I’ve been around Newport Harbor since the 1960s and I’m never bored in my roaming and hacking. The place has been the locus for centuries of maritime tradition and history since the early days of the American Revolution. It’s where the French fleet mustered their ships and land forces — about six thousand troops — to help George Washington and his rebels shut down Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. At first, Washington wanted to attack the wily Lord Cornwallis in New York City; however, Comte de Rochambeau talked Washington into heading to Virginia and joining another army and his rebel force. It was a good tactical move and the French and the rebels won this major land battle. Washington was himself a good sailor, but he probably knew Rochambeau had better seagoing tactics to defeat the British. I always wonder what the inner and outer harbor looked like in July of 1780. More than likely there was slack wind and humidity. I also wonder if the fleet had a quartering wind from the northeast to sail to Virginia. Or did they need to sail hard into the prevailing southwest wind to get there and fight.
In 1970, a replica of the HMS Rose arrived in Newport Harbor. A guy I went to college with from Newport took me to Bannister’s Wharf one day to meet his brother who was the Captain, and show me the ship. His name was Barry Dufault. Barry was a character living in a building next to the Clarke Cooke House. This was before the wharf became the hip place that it now is. I remember going aboard the Rose with Barry and his brother Gene, and I climbed up the rigging of the main mast about 15 feet; which was enough for me. The HMS Rose was originally built in 1757 in Hull, England and deployed to monitor and suppress smuggling operations off the Rhode Island coast. She was a formidable ship with 20 guns and without question intimidated privateers and other bad guys as well. The replica was used by Paramount pictures for the film “Masters and Commanders,” playing the HMS Surprise. The Rose was also used in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Over the years of working for the ferry company in Newport and sailing out of the harbor, I’ve seen many other old sailing vessels call on the City by the Sea. One day I sailed by the Alofsin Pier at Fort Adams, and saw two replicas of Columbus’s ships the Nina and the Pinta. I sailed close by the Nina’s starboard side and yelled to a kid that I needed intel from him for a column I wanted to write. Bang, the next day I hung with the crew and captain and got a snootful of facts about how gutsy Columbus and his sailors were to do what they did. Damn, these guys were nervy.
The Charles W. Morgan called in Newport in July 2014 when she finished her refit. This was her 38th voyage. She was the last working whaling ship in America. The whaler was built in New Bedford in 1841 and had an 80-year career. Over her career, she carried 54,483 barrels of oil and 152,934 pounds of whalebone. She was a utilitarian ship with little creature comforts. My head was bent like a nine iron after messing around this vessel for one hour. This was my second visit aboard the Morgan. I took my son Liam for a tour of her when playing at The Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival in 1984. Some things are just meant to last, and this beautifully functional ship is one of them.
One day about 20 years ago, I was sailing across the bay and passed astern of a replica of the Mayflower. I’m a descendant of John Howland, who was washed overboard and saved. (And, that’s why I’m writing this column today. Thanks, John.) The 62-year-old wooden ship was recently restored at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard in Mystic, Conn. Our folks took us to Plymouth in 1958 to see the brand new replica. My dad wanted us to know our connection to this ship. I vaguely remember walking on the docks looking at her, but I can’t remember crawling around her ‘tween decks where the passengers stayed in fetid conditions. I would’ve remembered that. She was recently restored and on a coastal tour; however, due to Covid-19, she didn’t call in Newport. But I guarantee you this, when she does call in Newport, I will be crawling all over every inch of that ship, and I will be accompanied by a sailor bud from Newport named Captain Bill Podzon, who will give me a solid tour. Bill has the skinny on this ship, crew, and passengers.
The Oliver Hazard Perry is Rhode Island’s Tallship. She is currently berthed at Fort Adams. In 1785, Oliver Hazard Perry was born in South Kingston. He was a hero of The War of 1812. He also chased down and fought pirates and slavers in the Caribbean, and his battle flag had the words, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” Perry was the real deal; sailor, warrior, and patriot, and it is fitting that our state’s Tallship bears his name.
I’ll never get bored of hacking, sailing, and ferreting out information in this little harbor. I have an inquiring mind, and I want to know stuff about the sailing ships of the sea.