Any visit to the capital of New England sailing, Newport, RI, during the warmer months is bound to include some wistful glances at the water. Graceful sailboats of all shapes and sizes can be seen swanning in and out of the harbor when there’s a fresh breeze — and there usually is one in Newport, given its prime oceanside perch on Aquidneck Island near the mouth of Narragansett Bay. This city hosted the legendary America’s Cup yacht race between 1930 and 1983, and today its race calendar still draws competitive sailors all summer long. (One recent highlight: the 2018 Volvo Ocean Race, which made Newport its only North American stop.)
Luckily, you don’t need to have your own sailboat — or even much by way of sailing savvy — to partake in Newport’s signature sport. From public cruises to private charters, local captains stand ready to welcome you aboard. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, there even are sailing schools that teach the basics of boat-handling in an exhilarating on-the-water classroom.
But whether you’re at the helm or just kicking back in the cockpit, the allure is the same: flying over the water amid a timeless soundscape of wind and waves. The revered French sailor Bernard Moitessier once remarked that “a sailor’s joys are as simple as a child’s” — and if you’re considering sailing Newport, RI, here are some places that put those joys within easy reach.
Note: Pricing and schedules are subject to change, so be sure to call or check online before making plans. Advance reservations are highly recommended by most boat operators.
The year 1983 was a tough one for the local sailing community, as Australia ended the 132-year winning streak that U.S. sailors had enjoyed in the America’s Cup. It also marked the last year the prestigious race would be held in Newport. But there was a silver lining: Those losses helped spark the creation of New England’s largest nonprofit public sailing center, Sail Newport. Situated in beautiful Fort Adams State Park, Sail Newport runs a variety of instructional, racing, and recreational programs for sailors of all ages. It also maintains a fleet of rental boats (Rhodes 19s and J/22s), available to those who pass an on-the-water skills test. You don’t need a membership to take advantage of Sail Newport’s offerings, but for those spending the summer in Newport, it’s a bargain: $25 seniors, $50 active military, and $100 individual/family. With membership comes discounts on Sail Newport classes, boat rentals, and events, as well as the knowledge that you’re helping support public access to an often-exclusive sport.
A number of private schools and yacht clubs around Narragansett Bay provide sailing instruction, mainly by appointment. A nice option for beginners is Newport Sailing School & Tours, a longtime family-run outfit featuring regularly scheduled one- and two-day lessons that you can book online. If you’d rather leave the driving to a professional, though, check out the public sunset tour offered daily May–November ($40; discounts for kids). A variety of private tours, private lessons, and charters can also be arranged.
The nation’s first sailing program for people with disabilities, Sail to Prevail was founded in Newport in 1982 and has grown to include outposts on Nantucket and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today this nonprofit helps more than 1,000 kids, adults, and veterans hit the water each summer in a fleet of specially adapted 20-foot sailboats (which can even accommodate wheelchairs). In Newport, sailing sessions on this “Independence” fleet are offered weekdays from mid-June to mid-August; weekend sailing is by appointment. For detailed information on registration, instruction, fees, and more, please visit the Sail to Prevail website.
Pedigreed and beautifully preserved 12-Meter racing yachts are the namesake stars here — namely, four former America’s Cup winners or contenders that date from the ’60s (including the American Eagle, once skippered by Ted Turner). Though available for private charter, they also do yeoman’s work ferrying the general public around on ticketed sails. The basic two-hour cruise ($75 adults, $40 kids) is a solid choice, but for more of an adrenaline rush, there’s a three-hour racing experience on select Sundays ($195 per person) that provides the opportunity to crew a “Big Twelve” in a match-race setting.
Here’s where to hop aboard the very first 12-Meter to win the America’s Cup: the Columbia, whose 1958 victory set the stage for the Twelves’ three-decade reign as the official America’s Cup class. Along with its stablemate, the classic wooden 12-Meter Heritage, the Columbia plies the waters around Newport on two-hour afternoon and evening cruises ($98 adults, $50 kids) and three-hour racing experiences on select Sundays ($169 per person). If booking a two-hour cruise, you may also have the opportunity to package it with one of a lively mix of activities, from a helicopter ride to a spa visit (prices vary). Private charters available.
Among the grand dames of Newport Harbor is the Madeleine, a 19th-century-style two-masted schooner named for the America’s Cup defender of 1876. From spring to early fall, it ventures forth daily from its berth on Bannister’s Wharf for 90-minute scenic tours ($33; discounts for seniors and kids). It also does sunset sails ($44; discounts for seniors and kids), which run about 90 minutes to two hours and include complimentary champagne and beer for the grownups aboard.
Note: The Madeleine has a rakish counterpart in the Rum Runner II, a 1929 motor yacht reputedly built for two New Jersey mobsters to smuggle booze during Prohibition. Since the Rum Runner II can navigate closer to shore and deeper into coves than the big sailboats, it’s a solid option for those willing to trade the romance of sailing for a closer look at Newport from the water.
Founded in 1990 as one of the first companies in downtown Newport to offer regular public sailing cruises, Sightsailing is still going strong with a well-kept collection of distinctly different boats. The Aquidneck is a handsome reproduction of a late-1800s coasting schooner, whose 80-foot length allows for plenty of elbow room. Smaller but more nimble is the Sightsailer, a 46-foot modern cruiser. And finally there’s the Starlight, an O’Day 34 that’s the go-to for intimate private charters. The Aquidneck and the Sightsailer both embark on ticketed sails of 90 minutes to two hours in the morning, in the afternoon, and at sunset; prices range from roughly $28–$37 (daytime) to $43 (sunset), with discounts for seniors, kids, and military.
From fireworks cruises to full-moon sails to “Dark and Stormy” cocktail sails, you can find an excursion to suit just about any kind of sailor on the Adirondack II, an 80-foot turn-of-the-century-style pilot schooner. Not enough choices for you? Check out the Adirondack II’s sister ship, the 48-foot sloop Eleanor, which operates its own slate of public sails. Most outings last about an hour and a half, with tickets ranging from $33 to $43 (more for fireworks cruises), with discounts for seniors and kids. Private charters available, too.
WHERE TO GO SAILING | NEWPORT, RI, CHARTERS
While public sails tend to be the most wallet-friendly and convenient way to get out on the water, charters promise a personalized adventure for those seeking a true one-of-a-kind experience. Many Newport-area operators — including a number of the ones mentioned above — offer charter service.
Among the standouts is the Hope San, an idiosyncratic beauty built in Hong Kong in 1958; now beautifully restored, this classic wooden yacht can be booked for two-hour, four-hour, or full-day private sails for up to six passengers ($340–$1,400). For fans of the stable, smooth-riding twin-hulled craft known as a catamaran, there’s NewportKat, which operates two-hour, four-hour, and full-day private sails for up to six people on its 41-foot AlyKat ($350–$1,200; more for overnights/multiday sails).
Finally, there’s the gorgeous floating museum collection that is Seascope Yacht Charters, whose jaw-dropping fleet of restored boats includes three 12-Meters that date to the 1920s and 1930s, and a sleek 1911 harbor launch built for John Jacob Astor IV (see website for service details; contact company for pricing).
Have you tried sailing Newport, RI? Let us know!