RI has two Narragansett Bays? Here's the secret behind the 'Little Narragansett Bay'

Mark Reynolds
Providence Journal

When it's just after lunch on a Sunday afternoon in Providence, Julie Voigt knows it's not too late for one of her favorite summertime options on the coast.

She and her boyfriend can rack her kayak and her paddleboard on a whim.

And within about 90 minutes, they can dip their paddles into the placid waters of a scenic saltwater bay. As they glide, they can feel the cool ocean breeze blowing in from the nearby ocean: Its swells are just beyond the dunes of the outer barrier beach on the other side of the bay.

The 34-year-old's path to this place will easily skirt the traffic on Route 4 and it won't take her anywhere near Narragansett Bay.

Her destination this time is Narragansett Bay's smaller sister to the west, Little Narragansett Bay, a saltwater haven for paddlers and boaters.

The little bay is protected by Westerly's Napatree Beach, which, is part of its allure for more than a few boaters.

For her part, though, Voigt likes to chill out on a sandy island. Her happy place is cleansed by tidal flows, and inhabited by plovers, seagulls and horseshoe crabs.

Offerings of the Narragansett Bay's smaller cousin

The bay and nearby waters give boaters and paddlers an array of venues and choices, including:

  • Of course, the outer barrier beach, Napatree, is a big draw, offering ocean waves on one side of the dunes and much calmer water and lots of space for anchoring on the other, just a short walk away from the shops and restaurants of Watch Hill.
  • A New England seaside village, Stonington Borough, with colonial architecture and restaurants such as and .
  • A river, the Pawcatuck River, that leads into downtown Westerly.
  • Nearby destinations for power boaters, including , Mystic and even Block Island.

With an outboard engine, it's possible to do almost all of it, including either Fisher's Island or Mystic, in a single day.

That's not realistic for non-Olympian paddlers, but with some energy, it's possible to lunch in Stonington, swim in the ocean off Napatree, and even have a stroll along Bay Street and up to the front gates of Taylor Swift's house perched on the bluff.

All this and more in a single day without paying for parking. The geography − for boaters and hearty paddlers − is that friendly.

An aquatic destination molded by hurricanes

The best way to understand the area's geography is to delve into some hurricane history and the best setting for the start of that story is in the 1930s, at Watch Hill, high on the bluff that sits between two pretty beaches: A beach to the east, which hasn't had major influence on Little Narragansett Bay. And a beach to the west, Napatree, which has.

Prior to the 1938 hurricane, a person could look out the windows of Taylor Swift's future vacation home and see the waves of Block Island Sound crashing onto both of the south-facing beaches.

At that time, a leisurely walk along Napatree took a person in front of vacation homes, and in a westerly direction, until the shoreline basically rounded a corner and took a dramatic turn to the north.

The elbow marked the southwest corner of the state of Rhode Island.

Here, just off the shore, rougher ocean waters directly to the south converged with the calmer waters of Long Island Sound to the west.

After the turn, the slender shoreline continued north, projecting toward the Connecticut coast.

It did not rejoin that other coastline, however. It stopped short, ending in a sandy point, which is what the locals called it.

The bay to the east of Sandy Point and north of Napatree was protected on all sides and fed by the Pawcatuck River. It was known as Little Narragansett Bay.

Then, a great hurricane hit.

Little Narragansett meets Long Island Sound

The mighty storm basically erased the slender natural barrier that separated Long Island Sound from the little bay.

It replaced the bay's western shores with sand flats and vast tracts of shallow saltwater that were contiguous with the sound.

Once the storm surge retreated, the former point, reemerged as a small island.

To the south, across the shallow waters, the former elbow in the coastline was now a point.

The vacation homes at Napatree were destroyed or swept away.

The remaining dunes of the outer barrier beach, the sandy shallows on the western fringes of the bay and the overall geography still offered a great deal of protection from ocean turbulence.

Fun on Little Narragansett Bay

As the decades passed, the sands shifted further and the island moved.

It was a sandy island − as granular as the sandy point before it. But its name − Sandy Point − never changed.

Like Sandy Point, much of the nearby coastal terrain is softened by heavy helpings of sand, making the entire area a spectacular playground for boaters, paddlers and anyone in bare feet.

Voigt says she learned about Sandy Point from a friend who lived in Westerly.

They hatched a kayaking plan.

During their adventure, they met people who had visited the island on boats.

"We had a great time," Voigt says.

On another occasion, Voigt, who plays violin, met up with other musicians. They all jammed together out on the bay.

"It's a good day," she says. "Especially, if you have a boat to bring stuff. But if you don't you can definitely bring a cooler and some towels and stuff in a small kayak or paddleboard."

Voigt has both, a Cruiser SUP stand-up paddle board and a recreational kayak that her boyfriend paddles.

A good place to kick off a saltwater day trip

For most people, a trip to Rhode Island's smaller bay during peak season starts at one of the pricy parking lots off Bay Street in Watch Hill.

Paddlers and boaters can do it much differently.

One of the best starting points, which Voigt likes, is the boat ramp at Barn Island in Stonington Connecticut.

A wide array of watercraft, from paddleboards to trailered cigarette boats can launch from the ramp.

To get there, find Route 1, take Greenhaven Road and then take an immediate left onto Palmer Neck Road. Drive to the end.

The parking lot is large. But it can be jammed in the middle of a busy day. Don't fret. Part of the busyness involves people who are leaving, which frees up parking spaces for the latest arrivals.