Block Island’s seasons will always be defined by the boat schedule; today’s vessels are to me – to the horror of boat aficionados – not radically different from each other. There was no possibility of mistaking the little green & dark yellow Sprigg Carroll, the small winter boat of my childhood, for the Quonset, the big white vessel that shouted “SUMMER!!”
The summer boat to Point Judith sailed from Payne’s, which we all called the New Harbor Dock. The wharf was, as it is today, a seasonal place excepting the occasional berthing of the side-loading winter boat on days when the mouth of the east harbor was all mountains and canyons of gray water.
Meeting the boat was an event. The turn around time was not a factor, in those days, of a more limited schedule. It was the Quonset we usually met, the big steel hulled side loader that came into the dock bow first. People stood on the top deck, and we always looked for someone we knew, whether or not we were meeting anyone.
Then there was the ride on the Quonset. When I was very little I had taken the New Bedford, which also docked in the New Harbor, to Providence with my mother – who never quite got over how long and boring the ride was —but the sum total of my recollection was looking out a window and seeing —real or not —a train car on the way into and out of Newport.
We did not go away in the summer; I was seven or eight when we took a day trip to the mainland, an unusual event made possible because my mother was taking a summer course at URI, renewing her teacher’s credentials, and had a car on the mainland, unheard of in those days. It was exciting to be on the boat we usually met, so much larger and airier than our winter carrier, and to see from the elevation of the upper deck the shore, familiar sights turned to slightly foreign vistas by the different perspective.
Hippocampus, where the Beanes lived on the north side of the cut, held little fascination but the Coast Guard Station offered grand surprises. It was an active facility, familiar across the pond from the Neck and from summer evening drives down long Champlin Road, but this was a new vantage point, a close-up. It was soon after steel sheathing was installed, shoring up the fragile earthen bank shown in earlier postcards. We saw the weather signal tower from which solid red pennants and square red flags with black centers were flown in daytime; after dark it offered lights, red and white. There were different combinations indicating four tiers of warnings: small craft; gale; full gale; and hurricane.
The Motor Pool I barely noticed, or the dock reaching out into the water. There was the Boat House, a carryover from the three Life Saving Stations the new facility had replaced. Those had all been set far enough back from the water that the great dories they housed had to be hauled to the shore. This newer building had a launching ramp below three big doors, and from each of those ran a set of parallel rails over a broad plank surface, one curved into another, like a real train track! They were, I learned, rails upon which cradles could carry smaller boats to and from the water.
The Coast Guard facility, all signature red and white, was built in the 1930s and the ramp was only a few decades old when I first saw it, reaching the water’s edge. Sand accrued on the south side of the breakwater and has since come around and shoaled the channel, leaving that same ramp high and dry and it has long been unusable. While I knew it had holes that had been covered with plywood weathered gray several years ago it was a shocking reminder to see a photo in last week’s paper, the decking rotted.
When I was a child, it was whole and a great discovery. The Chief’s House was another surprise, imposing, making an impression disproportionate to its modest size. It was brick, like the facade of a market in town but as building material only found in the grand lighthouse on the bluff and the big school. Years later, visiting a niece of a Chief we saw it was lovely, with a porch overlooking the cut, but not all that large.
That long ago summer day we rowed off the west side of the island, not much more visibly developed than it is today, nor as overgrown, and passed the backside of The Dunes west of Sachem, that vast expanse from which I had been forbidden after a severe case of poison ivy contracted while beach plumming. We passed close to the tall black buoy marking the end of Sandy Point, an indication we were almost halfway there, time-wise, according to my mother. The Boat House, I realized, had a counterpart on the mainland, in the Galilee Harbor.
Quintessential Rhode Island, it is the Point Judith Boat House in Galilee, on Great Island Road in Narragansett. Its ramp is gone, replaced by a wharf at which Coast Guard vessels, great orange stripes across their bows, are docked.
We were day-trippers all those years ago, with our packed lunch eaten at the one of the designated pullovers along Route 1, and our destination of Roger Williams Park. It was the time of Saturday morning westerns and black and white television and the highlight of the trip was a pony ride, exciting and terrifying, a detail perhaps remembered only for a long-saved drawing and narrative of a summer adventure done for school.
We drove through URI on the way back to the boat, and another trip on the Quonset, back past the big black buoy, that boat ramp, then across the jewel of a harbor, home to the summer dock.