Last week I was in Newport to check on our sailboat, and was shocked at seeing the harbor completely empty. There wasn’t a single sailboat on a mooring, and there were very few people out and about in town. This is not what the City of Newport is supposed to look like on a mild day in early April. This is a time of year that we’ll usually see folks promenading along the sidewalks of America’s Cup Avenue, where the guys and ladies are decked out in the latest hip and trendy togs, and leashed dogs casually saunter with their owners. We’ll also see motley cyclists and joggers scooting on by — it’s downright festive.
Moreover, the warming southwest wind will cause halyards to slap the masts of moored sailboats — rat tat tat. On the avenue, we’ll also see signs that read “Open,” along with flags and colorful banners. The daffodils are full on and firing all over town and Ocean Drive. But, on this usual seasonal drill of mine there was none of the aforementioned. The town and harbor looked tired. After I checked the sailboat and was sitting in the empty parking lot of the marina and pondering the emptiness of this place called Newport, I did see someone who ghosted by on a bicycle, someone I’ve known for years. He is a boat guy who has been a constant fixture in this harbor town for a long time. I wanted intel to get a grip on this new now, and knew his take on the current status of the harbor and town would be informative. I decided to track him down — but more about this guy later.
I’ve been messing around Newport since I was 14; music festivals, surfing, and raising hell as I was wont to do in my younger days. This has led me to end up sailing out of this harbor for over 20 years. I love the place, as it spills history, music, art, culture, and characters. I’m always learning new things about this historical town. My childhood friend Tim Tierney and I would hitchhike there from Pawtucket to surf. One time a sailor dropped us off down on Thames Street, which at that time was a beat-up strip of road, rife with saloons, sailors and hard sorts. We ended up walking down Thames and continued hitching from Kings Park, across from Hussy’s Harbor House, because we didn’t know you could just head up Memorial Boulevard to hit the beaches and rent a surfboard. (Hey, we were kids on an adventure — and clueless; however, we filed stuff in our heads for future reference and made memories.) Subsequently, I have benchmarks of what the town looked like — then — and that’s what struck me when I saw an empty town and harbor.
In 1973 the Navy pulled out of Narragansett Bay. The destroyers left Newport — Quonset Point emptied — and the state took a huge economic hit. North Kingstown and Newport got slammed really hard and it was a shock to our state government. In one year, Newport’s small business income dropped 25 percent.
I had a friend from Rhode Island College named Gene Dufault, and we went to see his brother Barry at Bannister’s Wharf one day. Barry was the Captain of the HMS Rose which was docked at Bannister’s, when a brace of nearby wharves were just shifting gears with buildings being moved and small businesses beginning a slow and steady recovery from the Navy’s departure. I also remember busking at Bannister’s with my music partner Jon Campbell for beer money when the place was just inching forward into its future. Newport was on a slow up turn, and over time it recovered quite handily. The City by the Sea is no stranger from reinvention since the American Revolution. It’s a tough and hardscrabble little town.
Now about that guy on the bicycle. I tracked him down at Old Port Marine. His name is Mike Muessel and he owns this business which he’s had since the Navy left town. He had vision, and he and a partner threw down for it. Mike and I discussed the current situation of our world and its impact on the maritime industry. We talked about quarantine protocols issued by Tim Mills, who is the Newport Harbormaster, and the possible impact on the local economy. Currently, while Mike’s guys are ramping up for the summer in Newport and in New Harbor on Block Island, he is a realist who, like myself, is cautiously optimistic. This is a wait and see scenario, which shifts daily as the science and math of this virus constantly changes. According to Captain Chris Waitkun — a former coworker of mine from the Block Island Ferry — who runs a tugboat for Moran Towing in New York Harbor, “Foreign flagged ships all fly a quarantine signal flag when they enter the harbor. With the current situation no one is leaving these ships.” Furthermore, this protocol is also followed for any vessel entering Newport Harbor or the harbors on Block Island. During this quarantine a vessel not registered in Rhode Island must fly a signal flag called a Yellow Jack, which means that a boat is under quarantine. This practice goes back to Colonial times. If a vessel enters the aforementioned harbors, all crew must stay aboard and quarantine for fourteen days.
As Mike and I talked about the current downside, we also talked about the upside, and how these coastal and island economies will come back stronger. “This will pass and we’ll move forward. We always do. We have to. We have no other choice,” said Mike. I agreed with him. A few hours later as I was leaving the empty streets of Newport a passing thought struck me. The fact that people are hunkered down in place shows that collectively we all want this to pass, and we are serving each other’s needs for the long game by staying home. Finally, as I was driving over the Pell Bridge heading home to Point Judith, there was a small sign of hope. As I looked north there was a lone sailboat, sailing hard on the harbor and sailing purposefully forward.