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Why Is Rhode Island Called the Ocean State?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 17, 2024
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While there are a number of likely motivations for Rhode Island’s official nickname as the “Ocean State,” the primary reason why it has this moniker is because it was voted on by the state legislature and written into the official state register of laws and regulations. The decision was made in the early 1970s as a means of attracting tourism; the thought was that, by emphasizing the state’s easy access to the ocean and plentiful coastal areas, people might be more inclined to visit Rhode Island, stay awhile, and spend money. The nickname appears on many official state documents, as well as on most vehicle license plates. Like most states, Rhode Island has many nicknames. “Ocean State” is the only official one, though, and it has resonance across multiple sectors including maritime commerce, fishing, and ports, as well as general seaside leisure.

Official Adoption

State nicknames are phrases or short descriptions that are meant to reveal something about the state, its land, and the people who live there. Every state in the US has a nickname; many have more than one. An official nickname usually has the most permanency and traction because it has generally been ruled on by the state’s congress or legislature, as is the case with Rhode Island. State lawmakers determined in the early 1970s that Rhode Island should be formally known as the “Ocean State,” and by 1972 all new state license plates carried this phrase.

Rhode Island is a state very much influenced by ocean access, and maritime business, including fishing, has played a significant role in its economy and growth. These factors surely influenced the legislators who voted on the official nickname. According to most accounts, though, the primary motivation was as a driver for tourism. Advertising the state’s access to and connection with the ocean, it was thought, would entice more visitors from nearby New England as well as other parts of the US and even the world.

Ratio of Coastline to Overall Area

Of all the states in the US, Rhode Island has the longest ratio of coastline to overall area. Despite being only 37 miles (60 kilometers) wide and 48 miles (77 kilometers) long, Rhode Island has a total coastline of 400 miles (644 kilometers). This is in large part because of the 30 islands dotted around Narragansett Bay in the east of the State. In fact, the bays, inlets, and sounds make up more than 30 percent of the state’s total area. This means that all residents of Rhode Island — even those in the northwestern corner of the state — are never more than an hour’s drive from the Atlantic coast.

Maritime Commerce

Due to its safe harbors and many plantations, Rhode Island became a strong center of maritime commerce during the colonial and independent eras of American history. Despite its name, it is not actually an island, but it was home to a wide number of plantations, many of which included luxurious mansions with sea views. These gave property owners the sense that they were enjoying an island lifestyle.

Relevance to the Fishing Industry

The state's nickname continues to be relevant today, as the Ocean State remains an important center for commercial and hobby fishing. In addition to this it is a draw for tourists, who make up 65 percent of the anglers fishing Rhode Island’s waters. The majority of fishing in Rhode Island is salt water fishing, though river fishing and ocean fishing also take place.

Ports, Shipping, and Seaside Tourism

Ports such as Newport on Aquidneck Island further enhance the relevance of the nickname by offering smooth waters for a wide variety of sailing vessels. This reputation for pleasant and safe waters has led Rhode Island to develop its tourism industry to include a considerable market for sailing. These pleasure voyages are complemented by harbor tours and a wide selection of scenic beaches across the state.

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Discussion Comments
By Talentryto — On Mar 03, 2014

I'm planning a trip to the New England states this summer Rundocuri, and Rhode Island will definitely be on my list of stops to make. I didn't realize it was so well known for its great coastlines. I love any beach, so I'll have to check it out when I'm there.

By Rundocuri — On Mar 03, 2014

I visit Rhode Island every few years, and it has certainly earned this nickname. Its beautiful coastlines seem to go on endlessly, even though it is the smallest state in the country. I would encourage anyone who loves the ocean and spending time exploring unique beaches to visit Rhode Island.

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