The Landscape of the Sea

Feb 6, 2018Winter 2018

Have you ever stopped to consider that in the pantheon of historic milestones of Rhode Island, there is one event that rises above all others? Moreover, that it underscores the significance of the natural attributes of the Ocean State and its renowned estuary, Narragansett Bay, as well as how they are intertwined with the people who over the centuries have thrived here?

Notoriously, the 1772 grounding and burning of the British revenue schooner Gaspee—an act whose ramifications were transatlantic in scope—involved sailboats and their crews. It also showed how local knowledge of depths, shoals, and shallows helped one crew to partake in a bold act of defiance, while lack of it led the other to disaster.

In another sense, this famous event illustrates just how much the configuration of the state’s shores, islands, and bay—both sandy terminal moraine remnants and the hard granite of the deep ancient river valleys left by glacial episodes of the Pleistocene period —influenced sailors and sailing, does so today, and will continue to do so tomorrow.

A Time of Transformation

Also called the “Prelude to a Tea Party” and the “first blow for freedom,” the Gaspee incident is an event that, particularly for Rhode Islanders, supersedes those in Boston and Philadelphia for status as the first significant act of colonial revolt.

One thing is certain: the lore of the Gaspee, the packet sloop Hannah that it chased to its peril onto a shoal off Namquit Point, as well as the Pawtuxet Village holiday that commemorates the act, took hold in the hefty imagination of a young Rhode Islander, Christopher Pastore. And as he matured into a keen sailor, writer, and college professor, Pastore thought of the Gaspee, the contours of his home state in southeastern New England, and the waters he’d often taken to with gusto, in a new light.

The result, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England, is Pastore’s examination of the Narragansett Bay watershed from first European settlement through the early 19th century. Published in 2014, its chapters present the symbiotic relationship of land and sea with people along many lines, from cultural and historic to economic and political. In so doing, his treatment of the influence of the area’s topography on water-based trade, transportation, and recreation is a constant thread.

Pastore holds specific views about the bay and shores—not just how people use their features, but how, he suggests, they should think about them.

“Much more than a geologic formation or passive recipient of human action, Narragansett Bay is a cultural construct, created and recreated by the people who live near and work on its waters,” he says. “We need to think of how the estuary has changed over time materially and imaginatively. The way people imagine things shapes the way they interact with their world.”

That the bay looms large in the minds of its citizens is hard to dispute, from the existence of organizations committed to protecting its longevity to its renown as a premier locale for world-class sailing and racing.

“In many ways, the bay is the soul of Rhode Island,” Pastore says. “Through our cuisine, our recreation, there’s an awareness of the bay and the ocean. Even people who know nothing about sailing—they know it’s there, they understand the America’s Cup, even if only a little bit. The fact that the belly of Rhode Island is Narragansett Bay, I believe, is clear indication that geography affects awareness.”

Facts and Attributes

Some indisputable facts put the water around us front and center:

  • Narragansett Bay bisects Rhode Island, extending 28 miles inland, up to 12 miles across, and includes 36 large and small islands.
  • It covers 10 percent of the state’s area and reaches two-thirds of the way into its borders.

“The water’s just a short hop from virtually every Rhode Island community,” observes Ocean State native and longtime cruising sailor Lynda Morris Childress.

Her Narragansett Bay and the South Coast of Massachusetts guide to sailing the region remains the go-to source for boating here. Published in 1996 and relevant today, it includes detailed directions and descriptions from local knowledge, research, and onsite exploration of hundreds of accessible anchorages.

Childress organizes the area into four regions: upper, middle, lower (including Block Island), and the Sakonnet River. The inclusion of the southern Massachusetts coast, as well as Buzzards Bay, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard makes sense, as sailors, by nature, have for centuries explored these nearby regions along with Rhode Island waters as one body—another fact that underscores just how uniquely situated we are.

Sailboat racing is a popular pastime in Newport, known to some as the “sailing capital of the world,” thanks to glaciers long ago. © Onne van der Wal

Indeed, interpretations of the bay’s exact boundaries have varied throughout history. According to Pastore, although some Rhode Islanders imagined the bay as extending from Gay Head to Montauk, a 1741 boundary dispute between Rhode Island and Massachusetts defined Narragansett Bay as extending from Point Judith to Sakonnet Point, a geographic designation that still exists today.

The alluring natural attributes of this piece of geography that juts into the Atlantic Ocean are many.

As Childress and countless others know well, advantages include accessibility from myriad launch sites, an average water depth of 26 feet, and reliable southwest winds in summer popularly named the “smokey southwester.” And, the bay generally tends to freeze up less in winter than ports farther north.

But there’s much more, and it’s best to let sailors themselves describe it.

According to Robert Morton, marine geologist, longtime competitive ocean sailor, and managing partner of Newport Biodiesel, what he most appreciates about the area for water-based recreation is directly linked to its past.

While beachgoers enjoy the result of what happened at the lower boundary of glacial ice movement —the sandy terminal moraine deposits reaching from Long Island through to Block Island, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket—what Morton values most are the river valleys it cut out underneath.

“I really like New England because you have glacial estuaries,” he says. “There are so many harbors and so many places to go. It’s a varied place to sail. You go to Florida, it’s all the same. You go to California, there are two harbors you can go to. I really think that the geology of New England is unique. You get the glacial effect here.”

Besides being responsible for the creation of so many anchorages, the “glacial effect” sets the stage for thrilling racing. “The currents created by all the islands and channels add a whole other challenge to racing,” Morton says. “It makes it fun.”

It’s also no coincidence that the New York Yacht Club, which held its first cruise to Newport in the summer of 1844—the year it formally organized as a club—also chose Newport as its summer base and site of yacht racing for the America’s Cup, the oldest trophy in international sport, from 1930 to 1983.

“They liked coming to Newport because of its good, deep natural harbor,” says Sheila McCurdy. Among hefty credentials, McCurdy is a trustee of Mystic Seaport Museum, a licensed captain, and has skippered and crewed in countless ocean and inshore races and cruising events, with more than 100,000 miles in her wake. She holds a master’s degree in marine affairs from the University of Rhode Island.

A resident of Newport’s next-door town of Middletown, she fully appreciates the conditions that account for the celebrated historic and modern-day appeal of the bay and Southeastern New England racing and cruising grounds overall.

Besides oppressive summertime heat in New York, she says, to get out to a place to race, urban crews must head out past Brooklyn and Sandy Hook Bay. As any Rhode Islander can attest, everything rests on convenience and ease of access. “Here, you are in the ocean in three miles,” she says.

Or, as sailor, retired marina manager, longtime bay advocate, and Newport resident Michael Keyworth succinctly puts it: “It’s a wonderful story that other coastal states can’t tell.”

The Pearl of Rhode Island, Today and Tomorrow

But with all this appeal comes responsibility, a daunting prospect for a Yankee society that over the centuries grew accustomed to developing, as well as polluting, the waterfront.

“By creating something with a clearly defined edge, we’ve made the coast less resilient, less able to absorb the blows of human initiative and natural variation,” Pastore asserts.

Today, the far-ranging impacts of that human initiative are unavoidable and require attention, according to a variety of stakeholders and officials. Licensed captain and maritime instructor Kent Dresser is among them. Dresser’s background includes salvage and rescue; he also heads up Clean Bays, a group specializing in shoreline debris mitigation.

“Various interests have left decades of industrial waste in the bay,” he says. “It’s not just that people throw garbage on the beach. We have built and abandoned our shoreline, generation after generation, up and down the pearl of Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay.”

Clean Bays’ efforts include removing more than 100 camels—10- to 12-ton wood-and-steel objects used as fenders between naval ships—from bay waters, Dresser says.

“Essentially, these are railroad ties soaked in creosote,” he says. “Debris such as this has a deleterious effect on sailing and boating. Anyone who has ever struck a submerged object or worried about striking a submerged object understands the negative impacts of marine debris.

“If you want to come home from the Bermuda race and sail into Newport late at night, or have the boats in the Volvo Ocean Race barrel up the East Passage, you want to make sure they’re not going to hit a 12-ton camel when they sail past Castle Hill. That would have a negative effect on everybody. Do we want boats and a coastline, or do we want garbage? I choose boats,” Dresser says.

Beyond immediate, ongoing concerns about pollution are those regarding climate change.

According to Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, marina owners and other waterfront developers will need to adapt to big changes by the middle of the century. Updated projections of sea level rise of, at the high end, up to nearly 10 feet by 2100 will “take out the potential infrastructure for sailing and boating by mid-century,” Fugate says. “There’s very little that will be left.”

While mitigation efforts will determine actual sea level rise and “the boating world isn’t going to go away, it will have to change how it uses these areas,” he adds.

Predictions like those are a concern for naval architect and engineer Andy Tyska, who’s the president of Bristol Marine. As a small business owner, he’s active in civic and industry groups such as the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, where he’s served as president and chairman of several committees.

His perspective on how economic interests have contributed to Pastore’s “defined edge,” and what may lie ahead, is tied in part to his involvement in waterfront enterprise.

“In business, you can’t always resign yourself to the hand that Mother Nature deals you, and do nothing, nor can you disregard coastal features and develop the waterfront solely around your needs,” he says. “A balanced, environmentally responsible approach is most appropriate.”

“To stay economically viable, a balanced way is, in my view, the best way,” he adds. “You get to it through adaptation of the shoreline that’s thoughtful, with responsible zoning and protected uses to minimize impact. It allows for predictability of operations in shipping, trade, and recreation while remaining sensitive to the environment.”

Regarding potential shoreline changes as a result of climate change, he says: “Culturally and economically, we are very much dependent on our proximity to and access to the water, and as we adapt, we’ll continue to find innovative ways to access the water for trade and for recreation in a manner that keeps that part of the fabric of our existence alive.”

Those sentiments aren’t lost on Curt Spalding, former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and former longtime executive director of Save The Bay. Spalding, a lifelong sailor and experienced ocean racer, treasures memories of his father bringing him to the bay to watch the America’s Cup. It set the stage for an adulthood of bay stewardship and efforts to improve its water quality.

“Chris Pastore’s argument is that we’ve made the challenge more difficult because of our European pattern of dominating the ecosystem to our economic benefit,” he says. “Creating a hard, much less dynamic edge is part of that development. We have to figure out how to work to secure the bay’s resilience and health in the face of climate change and sea level rise.

“Essentially, we’re depending on systems and supporting infrastructure that have to get wet. We’ve never thought of that. Could we live with it? The bigger problem will be how we reset our understanding of that edge. The water will come over it. You can raise areas and protect them, channel the water to places, but you’re not going to hold water out. That’s a completely different idea than what’s existed from 1600 to today. Building ever higher walls simply won’t work.”

Yet sailors, so shaped by the sea, can be part of the solution, Spalding believes.

“Sailors can be thoughtful contributors to a new approach of redefining the hard edge of our coastal and island communities,” he says. “Why? Capable sailors understand the need to change before change happens. Sails have to come down before the wind is out of control. Precautions need to be taken to avoid a catastrophic outcome. In a similar way, we need a much more proactive mindset to adapt to our rapidly changing coastal areas. The fundamental mindset of a sailor fits this line of thinking pretty well.”

That mindset can extend to the larger citizenry here.

“There’s something very deep in Rhode Islanders’ sense of place and geography,” Spalding says. “The opportunity to connect with our marine environment is extraordinary. As Pastore points out, the way we live here includes wide access to fishing and coastal activities. Whether we sail, fish, comb beaches, or simply observe, we have an especially intimate relationship with these resources. If we can engage in a conversation about resilience, accepting the need to change, and how, as sailors and fishermen, we already know our coast is dynamic, it gives me optimism that we’ll figure it out.”

Or, as Pastore so eloquently puts it: “Perhaps it is time to forge a new definition of progress, one that accepts the necessity of hybridity and impermanence by embracing the sea. For if the push of progress is to define Rhode Island’s future relationship with the bay, it will no doubt be met with the pull of the sea’s powerful tides.”

— Elaine Lembo

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