At Long Last, Newport to Open Arms to Cruising Sailors

Newport, RI gets ready to give a warmer welcome to cruising sailors. From "Herb's Watch" for February 29, 2008

Newport Armory 368

The Newport Armory, as seen from the water; this photo was taken from the Ann St. Pier, which will be lengthened and offer free dinghy docking.Herb Mccormick

The last time the Newport Armory--a once-imposing edifice in the heart of Newport, R.I. that, frankly, has seen better days--was part of a serious sailing story was on a Monday afternoon in late September 1983. In fact, it was the fateful day that Australia II won the America's Cup.

The old Armory, built in 1894, had been the press center that summer, and as the drama unfolded over the not-so-secret winged keel, and the tale became more of a media sensation, the Armory was a lively place, indeed. It all came to a head once the Aussies sealed the victory, hit the docks, and made their way toward the ancient hall for their final, triumphant press conference.

I was there, just a few thousand of my "friends" and me. It was a total madhouse. I had a press credential but even getting to the front door was ridiculous. I finally made it through unscathed, but Aussie syndicate chief Alan Bond's wife, "Red" (so called for her flaming locks), wasn't as lucky. Once through the door, she discovered that the rock on her ring finger was no longer there. Unhappily, if memory serves correct, it was ultimately discovered in the pocket of the Newport cop guarding the entryway. He was a nice guy, actually. I knew his sister, the cheerleader.

But I digress.

For the Newport Armory, a long-forgotten structure smack-dab on Thames Street downtown, is now in the earliest stages of being overhauled into a facility called the Newport Maritime Center, aimed primarily for cruisers. It sounds too good to be true: a welcome center within walking distance to everything with dinghy docks, showers, laundry, temporary storage lockers, a lounge with Internet access and local information, a base for a harbor shuttle, the works. And the funding is secured to get it under way.

It's more than a little fitting that one of the many key players in making it happen is a cruising sailor who often called in Newport, a harbor he loved. Today, Hank Kniskern is a resident of the city, the chairman of the Newport Waterfront Commission, and a faculty member at the Naval War College. But he first visited town aboard his 40-foot Colin Archer ketch Sam McGee.

"The destination was the best," he says. "But it was tough to find a mooring, to take a shower. They didn't make it easy."

Tell me about it. I grew up in Newport and for years I've been apologizing to friends who've sailed into town and felt hassled about one thing or another, whether it was moorings, pump-out facilities, or dinghy access.

Kniskern is right: We didn't make things easy.

If all turns out as planned, the Armory should give us a chance to redeem ourselves. Thanks to a $713,000 federal grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Boating Infrastructure Grant (BIG)-as well as a $250,000 matching grant from the state's Department of Environmental Management-the major funding has been secured to transform the bottom floor of the Armory (which is now retail space) into the Maritime Center.

Along with the Waterfront Commission, the Newport Redevelopment Agency deserves huge credit for securing those grants. According to the Providence Journal, "The agency acquired the Armory from the state in 1984, and almost immediately a plan for the 1894 building envisioned it catering to the needs of transient boaters. But the plan went nowhere and the agency went dormant. Three years ago, however, the reactivated agency renewed its efforts to move the plan forward, including seeking financing for the project."

This will all, of course, take time. The building itself has some major structural issues. There are applications and permits to be addressed. Nothing will be ready by 2009, at the earliest.

But there are grand plans under consideration, above and beyond the Armory itself, including a lengthening of the existing Ann St. Pier and perhaps even a second, parallel pier that will give land-locked visitors access to the harbor and even provide transient docking. The one thing everyone is clear about is that this is a facility that will serve sailors and boaters who are outbound and under way, who take in the view of the town from the decks of their own vessels.

Along those lines, if you do come to Newport this summer and either anchor out or pick up a mooring, don't be surprised if someone drops off a questionnaire about your time in the harbor and what you'd like to see in an ideal maritime facility. If so, please take the time to fill it in, and don't be shy about your opinions. The center will only be as good as the thoughts, opinions, and energy that go into making it happen.

One other thing, I've been assured. It'll be clean, bright, and safe. In other words, there will be no need to slip off the ring before stopping by.

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