The Power & Motoryacht team cruises to Block Island where something occurs that we didn’t expect: The tiny island brings back a childlike wonder in us all. By Simon Murray
Cruising to Block Island and exploring all it has to offer brings to mind a simpler time.
TThe Great Salt Pond dominates Block Island like a watery crater, practically cleaving the pork-chop-shaped landmass in two. To the north, the flattish lands and road to the lighthouse offer plenty of vantage points from which you can catch a glimpse of “the Pond,” a roughly 700-acre harbor and boater’s paradise that is hard to miss. Journey to the southern part of the isle, with its towering seaside bluffs and tangle of roadways, crest the right hill and the Pond will remind you it’s there. A narrow strip of beach joining north and south together like a piece of connective tissue. And adjacent to that … the Atlantic. Call me na•ve, but most of the islands I’ve visited in my travels tend to take on the characteristics inherent in a much larger landmass. Head inland, and the surrounding ocean eventually recedes from view, only to be replaced by the hustle and bustle of a compact metropolis. Martha’s Vineyard becomes Cape Cod. Thanks to Highway 1, the Keys might as well be an extension of contiguous Florida. Does anyone even notice (or care) that Manhattan is an island?
But to my mind, Block Island feels different. For one, you never forget you’re in the middle of the ocean, even though it’s only an hour or so to the mainland by boat, because everywhere you look the sea is there to remind you. It’s over your shoulder. It’s far off in the distance. It stirs the wind that whistles at night while you sleep and takes on the same pinkish hue that streaks the sky at dusk. On Block Island, the airport feels like an afterthought—boating and the sea reign supreme.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what reignited the childlike wonder and imagination in me and the rest of the Power & Motoryacht crew on a recent trip to Block: the all-encompassing nature of a world afloat.
Gear, of course, isn’t really sexy. At least not by itself. Taken out of its context, its element, and placed in a photographer’s studio, it looks bright, polished, and exceedingly dull. Which is why Editorin-Chief Dan Harding and I agreed that if we were going to do a Gear Guide, 98 percent of the work would involve loading up a boat and hauling an assemblage of accessories and water toys into the field.
“And then we’ll test all of it,” says Dan. He has an ambitious— some might call crazy—glint in his eyes.
We’re sitting in his office in Essex, Connecticut. His energy is infectious, because for the last few minutes I’ve been picturing all of the exotic locales we can go to test this gear. Kayaks paddling across electricgreen seas. Dinghies transporting the team to impossibly white-sand
beaches. Volcanoes in the background of every picture. “And I know the perfect place we can go,” adds Dan. “Block Island.”
In the closing days of summer, several members of the editorial staff meet in Essex to stock up on whiskey and provisions. We make sure our boat, a 50-foot MC5 from Beneteau Yachts, is filled to capacity with as much gear as possible. Then it’s time to go, pushing out from Pilots Point Marina on the Connecticut shore.
Dan points the bow southeast into Long Island Sound. Soon, the mainland begins to fade from view, as do thoughts of nuclear Armageddon being triggered thousands of miles away by a guy with a hipster coif. Even if it’s not exactly true, Block Island feels untouchable by outside forces.
We’re late to the party. The Great Salt Pond is dotted with boats as far as the eye can see. Lucky for us, we secured a mooring before our arrival. Boaters typically head to the Pond in the wee hours of the morning to wrangle one of 90 rentable town moorings. That’s because, at any time, Block Island can be inundated with more than 1,000 visiting boats, and as many as double that on holidays; for the moorings at least, it’s a strict, first-come-first-serve policy.
We locate our mooring and take stock of our surroundings on this warm day: bluffs, beaches, rolling hills, and small ponds, a topography jostled into existence thousands of years ago by lumbering glaciers. Legend has it the pirate Capt. Kidd once found refuge on the island, and he’s said to have dispersed his valuables by the armload to the good-natured people that offered him assistance—and that seems just about right. (He’s also thought to have buried treasure here.)
You don’t have to wait long on your mooring to get a feel for the island, or of the friendly people that call it home. In fact, you don’t have to even leave your boat—the island comes to you. Mornings begin with a memorable, melodic call: “Andiamo, Andiamooooo!” (Let’s go, let’s gooooo!) It comes from the Aldo’s Bakery delivery boat, which begins to patrol the Great Salt Pond at sunrise—or way too early in my book— offering pastries and some much-needed coffee.
Our nights are spent trading stories and there’s good-natured ribbing, too, as Gary DeSanctis, general manager of the AIM Marine Group, cooks steaks on the boat’s transom grill. Quarters are tight with six colleagues aboard. Digital Editor John Turner bravely volunteers to sleep on the flybridge settee. But this turns out to be a nonissue anyway; we often stay up way too late singing the lost anthems of our youth.
One lazy afternoon, we take the dinghy into the Block Island Boat Basin, arriving at The Oar. At this waterside restaurant patrons are encouraged to customize their very own oar and then hang it with the others, blotting out the walls, the ceiling, and virtually everything else in an ancient form of text messaging.
As for my phone, I barely register it’s in my pocket as we head inland. Counting myself, there’s four of us: Dan, John, and Executive Editor Bill Pike. Adventure awaits. Block Island is the island I’d always wanted to explore as a kid, when phones were still tethered to the wall and the world was anywhere you could explore by pedal or oar.
A smell of pancakes wafts on the morning breeze. Dan comes back from a convenience store with a map.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to live in a place where you could see everything on a map like this one,” he says wistfully.
“The town I grew up in was so small, you didn’t even need a map,” says Bill.
There’s a palpable giddiness in the air. Have we traveled back in time? Is the MC5 a time machine that’s taken us back to our respective childhoods? As if to delve deeper into the feeling, we decide to rent mopeds for the day, rationalizing it by saying it’s the fastest way to explore the island. But we’re full of it, really; there’s an unmistakable twinkle in everyone’s eyes. Soon we’re racing around the island, doing our best Steve McQueen impressions.
The island flies by in a blur. We pass summer cottages, secluded drives, sandy beaches, family reunions and barbecues—some easily recognizable by smell—that I would’ve paid good money to be invited to. I put my head down and pretend my two-speed moped is a crotch rocket. Ahead of me, Bill, the oldest in the group, is doing S-curves on a perfectly fine road, avoiding imaginary obstacles.
There are no traffic lights on the island. For a moment, it feels like I’m a kid again in the New Jersey suburb where I grew up. A town dotted with lakes, a town so small you didn’t even need a map.
We follow the signs toward the southeast lighthouse, parking the mopeds on a dusty elbow alongside the road. There, on an exposed point atop the bluffs, sits the imposing red brick tower and keeper’s dwelling. Instinctually, we all perform the tourist’s raison d’être: We look up.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” says a woman standing next to us. She’s wearing large glasses and a bracelet that looks altogether too big for her arm.
We nod in agreement. She tells us that the lighthouse was almost lost to coastal erosion. In response, a dedicated contingent of locals was spurred into action, raising $1 million to move the structure more than 200 feet farther inland. Their slogan: Nothing moves the imagination like a lighthouse, and nothing moves a lighthouse like imagination.
“There are a lot of old families on this island, they won’t give it up,” she says.
Right off the coast to the southeast is another spectacle worthy of our gawking: the country’s first offshore wind farm. Out there in the haze, five turbines spin lazily above the rolling waves. On this hot, windless day, their output is deceptive: Capable of generating 30 megawatts, they power every home and business on the island.
It’s a good vantage point, but not the best. We tear off down the road, coming to a lookout at the top of some 150-foot clay cliffs. By now, the island’s laid-back attitude has infected me completely. I kick my shoes off and scamper along the cliff edge, reaching a rocky outcrop only accessible through winding brush. Certain doom is only a slipped foot away, but the view here is incredible. I turn around in surprise. Dan and Bill are behind me, grinning. “Wowee!” says Bill. “Some view, eh?” In that moment, I don’t see a 70-something guy beside me. Age seemingly has no dominion here. For the first time all day, I reach for my phone and snap a picture of our shadows arrayed together on a rocky promontory below. We assume different positions: an outstreched arm, two raised hands, a wave. Each of us saluting the end of summer in his own way.
Like Peter Pan, we’ve found our shadows. But there’s something a little less obvious going on as well. It’s a feeling, a certainty, that here on Block Island—at least for the briefest of moments—we’ve found our Neverland.
You could spend an entire day trying to count the colorfully decorated oars that line almost every wall and ceiling at The Oar.
Clockwise from left: the author on a rocky promontory; editors on their “hogs”; General Manager Gary DeSanctis cooking steaks on the transom grill; a house overlooking one of the island’s gorgeous views.