Last year we started stand up paddle boarding Jamestown (Conanicut Island) at Fort Wetherill and Mackerel Cove. Most times we would head south towards Beaver Tail, and sometimes we would head north towards the Newport Bridge. This year we went paddling along the west side of the island. We put in at the URI Bay Campus a little ways south of the Jamestown Bridge and paddled across the West Passage toward Dutch Harbor. We then headed south along the coastline to Beaver Tail State Park at the end of the Jamestown. The paddle boarding is amazing all around the nine mile long island of Jamestown but especially so along its southern end which extends into the mouth of Narragansett Bay.
Stand up paddling along the island you can’t help but notice the tall and ancient cliffs consisting of shale and granite. The granite rock cliffs of Jamestown began as volcanic magma intrusions off Antarctic coast 565 millions year ago, before multi-celled organisms even existed! These volcanoes formed a long chain of islands that crashed into the North American plate along with the African continent. After the plates pulled apart, creating the Atlantic Ocean, what remained fused to the North American plate is what we are standing on now- New England!
Paddle boarding the waters around this area of Jamestown can be tricky sometimes. On the Fort Wetherill side the southerly swell will hit the cliff faces and rebound back a few hundred feet. The water in these areas can get very erratic and you may feel like you are being hit with wakes from all sides making your board feel a bit tippy, and wakes from boat traffic alone can intensify the situation. On windy days when the swell and chop are high, if you head out away from the cliffs into deeper water and away from the rebounding swell it can make things a lot easier as the water tends to level out.
The West Passage stays pretty shallow at 50 to 65 feet at the mouth of the bay whereas the East Passage channel can get to twice that depth. This sometimes means that the West Passage can have a pretty strong current flowing through it as we found out. After we got perched right in front of Beaver Tail point and snapped a few pics we began traversing the West Passage towards the Bonnet Shores beachhead. As the wind picked up, the swell began to white cap, and the water moved very quickly. What normally would be considered inconsequential ebbs and flows that the boards could easily ride through now became much heavier making it harder to stay in control. Our boards would get jolted and slip sideways, called “yaw”, off the front of the wave and then get bogged down in the pocket as the next wave rushed in to fill the void. Periodically, the waves moved a little slower so that we could surf the current effortlessly within the perfectly spaced peaks and troughs. But the rest of the time the wind and/or the topography of the ocean bottom, would affect the water and we would need to stay low to the board anxiously awaiting the next surprise. It made for an exciting run and well worth the experience- another aspect of stand up paddling that we both want to get better at.
To a lot of people, Narragansett Bay may seem like place that has withstood the tests of time and remained unchanged for eons. But nothing is further from the truth. Narragansett Bay was not always a bay. In fact, for thousands of years it was a fresh water lake closed off from the sea. Fed by the Blackstone, Woonasquatucket and Pawtuxet rivers, the bay was a huge estuary that covered a third of Rhode Island’s land area.
Things changed starting around 75 thousand years ago when two massive glacial ice sheets moved over New England stretching from the Arctic Sea and as far south as New Jersey. The last glacier was over a mile high and it gouged, crushed, scooped up and deposited billions of tons of soil and rock. (The entire landscape of Cape Cod is one such deposit.) The land bridge separating Narragansett Bay from the ocean was ripped out while the well-anchored ancient bedrock (Jamestown and Newport) remained.
At that time, nearly a quarter of the ocean’s water was locked up in these massive ice sheets. As such, sea levels were around 450 feet lower than they are today, which means that Rhode Island’s shoreline could have been 50 miles further south. Also during this time, around 10 to 12 thousand years ago the first humans began settling the area. Eventually, as the planet warmed again, the ice sheets melted and the seas returned to their former levels. Narragansett Bay was flooded with ocean water that flowed into the area through the huge gouges made by the glaciers and erosion channels created by the three main rivers. It was time for the people, animals and forests to move aside to make way for the rising ocean.
As we reached the cliffs by the Bonnet Shores area, the water began to slow down under the shelter of higher ground and we relaxed a bit for the final leg of the trip back to the beach where we parked. We were relieved to be out of the raging current and wind as we looked out into the channel that was covered in white caps and spray. The South Kingstown shoreline was peaceful but very developed with houses perched high on the cliff tops all along the stretch until we got near the Bay Campus. The evenly spaced-out surf and swell nudged us along as we rolled over down each wave- very relaxing.
Back at the beach we were greeted by a feisty pup that seemed very interested in us. He had probably never seen paddle boarders before and we were making him anxious by this “standing on water” thing we were doing. But we were good and ready to head over to the Willows for a Mert burger and some draft- sorry dog.
A follow-up note on Jamestown
Jamestown is actually the name of the “town” on Conanicut Island that was named after the Narragansett Sachem, Conanicus. The first known Europeans to visit Narragansett Bay were Gionvanni Verrazano and his crew of explorers in 1524. That’s why the bridge is called the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge.
After that, the Dutch leased Dutch Island from the Narragansetts for fur trading purposes and later the English settled the area. After, hostilities broke out 1675 between the settlers and natives culminating in the “King Phillips War”, Conanicut become the last refuge for the Native Americans in a land now controlled by the Europeans. But within a short time, Conanicut Island, which had already been purchased by a group of English and Dutch merchants became the settlement of Jamestown, named after King James II. It was a huge success as an agricultural area and its European residency quickly grew to over 500 within a few years.