Sailing in Narraganset Bay

I could barely hear the robotic voice of the NOAA weather radio over the engine as I sat at the nav station, groggy from an overnight passage across the Gulf of Maine. It was just past dawn on a late September day, and I was taking Sonata, my Pearson 36 cutter, south for the winter. One of my crew was asleep in the saloon; the other was on watch in the cockpit.“For
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I could barely hear the robotic voice of the NOAA weather radio over the engine as I sat at the nav station, groggy from an overnight passage across the Gulf of Maine. It was just past dawn on a late September day, and I was taking Sonata, my Pearson 36 cutter, south for the winter. One of my crew was asleep in the saloon; the other was on watch in the cockpit.

“For tomorrow. Gale warning.”

What? I thought, leaning closer to the VHF.

“Winds from the south at 50 knots, with higher gusts. Seas building to 12 to 15 feet, 15 to 20 feet late.”

I climbed the companionway stairs and looked out at the flat, sun-dappled water of Buzzards Bay. Evidently, this was the calm before the storm. According to the radio, a fast-moving low-pressure system was barreling up the coast. I had intended to sail offshore directly to Cape May, New Jersey, but the forecast, even if half true, called for a change of plans.

“We got a gale coming our way, Jeff,” I said, shaking my head in dismay. “Looks like we’re going to ‘Gansett.”

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Narragansett Bay was a place I knew well. I’d once lived on Aquidneck Island (officially, it’s called Rhode Island, like the state) and had kept Sonata on a mooring in Tiverton, at the head of the Sakonnet River. The bay was, for a time, a place I called my own, a place where my wife, Liz, and I had spent many happy days exploring, ducking into gunkholes, and picking up moorings in harbors like historic Bristol and picture-postcard perfect Wickford. But now the bay was a place to ride out the imminent nasty weather.

Reaching about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic, measuring 12 miles across at its widest point, Narragansett Bay is New England’s largest estuary. More than 30 islands dot its waters, and three of them—Aquidneck, Conanicut and Prudence—are quite large. They break the bay up into three north-south sections: the West Passage, East Passage and the Sakonnet River, which spans the bay’s eastern edge.

Aquidneck Island covers more than 40 square miles, and contains the town of Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth. Prudence Island, along with uninhabited Hope and Patience islands, is home to the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Preserve, where roughly 4,400 acres of protected land and water are set aside for the many birds and other wildlife that live in the marshes and forests and along the rocky shores. Potter Cove, on the northeast side of Prudence Island, is especially popular among local sailors and gets pretty crowded on weekends. There’s usually little room to anchor, but any unoccupied mooring is fair game.

As the hours passed, we left Buzzards Bay, transited Rhode Island Sound and headed up the East Passage, leaving Newport to starboard. With its plethora of waterfront bars and restaurants, quaint shops, guided mansion tours and numerous beaches, Newport is a mandatory stop for any sailor. The annual Newport International Boat Show in September, the Museum of Yachting and Fort Adams, the International Yacht Restoration School and numerous classic yacht regattas all make a cruise to Newport well worth the effort. I considered putting in there now, but opted instead for a mooring across the way at Jamestown, on Conanicut Island. Although it’s open to the northeast, the harbor has good protection from strong southerly winds, which is what I wanted.After stopping for fuel at Conanicut Marine, we picked up a guest mooring. Shore leave was in order, so my crew and I hailed the launch and strolled into town. Jamestown is picturesque and laid-back. You can access the town from the marinas on the East Passage side of Conanicut, or you can put in at Dutch Harbor, on the other side of the island in the West Passage. Dutch Harbor offers excellent protection from northeasterly winds and is a great place to anchor.

After my crew and I returned to the boat, we hung out in the cockpit. Stars lit up the sky. The Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge, which connects Conanicut and Aquidneck islands, arched across the sky to the north of us.

“Doesn’t look like a storm is coming,” I said. My crew agreed.

But next day the storm did come, making its appearance late in the afternoon. The wind howled in the rigging, the way it always does when it hits 30 knots. We were glad to be in a safe harbor, and not offshore halfway to Cape May.

In a sense, we were like many sailors who visit Narragansett Bay. Most stay to the south, visiting Newport, anchoring off Sakonnet Beach on the east side of Aquidneck, or putting in at Jamestown. It can take most of a day to sail up the bay. Because these quiet, less popular spots in other parts of the bay are off the beaten track, many cruisers miss out on them.

Listening to the storm in my berth, I remembered the serenity of anchoring off Foggy Bottom on the Sakonnet with only one other boat nearby.

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Sailing in Mount Hope Bay, an arm of Narragansett Bay just above the Sakonnet River, reminded me a little of Maine. Even at the height of summer, we shared this bay with few other boats. A foray into the landlocked Kickamuit River, one of the best hurricane holes on the bay, always promised a restful night on the hook. At the mouth of the Taunton River, just above Mount Hope Bay in Fall River, Massachusetts, is the Battleship Cove naval museum. As history buffs, my wife and I considered it a destination in itself, even though it was only a short hop from our mooring in Tiverton. The battleship USS Massachusetts, a destroyer, a submarine, and two WWII PT boats are all part of the museum.

Just north of Aquidneck, on the mainland, Bristol was a favorite spot, with its picturesque harbor and town. John Brown and Nathanael Green Herreshoff lived here, and between 1893 and 1914 they built five sloops that were selected to defend the America’s Cup. All five were victorious. The Herreshoff Marine Museum/America’s Cup Hall of Fame is in Bristol and is well worth a visit. The model room is particularly interesting.

Memories of sailing on Narragansett flitted through my mind long into the night. The warm sunny days on Mount Hope Bay and the Sakonnet River, the fast reaches to Prudence Island, the beautiful town of Wickford, with its Colonial homes and famous Quahog Festival (held every August); these recollections finally lulled me to sleep as the storm raged on.

The next morning, the sun rose into a cloudless sky of deep blue. It seemed as though the atmosphere had been cleansed. We cast off from our mooring and raised our sails once clear of the mooring field. A stiff and chilly northwesterly wind whipped up small waves in the East Passage, and Sonata heeled to port, nearly burying her lee rail with just a single-reefed main and staysail up. The excitement aboard was palpable as we entered Rhode Island Sound, felt the first of the ocean swells, and pointed the bow southward. Glancing aft, I took a long and fond look at Narragansett Bay. I was glad I had known its quieter side in the less traveled waters to the north.

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