As smart invaders do, they came at night. They crept in on the cat feet of a calm spring evening, lapping up every tiny puff and turning it into forward speed. Even in the dark, we could track their jibes as they came in from offshore—thanks to their masthead running lights, which switched from red to green and back to red again as they changed course.

And the natives let them come.

Dongfeng shows us her transom, just after yet another jibe. Photo: PaulCroninStudios

Just after a jibe, Dongfeng shows us her transom. Photo: PaulCroninStudios

It was impossible to count the spectator boats that turned out to follow the pair of 65 foot sailboats into Narragansett Bay, but the horizon (usually jet black looking southeast) was filled with a small town’s worth of lights. And all those lights crept along in unison, speeding up with each puff and then backing off on the throttle when the wind died off to nothing again. Except for a few fishing boats and one container ship that was leaving the Bay, every single boat out there was focused on only one—or rather, only two—things.

Watching the race tracker after dinner, Paul and I got itchy to see what was going on for ourselves. “Want to drive down to Beavertail?” I asked him. “They’re inside Block Island now—maybe we can see the boats.”

Fortunately, Paul decided to bring his camera.

We arrived just after sunset, which is also when the park officially closes. On any other weeknight in May, it would be a very quiet place—evenings are still quite cool, and school is still in session. But last night, under the sweep of the lighthouse beam, a small crowd had already formed at the tip of our island, to welcome these sailors home. A few watched on their phones, but most of us squinted and waited for our rusty night vision to kick in. Soon the boats themselves (or at least their masthead lights) were visible, trailed by the wide variety of boats—large, small, sail, power— that had met them somewhere this side of Block Island.

Dongfeng beat Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing by less than four minutes—after 5000 miles of racing.

Dongfeng beat Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing by less than four minutes—after 5000 miles of racing.

Maybe the tight maneuvers reminded some of the America’s Cup match racing that used to be a fixture in the very same part of Rhode Island Sound. For me, it looked just like a small boat race: “Ian’s going to jibe,” I predicted. And sure enough, the red masthead light we’d identified as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing switched to green, as the trailing team tried to separate and maybe get around the leading Dongfeng. We could tell, even in the dark, that Dongfeng was protecting the west side of the course, and we thought that was smart: evening breeze usually comes from the land. And thanks to their light-air slow pace, we had plenty of time to armchair-quarterback their strategy.

After the two boats passed us by, we didn't want to let them go, so we drove north and joined the even larger crowd that had already congregated at the Fort Wetherill dock—which was close enough for photos, even in the dark. There, at sea level, we had a front row seat as first Dongfeng, and then Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, sailed as close as they dared toward the rocky Jamestown shore before jibing. By then the Chinese lead looked pretty safe, but we kept watching until a loud gun made it official.

Newport finish of Volvo Ocean Race

House on the Rock, spotlights from the Volvo Race Village, and a distant church steeple greet the racers. Photo: PaulCroninStudios

I was impressed by the sailing skills and speed of these two Volvo teams, especially on such a glassy night. I was even more impressed by the number of boats that left Narragansett Bay to greet the pair and follow them in. Going out on the water after dark on a school night is a major commitment, especially when the water temp has only recently risen above 50 degrees. Congratulations, Newport—last night you once again earned your self-described status as the sailing capital of the world.

Three more boats finished in the early morning hours, and Team SCA is due in very soon. All six boats will be tied up at the Newport Race Village, so make sure to stop by.

Ten days from now, the invaders will creep—or rush—out of Narragansett Bay, in daylight this time. I’m sure that a much larger crowd of natives will turn out to witness... but I’m also sure that our friendly invaders will remember their Newport welcome for a very long time to come.

For more information, visit Volvo Ocean Race. To see more of Paul's photos, visit PaulCroninStudios.