Cruising by the Hour in Narragansett Bay

A midweek overnighter aboard a Seaward Eagle 32 allows working stiffs who also love to sail to unplug from the stress of everyday life.

Seaward Eagle 32

An overnight visit to the nether regions of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay landed the crew of a Seaward Eagle 32 in an an anchorage in Bristol’s Kickamuit River.Billy Black

CW colleague John Wilson threw a last-minute monkey wrench into the three-day, two-night cruise on Narragansett Bay that we'd planned to take last fall. "We're on deadline," he said. "I can't leave until Tuesday morning."

Unfortunately, the trailerable Seaward Eagle 32 we were going to borrow from Hake Yachts for the trip had to be back to the launch ramp in Newport by Wednesday morning.

“Well,” I said, “let’s see how far we can go in 24 hours.”

We were about to find out that even a sail that’s measured in hours rather than days can provide a welcome respite from the tyranny of our speeded-up, stressed-out world.

1000-1400
When we knocked off the last deadline and Tuesday morning finally arrived, we were really ready to chill, but we couldn't relax just yet. The gunkhole-friendly boat, a 32-footer with a spacious interior and a retractable keel that makes it easy to trailer, was pinned to the dock in a 25-knot southerly that was honking up the bay, and it had to be backed out of the slip first. Winding our way out of the marina was our last hurdle, and soon we were sizzling out of Newport's harbor with a small triangle of reefed main up. Then we turned toward our intended anchorage up the Kickamuit River, about 15 miles north. Things mellowed right out as we pointed the bow downwind, and we made a brilliant decision that increased the chill factor even further. To rid ourselves of the possibility of a stressful, cockpit-sweeping accidental jibe, the main was doused, and we simply barreled up the bay under a fully eased jib.

“Ahhh,” I said to John after the sails were sorted and we settled in to the relative quiet of our downwind course. “We may only have 24 hours to play with, but there’s no need to rush, right?”

Our easy downwind run under the crisp, blue September sky may have only lasted a few hours, but the determined pace of land-based life and its endless deadlines melted away as if we’d been out for a lot longer. After we passed Prudence Island, we only had to make a slight course change to head for our first destination, on the south side of Mount Hope Bay. The water flattened out and the wind subsided in the lee of Aquidneck Island. The warmth of the midday sun and the calmness of our new surroundings were better than we could’ve hoped for. Even without rushing, we were early to meet photographer Billy Black. We took advantage of the bonus by simply dropping the hook and doing nothing.

1400-1600
Doing nothing may not seem like the best way to take advantage of the gift of time, but I'll tell you, when you're relaxing by the hour rather than by the day or week, it's an unmerited gift. We ate Subway sandwiches, toasted our good fortune with ice-cold cans of Coke, and capped our decadent lunch break off with steaming-hot cups of strong coffee in the sun-drenched cockpit that was big enough to stretch out in. It certainly beats a day in the office, doesn't it? It did. And that was before the napping started. Yup, I admit it, we nodded off on the job—briefly. Turns out we were both well-suited to this kind of "speed relaxing." Unlike some sailors who might find it prudent to use several hours in the heat of the afternoon to read or take an occasional nap, we only had a couple of minutes, but we made the most of them.

The sound of Billy’s outboard engine woke us up. At this point, we’d been “cruising” for about six hours.

1600-1900
When Billy pulled up, we were fed, rested, relaxed, and ready to explore some parts of the bay that locals don't always visit.

This time, all the sails went up and the apparent wind went forward of the beam as we beat back into the southwesterly that had pushed us so effortlessly up from Newport. But we weren’t on the breeze for long. The sheets were eased again once we cleared the Mount Hope Bridge and sped past the green lawns of Bristol, where ol’ Captain Nat Herreshoff himself often sailed.

So far, I'd been impressed with how the Seaward Eagle 32 and its retractable rudder and bulb keel handled the brisk conditions, but the true test happened after we'd wound our way through the forest of masts in Bristol's harbor and turned back into the teeth of the still-stiff breeze funneling between Bristol and Hog Island. The boat pointed well and stood up to the breeze admirably. We did wrestle a bit with some weather helm, but I'm pretty sure that was due to our unfamiliarity with the boat's adjustable rudder and bulb keel. Since we were heading upwind in a good breeze, I thought we should have both foils down all the way, but as I learned later from Nick Hake, the boat's designer and builder, we could've adjusted the depths of both to fine-tune the feel of the helm, and we'd have increased our speed slightly by reducing wetted surface area, too. Nick says that the boat is plenty stiff and weatherly, even with the keel retracted halfway in a stiff breeze. Reducing drag by retracting the rudder a notch can reduce weather helm, he explained. When we headed back into Mount Hope Bay and made a beeline for the Kickamuit River, where we'd planned to spend the night, those retractable foils came in handy for a more obvious reason.

1900-2300
I often panic when the depth sounder starts showing low, single-digit readings, so as we motored into the calm, protected, and, in some places, shallow waters of the Kickamuit, I especially enjoyed the electric-powered retractable keel that made it possible to reduce our 6-foot-6-inch draft down to 20 inches with the push of a button. As we looked for a place to drop the anchor for the night, it was fun to see just how shallow we could go. We nosed the boat up to the shore near the mouth of the channel in way less than 3 feet of water, and I probably could've set us up so we'd have been able to walk ashore without getting our shorts wet.
We happened to know a Kickamuit local who invited us for pizza and beer on his deck, but he lived about a mile up the river from our just-found super shallow anchorage. Since we'd been "at sea" for about 10 hours at that point, hauling the hook and leisurely motoring a mile up a wide, placid river on a calm night under a full moon was an ordeal we were willing to endure.

We ended up leaving the boat on one of his neighbor’s moorings. Our host and his son even came out to fetch us so we didn’t have to go to all the trouble of pumping up our dry and well-packed inflatable dinghy. “You ready for a beer?” I asked John as we pulled up the well-used mooring rode and waited for yet another outboard-powered tender. “Yup,” he said with a smile. What more could he say, really? Cruising close to home is fun.

The blow-by-blow recap of our land-based pizza party may be boring to you, but celebrating the end of summer with good friends and eating warm, gooey pizza during the lone night of our 24-hour cruise was dag gum spectacular for us. Sadly, our cruising time was almost up. We were back on the boat and in our bunks by 2300.

0700-1000
The kettle was squealing by 0705, and the clock was ticking. We had 15 miles to go, and I wanted to get the boat back on time, but so far, we'd successfully packed weeks' worth of relaxation time into the hours of the previous day, and neither of us could bear to start rushing again just yet. Besides, as his friends know, John makes coffee that'll take the chrome off a bumper, and I can think of nothing more satisfying than enjoying an early morning cup of rocket fuel from the cockpit of a boat in a misty, glassy anchorage. We fired up the engine and dropped the mooring pendant over the side only after we'd finished that first, fantastic cup of coffee, and we congratulated ourselves on a cruise well done as we started to retrace our steps back out of the Kickamuit. The fortuitous southerly that hummed up the bay the day before had blown itself out. Light winds from the north that were forecast for our trip back to Newport greeted us. It would've been nice to have been able to wing out the jib and haul the mail down the bay as we had on the trip north, but we were content to rev the engine, set the autopilot, and tick off the miles toward home.

Rested and rejuvenated, we nosed the boat onto the trailer exactly 24 hours after backing out of that tricky slip in Newport the day before.

Then the phone rang.
The office was calling.