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Go with the flow

Whether you are paddling or tasting pinot, water and wind play in this harbor, sun and soil make this landscape lush

Sakonnet Light stands in the harbor. Sakonnet Light stands in the harbor. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 21, 2009
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SAKONNET, R.I. - The snug harbor here, a hook of land buffered from strong southwest winds by a straight and sturdy seawall, is in many ways a perfect sanctuary.

On a weekday morning warming toward summer, all inside the harbor is anchored and bobbing only a bit. Sporty outboards wait to shuttle weekend anglers around the seawall in search of stripers. Bulkier working boats, their hulls beaten by salt and time, take a place dockside, their crews sporting orange foul weather pants, even on a sunny day. At low tide, wide rocks spike the harbor’s shallower eastern edge and cormorants on top sit still.

For visitors who approach even by land the harbor offers a peaceful stop, set as it is at the end of a narrowing point that is thick with cedar-shingled houses, settled rock walls, and fields of green grass, low shrubs, and Christmas trees.

One slow sedan driving down the road sported a bumper sticker: “I love my farmer.’’ A woman passing by another on a sidewalk was heard to say, early on that calm Monday, “Your garden looks wonderful.’’

“Oh,’’ came her friend’s reply, “it is a lot of work.’’

There is, in other words, order all around, especially in the center of Little Compton, the tidy town with all the necessities of New England, including a white steeple, freshly painted, and tilted gravestones left to lean.

Even inside The Commons Lunch, a diner just down the street from C.R. Wilbur’s General Merchandise, the banter of breakfast flows from table to counter and back with gentle ease. One white-haired man turned from his paper and leaned toward an acquaintance: “You got the rest of the day off to go goofin’?’’

If you stay on land, there are plenty of places for that, including Evelyn’s Drive-In, a classic seafood spot on the edge of Nanaquaket Pond in Tiverton, just north on Route 77. Or stop at Sakonnet Vineyards to sample fruity whites and reds blended smoothly. Provenders, they say, makes great sandwiches; so too, The Last Stand. Both are a short drive apart on 77.

But drive south again to the huddled harbor at Sakonnet Point, and put in a kayak. With at least moderate experience paddling in open water, you can quickly learn what a windy day can be on Rhode Island Sound.

A friend and I did just that, sometime around 10 a.m., as a southwest wind kept a flag leaping from a pole at the Sakonnet Point Club. Our plan was to use the harbor only as a point of departure. We would paddle south, out and around the Sakonnet Light (a more perfect perch for a lighthouse it would be hard to create) and along the rocky shoreline that passes Briggs Marsh on its way to Massachusetts.

Reports from avid paddlers promised that the rocks, ledges, and steady surf make a fine place to play in the waves. My friend, Tom Mailhot, was ready for that, having paddled on expeditions around Cape Horn and along the Bering Strait. I, too, was eager in spirit, but not skill. As we rounded the seawall and headed several hundred yards into two-foot-high waves, Tom suggested we test surfing back with the following seas.

We did that without incident, but the warming air was likely to lift the wind and the waves even higher. So Tom suggested we stay close to safe harbor.

“I don’t think we should go around the lighthouse,’’ he said. “It’s a big fetch. And it’s early in the season yet.’’

Indeed, were it a summer day, and water warmer by 10 degrees, the seas would seem to be only six inches high, and worth the challenge of paddling. But cold water can claim a person quickly, and we were wise to get back in the rhythm of paddling.

We would head dead into the wind for five minutes or so, out to a big orange buoy, then ride back carving left and right with the waves past the seawall and the Eclipse, an anchored, elegant sailboat more than 50 feet long.

Even there, just offshore, it was amazing to consider the power of the sea, so stark compared to the gentle life on the nearby land. Watching Tom paddle easily into the wind, I knew he was at home here amid the tumult.

After five or six laps out and back in the kayak, I was ready for a bit of a break. So we paddled into the harbor and along the eastern shore, where a dock offered stability for a snack.

Then it was back out around the seawall, where waves were three feet high and climbing. I nearly got dumped. Two miles across the mouth of the Sakonnet River, the mansions of Newport looked on, unmoved.

We talked again about whether we should make a run for Sakonnet Light. Tom shared a story about paddling off Gloucester, when he got caught by a Nor’easter and paddled six foot seas back into harbor, wondering whether the journey would be his last.

“You always want to live to paddle another day,’’ Tom said, “if you have a choice.’’

We made a few more runs out toward the buoy and back, but I stayed closer to shore. Maybe it was the pace of my slowing arms that prompted Tom to suggest a better course.

He turned toward the harbor and asked, “Want to go to the winery?’’

Tom Haines can be reached at thomaswhaines@hotmail.com.

If You Go

Where to eat

The Commons Lunch

48 Commons, Little Compton

401-635-4388

Johnnycakes for two $10.

Evelyn’s Drive-In

2335 Main Road, Tiverton

401-624-3100

Lobster bisque for two $20.

What to do

Sakonnet Vineyards

162 West Main Road

Little Compton

800-919-4637

sakonnetwine.com

Tours, tastings in summer 10 a.m-6 p.m.

Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures

489 Old County Road, Westport

508-636-0300

Five-hour trips from Sakonnet Harbor for paddlers with some experience, $85.