The Bristol waypoint

 

Welcome to Historic Bristol Harbor & Downtown.

Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

I’m fortunate to be able to call these waters home, and they are arguably the finest cruising grounds between Maine and the Chesapeake. Between Montauk Point, on the eastern end of Long Island, convenient destinations from Bristol include Block Island, Newport and Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, and Buzzards Bay and Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts.

Places to pause for a day or two abound, and many cruisers choose Newport, but the famed City by the Sea is busy and noisy in the summer – and can be expensive. And, if you aren’t in the crowded harbor, you’re exposed to weather and wakes. The town of Bristol is similar to Newport in some ways, though on a smaller scale.

Once a bustling Colonial seaport of privateers and rum distilleries, Bristol’s only another 10 miles or so north of Newport, directly up the bay, which, on a summer afternoon, is an easy downwind romp with the prevailing southwesterly blowing steadily behind you.

In the harbor, the holding ground is good (generally muddy) with average depths of 16 feet in the anchorage area at low water. The anchorage area is south of the crowded mooring field, and if your boat has a high freeboard or superstructure, you’ll find the views of the town, Popasquash Neck, and nearby Hog and Prudence islands, delightful, green and the perfect backdrop for sundowner cocktails.

Bristol harbor is well-sheltered from the east, north, and west; and directly from the south, low-lying Hog Island provides some shelter. However, the harbor is vulnerable to the southeast and southwest.

The southeast isn’t a problem unless a tropical system blows in, which is rare. But, in the summer, the prevailing onshore southwesterlies can make the harbor a choppy place in the afternoon. The southwest breeze or “sea turne” as it has been known here for 300 years, pipes up around midday to an average 14 to 16 knots as the day warms. It can render the harbor choppy enough to make an inflatable-dinghy ride a little damp, but not much worse. It generally dies to nearly flat-calm around sunset.

At the northwest end of the harbor you’ll find Bristol Marine, a full-service boatyard and marina (but no fuel), which can fix anything that’s boat-, rig- or engine-related, and rents slips at their dock (limited; boats up to 100’) and moorings in the mooring field. They also run a launch service (401-252-2200, www.bristolmarine.com); they can be hailed on the VHF channels 6 and 9.

Right next door is the Bristol Yacht Club (401-253-2922, www.bristolyc.com), which extends reciprocal privileges to many other yacht clubs and is a friendly place to grab a shower and have a drink at the well-stocked bar. During the summer, many of their members are off cruising and, thus, their moorings are available to the club to accommodate visiting yachts. Hail the BYC dockmaster or steward on VHF 9, 16 or, preferably, 68 to check for availability. The BYC also runs a launch service.

The only issue with the BYC and Bristol Marine is that their facilities are on the opposite side of the harbor from the Bristol waterfront, and it’s a rather long walk (one-and-a-half-plus miles) around the head of the harbor to get into town. It’s fine if you have a bicycle. However, if you are out in the Bristol Harbor anchorage area, use your dinghy to motor right to the waterfront. Limited dinghy dock accommodations are at the harbormaster’s dock, the Bristol town dock, and at Independence Park, all fairly close to one another.

Southeast of the mooring area is the Herreshoff Marine Museum complex and dock (www.herreshoff.org). In addition to being a great place to visit, the museum also offers dockage (with electricity) and mooring rentals for transients until Oct. 15. There’s no launch service; use your dinghy. The museum monitors VHF 68.

One of the great things about a stopover in Bristol is that, once you’re ashore, you’ve got the best part of the town right on the waterfront, with restaurants, a hotel, and B&Bs along Thames Street, which runs north to south along the water. Several excellent restaurants are within only a few minutes’ walk from your dinghy. Eateries include Quito’s (seafood), Redlefsen’s (European bistro), the DeWolf Tavern (American steak and seafood), and Aidan’s (Irish pub).

One block up from Thames Street is historic Hope Street, with stunning historic architecture, delightful shops of all kinds, plus a couple of banks with ATMs, coffee shops, and the famous Bristol Bagel Works. Here, literally all of Bristol’s regular folk and sailing people go for bagels and great sandwiches. For more information about just about everything Bristol, visit www.explorebristolri.com.

Bristol is a boatbuilding town with an industrial area that harbors welders, cordage companies, boat shops and Jamestown Distributors. Between them, you can find just about anything that you need to rebuild, repair and equip your boat. And, of course, you can always buy a new vessel fresh “down the ways.” However, getting around can be difficult if you don’t have a car. There are no taxis in Bristol, but there are a number of Uber drivers operating locally, thanks to Roger Williams University and its growing student population in the southeast end of town.

There are two large grocery/supermarkets in Bristol, bottle shops, a laundromat, and more. Your Uber driver knows the locations of all the resources in town, so plan your errands beforehand. Many of the businesses, including the Jamestown chandlery, are not within walking distance of the waterfront.

Keep in mind that Bristol Harbor is currently not very dinghy friendly; there is no public dinghy-dock and few places to tie up that aren’t private or exposed to the chop from the southwest. A small dinghy dock and float, better suited for dropping off and picking up people, is located east of the transient dock at Rockwell Park, and down a ramp just behind the fire station.

Another of Bristol’s few shortcomings is the lack of fuel docks, but this is not much of an inconvenience; New England Boatworks (www.neboatworks.com), less than five miles away (within sight, at East Passage Yachting Center), has gas, diesel and water. Of course, there are fuel docks in Newport, where you can top off before heading out of the bay.

Holding tanks full? The Bristol harbormaster operates a pump-out boat on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Contact the harbormaster on VHF 16 or phone 401-253-1700. Cost is $5. The harbormaster’s office is in an historic structure that resembles a gray stone castle (it was once an armory). It’s right on the harbor front, near the town dock, and adjacent to the Prudence Island ferry dock. The castle-like building houses the Bristol Maritime Center, which opened in May 2016 with locker rooms, showers, a laundry facility, free Wi-Fi, a book exchange, ice and more.

When it’s time to leave, get your anchor up early and try to get under way by sunrise, motoring down the bay to Newport, or, alternately, around through Mount Hope Bay and out the Sakonnet River for a Buzzards Bay/Cape Cod Canal destination. Getting out of Narragansett Bay early, you might have a gentle norther for the early part of the morning, or at least you won’t have to beat into the southwesterly while working your way south.

Remember that Bristol is home to the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration in the nation, complete with a great parade. The whole town, quite literally, has a two- or three-day party. It’s a great time to be here, the harbor is full, everything’s open, and colorful events abound. These include old-fashioned firemen’s musters, water battles, the famous parade and fireworks.

The harbor is the best place to be when Bristol’s population swells to many thousands of patriotic celebrants. And the harbor is a ringside seat for a fireworks display the night before the Fourth. This year, the fireworks show will launch on July 3, around dark, and the parade steps off the next morning at 10 a.m. on the 4th.

So, if you’re cruising up this way, stop and pay Bristol a visit, have a beer and a stuffed quahog (clam) or two, and relax before heading onward.

“The Bristol harbormaster office has 15 transient moorings, and 130-plus feet of transient dock space,” says Bristol harbormaster Greg Marsili. “We take reservations primarily by using Dockwa [dockwa.com]. It’s always good to call on the phone as we get near the 4th of July period to see if there are any cancellations of mooring and dock reservations. Keep in mind that all of the moorings and docks usually fill up by the end of May, and sometimes sooner.”

A narrow channel into and through the harbor runs along the eastern edge of the harbor, along the waterfront. Harbormaster Marsilli asks that boaters not anchor in the channel. On fireworks night, the harbormaster’s patrol boats stop movement in the harbor by 8:30 p.m. For more details, visit Bristol Harbor’s website, www.bristolri.us/161/harbor.

“The 4th of July is an amazing time to come to Bristol,” says Marsilli, “but if you can’t make it for that holiday, we’re happy to host you another time. Our facilities are open until Columbus Day for visiting boats.”

Other festivals this summer include the Black Ships Festival, from July 12 through 15, and the Bristol Harbor Festival/Blessing of the Fleet on Aug. 18. For more information, visit bristolharborfest.com.

Capt. Mike Martel holds a 100-ton master’s license and delivers power and sail vessels when he’s not working on his own boat, the Alden-designed 1930 Maine-built gaff yawl Privateer. He is a lifelong boating and marine industry enthusiast, an ex-U.S. Coast Guard seaman, and a private boat owner and rebuilder. He has sailed offshore as captain and mate on blue-water yacht deliveries to Bermuda and the Caribbean, and from Maine to Florida. He has teamed up with Capt. Bill Madison and other friends and crew to form deliverypassagemakers.com.

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