Block Island Revisited
Narragansett Bay is an ideal charter locale, but it’s also my home port. I sailed throughout my childhood with my family out of Portsmouth and more recently, Newport, Rhode Island. So when I found myself planning a charter out of nearby Bristol, I wasn’t expecting any surprises. The trip wasn’t about discovering new destinations, but rediscovering a place I hadn’t cruised since I was a kid: albeit without my parents, since my brother and I are both now adults.
My brother, Cory, works as a yachting photographer and is usually in a chase boat or hanging off the side of a large wooden yacht during a regatta. Because our family’s boat is of the racing variety, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been cruising for more than a day. Nearing the end of the season, with a seaworthy 38ft Sabre named Kinship from Swift Yacht Charters and no itinerary to stick to, this was not the to-the-detail plotted trip of our youth. We decided to make the most of it and head to Block Island, an old family favorite.
But first, we needed crew.
Newport is teeming with sailors, but by early October, most of them have left for the season. This is how Kinship ended up with a rotating set of crewmembers, with three different friends joining us over the course of our voyage to Block Island and back. And, of course, no cruise would be complete without at least a few visitors for the odd beer here and there.
Let’s Go! …Back Home
One of the nice things about chartering from Swift is that the boats are all privately owned. Not only did company owner Hope Swift help out with our checkout, but the boat’s owner, Larry, gave us a full rundown on every one of Kinship’s idiosyncrasies.
After Larry had left no stone unturned or coffee pot unexplained, we figured we would get a head start on our voyage south by heading for Newport, a friendly port for fueling up on food and drink. Our friend Kat joined us for this first leg, and after days of rain and a chilly, overcast morning, the sun leapt out, granting us three warm hours of sailing in a 10-12 knot southerly breeze. It may have been the second day of fall, but at 70 degrees, it felt like summer sailing.
There’s always a slew of pretty boats to watch as you approach Newport, and this day was no different. We slid by the 12-Meter North American Championships just before the Mt. Hope Bridge, and Cory snapped some great shots while Kat took the helm. Moorings at Old Port in Newport Harbor are first-come, first-served, and while it was late in the season, it was also late in the day. I recommend arriving earlier, so you don’t have to putter around the way we did, waiting for a ball to free up. If it were August we’d have been out of luck.
Back in Newport, where we’d begun our day before driving over to Bristol, we sat back and let the party come to us. Kat invited her friend Joe onboard for drinks, and as soon as they left, our leg-two crew arrived. Rich, an enthusiastic sailing novice, brought his girlfriend onboard to show her just how trustworthy we and our vessel were. We must have mixed the right drink, because after dinner, she left Rich to journey on with us.
The Perfect Time of Year
At 0930 the next morning, we headed out in a steady northwesterly breeze that was forecast to carry us all the way to Block Island. Rich took his “new crewmember” title seriously, posing for photos and trying not to get seasick in the swells. While the journey across Block Island Sound can be a bit rough, that should surely not keep anyone from visiting. It can also get foggy, but we were lucky enough to be able to spot the island all the way from Point Judith on the mainland.
We were making good time at a steady 8 knots, but were feeling a little lonely on the late-season traffic-free waters (who woulda thought?), so we slowed down to let our unofficial flotilla member, Adam, catch up on his C&C 40 Double Black. Even with the delay, we were at the entrance to Great Salt Pond by 1300.
The sheltered mooring field of Great Salt Pond brought back memories of childhood visits with friends amongst a gaggle of noisy boaters, and swims ashore from our mooring. Now open to the ocean, it was originally an enclosed pond that took over 100 years of early island settlers’ efforts to finally open up to commerce. The pond is also referred to as New Harbor, since the first harbor opened for commerce was Old Harbor on the east side.
The Block Island Boat Basin moorings are also first-come, first-served. During the height of summer, this can prove tricky, but we had choice parking and snagged the closest mooring to the docks. A good thing, as the launch had stopped running on Labor Day. Adam chose to anchor that first night, but when he learned they were charging us half price for our mooring, he picked one up for the second night—another win for late-season vacationing. By now, we Silkens were in full-swing host mode on cozy Kinship, and welcomed Adam on board for Dark-and-Stormies and a home-cooked meal before heading ashore to The Oar.
We soon learned the best way to meet every other sailor in the Pond: a New England Patriots game. For us sorry sailors desperately seeking a TV, the trusty Oar stayed open until the end of the game and for that, and their famed Mudslides, we were grateful.
What I love about Block Island is that it’s just as accessible from Narragansett Bay as other popular summertime destinations like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, but has remained quieter than either and you don’t have to elbow your way into the overpriced restaurant of the moment. Of course, any of the islands would be relatively subdued during the first couple of days of October, but we had the place to ourselves.
We spent the morning making good use of Larry’s coffee-making demo and feeding our newest visitors: the swans that quite possibly live better than the people feeding them. I have to admit, I was disappointed that Aldo’s Bakery didn’t wake me up to the sound of “Andiamo,” and fresh sticky buns arriving by dinghy—a charming tradition I remember from years ago and am told still carries on. That alone might make it worth arriving earlier in the season.
When you’re ready to explore the island, you’ll have no trouble getting around. The island is only 7.5 miles long and 4 miles wide, and there’s a plethora of bike, moped and car rental companies, including one right at the marina. Another is at the ferry, and the best deals we found were at Block Island Bike & Car Rental just down the road from our marina, next to Smuggler’s Cove. There’s a lot you can do by foot, or oar, as well. Dinghy over to the other side of the pond and walk across to Crescent Beach, or take a scenic hike through protected wildlife.
However you decide to get around the island, make sure to take in a little history and visit both lighthouses—Southeast Lighthouse towers above the dramatic Mohegan Bluffs, and Northeast Lighthouse is only accessible via a pebbly beach walk to the tip of the island. After working up an appetite visiting both lighthouses, we headed back to town for the customary lobster roll at Old Harbor View lobster shack and to pick up our next victim—I mean crewmember—Jen, who spontaneously hopped on the ferry from Pt. Judith to join us for the sail back.
Our last guest on Kinship, Jen, had the advantage of growing up in a lobstering family and took to the gusty ride home with pleasure. Rich, on the other hand, must have had enough of us, as he opted to join Adam on Double Black, who was heading straight to Newport. We had one more night on board and planned to duck into either Dutch Harbor or Wickford.
As luck would have it, the weather was cooperative and dependable—nothing like our mid-summer childhood trips, on which I remember very little going according to plan. Winds shifted to the southwest as if expecting us, and under another cloudless sky, it took only three hours to reach the Dutch Harbor Boat Yard.
Wickford would have made a fun landing, just a few minutes on, but with the wind starting to howl, we decided to call it a day. The friendly (and likely bored) harbormaster in this small, sleepy port led us to our mooring from his launch, handed us a mooring line that would have been impossible to grab without a longer hook, and drove us ashore, saving us from having to remove our dinghy from the deck. We were much obliged.
From Dutch Harbor, on the west side of Conanicut Island, you’re a 10-minute walk to the restaurants in Jamestown on the east side, which faces Newport Harbor. Grateful to be waited on, we slumped down at Chopmist Charlie’s, a salty joint that’s been on the map for years. Jamestown has a variety of restaurants and lighthouses to explore, though Wickford would also have been a charming stopover.
By the time we got back to Kinship, it was gusting to 30 knots and chilly. But end-of-season sailing also means no pesky mosquitos, and with the water temperature still high, the cabin was warm, so we decided to test out the fancy Wi-Fi that had been advertised as part of our mooring fee. It seemed like some sort of mooring miracle, far too convenient, but we logged right into the Dutch Harbor Wi-Fi and my Netflix account, and watched a movie in the saloon. The only thing missing was the popcorn.
Forecasts for our last leg back to Bristol called for high winds, so we headed out of Dutch Harbor at 0700 to get a head start. Downwind under jib alone, it was another easy sail in empty waters. We were almost surprised to find ourselves back at Bristol Marine so quickly, with a whole day ahead of us.
The town of Bristol is one of my favorites with its historic streets lined with cafes, shops, galleries, restaurants, the Herreshoff Marine Museum (host to the annual Herreshoff Classic Regatta we enter every year) and not to be missed—Gray’s Ice Cream.
Soaking up one of our last summery days, we made our way through town to start our arduous drive all the way…to Newport. It wasn’t the cruise of our childhood, where details were left to Dad, nothing went nearly so smoothly, and we were about ready to strangle one another after a week. Luckily, some things get better with age.
Photo (top) by Cory Silken