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In summer 1984, when I was fresh out of college and living with my parents in New Jersey, my brother Rik called me from Newport, Rhode Island, where he was working for naval architect Johan Valentijn on the design of the 12 Metre Eagle. The Newport Harbor Yacht Club’s Eagle Syndicate was planning a challenge for the 1987 America’s Cup in Perth, Australia, and they were looking for a head gofer.

My brother offered me up to fill the position. The gig had an unsavory job title and only paid $250 per week, but it came with free sailing gear and a bottomless beer budget. That night, I hopped in my rusty 1976 Plymouth Volare and made the four-hour trip to the ocean state.

For sailors, Newport means a fresh sea breeze blowing up Narragansett Bay.

For sailors, Newport means a fresh sea breeze blowing up Narragansett Bay.

Two years before, Rik and I had first sailed to Newport aboard his 1968 Pearson Lark. We quickly became smitten with the City by the Sea. It had everything young sailors dreamed of: Great bars, pretty girls, lots of drool-worthy yachts and a salty waterfront where U.S. Navy personnel, fishermen, locals and visiting yachters co-existed.

We loved Newport so much that we sailed the Lark there the next summer to witness Australia II beat Victory ’83 in the Louis Vuitton lead-up to the 1983 America’s Cup. Standing on a dock, Rik vowed that we would return to work on an America’s Cup campaign. That fall, he wrote a letter to Valentijn, who in 1984 offered him the engineering job that would lead to my Eagle Syndicate hiring.

The Eagle campaign had purchased the 12 Metre Magic, a small Twelve Valentijn had designed for the unsuccessful 1983 defense. She’d been retrofitted with a winged keel—just like the one Australia II used to beat Liberty in 1983—and was loaded with test equipment, which was my brother’s responsibility.

By the time I joined Rik in Newport in late August of 1984, he’d moved from his boat into a one-bedroom apartment on Simmons Street where his wooden living room floor served as my bed. Working on the Eagle Syndicate campaign was a heady experience. As a sailor, I was completely out of my league, but I busted my ass to prove myself. Our small crew included hardcore Newport sailors. We spent our days scrubbing and prepping the boat and driving it hard across Rhode Island Sound. Some days we submarined through the ocean swells in big wind with waves washing over the deck. Other days we labored inside the sweltering aluminum hull.

My brother and I became fast friends with one of Magic’s crew, Matt Boyle, a native Newporter who became our local guide. We were particularly fond of a waterfront bar called the Narragansett Café, which we liked because it had the best jukebox in town, a pool table and really cheap beer. Locals called it the Purple Lady because of the alternating purple and white ceiling tiles and purple decor, but because of a 1976 stabbing incident some people called it the “Nasty Narry.”

For the next four months, I’d work my newspaper job in New Jersey on the weekends, drive to Newport on Sunday nights, crash at my brother’s place, have breakfast at Gary’s Handy Lunch where the syndicate had an open account for crew members, work on Magic, sail, party at night and do it for four more days until I had to run back to New Jersey. Eventually, I was offered full-time newspaper work and I had to decide if I wanted to be a professional journalist or a professional boat bum with a plane ticket to Australia. I reluctantly gave up the Magic gig. My brother got married, had a kid, and eventually also moved back to New Jersey. For almost 25 years I wouldn’t return to Newport, although I missed its salty vibe.

Feeling nostalgic for those days in Newport, Rik and I went back to visit Matt, 37 years after we sailed on Magic.

We met at one of our old haunts, The Brick Alley Pub on Thames Street. On the wall, a faded 1984 article about rafting Maine’s Penobscot River still adorned the same spot on the wall. For old-time’s sake we downed a huge plate of nachos and washed it down with beers. We marched down the street to Valentijn’s old office at 204 Thames Street and had a good laugh when we saw that it was now occupied by a psychic reader named Maria.

The view from the NYYC’s Harbour Court

The view from the NYYC’s Harbour Court

We made our way to Fort Adams and set sail on Matt’s 1986 Pearson 28. In the harbor we saw more motoryachts than we had decades before and they were bigger than ever. A Feadship docked at Goat Island was at least 140-feet long, but sailboats still dominated the mooring field, and lots of 12 Metres, including American Eagle, Nefertiti, Columbia, Courageous, Onawa and Intrepid, lined the floats.

Under a clear blue sky we sailed into Narragansett Bay where the boat heeled hard in a steady 18-knot sea breeze. We laughed as we jokingly cursed each other out about our sloppy sail handling and imitated Robin Fuger, the intense Brit who managed us aboard Magic.

As we approached Rhode Island Sound, we saw two guys on a Donzi get their butts kicked every time a swell from the Atlantic sent their bow vertically in the air. We passed another former hangout, Castle Hill, where the Adirondack chairs on the expansive lawn were filled with summer revelers, and off Hammersmith Farm—where Jackie Bouvier and John F. Kennedy had their wedding reception—we encountered kids in a local sailing program and tourist-laden schooners.

Back in town we couldn’t find Rik’s old place on Simmons Street, and behind the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Bellevue Avenue, we saw a nail salon and sushi joint had replaced the Pit & Patio, where we used to swill pitchers of beer and eat pizza while Rik’s laundry dried at the nearby laundromat.

At the site of the old J.T. O’Connell Ship Chandlery, where we’d received our prized Line 7 Eagle Syndicate foulies and a Helly Hansen pullover made of a then-revolutionary material called PolarFleece, we found a clothing store called Re-Sails. And across the street, Sala’s—what was a noisy, unpretentious restaurant in an old, rickety building—had succumbed to the wrecking ball. “I miss that place,” Matt said about Sala’s. “You could get a half pound of their oriental spaghetti and fried rice for four dollars.”

I asked Matt if there were any true local joints left in Newport. “Cappy’s,” he said, and led us up Memorial Boulevard West. When he walked into the bar, he shook hands with Joe the bartender who made me a G&T that had no perceptible T. It was a cool joint, but I wanted to see what happened to the Narragansett Café.

When we got to Long Wharf, there were still some rusty fishing boats but all the crusty businesses had disappeared. What was called the Narragansett Café was now called Celtica Public House. Inside, the pool table was still in the same spot, but the purple ceiling tiles were gone and the old juke box that used to blare out the world’s greatest 1970s music had been replaced with a digital machine. We planted ourselves at the bar and quizzed the barmaid about the Narragansett Café. Having worked at Celtica for just five years, she didn’t know much about the old bar, which bit the dust 20 years ago. Rik and Matt tried to rekindle the bar’s old spirit by downing some whiskey, but the spirit was gone.

Boat crews shammy motoryachts

Boat crews shammy motoryachts

We made our way to the Fastnet Pub where we sat on the patio below the bow of the “Plastic Fantastic,” the controversial fiberglass 12 Metre that gave Dennis Conner conniptions in the 1987 America’s Cup. We concluded the bow was a replica and headed to O’Brien’s Pub on Thames Street, which in 1983 was the home bar for the Australia II sailors. Inside, Matt showed us the drawing of Alan Bond, the head of the Australia II Syndicate, sitting naked on a porcelain throne with little wings adorning his private parts, a bizarre remnant of a bygone era.

After 10 hours, we called it a day. At the New York Yacht Club’s Harbour Court, Rik and I had a nightcap on the patio as we watched lightning bolts illuminate the sailboats in the dark harbor. When my head hit the pillow, it was not lost on me that the 2021 accommodations were a far cry from the wooden floor in my brother’s old apartment, just a few blocks away.

The next morning, the view of the sailboats and the Newport Bridge was glorious. We met Matt at Gary’s Handy Lunch where Gary’s son, Joel, who worked the grill in 1984, was cooking his trillionth egg. Tina, his gregarious sister, waited on us, and we had some good laughs at the breakfast counter with Elaine and C.B. Smith, two of the regulars. But even in the diner, time marched on. Tina told us Gary’s was for sale. The youngest waitress was in her 50s and the rest of them were nearing retirement age. I got cash from the ATM—Gary’s Handy Lunch never accepted credit cards—gave Tina a farewell tip, and stepped onto Thames Street.

I said my goodbyes to Matt and Rik, but as I was about to jump into my car, I realized we never looked for the Williams & Manchester Shipyard where Magic had been docked. I vaguely recalled always crossing the street diagonally from Gary’s to the boat. Behind the International Yacht and Restoration School building I asked a young boatbuilder about the old shipyard’s location. He shrugged and gave me a blank stare. I looked across to Lee’s Wharf and saw that condos had replaced the yard and boat boys were shammying huge motoryachts.

I remembered something Matt had said the day before. “Don’t get me going,” he’d answered when I’d asked him how Newport had changed over the past 37 years. “Tourism has tripled, and the local guys in their small boats are getting squeezed out of the mooring field by rich guys with large boats. People who come to Newport dump on the place.”

That’s when Rik quipped, “I think Matt said the same thing in 1984.” And Matt, knowing it was true, had laughed as hard as we had and admitted that despite all the changes Newport had undergone, it was still an amazing place. “It’s the best,” he said. “I’m living on Narragansett Bay. I’m a lucky bastard.” 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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