By Vladimir Brezina
Block Island lies in the middle of Block Island Sound, about ten miles south of the main Rhode Island coast. It’s a fairly large island, beautiful in the coastal New England manner, with long sandy beaches, grassy dunes and bluffs, beach roses and beach peas, warm turquoise waters. (This is in the summer, of course… although in winter, when the tourists and the summer residents leave, the windswept, largely treeless island no doubt has its own bleak beauty too.) There are some paddling possibilities on the island itself.
A distinct step up from the open-water paddles across New York Harbor’s Lower Bay or across Long Island Sound, which are still fairly sheltered, the Block Island paddle offers true open-ocean experience. The open water of Block Island Sound is exposed from all directions, but particularly from the south—any conditions out on the open Atlantic will be felt, with little attenuation, in the Sound. There is nowhere to hide from them. On the other hand, the paddle is not so long, and many days in the summer are predictably benign. So this paddle will test mainly your navigational skills and your critical judgement about weather and tidal currents—but, if that judgement should fail, also your rough-water paddling skills…
Over the past decade, I’ve paddled out to Block Island, and back, four times (as shown by the colored tracks on the chart below), starting from various points on the mainland coast. The shortest one-way distance is about 8 nautical miles, from Point Judith, Rhode Island.
(click on chart to expand)
Weather. In the summer, there are often long stretches of calm and settled weather, so it’s not too difficult to pick a day on which the prevailing wind will be mild. But in the afternoon of such a day a sea breeze is likely to develop. On the open water, even moderate winds can produce challenging waves. And even on the calmest day, you can expect two- or three-foot swells rolling in from the open Atlantic.
If you paddle out to the island and the conditions then deteriorate, you might be able to take the Block Island Ferry back to Point Judith.
Navigation. On a clear day you can see Block Island, albeit very low on the horizon, from the mainland, and vice versa. But summer days are often hazy, and you might have to start out without seeing your destination. And it can get worse. I remember paddling through Block Island Sound on a day when smoke generated by a major forest fire in Canada reduced visibility to less than a mile (and imparted to the water and air an eerie orange glow), so that I paddled all day without seeing land… A chart and compass are essential, and a GPS preprogrammed with waypoints will take most of the worry out of the navigation—provided it works!
Tidal currents. The trip can be markedly assisted by tidal currents. But the currents are complicated. The currents between the mainland and Block Island set predominantly east-west. But the currents into and out of Narragansett Bay, just to the east of the Point Judith-Block Island route, set north-south, and precede the Block Island Sound currents by two hours or more. Altogether, this produces roughly these current flows:
So, while the trip is across more than with the currents, nevertheless by leaving Point Judith, for instance, at the start of the ebb in Narragansett Bay (as in the first chartlet above) you can get a significant push south and west to Block Island. Then by leaving Block Island at the start of the flood in Narragansett Bay (as in the third chartlet), you can get a push north and east back to Point Judith. This, at any rate, is what we did on our last trip to Block Island (photos below).
I have not checked this picture of current flows very systematically, however—so before you go, be sure to check that particular day’s current predictions (for instance, at the points A, B, C, and D marked on the first chartlet; predictions at these locations can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively).
Tide rip. From the northern tip of Block Island, a shallow reef, Block Island North Reef, stretches to the north for more than a mile. The ebb current in Block Island Sound accelerates to 3 knots or more across this reef, and a sizable tide rip develops. The safe paddling route would be to the west of green buoy “1BI” that marks the northern end of the reef (see chart below). On our last trip, however, we had to maneuver between numerous boats fishing in the smooth water just to the west of the reef, and before we knew it, we were swept into the tide rip. It was quite bouncy!
Here are a few photos from our last trip out to Block Island, in July 2011 (red track on the charts).
We launch at Point Judith. With a little trial and error, down an unmarked dirt road we discover a convenient parking lot right at the foot of the eastern breakwater of the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge. We can launch right there, but outside the breakwater off rocks, or after a short portage from a nice, calm, sandy beach inside the breakwater (see the last photos below). We opt for the latter…
We paddle out of the Harbor of Refuge. The open Block Island Sound is unusually calm today…
However, we do get a little nervous about the Block Island Ferry, which follows us out of Point Judith for some distance before diverging to New Shoreham on the east side of Block Island, whereas we head to the west.
We are in international waters!—outside the three-mile zone around the Rhode Island coast, but not yet in the three-mile zone around Block Island (see main chart above).
The bluffs of Block Island are now clearly visible…
And then we are there! We paddle along the long beach on the northwest side of the island, past the low grassy dunes and Block Island North Light behind…
… and turn into the Great Salt Pond, a large pond that occupies the middle of the island.
We land for lunch in a shaded pine grove…
After lunch we take a tour of the Great Salt Pond, which is a harbor filled with a myriad craft at anchor.
Johna practices a few rolls in the warm, crystal-clear water.
Then we head back north, back along the long beach and past the lighthouse…
… over the reef and through the tide rip that is off the north tip of the island (photos not shown ;-) ), and across the eight miles of Block Island Sound …
… back to the beach inside the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge that we started from.
And, after loading the kayaks back on the car, there is still plenty of time to enjoy the view of the picturesque rocky shoreline outside the breakwater that leads up to Point Judith Light, now bathed in the late afternoon sunshine.
Good luck and good paddling during your own trip to Block Island!
More photos, from this day and the other days of our 2011 New England paddling vacation, are here.