Narragansett Bay Cruising: A Boater’s Paradise
Boaters will find several stopovers with much to explore while cruising Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.
Showcasing classic New England features, Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island offers a perfect package for cruisers. Geographically, it is both protected and spacious. Stunning scenery, deep maritime traditions, generous opportunities for mooring or dockage, and an abundance of shore activities draw boaters. Once home to the Narragansett tribe, the bay bearing this name still beckons travelers from around the world. Roughly translated to mean “people of the small point,” Narragansett Bay offers many cruising options from quiet coves to the Newport vibe, to picturesque towns, and the urban hum of Providence. Sweeping hills, verdant pastures, craggy cliffs and beaches punctuated by farms and small communities embellish the coastline. Numerous state parks allow hiking, picnicking, fishing, and swimming while anchored nearby.
Cutting inland for 25 miles, the bay is bifurcated by several sizable islands. The sinuous coastline provides an incredible amount of shore to explore. Points, coves, islands, and rivers hold world-renowned attractions including Newport, considered by many to be the most sophisticated yachting community in the U.S. Short hops of 12 nautical miles or less afford ample shore time to peruse multiple areas. And every stop projects a different profile due to culture, contributions to the American story, and place in maritime history.
Newport’s Maritime Legacy: A Destination for Every Boater
While holding an elite position as the starting line for many global sailboat races, including the biennial Bermuda Race, Newport offers something for every visitor. “Everyone is welcome from the large yacht owner to the local kayaker,” says Sara Mariani, deputy harbormaster. “We strive to make Newport accessible to all.”
Gawking is allowed as the harbor attracts every type of boat imaginable. Charter excursions are available on several 39-foot America’s Cup sailboats. Summer months are predictably busy, and dockage at one of 20-plus marinas must be reserved. Transient moorings are available at four mooring fields on a first-come, first-served basis. Several anchorages exist with a 14-day anchoring limit. Launches whiz around the harbor transporting guests to town and back, but there are also four public dinghy docks. Designed for cruisers, the Newport Maritime Center and the Seamen’s Church Institute has showers, laundry facilities, and complimentary Wi-Fi.
Restaurants serve up a variety of seafood and ethnic specialties. Shopping is centered around Bannister’s Wharf. Many visitors traverse the notorious Cliff Walk on the Atlantic side. Winding three-and-a-half miles along the cliffs bordering many of the famed Gilded Age mansions, this picturesque National Recreation Trail overlooks rugged coastline. Numerous iconic mansions are open for tours.
Big draws also include the newly opened Sailing Museum, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the U.S. Naval War College, and the Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship still standing in North America. Fort Adams, dating to the 1700s, bears long witness to its early role protecting strategic Newport Harbor. Ferries run to nearby Jamestown Island, home to a charming village inviting discovery by foot or bike.
Anchoring the draw to Newport are the heavyweight annual events: the Newport Jazz Festival (August), the Newport Folk Festival (July or August), and the Newport International Boat Show, held in September.
Bristol’s Historic Charm: Home to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame
Leaving Newport, head north on the East Passage between Conanicut and Prudence Islands on the west and Aquidneck Island on the east toward Bristol where a lovely harbor lures in boaters. Steeped in boatbuilding history, Bristol is home to the famed Herreshoff Marine Museum and the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. The museum includes more than 500 models, on-site boats, tools, and a treasure trove of documents connected to some of the fastest and most stunning boats ever built.
Bristol’s marinas place you in the center of this energetic and attractive town. Everything is walkable or bikeable. Bristol Maritime Center offers amenities including showers, laundry facilities, free Wi-Fi, and vending machines for snacks.
Known for the “oldest Independence Day Celebration” in the country, Bristol explodes with music, festivities, fireworks, and a vintage parade. Both Hope and High Streets are painted red, white, and blue down the center, signaling the parade route. Bakeries, a vintage hardware store, free concerts, and a bevy of restaurants compete for attention.
A short excursion to nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, allows visiting Battleship Cove, America’s Fleet Museum. Several ships are open for tours including the Navy warship Massachusetts, active during World War II, as well as a submarine, PT boats, and Vietnam War-era ships.
Providence: A Cultural Hub with Vibrant Waterfront Activities
Northwest of Bristol at Conimicut Point, Narragansett Bay merges into the well-marked Providence River. With deep water, cruisers can head 10 nautical miles up the bay from Bristol and into the river. Bullock Cove on the eastern shore, and Pawtuxet Cove and Edgewood on the west offer marinas. Skinny harbors and less depth off the channel reduce anchoring possibilities. Farther north, a series of hurricane barriers, the first of their type in the U.S., reduce access to Providence for larger boats. Only small boats proceed past Edgewood.
However, a 10-minute car ride lands cruisers in the vibrant center of Providence, the state capital. An attractive River Walk entices visitors to tour the city. “Providence is a pedestrian-friendly city with a compact downtown,” says Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The East Side is more intellectual, and the West Side has a cool, funky, up-and-coming feel.”
Seasonally, the area offers the exuberant WaterFire, a series of floating bonfires illuminating downtown, which is bisected by the river. Self-guided historic walking tours and public art tours abound.
Additional draws in Providence are the Roger Williams Park the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design, a leading visual arts, design, art, and architecture institution. Brown University, an Ivy League university founded in 1764, drifts down the hills east of the river. Ethnic neighborhoods with seductive bakeries and restaurants reflect the ongoing influence of Portuguese and Italian immigrants. The annual Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, considered the largest public film festival in New England, occurs in August. Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport in nearby Warwick provides transit for boaters or guests.
Narragansett Bay Cruising With A Scenic Stopover at Greenwich Bay
Heading back downriver about 10 miles leads to Greenwich Bay on the west side. Approaching from the north, boaters thread the narrow gut between Warwick Point and Patience Island where tricky currents may surge depending on wind and tide. Offering marinas, anchorages, and moorings suitable for all wind directions, this bay stretches three miles in with clearly marked shoals and channels. Three areas, each with a different compass orientation, summon boaters. They are Apponaug Cove, Greenwich Cove, and Warwick Cove. All offer a combo package of boating amenities, parks, shopping, picnic areas, and attractions. Goddard Memorial State Park in Greenwich Cove is yet another public space with easy access and hiking.
Regarding navigation cruising here, Narragansett Bay is well-marked. Careful captains scrutinize up-to-date charts, noting presence of rocks and convoluted channels into some harbors. Following local fishing boats that may move nimbly along, even in fog, is not advised. Their intricate knowledge of hazards may mean the difference of inches from underwater rocks. Stick with marked channels. Keep an eye out for lobster pots and dragnets.
Knowledgeable use of radar and AIS improve safety both in traffic and in low visibility. Certain areas, like Newport, buzz with overwhelming activity in the summer. Conditions can get very chaotic and congested requiring constant situational awareness. Some vessels do not respect the posted 5 mph speed limit, and the “slow pass,” common in southern waters, is not a local practice. Stay very alert, and let someone else take the photos. After dark, operating a vessel, even a dinghy, in the Newport area is not advised.
Summer weather offers pleasant days with cooler, sometimes dewy nights. Prevailing winds from the southwest can often build to 15-20 knots. The tidal range averages four to six feet depending on location. In narrow areas, current can be strong. Knowing the time of slack ebb (following low tide) can be important to avoid the steep buildup of waves resulting from a stiff wind and opposing current. Some boaters treat entry into Narragansett Bay like an inlet and time their entrance accordingly. Fog is not unusual. Most common in early summer months, it is likely to burn off in the morning. However, be aware, it can defy expectations.
With its broad menu of attractions, Narragansett Bay can be well-explored in a week. Those with more time to cruise can easily reach Block Island or Martha’s Vineyard in a day. But don’t hurry or you will miss a sensational slice of New England. Linger to hear the boatbuilders who launched a whaling fleet, the mesmerizing hush of fog, the five-minute gun for the start of a race, the gong of the Whale Rock buoy, and sweet sounds of music carried over the water.
–by Maria Brown
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