place. What had played out is: On the night of the 4th of July 1819, Private Kane became involved in a heated argument with another soldier. An officer broke up the dispute and began to escort the 2nd man, Private Cornell, towards his own barracks. As they walked away, William Kane threw a handful of gravel at the other soldier. Private Cornell spun around before anyone could stop him, drew his pistol and shot William Kane, murdering him in cold blood. Cornell was court-martialed for the senseless murder and sentenced to hang, but he never reached the gallows – He was pardoned by President James Monroe for reasons we may never know. So how does all this connect to my experiences in the fort? Two things stand out in this story – Many people believe events like this can result in a ghost who can’t rest until his killer is brought to justice, but justice was never served. The second curiosity is that the murdered man’s last act was to throw a handful of pebbles, exactly as visitors to the fort have experienced time and time again.
NPTOUT: Could you tell us about your most recent book, Ghosts of New England?
Chris: My latest book has the oh-so unique title Ghosts of New England. I wanted to go straight to the point. It is the fifth book I’ve published. So far I feel like it’s my best work. The truth is, I never meant to become a writer. I started writing by accident. Many years ago I became interested in collecting information about the unique vampire foklore from Rhode Island history. At the time very few people were familiar with the area’s vampire legends. It always struck me as odd because if you bring up the topic of witches everybody knows about Salem and everyone knows about the witch hunts, and it seems like everyone knows a few local ghost stories, so It was strange to realize that we have this amazing vampire folklore in New England that can be traced back historically but nobody seemed to know about it. So I was collecting old newspaper clippings, any little snippet I could find of it. At the time there was a used bookstore here in Newport called the Scribe’s Perch and the man who owned it was an awfully nice fellow. And he and I would talk a lot. He liked the idea of my vampire research, and he offered to sell in in the shop if I collected it into a booklet. I’d never made any effort to write before, so I imagined something like a ten-page booklet with a bunch of photocopied newspaper articles. As the project developed the bookshop owner kept telling me we needed a little more detail, kept nudging me to flesh-out this-and-that. Without my realizing it, he slowly shepherded me into writing a book. When it was all said and done he told me he could no longer publish it: “You’re officially out of my league!” He graciously assisted me in finding a genuine publisher, a small press located on Cape Cod. They printed a few thousand copies, and I’m proud to say it did pretty well.
Now, my latest book, Ghosts of New England is my first attempt at self-publishing. I’ve always designed my own books from the layout to the cover art, so I thought I had the resources to self-publish. Even though I am taking on the full financial burden of printing and marketing, I also get full creative control. I had a wonderful experience writing this book and right now it’s still available as a limited edition. It has done well enough that I’m now going to release a wide-press edition that will be available through outlets like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other places which I haven’t done before.
NPTOUT: How has your experience been being a long time Newport, Rhode Island resident whose part of the LGBTQ+ community?
Chris: I’ll start by saying one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life has been going through from the 70’s to the 2000’s and watching the evolution of the LGBTQ+ community. I had a very interesting youth because it was a time before there was internet and there were any support structure for LGBTQ teens. I was very grateful that I met a few key people who opened me up to the fact that there was a gay community. As a young teen, still living at home, we had some upstairs neighbors who were on the flamboyant side. I was just starting to figure out that I was not like everyone else. So I don’t know how I managed to work up the nerve to do this but one day I went upstairs, knocked on their door, and asked if I could talk to them for a few minutes. I said I think I might be gay and I think you might be gay and I don’t know what to do. It’s funny because looking back at it this guy was probably in his twenties to thirties and it was probably terrifying to have the 14 year old neighbor knocking on your door saying, “I’m gay what do I do?” He was understanding, he didn’t say a lot, but he told me it was ok to be who I was. Even though it was pretty slim feedback, it was enough to make me think, “Maybe I’ll be ok.” At the time Newport did have a few gay clubs, I was much too young to get into them but like most teenagers when I was 19 I snuck into them a couple of times.
Newport is an interesting town because it has a pretty broad gay population but the sense of community hasn’t always been there. There’s kind of a weird set of pros and cons to that. One of things I love being here and now is that it’s not always necessary to have “gay ghettos” in this era. We don’t have to isolate ourselves alongside people exactly like us. I hope that one day all of us can just be one big community.
NPTOUT: Do you find Newport to be open?
Chris: I get a little swell of pride every time I see a same sex couple holding hands. And I’ve never even seen someone getting harassed in Newport for their sexual identity. I never got harassed either as a kid. I grew up in this town and slowly but surely came out to people. I was always feared about being judged but I was never judged. By the time I came out to most of my friends most of them had already figured it out with context clues. Every time I worried it would be bad most of my friends said, “C’mon Chris we knew all this time.” I was incredibly fortunate to not have to go through political oppression.
NPTOUT: If you were going to sell Newport to the LGBTQ+ community, what would you highlight?
Chris: Well first of all, the openness and inclusiveness. It’s an incredibly safe and open community. We have phenomenal businesses that are owned by LGBTQ+ people including hotels and bed & breakfasts. We also have welcoming congregations like Channing Church. I think in a lot of ways, 95% of what stands out as a reason to come to Newport for the LGBTQ+ community, is the same thing that appeals to everybody else. Beautiful beaches, extraordinary restaurants, historic architecture. All of that in an incredibly welcoming environment.
Special thanks to Newport Out intern Nathan Taft for doing the interviewing and production to make this blog post possible.