Boating In Narragansett Bay

By Joyce Black
Photography by Billy Black

One couple decided to explore hideaway destinations in and around Newport. Their discoveries will inspire those coming to visit by boat that there's something for everyone in the Ocean State.

Photo of Joyce Black and her dog aboard her pilothouse cruiser

I admit, it was the oysters that got us off the dock and mobilized. At the beginning of the summer, my husband Billy and I had big plans, to spend several weekends cruising around our home waters of Newport, Rhode Island, on Little Brother, our friend Carl Skarne's Minor Offshore 25 trailerable pilothouse cruiser. As tends to be the case with boating, we knew lots of places around us intimately well, and went to them all the time — to fish, hang out, swim, and waterski. But other places, several literally around the corner from us, we hardly knew at all, other than from different boating friends who came in on their boats from out of town, and left raving about all the nooks and crannies around Narragansett Bay they'd visited, all of which were in our own backyard. It was time to branch out.

Jerusalem And Galilee

The day of our departure was all dense wind-blown fog, and I was tempted to pick up a mooring and just stay put. After all, Newport is one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, and full of great restaurants. But our goal was to motor south past Pt. Judith to Snug Harbor between the fishing towns of Jerusalem and Galilee, and end up at the Matunuck Oyster Bar (Billy knows how to tempt me).

Jerusalem and Galilee? Really? You might wonder where these names came from. In 1900, as the story goes, a fisherman came ashore in the inlet near what is now Snug Harbor and decided this was a great place to tuck in and stay. He'd read the biblical descriptions of Galillee and decided this new land reminded him of it. Some time later another fisherman passed through the inlet and asked what it was. The fisherman told him "Galilee." The newcomer pointed to the other shore asking if that's the same place. The resident fisherman thought for a moment and said, "That must be Jerusalem." The names stuck.

We opted to fight against the inertia that occurs when the weather isn't perfect, and headed out. The 10 miles between Newport and Point Judith promised to be pretty uncomfortable as the wind blew against the tide, but I'd suffer it for oysters. I'd been reading about Perry Rasso's restaurant at the Matunuck Oyster farm for years, but the 45-minute drive from our house in Portsmouth had proved to be unachievable. Little Brother was well set up with electronics, and the colorful plotter made the fog seem less of an obstacle as we set our course from buoy to buoy and then to the Point Judith lighthouse. The ride was bouncy, but I held onto our dog Millie, and when we made the turn into the harbor I felt accomplished, and also embarrassed that I'd even thought about bailing. The docks in Galilee and Jerusalem were full of serious offshore commercial fishing boats that manage weeks at sea in challenging conditions, when all I'd had to do was snuggle up in a comfortable helm seat in a dry pilothouse.

Photo of a man shucking oysters

We'd been invited to tie up in the most protected part of this very safe harbor, at Lockwood's marina, right across from my oyster destination. Tom Lockwood keeps a tidy but decidedly un-fancy marina, catering to recreational fishermen and small powerboats. They have two cottages for rent by the night or week, and are only a few steps from Matunuck State Beach, a destination for surfers and kite boarders from all over the East Coast. We took Millie on a long walk up the beach and the shore road, and saw lots of wildlife — the highlight, a fox walking down the road like he was on his way to an appointment. We also saw a car with license plate MA2NIK — so clearly I wasn't the only person who needed a pronunciation guide.

The oyster bar was everything I'd hoped. The fog had burned off and Millie sat with us on the deck while we watched the crew of the farm-harvest oysters in Potter's Pond. I ate them on the half shell with a cold glass of white wine and would not be disappointed if that's what's waiting for me in heaven.

Photo of the Celtica pub in Newport

Classic Wickford

You could easily spend a week tucking into the harbors on the west passage of Narragansett Bay, but one place I keep meaning to go but haven't yet is the charming village of Wickford, halfway between Narragansett and Providence. It's a classic New England town with old brick storefronts, several church spires and dozens of beautifully maintained colonial houses on quiet, shady streets. The town is wrapped around the lovely harbor, with 50 moorings and several full-service marinas. We were there early in the season so pulled right up to the town dock to walk around.

Photo of the Fall River arches

The town is a franchise-free zone and all the independent merchants offer attractive and inviting collections of things to buy. I was drawn straight in the doors of Green Ink clothing store, Shaggy Chic pet store, and Kitchen and Table of Wickford. One reason all these merchants thrive is the Wickford Arts Festival, which draws artists and shoppers to this little town for one weekend in July. This year will be the 50th exhibition, and certainly one of the top tourist attractions of the summer.

Another Look At A Mill Town

Several years ago we took our boat all the way to downtown Providence, which was easy and lots of fun, but this time we decided on our next weekend to turn the corner and take Little Brother to Fall River and see a different side of a place I've been driving past for 20 years. The Fall River waterfront is effectively barricaded from downtown by a network of ramps and overpasses to the elevated interstate, and the last time I tried to get there by car was a challenge. Arriving by boat, though, is completely easy, and Michael Lund's Borden Light Marina is a perfect refuge. At first, the marina looks odd from the outside because Lund has created his own breakwater with a dozen barges and specially positioned "islands" made of spare tires that eliminate wakes. But once inside, you find a calm, immaculate 250-slip marina, complete with a fully rigged tiki bar, palm trees, staff in Hawaiian shirts, and a guy playing guitar — a real local draw, and lots of fun.

Photo of Joyce Black at the helm of Little Brother

We set off to discover the waterfront. Today, modern Fall River has several great attractions, including the largest collection of historic naval ships in the world at the Battleship Cove Museum under the Braga Bridge, and a nice waterfront park, and community sailing center. The best reason I know to get yourself to that part of town has got to be The Narrows Center for the Arts on the top floor of one of the nearby refurbished mill buildings. You can bring your own food and drink to performances by national acts like Roseanne Cash and Little Feat, hosted in an art gallery atmosphere that's hard to beat. This place has one of the region's best music venues.

Photo of Mantunuck Beach

To really enjoy Fall River it's best to embrace its dark side and not expect quaint. It's historically famous as the home of Lizzie Borden, the O.J. Simpson of her day, who was famously acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. The family house, within walking distance of the marina, has been turned into a bed & breakfast where you can stay in the victims' bedroom and then, for breakfast, have what was their final meal in 1892. Another dark treat a couple of blocks from the Borden house is Portuguese Fado music at Sagres restaurant. The beautiful, mournful songs (fado means fate) are often about seafaring and go perfectly with the peppery Portuguese stews and grilled seafood. If it's full, look for another one of my favorite Azorean restaurants, Cinderella, with its authentic, delicious food.

Photo of the Little Brother at the dock

And Of Course, Newport

It's easy when you live in around beautiful Narragansett Bay to take its countless fine anchorages and destinations for granted. One look at all the different kinds of boats — gargantuan yachts to modest family cruisers — that come to Newport every summer, and you realize it's a destination of choice of people from all over the world, people who could go anywhere they want, but who chose to come to the "City By The Sea" because of its nautical traditions, protected harbor, colonial architecture, all its diversity, it's hopping social scene, and it's proximity to so many other great destinations. After all, from Newport, it's only a day trip to Block Island, Cuttyhunk, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and to all the famous places and islands along the coast. Those destinations are the stuff of great boating stories, but they're for another day. Today, Billy and I are very content with ourselves and our summer of local weekend cruises around Newport to places we hadn't known before. That's the beauty of boating, it slows us down, gives us quiet time to think and play, and a fresh look at the home waters we thought we knew. 

Joyce manages the photography business of her husband Billy Black, one of the top marine photographers in the country.

— Published: April/May 2012

Narragansett Facts

  • About 25 miles long, 10 miles wide, with 256 miles of shoreline, the average depth is 26 feet; the deepest part is the East Passage with 184 feet.
  • More than 30 islands are found in the bay, including Aquidneck (where Newport is located), Conanicut (where Jamestown is located, separating the East and West Passage entrances to Narragansett and Prudence, located in the center of the bay).
  • Rhode Island's nickname is "The Ocean State" because every resident is within 30 minutes of the water by car.

Photo of Newport's Rhode island's waterfront


We've Got You Covered On Narragansett Bay

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