Beyond Newport: A Cruise on Narragansett Bay
December 8th, 2023 by team
by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)
If you’re a sailor, you’ve almost certainly heard of Newport, Rhode Island. For years it was the epicenter of American sailing. It started as a commercial seaport, but eventually hosted the America’s Cup for decades. In the Gilded Age, Newport was the summer playground of the rich and famous, and their many of their “summer cottages” are open to the public for tour. Newport has always been a hot destination for sailing and tourism. You can eat anywhere from a beachfront clam shack to a fine restaurant, and spend the evening hopping between sailor bars, clubs, and live music.
It’s so well-known and so popular, we’re going to skip it entirely.
Because what many boaters don’t know is that Newport is also the gateway to a lovely cruising ground with a lot of nice overnight destinations with plenty to see, do, and of course, eat. You’ll find waterfront village steeped in history, quirky museums and shops, and a bustling city with a nightlife and dining.
So if you want to spend a week some place different, with short, easy daysails and plenty to do, start or end in Newport. But head out of Newport harbor and take a right, because there’s plenty to see.
A Bit of Geography
Narragansett Bay covers about 147 square miles and has over thirty islands. Most of it lies within the state of Rhode Island, but parts extend to Massachusetts. It’s not quite twenty-five miles end to end from Providence to Beaver Tail Point, and you can take your boat all the way to Providence.
The largest islands are Aquidneck (also called “Rhode Island” in the past), Conanicut, and Prudence Islands. Aquidneck is better known to outsiders as “Newport,” but Newport is only one town on this large island that also hosts Middletown and Portsmouth. Conanicut Island lies at the mouth of the bay, and Beavertail Point is a prominent feature with a lighthouse marking the entrance of the bay.
Conanicut Island divides the entrance into the West Passage and East Passage, and which you take depends more on where you’re going as well as where you’re coming from. If you’re headed to Newport, you’ll come in the East Passage, but visitors to other parts of the bay coming from the Connecticut, New York or Block Island will take the West Passage.
The state of Rhode Island is loosely grouped into “East Bay” and “West Bay,” depending on which side of Providence you’re on. So we’ll start in Newport and work our way north along East Bay, before heading around counter-clockwise to West Bay. Conanicut Island lies in the middle.
Anchoring, Mooring, and Slips
Despite being in a populous area, there are places to anchor all around the bay. But there are a lot of mooring fields, and many of the more protected spots are full of moorings. Many waterfront towns have rental moorings, check in with the harbormaster. Marinas and commercial mooring services often have rentals and transient slips.
If you belong to a yacht club, many of the clubs around the bay offer reciprocal privileges and may have a guest slip or mooring for you. Even if your club doesn’t have a formal reciprocity arrangement with a club, a call to the office may still get you a stay if you mention you’re coming from another club.
The town of Jamestown on Conanicut Island lies directly across the East Passage from Newport, just south of the Claiborne Pell Bridge. You can find transient slips and moorings, and the town has several restaurants, a community theater, a hardware store, and markets.
You can get around much of Conanicut Island with bicycles, which you can rent in town. There are also a few taxis to take you around. Highlights on the island include the lighthouse at Beavertail Point, Mackerel Cove Beach, and Fort Wetherill (a popular dive spot). There is also easy ferry access to Newport.
Just north of the Pell Bridge is Potter Cove, where you can anchor and come ashore.
The Melville Marina District opposite Prudence Island isn’t the most scenic spot on the bay, but it’s a fantastic place to get a bit of boat work done or locate a hard-to-find part. There are several marinas with transient slips, just about any marine service you’d ever need, and a handful of decent waterfront dining spots.
You can walk or cab it to more restaurants and shopping, and there are some trails to explore nearby.
Prudence Island isn’t the easiest place to explore, since the coastline is mostly rocky and there’s only one protected spot to anchor. Potter’s Cove, on the northern east side of the island, is a shallow, mostly protected spot with decent holding. The island only has about 200 permanent residents and no restaurants or shops. But most of it is given over to a nature preserve, and there are many nice hiking trails ashore.
Bristol is home to the oldest continuous 4th of July parade and celebration, but plan if you’re headed for that. On shore you’ll also find the Herreshoff Marine Museum, a must-see for anyone who loves sailing and yachts, and the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. The Blithewold Mansion and Gardens is often open for tours, and here are several good local restaurants in town. Bicyclists can get on the East Bay Bike Path near town, which runs seventeen miles up to Providence.
Up the Warren River, you can stay on a mooring or in a slip and go ashore and walk to the towns of Barrington or Warren for an enjoyable meal, or to resupply.
Mount Hope Bay
Passing under the Mt. Hope Bridge between Bristol and Aquidneck Island takes you into Mt. Hope Bay. This open body of water is pleasant for sailing and some pleasant spots to visit.
The Sakonnet river is the passage between Aquidneck Island and the mainland, and is not a freshwater river. A sixty-five foot clearance bridge bounds the north end, but a cruise down the Sakonnet down to the ocean is a delightful trip if you can get under. There are a few coves along the way and a couple of marinas where you can stop or possibly get off the boat.
Locals know Fall River as a destination for outlet shopping, but the main nautical attraction is the Battleship Cove museum. You can board and tour five National Landmark warships, including the battleship Massachusetts, and there is an extensive indoor display. Another highlight in town is the Lizzie Borden House museum. The town maintains several transient moorings right at Battleship Cove.
Providence is a tricky place to stay in directly, as transient dock space is limited. So always call ahead for reservations if you’re trying to stay right in town. There are nearby places to anchor though, and the waters are protected enough to dinghy in for a visit.
The city has undergone a major renaissance over the last few decades, with a waterfront park hosting “water fire” events, a modern mall, and a lovely walking mall in the heart of town. You’ll find excellent dining all over the city, from late night food trucks to high end dining. Federal Hill has a well-deserved reputation for top tier Italian food. The RISD museum is right near the waterfront, and the unique architecture of the state house is not to be missed.
Pawtuxet Village is a historic little town on the southern edge of Providence. Behind a breakwater is a mooring field with some spots to anchor, and further in towards town, you may find transient dockage if you don’t draw too much water. Pawtuxet celebrates the Gaspee Days in June with fireworks, arts and craft shows, and a parade to honor one of the first blows struck against the British in 1772. In town, you’ll find many pre-revolutionary homes and buildings, and some nice places to get a drink or meal.
This small, rectangular bay borders the city of Warwick and the town of East Greenwich. The northeast and northwest corners are in Warwick, and have marinas with transient space and guest facilities, and several nice waterfront dining options.
The southwest corner has an anchorage space off Goddard State Park outside of Greenwich Cove, and there are marinas with transient space. Head into the cove and walk into town. East Greenwich has many charming shops on its main street, and the area is loaded with excellent restaurants. You can also dinghy over to Goddard Park to take a hike in the woods or a walk on the beach.
This protected little fishing village is a quiet, out of the way spot to spend a night on a mooring. The town is quaint, with a few interesting shops. It’s easy to walk around town, and you can replenish your stores in a small grocery store. Of course, there are a handful of good eating places, too.
Jamestown (Dutch Harbor)
The general notes for Dutch Harbor are the same as visiting Jamestown from the Newport side, with a few exceptions. Dutch harbor has many transient moorings available, but is also a good place to anchor out for an evening. You can easily walk to town to take advantage of everything there, but without the bustle of the ferry docks and boat traffic on the east bay side. It’s a popular last stop on the way out of the bay.
Harbor of Refuge
The coastline between Wickford and the mouth of the bay isn’t protected for good anchoring, and there aren’t many places to stop. But an enormous breakwater off Point Judith gives one more protected respite to anchor on the way in or out of the bay.
While not technically in the bay, you can take a dinghy or shallower draft boat in from the harbor of refuge into Point Judith Pond. From there, you can visit Galilee, Snug Harbor, and even to Wakefield. These places require a little tricky navigation to get to, and you must find a spot to leave your dinghy, but you’ll find some fantastic seafood and it is beautiful along the way.