A boat represents escape. It provides the opportunity to escape the possibilities of life on earth. Not only that, the boat’s owner gets to decide who comes along on the escape attempt. For me, a boat also symbolizes hope. I hope the boat floats. I hope the engine doesn’t stall and leave me stranded somewhere. I hope that strong winds don’t blow the boat free from its mooring to damage the expensive boats docked nearby and I hope that next summer’s boating season is better than this one.
My earliest recollection of boats would have to be model sailboats in a city park. They were captivating. Each expertly carved and painted to carefully replicate the look of much larger craft and remotely controlled from pond side. Then came plastic models of Aircraft Carriers, Battleships and PT Boats whose assembly provided a popular hobby during the 1950s. Next there was a jump from models to a boat that could actually be boarded. It came in the form of “The Skimmer”. Skimmers were inexpensive, light weight, plywood skiffs manufactured right here on the East End. A syndicate composed of my large extended family formed to purchase one. I have faded memories of riding with my father or uncle to the mouth of a nearby creek to go Snapper fishing. The Skimmer performed as its name suggested, skipping over the liquid surface like a stone thrown by Opie himself.
Boating independence was provided by the Sailfish that two friends were learning to sail and they took me along for the ride. As a result, I became familiar with nautical commands like: “Ready About”, “Jibe Ho”, and “watch the boom you idiot”. Prior to the popularization of the colorful kayaks that are now ubiquitous, the Sailfish and its larger cousin, the Sunfish, were the entry-level boats of choice for many future mariners.
Increased independence was embodied in a sixteen foot wooden boat with a “ship-lap” or lapstreak hull that was passed down to the same two brothers who had introduced me to sailing. A new element was introduced with the addition of power. This old, heavy, Thompson was powered by an eighteen horse- power Evinrude outboard (think of the ratios of length to horsepower commonly seen today). The engine added a whole new range of capabilities to our boating experience. We became pre-teen prowlers of the Little Peconic Bay, motoring off to the immense sand dunes looming in the distance, ascending there apices then descending with a laugh and a run, then a roll and a tumble, until we crashed onto the beach below. We took fishing trips and came home with boat loads of Porgies while more experienced and knowledgeable adults returned empty handed after targeting fish of greater status among fishermen.
Seeking further adventure we headed to the ocean via the Shinnecock Canal. None of us had ever been there by water or knew how to locate the Canal and we found ourselves hopelessly lost . In the distance we noticed a man on a backyard dock and approached. “How do you get to the ocean?”, we shouted in unison. “Which Ocean?”, came the reply. ‘Which Ocean?’ He couldn’t have possibly meant to say that. Let’s tell him that we would be willing to accept directions to either the Artic or the Indian. Realizing that this Balboa of Bridgehampton wasn’t going to be much help we headed west, hugging the northern shores of Southampton, eventually finding our way to the Canal’s entrance. We anchored on the bay side just east of the Shinnecock Inlet where the water was the cleanest and clearest I’d ever seen.
Hearing the thundering surf a short distance away, we rushed toward it excitedly. After about a half hour of riding the waves, I noticed a crowd beginning to gather atop the huge boulders that formed the banks of the Shinnecock Inlet and everyone was pointing. The object of their attention looked familiar. Could it be? Yes it was! The boat we had arrived in was drifting rapidly out to sea through the Inlet, carried by a strong current. It was dwarfed by the enormity of the surrounding water and looked like a bathtub toy. Not being a Viking traveler by nature I had always liked to know how I was going to get home. If I had been on more familiar turf in The Borough of Homes and Churches there was always the IRT or B-6. Stranded on the barrier beach, which is simply another name for a large sandbar in the middle of the sea, there was no hope of being homeward bound. “The sea was angry that day my friends” but not as roiled as my parents would be if I didn’t make it back by dark.
Within the unwritten constitution of sailors is the obligation to help others in trouble. Somehow a total stranger rose to meet the challenge of getting a line to an unmanned vessel while drifting along at over five knots. Reunited with the Thompson we headed for home, exiting the Canal and entering the relative safety and security of the Great Peconic Bay as sunset emblazoned the sky to our left.
For some reason I lost interest in boats and boating for the next twenty years or so. That changed with the purchase of my first boat, a small, used Boston Whaler and she was a classic. She performed reliably for two seasons until I was bitten by a bug. That bug induced an illness common to many boaters- the desire for something bigger. On to a used nineteen footer with a cuddy cabin for storage. She also ran trouble-free for two seasons until an ignored warning beeper resulted in a blown engine and the beginning of a series of troubled relationships.
The illness progressed unabated. The cuddy cabin was followed by attempts at larger boats with cabins that could actually be entered. I purchased a used twenty footer from a local dealership that leaked from day one and was returned on day two. Next came my first inboard/outboard. Another twenty footer bought from a seemingly knowledgeable owner. On my second day aboard I noticed an oil slick, rivaling the Exon Valdez, surrounding her. She needed a total engine rebuild, proving that the previous owner was indeed knowledgeable. He knew that he was ripping me off. Finally there came an even larger boat, one with a small sink and table in the cabin! After a few up and down seasons it became evident that her engine needed a new part. The part alone cost three thousand dollars, not including installation! I had become accustomed to paying roughly that amount for an entire engine, and that engine usually had a boat attached to it.
There is an element of Freudian Thanatos to boat ownership, so real, that it has worked its way into our language and I have heard it all. “Being on a boat is like being in prison with a chance of drowning.” “A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.” “BOAT stands for Break Out Another Thousand.” “The happiest day of a boat owners life is the day he sells it.” Taking this wisdom into consideration and based upon my experience, I made what I hope will be my final purchase: a new nine foot inflatable… boat.
The idea of a boat appeals to me much more than the experience of boating. Again, for me a boat symbolizes hope and being at the age now where the candles cost more than the cake I need a reason to hope more than ever. I desperately hope to make it through January and February for one more ritual cleansing of the boat by power washer in early spring. Next season, I hope to have the physical ability to climb aboard and the mental clarity to prioritize the inevitable repairs. Heading one hundred and eighty degrees due east from my mooring and traveling and for about ten minutes, I hope for one more chance to arrive at the Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Sanctuary in Noyac and have chickadees land on my fingertips and eat seed from the palm of my hand. I hope for one more circumnavigation of Shelter Island, ducking into West Cove or veering off to view the incredible vessels docked in Sag Harbor. Another time aboard for one of those picture perfect top ten weather days would be nice. How about dreaming big and hoping for a first excursion to Montauk, Block Island or up the Connecticut River to Essex and beyond? Lastly I hope that I’ve passed on an interest in boating to my son which at this point seems possible.
On another island far across the Atlantic there is a toast proposed on the occasion of a young man’s first drink in a pub. It goes like this: “Here’s hoping that you like it but here’s hoping that you don’t like it too much.” That would be my hope for all future boaters. A boat can break your heart and empty your wallet. You decide if you want to set sail.