Early July is when Rhode Island gets in touch with its inner
Texas. Between the Newport Regatta and the grass-court Hall of
Fame Tennis Championships, both of which are set for the
City-by-the-Sea this week, the boats are big, the serves are
bigger and, Newport being Newport, outsized wealth parades around
town. But that's far too glib a generalization and overlooks a
remarkable bit of civic jujitsu that has taken place over the
past two decades--a turnaround that demonstrates just how
enamored of the sea ordinary residents of the Ocean State really
The story begins as another one ends, on Sept. 26, 1983, a.k.a.
Black Monday. That's when Dennis Conner's Liberty loses to
Australia II, forcing the New York Yacht Club to turn over the
America's Cup for the first time in 132 years. As a result,
Newport's economy will no longer get the triennial goosing it
has counted on for more than half a century. Enter a band of
chronically optimistic local sailing sickos. Within days they
have set up an outfit, Sail Newport, pledged to preserving the
sport in the American city most identified with it. They even
prevail on the America's Cup organizers to transfer their phone
Given how dark a day had just passed, using those last four
digits was a bit like the Red Sox' setting up a ticket hotline
using the number 1-800-BUCKNER. But Newport had been down many
times before--during the British occupation in the Revolution;
when the torpedo station closed following World War II; after
President Nixon moved the Atlantic Fleet to Norfolk in 1973--and
the place always came back, with the sureness of the tides. Here
was one more chance, to use a phrase popularized in connection
with Newport's own Claus Von Bulow, for a reversal of fortune.
With the loss of the Cup, those local yachtsmen saw a chance to
alter the destiny of the sport in one of the finest sailing
environments in the world. After a failed attempt to attract
12-meter boats for a world championship regatta (a prelude to the
America's Cup), Sail Newport focused instead on public
sailing--lessons, scholarships, reasonably priced rentals and
events that would hardly get an old-line yacht club member to
reach for his monocle. After all, why should Newport's deep
water, reliable winds and sheltered harbor be reserved for the
elite? Says Robin Wallace, a pediatrician who helped found Sail
Newport's facility in Fort Adams State Park, "When the America's
Cup left, it's almost as if the average person said, 'Maybe I
could come to Newport to sail.'"
Today almost 50 sailing events a year begin or end in Newport's
waters, or circumnavigate them. But the Newport Regatta has held
a special place since its founding in 1985. It's a populist
festival-at-sea, open to 21 classes of boats, 15 of them
manufactured in Rhode Island, from dinghies to wooden classics to
champagne yachts. The racing is strictly "one design," i.e., no
alterations allowed--which means being well-heeled won't make
your boat any better-keeled. Organizers accept entrants up to an
hour before the race, so the exact start list depends on whether
some couch-potato commodore in Westerly can line up a babysitter
or a weak-stomached retiree in Warwick likes the look of that
morning's weather forecast. "If you can get a boat in the water,"
says race director Kim Cooper, "you're in."
Occasionally the regatta has included an 18-mile multiclass race
around Jamestown Island, which creates the democratic spectacle
of a star sailor like Conner or Olympic gold medalist Lynn Jewell
Shore blasting past a 12-year-old at the tiller of a Club 420
dinghy. "You can't go out and get in a round of golf with Tiger
Woods," says Brad Read, Sail Newport's executive director, "but
you can take your Etchells [-class schooner] and sail with some
of the best in the sport."
Rhode Island is the nation's second most densely populated state
(behind New Jersey), a pulsating urban organism with unlovely
I-95 as its spine. Small wonder that its citizens regard the
expanse of Narragansett Bay, a 25-mile incision from the Atlantic
that runs almost three-quarters the length of the state, as such
a precious resource. Laid-off factory workers have been known to
clam its shores to scratch out a living, and 33-year-old Save the
Bay is the state's most broadly supported environmental group.
Sail Newport believes that sailing should be every bit as much a
community activity as the bay is public property. "We're not a
yacht club," says Bart Dunbar, a developer and another Sail
Newport founder. "We're based in a public park." Average folk
nonetheless didn't kindle right away to the volunteer-intensive
task of running a regatta. "They had always done it and were
always going to do it," says Dunbar, referring to Newport's
seasonal rich. "Well, they are now we." Over the three days of
racing in July, people at every stratum help out, the blazer
If there's a patron saint of all that will take place this week,
it's James Gordon Bennett Jr., the brash publisher of the old New
York Herald. He was one of the 19th-century plutocrats who, when
not turning summer into a verb and cottage into a euphemism,
elevated the sports that have since trickled down to Rhode
Island's middle class. In 1872 he donated the hardware for
Newport's Brenton Reef Cup, which is considered America's first
ocean race; eight years later he undertook his most audacious
project, building the Newport Casino, which for more than 30
years hosted the U.S. national tennis championships.
How Bennett came to found the Casino bears retelling. One summer
day in 1879, while relaxing on the porch of the exclusive men's
club called the Newport Reading Room, he hailed a British friend
on the street who was then enjoying guest privileges under
Bennett's auspices. This man, a polo-playing Colonel Candy,
happened to be astride his horse at the time and, sociable chap
that he was, cantered up the steps to the porch, through several
rooms, into the main hall and back out again, as aghast members
looked on. In Victorian Newport this touched off a roundelay of
indignation, including the revocation of Candy's guest
privileges. Bennett quit in a huff and established his rival club
down the street. Today the International Tennis Hall of Fame is
housed at the Casino, whose greenswards host this week's ATP Tour
stop, still known informally as Newport Week. It's the only
professional grass-court tournament left in North America. Like
Sail Newport, today's Casino happily makes concessions to the
masses: scholarships, youth clinics and racket-donation drives.
Anyone can walk in off the street and, with 40 bucks and proper
shoes, play 90 minutes of lawn tennis.
If there's a governing principle to this week's activities, it's
that stuffiness is hopelessly passe. Indeed, at 11 a.m. on
Saturday, sea breezes willing, a spectator should be able to
watch from Brenton Point as Conner and Ken Read (Brad's brother),
who has helmed the last two America's Cup challenges of Conner's
Stars & Stripes, go at each other in the Etchells class; then
sprint to the Hall of Fame to catch Boris Becker's 1 p.m.
induction and at least part of the first semifinal; then hightail
it to Goat Island for the finish of several classes of dinghies;
and perhaps even make it to the end of the Newport International
Polo Series grudge match between the U.S. and Spain at
Portsmouth's Glen Farm, at the upper end of Aquidneck Island.
"Looking back, losing the Cup was probably the best thing that
could have happened for our sport," says Brad Read. "Sailing here
is more than alive and well, it's dynamic. That a certain silver
mug is no longer bolted to a table in New York City means very
little to someone who goes out sailing on a summer day."
Ken Read, a three-time winner at the Newport Regatta and six-time
J/24 world champion, is a poster boy for community sailing. A
dairy farmer's son who first hoisted a sail on Narragansett Bay,
he figures to be helmsman again during the next America's Cup
challenge. Which raises the possibility that a Cup defense will
someday return to Newport, in part as a result of a chain of
events touched off by the Auld Mug's very departure 20 years ago.
As reversals of fortune go, that would be the sweetest of all.
For more about sports in Rhode Island and the other 49 states, go
COLOR PHOTO: COVER FLAP PHOTO: DAN NERNEY [COVER INSET] SPORTS IN AMERICA 50 States in 50 Weeks THIS WEEK: RHODE ISLAND Inside the Ocean State's Big Sports Week BY ALEXANDER WOLFF PLUS * Rhode Island Sports Poll * Peter Farrelly on PC Hoops * Enemy of the State * R.I.'s Greatest Sports Moment * Who & Where Map
COLOR PHOTO: DAN NERNEY [T of C] PEOPLE'S PORT Anyone, posh or plebeian, can sail in this week's Newport Regatta (page 34).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAN NERNEY MAKING WAVES The Newport Regatta draws hundreds of boats in 21 classes, from dinghies to yachts, with entries allowed up to an hour before race time.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAN NERNEY SERVING ALL At the tennis Hall of Fame a statue of British great Fred Perry stands beside a court on which anyone can play.
"Losing the America's Cup was probably the best thing that could
have happened," says Read. "Sailing here is more than alive and
well, it's dynamic."