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Sports have gone populist in ritzy Newport, where events will be in full sail this week
By Alexander Wolff
Early july is when Rhode Island gets in touch with its inner Texas. Between the Newport Regatta and the grass-court Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, both of which are set for the City-by-the-Sea this week, the boats are big, the serves are bigger and, Newport being Newport, outsized wealth parades around town. But that's far too glib a generalization and overlooks a remarkable bit of civic jujitsu that has taken place over the past two decades -- a turnaround that demonstrates just how enamored of the sea ordinary residents of the Ocean State really are.
Given how dark a day had just passed, using those last four digits was a bit like the Red Sox' setting up a ticket hotline using the number 1-800-BUCKNER. But Newport had been down many times before -- during the British occupation in the Revolution; when the torpedo station closed following World War II; after President Nixon moved the Atlantic Fleet to Norfolk in 1973 -- and the place always came back, with the sureness of the tides. Here was one more chance, to use a phrase popularized in connection with Newport's own Claus Von Blow, for a reversal of fortune.
With the loss of the Cup, those local yachtsmen saw a chance to alter the destiny of the sport in one of the finest sailing environments in the world. After a failed attempt to attract 12-meter boats for a world championship regatta (a prelude to the America's Cup), Sail Newport focused instead on public sailing -- lessons, scholarships, reasonably priced rentals and events that would hardly get an old-line yacht club member to reach for his monocle. After all, why should Newport's deep water, reliable winds and sheltered harbor be reserved for the elite? Says Robin Wallace, a pediatrician who helped found Sail Newport's facility in Fort Adams State Park, "When the America's Cup left, it's almost as if the average person said, 'Maybe I could come to Newport to sail.'"
Today almost 50 sailing events a year begin or end in Newport's waters, or circumnavigate them. But the Newport Regatta has held a special place since its founding in 1985. It's a populist festival-at-sea, open to 21 classes of boats, 15 of them manufactured in Rhode Island, from dinghies to wooden classics to champagne yachts. The racing is strictly "one design," i.e., no alterations allowed -- which means being well-heeled won't make your boat any better-keeled. Organizers accept entrants up to an hour before the race, so the exact start list depends on whether some couch-potato commodore in Westerly can line up a babysitter or a weak-stomached retiree in Warwick likes the look of that morning's weather forecast. "If you can get a boat in the water," says race director Kim Cooper, "you're in."
Occasionally the regatta has included an 18-mile multiclass race around Jamestown Island, which creates the democratic spectacle of a star sailor like Conner or Olympic gold medalist Lynn Jewell Shore blasting past a 12-year-old at the tiller of a Club 420 dinghy. "You can't go out and get in a round of golf with Tiger Woods," says Brad Read, Sail Newport's executive director, "but you can take your Etchells [-class schooner] and sail with some of the best in the sport."
Rhode Island is the nation's second most densely populated state (behind New Jersey), a pulsating urban organism with unlovely I-95 as its spine. Small wonder that its citizens regard the expanse of Narragansett Bay, a 25-mile incision from the Atlantic that runs almost three-quarters the length of the state, as such a precious resource. Laid-off factory workers have been known to clam its shores to scratch out a living, and 33-year-old Save the Bay is the state's most broadly supported environmental group. Sail Newport believes that sailing should be every bit as much a community activity as the bay is public property. "We're not a yacht club," says Bart Dunbar, a developer and another Sail Newport founder. "We're based in a public park." Average folk nonetheless didn't kindle right away to the volunteer-intensive task of running a regatta. "They had always done it and were always going to do it," says Dunbar, referring to Newport's seasonal rich. "Well, they are now we." Over the three days of racing in July, people at every stratum help out, the blazer brigade included.
If there's a patron saint of all that will take place this week, it's James Gordon Bennett Jr., the brash publisher of the old New York Herald. He was one of the 19th-century plutocrats who, when not turning summer into a verb and cottage into a euphemism, elevated the sports that have since trickled down to Rhode Island's middle class. In 1872 he donated the hardware for Newport's Brenton Reef Cup, which is considered America's first ocean race; eight years later he undertook his most audacious project, building the Newport Casino, which for more than 30 years hosted the U.S. national tennis championships.
How Bennett came to found the Casino bears retelling. One summer day in 1879, while relaxing on the porch of the exclusive men's club called the Newport Reading Room, he hailed a British friend on the street who was then enjoying guest privileges under Bennett's auspices. This man, a polo-playing Colonel Candy, happened to be astride his horse at the time and, sociable chap that he was, cantered up the steps to the porch, through several rooms, into the main hall and back out again, as aghast members looked on. In Victorian Newport this touched off a roundelay of indignation, including the revocation of Candy's guest privileges. Bennett quit in a huff and established his rival club down the street. Today the International Tennis Hall of Fame is housed at the Casino, whose greenswards host this week's ATP Tour stop, still known informally as Newport Week. It's the only professional grass-court tournament left in North America. Like Sail Newport, today's Casino happily makes concessions to the masses: scholarships, youth clinics and racket-donation drives. Anyone can walk in off the street and, with 40 bucks and proper shoes, play 90 minutes of lawn tennis.
If there's a governing principle to this week's activities, it's that stuffiness is hopelessly passé. Indeed, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, sea breezes willing, a spectator should be able to watch from Brenton Point as Conner and Ken Read (Brad's brother), who has helmed the last two America's Cup challenges of Conner's Stars & Stripes, go at each other in the Etchells class; then sprint to the Hall of Fame to catch Boris Becker's 1 p.m. induction and at least part of the first semifinal; then hightail it to Goat Island for the finish of several classes of dinghies; and perhaps even make it to the end of the Newport International Polo Series grudge match between the U.S. and Spain at Portsmouth's Glen Farm, at the upper end of Aquidneck Island.
"Looking back, losing the Cup was probably the best thing that could have happened for our sport," says Brad Read. "Sailing here is more than alive and well, it's dynamic. That a certain silver mug is no longer bolted to a table in New York City means very little to someone who goes out sailing on a summer day."
Ken Read, a three-time winner at the Newport Regatta and six-time J/24 world champion, is a poster boy for community sailing. A dairy farmer's son who first hoisted a sail on Narragansett Bay, he figures to be helmsman again during the next America's Cup challenge. Which raises the possibility that a Cup defense will someday return to Newport, in part as a result of a chain of events touched off by the Auld Mug's very departure 20 years ago. As reversals of fortune go, that would be the sweetest of all.
Issue date: July 14, 2003