Block Island lies just 12 miles off Rhode Island — tantalizingly close. Yet reaching this 3-by-7-mile island requires a passage that can be challenging, with currents, winds that are light and fluky or uncomfortably strong, and a high island landfall with a narrow channel into New Harbor (Great Salt Pond), not to mention fog and high-speed ferries.
For many boaters, cruising to Block is the climax of summer. We (myself, my then-husband and our three little kids) honed our seamanship on several cruises — first in borrowed sloops and then in Scud, the engineless copy of Capt. Joshua Slocum’s yawl, Spray, that we built for our circumnavigation. One unexpected challenge: entering New Harbor while the returning Block Island Race Week fleet nimbly maneuvered around our close-hauled yawl.
Ted Herley, a three-time J/109 North American champion, competes yearly in that prestigious series, which is expected to draw more than 180 yachts for round-the-buoys and round-the-island racing June 23-28. “I love Block, but I come for the one-design racing,” says the South Dartmouth, Mass., sailor. “The boats are equal, so [winning] depends upon the skipper and crew.”
Superb striper fishing brings Kurt and Kigiah Egger of Royersford, Pa., to charter frequently with Capt. Dave Chieffo. “We’ve had a 100 percent success rate,” Egger says, noting that they’re returning for the tuna run in July.
The harbormaster rents moorings among the more than 400 in New Harbor. Champlin’s Marina Resort, Payne’s Dock and Block Island Boat Basin offer marine services and slips. On summer holiday weekends, more than 1,000 yachts tie up, moor, anchor and raft in the 45-acre pond. Most mainland ferries dock in the Atlantic-facing Old Harbor, limiting dockage and anchoring space there.
Glaciers created Block’s varied terrain: the 250-foot bluffs topped by Southeast Lighthouse, rolling hills dotted with ponds, northern dunes where North Light marks the shoals off “New England’s stumbling block.” And there are 17 miles of beaches, one just across the road from Great Salt Pond’s head, where you can land your dinghy. Lifeguards, snack bars and public facilities dot sections of this popular beach. The Eggers prefer hiking to “rustic, more isolated” sands for sunbathing. Adventurous souls surf, kayak and parasail. Swimming is unsuitable along the rocky, surf-battered south shore and amid northern Sandy Point’s swirling currents.
Rental bicycles are a quiet way to reach the 25 miles of trails threading nature preserves on “one of Earth’s last great places.” Or, like Race Week crews, commute by bike between your boat and The Oar, Deadeye Dick’s and other watering holes and restaurants, many of which feature the local seafood the Eggers favor.
Old Town’s hotels offered Victorian vacationers a respite from stifling Eastern cities. Today, tourists find boutiques, inns, amusements — and rental mopeds.
Europeans following Adrian Block, who charted the island in 1614, displaced Native American fishermen. The early English settlement is now a year-round community of 900, with 12,000 summer residents, plus day trippers.
Luckily, racer Herley says, “In June, Block is like summers were [40 years ago] — beautiful, unspoiled, with an unhurried pace.”
We departed Block Island on the trans-Atlantic leg of our circumnavigation. Five years later, it was the first U.S. soil our wobbly sea legs touched. www.blockislandinfo.com, www.blockislandchamber.com, www.blockislandri.net
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July 2013 issue