Little Rhody, big water

By Greg Coppa
For Points East

Boating enthusiasts do not often consider how many fine cruising opportunities exist within the confines of that 25-mile-long, 10-mile-wide resource in Rhode Island known as Narragansett Bay. You could easily spend a week or two pulling into marinas near quaint Colonial-era villages, or gunkholing in quiet little coves, where you could catch up on your reading and refresh yourself by just diving off your boat.

In the 1960s, as a youngster and active participant in the old Narragansett Bay Yachting Association (NBYA), each summer I sailed with my six siblings and assorted friends all over the Bay to compete in perhaps 10 different yacht club-sponsored weekend races (one on Saturday and another on Sunday). We all got to see quite a bit of the Rhode Island shoreline, but, as is usual for kids, we didn’t appreciate what an exceptionally great treasure we had.

A few years later, an old geezer, who was a fixture at the nascent Wickford Yacht Club, in the West Passage, set some of us straight. He told us that, during WWII, his family’s sailing adventures were restricted for the obvious reasons, as well as because submarine nets stretched across the entrances to the East and West passages of the bay made it literally impossible to get offshore. But his family still cruised all the same, and he rattled off his favorite Narragansett Bay harbors and coves, saying that you could find places just as good as those a lot farther away, but they wouldn’t be better.
My first inclination was to politely listen to “Mr. V,” but dismiss his rose-colored tales because he also once told me that the snow was much whiter when he was a kid. But since I had actually been to many of the places of which he spoke so glowingly, courtesy of the NBYA, it dawned on me that the old man was right. How about that!?

So, if you ever want to spend some time on the bay, I am going to tell you a few places where you can go and have a good time. Trust me, you will find many more if you’re so inclined.

Newport: The City by the Sea and its harbor is a good place to start. I’ve always had access to moorings up in Brenton Cove, but wherever you are in this harbor you’ll be happy. The stone cliffs under Beacon Rock in the cove are impressive, and on a warm summer day you will see youngsters swimming off them. My kids used to bring back sea urchins, pipefish and the occasional tropical angelfish that somehow strayed into that area.

An advantage to being in Brenton Cove is that you can go ashore at Fort Adams State Park, where there is a small beach, showers, and almost always something interesting going on involving some Tall Ship or racing event. The park also hosts the famed Newport Folk Festival the last week of July, and the Newport Jazz Festival the first week of August.

You can easily walk from the beach to President Eisenhower’s summer White House or kayak out in front of the New York Yacht Club’s on-the-water clubhouse, Harbour Court, a bit to the east. While in the area, consider visiting the excellent U.S Naval War College Museum to learn about and celebrate Rhode Island and U.S. Naval history and traditions.

Of course, you can take a dinghy, or a launch, to Newport’s Thames Street, which is lively June through September with a plethora of exceptional restaurants, trendy stores and clubs known for hosting popular bands.

Conanicut Island: Leaving Newport, you can proceed north up the bay, under the Claiborne Pell Bridge (commonly known as the Newport Bridge), to Prudence Island. You’ll likely pass by some large racing fleet, see some inshore fishermen – either dragging or pulling up lobster traps – as you travel along the Jamestown shore to your west.

Immediately past the bridge, at its west end, will be a Potter Cove, in the lee of the southwest wind just north of Jamestown’s (Conanicut Island’s) Taylor Point. This is a nice anchorage, which always has room, and is close enough to Jamestown center, which can be reached by dinghy or Uber. But file that location info away for another time.

Prudence Island: Your destination will actually be another Potter Cove, the very sheltered cove of the same name on the northeast shore of Prudence Island. Weekdays are best for this popular weekend stop. This is the place to just hang out and relax aboard your vessel.

Depending on the tide, you may want to consider clamming, quahogging or fishing. With your smartphone (an always excellent tool to find out specifics in your cruising area), check the Rhode Island Dept. of Environmental Management (DEM) website to learn which finfishing and shellfishing is permissible. If you take a walk ashore, the island is quiet – just the way the islanders like it. There is a Prudence Island Historical Museum, with limited hours, where you can learn about the island’s past, which included hosting military facilities during WWII.

Once, after getting a late-afternoon start with a boat chartered out of Barrington, R.I., and bound for the Elizabeth Islands, I decided to overnight in Potter Cove. I had a crew that had not had time to get familiar with the new vessel to continue onward. Aboard was a nice Virginia gentleman who had never been on the bay before. When he awoke on a bright and sunny morning, and went up on deck and looked around him. On the glassy smooth water, he beheld the reflections of a handful of boats and the shoreline, with its resident blue herons and white egrets. After taking it all in, he turned to me and asked, “Are all the harbors we are going to visit this nice?”

Bristol: Only a short sail from Prudence, to the northeast, is the immaculate little town of Bristol. Ah Bristol, a favorite stop for so many boaters for so many reasons. Of course, it is well-known for its often nationally televised Fourth of July Parade, the nation’s oldest. Along Hope Street, with its red-white-and-blue centerline, you’ll find historic churches, mansions, and plenty of outstanding restaurants serving Italian, French, and Portuguese fare, and lots of fresh, local seafood. Walking the side streets you will see that the locals take tremendous pride in their homes, most of them bedecked with colorful flowers and displaying a multitude of flags.

All recreational mariners should make a pilgrimage to the Herreshoff  Marine Museum, which occupies part of the site of the world renowned Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. Brothers John and Nat oversaw the production of hundreds of vessels there,  ranging from the Herreshoff 121⁄2 to the breathtaking J Class America’s Cup defenders which had LOAs of up to 135 feet, masts up to 160 feet tall, and sail-carrying capacities of about a half-acre. The company also made steam and gas engines for powerboats, and even turned out some Naval vessels for WWII. Many boats built on or near the museum grounds are on display.

Bristol does have several dinghy docks, and an anchorage outside the mooring field. The wise boater realizes the implications of a harbor not protected from strong southerlies. Contact the harbormaster for mooring information, and, as always, pay attention to weather forecasts.

From Bristol, you’ll have two choices. The capital city of Providence is a short run up the Providence River. You’ll go past the sparkplug-style Conimicut Light, off Conimicut Point on the west shore, then past Gaspee Point near where crafty Rhode Islanders, in 1772, tricked a hated British Revenue Schooner HMS Gaspee into running aground and then set her ablaze. This brazen act against an armed British vessel predated the better-known, but less significant, Boston Tea Party, which was truly just a tea party by comparison. But I digress.

You’ll continue up past Sabin Point, in Riverside, then the Pomham Rocks Light to starboard. If you opt to continue to the Port of Providence, you’ll probably have to motor back down the bay or engage in a skill-honing tacking exercise.

Providence: For reasons I have never understood, Providence has not developed a waterfront particularly welcoming to recreational boaters. Nevertheless, I have sailed up there and tied up, bow and stern, to old pilings. An anchorage exists, but call the Providence Harbormaster if you are considering dropping the hook close to the city. There are marinas in Pawtuxet Cove, Bullock Cove, and East Providence, across from India Point. From these spots, you can take a sturdy dinghy to the Gano Park Boat Launch in the Seekonk River, north of Route 195. Also, a kayak launching dock at Providence River Park (around 205 South Water St.) can be reached by going through one of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier gates (note height restrictions), and then a short distance up the river.

Wherever you land in this city, lock up your dinghy, motor and oars. This is urban boating, and it is more challenging than the other bay stops mentioned here. However, if you go to Providence Harbor, you’ll be able to brag that you did so before it got gentrified. Sort of like people do who sneaked into Cuba 20 years ago.

John O’Flaherty, of the Community Boat Center on the Providence waterfront, reports that plans are afoot for both resident and transient moorings, and possibly more public docks, too, which will make visiting the Renaissance City by water much easier.

Once ashore you can find good restaurants along South Main Street, visit Rhode Island School of Design’s world-class museum on Benefit Street (which also has an incredible collection of well restored 18th- and early 19th- century homes), or check out the Brown University campus. The Fox Point and Thayer Street areas are vibrant hubs, where one can easily and enjoyably pass an afternoon. And there is the Roger Williams National Memorial, a small park (well, it is Rhode Island) within walking distance of the kayak dock. It commemorates one of America’s earliest champions of religious freedom.

Try to plan your visit to Providence on a weekend, when the city’s signature event, Waterfire, is scheduled. The rivers come alive at night with illumination provided by scores of braziers, in which wood fires blaze, providing a magical experience. The mood music is memorable, there may be dancing in the streets, and it is even possible to ride in a gondola as it glides along the river walk. For more details go to waterfire.org.

Wickford: If you bypass Providence, you can head to Wickford, just southwest of the old Quonset Point Naval Air Station. Yes, the Davisville section of that facility is where Quonset huts came to be, reportedly modeled after the wigwams of the original native inhabitants.

The history of Wickford Village goes back to the early 1700s. The successful maritime trade there built fortunes, which, in turn, financed the building of a slew of impressive homes and churches, many of which still stand. Walking around the village is like taking a trip into New England’s Colonial past. The place is so well preserved that no doubt a resident from 1812 would still be able recognize his or her old haunts.

A good time to cruise into this quaint little town would be the week after Independence Day when the Wickford Art Festival takes over, though there is no bad time to visit. In the many shops, you can find scrimshaw, assorted antiques and high-end merchandise. Wickford village is a good place to get an ice-cream cone, join the duck feeders at the bridge on Brown Street, and people-watch, too. You can anchor outside the breakwater – maybe even get lucky and find a town mooring just inside the breakwater, or take a transient slip at one of several marinas.

History buffs may be interested in visiting Smith’s Castle just outside the village. It is not a “castle” in the usual sense but rather a very old, once-fortified Colonial-era home. It was rebuilt in 1678 on a site Roger Williams had used for a trading post about 1637. The place played a major role in King Phillip’s War, which involved the English, Wampanoags and Narragansetts. A mass grave for 40 colonists near the castle is testimony to the bitterness of the struggle for dominance of the area. Located behind Rabbit Island, Smith’s Castle (aka Cocumscussoc) can be reached by dinghy, although that is not the usual entry.

Dutch Island: In the 1950s and ’60s, the favorite Narragansett Bay boating destination for me, my siblings and friends was Dutch Island, south of the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge, and due west of Jamestown’s Dutch Harbor. And why not? It was the perfect place for “boys to be boys” in those days, before too-organized activities dominated summer vacations.

The Dutch had a trading post on the island in the 1600s. During the Civil War, the U.S. government purchased the island as an artillery training site, but major construction of the hidden concrete artillery batteries, and other military support facilities, was done for WWI, when as many as 495 troops were stationed there for coastal defense. During WWII, Dutch was minimally garrisoned, air warfare having proven to be easily able to neutralize that type of artillery defense system. Shortly after the end of the war, the island was abandoned by the Army, and it is now in the hands of the State of Rhode Island.

So what exactly did young teenage boys do on the island? I can’t tell you everything, of course, but it was probably the same thing that my three sons and their friends did about 35 years later. Activities included camping in canvas pup tents, climbing down iron ladders into huge underground cisterns, hanging out in concrete pillboxes located on the shore, crawling through underground tunnels connecting ammunition-storage rooms with the gun batteries, sleeping at the top of a tall observation tower (once in a thunderstorm) that could only be reached by climbing up Escher-like stairs with no guard rails. (Interestingly, Escher was Dutch.)

For all who visited the island during the golden years, it was better than Disney World. It really was! But we live in a different world now, and in the last few years the state and federal governments have conspired – I mean collaborated – to make Dutch Island a far safer, if far less fun, place to visit. The island is currently officially off-limits, according to Rhode Island DEM’s Gail Mastrati. She reports that it is not known when, exactly, it will again be open to the public. I hope it is soon because you can’t have a better day’s destination to hike and explore without going to Machu Picchu.

But you can still anchor in a nice little cove on the southeast side of Dutch Island near the lighthouse. The protective stone cliffs, reminiscent of the Maine coast, rise up around you. It is a good place to swim and snorkel near shore, but watch the currents. Small boats often anchor bow and stern at a little beach there, with one hook on the shore. The north side of the island often has boats anchored off it, but I would not leave one untended, because submerged there are characteristic flat stones, which do not make for the best holding ground.

If you like the area, you may also cross over to Conanicut Island and anchor or rent a mooring in Dutch Harbor. From there, you can hike to Jamestown center for dinner or ice cream.

Narragansett Bay, with its 256 miles of coastline, will always be fun and exciting boating waters. And it is an especially good place for the novice cruiser to practice boat handling and navigational skills. The bay is a relatively safe maritime environment to get experience before venturing on to more challenging adventures. You won’t get pitchpoled, and, if you can follow a straight compass course for about 20 minutes, you won’t get lost. I’ve mentioned a handful of places you can enjoy right off the bat, but you certainly can find more interesting spots during your cruises. Some places are best discovered on your own

Greg Coppa lives in Wickford, R.I., and has been sailing in New England waters for over five decades.

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