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February 16, 2009

Tall Ships in Narragansett Bay

Filed under: Photography,Travel — Steve Hamlin @ 9:53 pm

Prince William sailing out of Glasgow Scotland - Narragansett Bay, July 1, 2007Remembering a warm July afternoon on a cold February day.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been intrigued by tall ships. Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the interior of New England, the closest I got to them was field trips from school. I had the opportunity to walk the deck of Old Ironsides, in Boston Harbor, to briefly investigate the dark, cramped quarters of Mayflower II, identical to the ones that had been home to the Pilgrims on their voyage to America, and to explore the whaler Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport. Those were great adventures and did nothing to dilute the romantic image I had of life at sea on a tall ship, but they were all tame, the ships moored and sails stowed.

As a child in the care of an elementary school teacher, even a teacher with 30 or so other charges, I was restrained from the exploring that I wanted to do. I couldn’t climb to the crow’s nest, or swing from a halyard, as the sails furled from the combined weight of my deck-mates and me. I could only view the objects of my imagined adventures from afar, and store the images away to be dusted off in idle moments back home.

It would be decades, in fact, before I would even see one of my much-admired tall ships under sail. Even then, the tall ships I saw were schooners – beautiful, yes, but not the square-rigged ships of my childhood imaginings. There were opportunities to see square-rigged ships, but I usually found out about them through news coverage or articles about events that had already happened. Finally, in July, 2007, I managed to orchestrate an occasion to see many tall ships with sails furled. We went to see the Parade of Tall Ships in Narragansett Harbor.

In a rare (for me, anyway) nexus of planning and opportunity, it occurred to me in late June that there might be such a parade around the upcoming Fourth of July festivities. I went online and found out that there was, indeed. The parade would leave Newport on the Sunday afternoon prior to the Fourth, sail out of the harbor, into Long Island Sound, where some of the ships would queue up for a race to Boston. We immediately started planning the three-hour drive to witness it.

Sunday arrived, sunny, with a light westerly breeze, and by 11:00 or so, we were on our way to Rhode Island. I had planned our visit to avoid Newport, expecting that it would be a crush of people and traffic. We headed for Conanticut Island, instead. Looking at the map of Rhode Island, I had surmised that Beavertail State Park, on the southern tip of Conanticut Island, would give us an excellent vantage. As we got close to the park, it became evident that there were many people who had come to the same conclusion.

When we arrived at the park, we joined the procession of people walking south, out of the parking lot, heading for an indeterminate destination at an equally unknown distance. We walked for about a mile, lugging our camera equipment, before we reached the shoreline. Fortunately, the walk paid off. We were rewarded with, not only a perfect viewing spot for the tall ships, but a beautiful lighthouse too.

The parade hadn’t started, so we scouted out the area, taking photos of the lighthouse and getting a feel for the park. After fifteen minutes or so, we found a spot on the grassy plateau and staked it out to wait for the ships to pass. We could see the masts of the ships, as they sat at anchor, just off Newport, across and up the bay. There was one ship on our side of the channel, giving us the false impression that it was leading the parade. After it sat motionless for a half hour or so, we began to wonder. We found out later, that the ship had engine trouble that forced it to not only abandon the parade, but weigh anchor about a mile from its intended port.

When the tall ships began to sail by, the viewing location we had chosen proved to be close to ideal. The ships passed us about three hundred yards offshore – plenty close to get great shots of them – and the sun was at our backs, giving us nearly perfect lighting conditions. Gathering cloud cover caused the sunlight to sporadically disappear. It would then reappear to light the sails of a passing ship with the radiance of a pearl on velvet.

Countries from all around the globe were represented among the nineteen ships scheduled to participate. There were craft ranging from the Providence, a 65′ square topsail sloop, to the grand dame of the parade, the Gorch Fock II, a stately, white, three-masted barque, 267′ in length. The hapless ship lying at anchor was the Cisne Branco, a 249′ full-rigged ship flying the Brazilian flag. My sentimental favorite was the Picton Castle, a 148′ three-masted barque flying the flag of New Zealand, but sailing out of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Another favorite was the Bluenose II, a gaff-topsail schooner, also out of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

The afternoon passed, and our appetites for tall ships were satiated. Only three or four of the dozen and a half ships lay offshore, in the sound, awaiting the start of the race. The rest had departed, disappearing over the horizon, on their way to the next port of call for their ambassadorial duties. Eventually, Linda and I made a leisurely last pass around the tip of the island, photographing the lighthouse in the late afternoon sun, and made our way back to the van.

Headed back to the bridge that would return us to the western shore of Narragansett Bay and the homeward journey, we decided to explore the west side of the island. We stopped briefly at a salt marsh to photograph an osprey that showed its distain for us (me, in particular) with an artful scatological ejaculation. A little further up the road, Linda spotted the beautiful Jamestown Windmill, its vanes aglow with the evening sun. We stopped and photographed it from beyond a picturesque stone wall and across a field of golden hay. Our last stop was to photograph the ‘spark plug’ lighthouse that sits in the middle of the channel to the west of Conanticut Island, almost in the shadow of the bridge we would be driving across.

Satisfied with a full and productive afternoon, and with a long drive ahead of us, we took to the highway and headed home.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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