by Tony Moore
Editor’s note: Tony Moore lives in Jamestown, R.I. with his wife Aline. He has been diving and spearfishing for almost 50 years and has been kayaking since 1997. Tony is also a certified Water Safety Instructor (American Red Cross). He coordinates several RICKA (Rhode Island Canoe & Kayaking Association) paddles every year, usually rock garden trips. He is a frequent contributor to the conversations on this website, and we have learned to love his thoughtful, well-written comments.
The Romance Begins
My love affair with Rhode Island began forty years ago, in 1973. I was in the Navy, and Newport was my new duty station. Although I had grown up in nearby Boston, I knew little about my neighbor to the south. Being a water person, I quickly fell in love with the Ocean State. Diving, spearfishing, playing in the surf, it was all here! Because of its many islands and large bay (Narragansett), there are 400 miles of coast, from calm coves and bays to exposed open coast, to islands of all sizes. And rocks!!! Much of the exposed coast consists of cliffs, rocks, and rock gardens. I soon found many places where the spearfishing was fantastic. Later, when I discovered kayaking, these same locations would provide many hours of rock-gardening fun. Here are a few of my water experiences and observations in the Ocean State over the years.
West Island, Sakonnet Point
West Island is one of several small islands and rocks off of Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, R.I. Hundreds of seagulls and cormorants can be seen there. Sakonnet Point is one of RICKA’s (Rhode Island Canoe and Kayak Association) most popular rock garden venues, and West Island, with its surrounding rock gardens and a protected pool, is always one of our favorite stops.
In 2001, I took Hannah, my youngest daughter, out to see the birds on West Island. We went there well after the newborn birds had hatched, and our goal was to observe the young ones as long as it didn’t cause a disturbance. We soon discovered that the birds were oblivious to us, for a much more intense drama was taking place. The cormorants were all in close huddles. Soon we noticed that the young ones were in the middle of the huddles, and not long after, we discovered why. They were constantly being challenged and harassed by seagulls! The adult cormorants had to maintain a constant vigil, or lose their young to the ravenous gulls…we even saw a seagull attacking a young gull, whose mother was valiantly protecting it. Lesson learned: life in the wild is difficult, and survival is the prime directive.
Seal Rock lies a third of a mile south of Newport’s Ocean Drive, a wild, exposed area great for spearfishing and rock gardening. On June 23d, 1989, I had snorkeled out to Seal Rock to do some spearfishing. I caught some tautog, headed back to the shore, and was soon driving back home. Listening to the radio, I heard some terrible news: the World Prodigy, a tanker of Greek registry, had just run aground off Brenton Reef…a couple of hundred yards west of Seal Rock…if I had stayed out there longer, I would have witnessed the tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel contaminated the water, and the effects on wildlife lasted for years. It turns out the captain of the vessel hadn’t gotten any sleep for a day and a half, and was distracted with paperwork. The vessel passed on the wrong side of a navigational buoy. The only “good” thing about the incident is that it was diesel (which evaporates to some extent) and not crude oil. Lesson: we, as water-people, must strive to do all we can, and take the lead to protect our beautiful marine environment, both as individuals, and through groups such as Surf Riders Foundation, and Save the Bay (a R.I. organization devoted to the health of Narragansett Bay).
Early last fall, RICKA did a rock garden paddle that took us out to Seal Rock. While there, I filmed a rare video of purple sandpipers, while negotiating a narrow passageway through Seal Rock. The birds at first flew away from me, as a flock, to the far side of the passageway. Then, still as a group, they flew straight for me, parting to the left and right just before they would have hit my head. Having a helmet cam, I got a wonderful video of the whole event, and put a partially-slow motion version on YouTube ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctxaq4N6Cg8 ).
In 1882, a lighthouse was built almost a half mile east of the Narragansett coast to warn vessels of dangerous rocks located at the southern end of Narragansett Bay’s west passage. That lighthouse, manned by a rotating crew, served its purpose well for many years. Then, on the 21st of September, 1938, bad weather was approaching. Walter B. Eberle wasn’t yet due to begin his watch at the lighthouse, but seeing the weather worsen, he decided to relieve his co-worker early rather than risk a changing of the guard under hazardous conditions. That decision cost him his life, as later the full force of the hurricane of ’38 pounded Whale Rock Light. The powerful storm surge swept the cast iron lighthouse off its stone base. Walter Eberle, age 40, was never found. One of his daughters commented, “He always said he would die in the ocean”. Whale Rock is a frequent stop for R.I. kayakers when crossing from Narragansett to Beavertail Point in Jamestown. As we play in the rocks and passageways of Whale Rock, we remember its tragic history, and the man who heroically stood the last watch there.
My wife Aline and I last year paddled from Jamestown to Prudence Island in our Tsunami X2. After crossing the shipping channel, we approached Prudence, and proceeded northward close to its eastern shore. A few miles later, we arrived at the ferry landing (Prudence has no bridge, you can only get there by boat). We landed, and proceeded to the small general store. Marcy Dunbar, the store’s owner/manager, greeted us. With her white hair in braided pigtails, Marcy Dunbar, 88 years young, is one of a kind. A lifelong resident of Prudence Island, Marcy is Prudence Island…she knows all of the almost 100 year-round residents living on the 5.6 sq. mile island. She not only runs the general store, but also the post office, and a small library, all in one building. From 1969 to 1972, she was the lamplighter for the Sandy Point lighthouse on the island. At the store, she still tallies up the price of purchases with pencil on a brown paper bag, and she is probably sharper than most teenagers…once, I arrived at 9:50am (a sign on the door said open at 10:00am). The door was locked, but I soon saw her approaching. That key went into that lock at EXACTLY 10:00am! Observation: An important part of the island-hopping kayaking experience is the people you get to meet, not only fellow kayakers, but fishermen, environmental officers, sailors, or just unique “island people”. Some of them, like Marcy, are special, irreplaceable treasures!
Dutch Island is about 8-tenths of a mile long, shaped roughly like an upside-down teardrop. A lighthouse occupies the southern tip, and a dense growth of trees and bushes dominate the island, punctuated by old, abandoned military buildings and gun emplacements from the Civil War and beyond. Trails course through the island, especially at the perimeter near the water. I’ve camped there several times, often with some of my kids and their friends. We would always have a night-time excursion, with headlights, flashlights, and walkie-talkies, traveling to the southern tip of the island, and climbing the lighthouse, which at that time was in ill repair and abandoned…very spooky! At the top of the stairs, you had to lift a steel trap door, then, voila! you were at the top, with a great 360-degree view of the lower west passage of Narragansett Bay. Once, while on this nocturnal excursion, we were treated to a wonderful light show: thousands of fireflies were doing their thing! And away from any significant light pollution, Dutch Island is great for just watching the stars on a clear summer night…I bring binoculars to enhance the experience. The lighthouse has been restored and the light reactivated, so now it is locked and you can no longer climb to the top. But Dutch Island is still a place I visit often, either alone, with my wife, or on a RICKA paddle.
One of the most scenic and exposed-coast locations in R.I. is Beavertail. It is located at the southern end of Jamestown, and is almost an island (being connected to the rest of Jamestown by a narrow causeway). It’s shaped like a…well…a beaver’s tail. Cliffs, rock gardens, pocket beaches, a sea cave, walking paths, fantastic fishing, open water conditions, and the second oldest in-use lighthouse in the U.S. (it has a small museum and a nature area/aquarium also)…it’s a virtual paradise for anyone who loves the exposed coast.
I have an amusing story about Beavertail. I was spearfishing off the lighthouse there. As I was donning my mask, I noticed two Labrador retrievers watching me. I didn’t think much of it, and was soon geared up and heading out of a small cove to the open water at Newton Reef. I don’t know why, but a short while later, I looked back. The dogs were swimming, following me! Well, I said to myself, this isn’t good, I’ll have to lose them. So I turned up the power. After a short while, I looked back…I was gaining on them, but they were STILL following me!!! The last thing I wanted was to be out there, trying to spearfish and worrying about a couple of pooches, soooo…I REALLY turned on the power. After another short period of time I looked back again. The younger retriever had returned to shore, but the mother was STILL FOLLOWING ME!!! I got an idea. Facing the dog, I lifted my mask, spit out the snorkel, and pointing to shore, yelled out as loudly and as clearly as I could, “GO BACK!!!” The words were barely out of my mouth when the dog immediately turned around and headed to shore. I waited and watched, until she was all the way back, united with the other dog I presumed to be her son. The only thing I can figure is the dogs were concerned for my safety, and took it as their duty to protect me. When I said “go back”, this relieved the older dog of her duty. Good thing, as I believe she was getting tired. It was nice to know that there are dogs who are concerned about the welfare of a complete stranger!
Sometimes, if I only have time for a quick paddle, I go out to Gould Island. It’s a 5 mile round trip from Potter’s Cove that I can do in an hour or less, depending on conditions. The northern part of the island is an old Navy building that was involved with testing torpedoes. It is on pilings, so unless the tide is high, you can paddle under it. If there’s a significant chop, it makes for interesting kayaking.
On one such trip, after I emerged from under the building, I paddled amidst some pilings from an old pier. As I carefully stroked through the maze, I noticed a seagull in distress. Approaching closer, I could see the problem…the bird was tangled in some monofilament line, and had injured one of its wings trying to escape. The line apparently cut into the bird’s wing as it struggled, but it didn’t appear to be a recent injury, a couple of days old in my estimation. Well, I untangled the gull, as carefully as I could while dealing with all the flapping and commotion that resulted. I had the fleeting thought, “Why am I helping this gull, they can be so cruel to other creatures (like those cormorants on West Island)”. But then, I realized, they’re just wild creatures, doing what instinct tells them to…it’s not my place to judge, but it is an opportunity to help a fellow creature in distress. I didn’t know if this bird was strong enough to get by without further help, but that thought dissolved as I untied the last tangle, and…the gull flew away. I was happy that the gull was O.K., and I knew it appreciated being free again, as all wild animals…AND kayakers do. Observation: As water people, we know firsthand the worth of the marine environment. We should be advocates to protect this environment…and that includes the creatures that live there.
Surfing in the Ocean State
One of the best kept secrets about Rhode Island is the fact that some of the best surfing on the east coast can be found along the open southern coastal regions of this smallest state. The Ruggles Ave. surf break is well known as a premier east coast venue for large waves. And the scenery at this break along Newport’s Cliff Walk is unparalleled, with a wild, rocky coast, and the famous Newport Mansions, the summer homes of the Vanderbilts, Belmonts, Astors, Berwinds, and other wealthy moguls. Another surf break is at Narragansett Town Beach…not the best break (usually close-out waves), but very convenient, and great if you want to practice your timing in close-out conditions. There are times, however, when the waves are breaking here decently.
One of my favorite breaks is actually within a system of three jetties, with two large gaps open to the exposed ocean. Waves, passing through these gaps, are refined and cleaned up…yes, they are a bit smaller, but if you like loooong smooooth rides sitting in the pocket the whole way, the K’s, within Galilee’s Harbor of Refuge, is your break.
Even though the waves are a bit smaller, you can still get overhead or higher at times. Among other popular R.I. breaks are Matunuck, Point Judith, The Aves, South Shore Beach, Napatree Point, and First and Second Beaches. Swell and wind direction usually indicate which break will produce the best surfable waves.
Block Island lies 10.2 miles south of Point Judith, R.I. and about 14 miles east-northeast of Montauck, N.Y. Very early on in my kayaking days, I wanted to do a crossing from Pt. Judith to Block Island. This is not a paddle you want to do without major planning. There are currents from Long Island Sound, and you have to cross a major shipping channel, with all kinds of traffic traveling to and from New York City. I also wanted to bring my son Joshua along, 14 years old at the time, but VERY physically capable. Even so, I gave him a test…we went on a 14-mile non-stop paddle along the exposed coast. No problem. So, after a few weeks of doing research, questioning sailors familiar with those waters, and consulting nautical and tide/current charts, we finally got a day with favorable conditions. The 10 mile crossing to Block Island was actually uneventful, but I was glad I took a GPS unit as well as a compass…the angle our path made with the lighthouse on the north of Block Island changed VERY slowly, and it was reassuring to see via the GPS that we were, in fact, advancing toward our goal.
A few days later, Linda, a co-worker of mine, came up to me laughing. She had been at the East Providence Yacht Club, and had overheard a conversation about a couple of fools seen kayaking out to Block Island. She interrupted their conversation, saying, “I know those fools!” Now, it’s not that common, but kayakers DO go out to Block Island…what’s all the fuss about? Well, we did this trip in two Ocean Kayak Malibu II’s, veritable barges 12 feet long and 34 inches wide (the only kayaks I had at the time)! In my own defense, we were well equipped, with compass, GPS, nautical charts, air horn, flares, etc. And the Malibu II’s handle well in rough seas (handle well for “barges” anyway…they don’t have a flat bottom like many recreational kayaks do). But I’d never consider repeating that crossing, now that I know better. Soon after, I joined RICKA, and got to know what real kayaking is like. The lesson is: seek out advice and knowledge from other, more experienced kayakers, through instruction, kayak clubs, books, and the internet. (This website has been a fabulous source of information for me, with world-class experts covering navigation, cold water safety, kayaking skills, etc.)
The Adventure Continues
I hope you have enjoyed my adventures in the Ocean State. Truly, there are so many kayaking opportunities here. Even without the other nearby locations (Boston Harbor Islands, Fisher Island, Montauk, Cape Cod and the Islands, Buzzard Bay, etc.) and the opportunity for winter kayaking, it is truly a kayaking paradise!
We hope you have enjoyed Tony’s rhapsody on Rhode Island. Please feel free to add your thoughts and comments by clicking below. And if any of our readers have a special place they’d like to share, please let us know!