For the Love of the Ocean
My son was six years old the first time he experienced the ocean. Although we lived only 23 miles from the Atlantic, his water adventures had been limited to the rocky shores, short sand runways, and calm waters of the Long Island Sound.
I am a Brooklyn girl, so when I was six years old, the beach I called home was Coney Island. All summer long, my mom would pack us up – ice tea jug, p&j sandwiches, beach chairs, sheet, and towels – and take the F train to the last stop. It seemed like such a long walk from the train’s exit to the sand, especially carrying that iced tea weighed down with two trays full of ice cubes in a vain attempt to keep the tea “iced” for the full six hour excursion. And then there was the walk from the boardwalk to the edge of the shoreline, which was like hopping across a soft bed of hot coals.
In between “hops” we’d search for a glimpse of sand amongst the united nations of people. Finding the perfect spot meant we had a few inches to maneuver a path from our sheet to the ocean without stepping over sunbathing bodies. It also had to be near the lifeguard stand. My mother never learned to swim, and so she had a fear of the water that was only temporarily suspended when her tanning ritual of her southern Italian olive complexion left her dripping sweat. Then she’d wade into the ocean up to her knees, drop to her shoulders, and circle her arms in front a few times until her overheated skin returned to normal. An hour later, she’d do it all over again. My brother and I kept ourselves busy building elaborate sand castles or jumping the 4-foot waves while the voices of nations spoke in what a 6-year old hears as gibberish. Overhead prop plans pulled banners to advertise the rock station WPLJ and Coppertone with the cute little girl mooning us. In the afternoon, men selling cold sodas and hot knishes and women selling African jewelry and colorful sarongs maneuvered between the umbrellas and towels to sell their wares. By this time, the jug of iced tea would be empty or too hot to drink, so my mom would splurge for a 7Up and a knish, which we’d all share.
I was introduced to the renowned Hampton beaches when my husband and I signed up for the Montauk Century bike ride. Beyond a glimpse of water in Hampton Bays at the Shinnecock inlet connecting to the Atlantic, in the first 90 miles there really wasn’t a sense of how close the cycling is to the ocean. When the road T’s in East Hampton, everyone sprawls out on the grassy knoll for a long-needed break. And while the village there is charming and the windmill is storybook-like, there still is no sense of the vast ocean nearby. Then just before entering the town of Montauk, cyclists have two paths to choose; I felt compelled to take the hillier path, the one closest to the ocean. As we cycled up and down the gently rolling hills of Old Montauk Highway, the ocean played peekaboo until shortly after passing Gurney’s we arrived at a crest where the sharp blue glistening waters and the white-capped waves came into full view. It was a moment so mesmerizing that every Century ride after, I have been anticipating this like a child in a car anticipates the moment the family sedan drops down a steep hill and her stomach plummets with it. Years later we would use the confidence we built riding four consecutive Montauk Century rides to cycle across the country. Although the views of the Puget Sound from Deception Pass were incredible, and cycling the rolling hills of Iowa felt like we were touring farmlands on a rollercoaster, I couldn’t help but miss that magical glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
When our son was two, anticipating his school years, we moved to a town on the North Shore best known for its school district. Although the bungalow-style house needed a ton of work, it was set atop a hill with views of a harbor that feeds into the Long Island Sound. Our first purchases were a sun umbrella for the front patio, a barbeque for the backyard, and a double kayak that we could launch just by attaching to wheels and rolling down to the bottom of our hill. The quaint town was just a few blocks walk, 20-miles of hiking trails connecting the North Shore to the South Shore started behind our house, and the local beach was ½ mile down the road. It was like we were on a perpetual vacation in Cape Cod; for a while I was content with the proximity to the water.
But one morning I needed more. I decided to explore a Hampton beach, and since Westhampton was only an hour from our home, it was an easy choice. I had heard of Dune Road and the many homes that had been washed out in the 1992 Nor’easter, but I was sure that the road must be open twelve years later.
We parked our car in the village parking lot and mounted our bicycles to ride from Main Street to Dune Road, crossing the bay at Beach Lane. My husband and 6-year old son pedaled their way on a tag-a-long, the equivalent of a tandem for an adult and child. I brought up the rear on my road bike, which I had to maneuver around patches of sand and some significant potholes. (Until Dune Road, I thought potholes were a Brooklyn thing.) We admired the houses along the route, some remnants of smaller cottages expanded to contemporary geometric structures to take in views of the bay and the ocean, others trying to maintain a traditional style with New England inspired shingles.
We found the Quogue Village Beach by accident. We had ridden a few miles and my son needed a break. We understood it was a private beach for residents, but since we arrived by bike and not by car, no one worried about our resident status. We locked our bikes to a pole in the parking lot – another Brooklyn throwback – and we climbed the steps to a platform. The expansive ocean opened before us, whitecaps gathered to push at the shoreline, and the vastness took me back to my childhood spent on the beaches of Coney Island.
My son spotted the waves almost immediately. He dashed across the clean stretch of sand, free from my memories of cigarette butts and crumbled soda cans and with no need to maneuver the throngs of people since there were only five other families and a lifeguard. When my son reached the shoreline, he lengthened his gait and, like a track and field athlete, he jumped the hurdles of waves.
I immediately regretted that I had deprived him of something so basic and beautiful as the whitecaps crashing the shore and the feeling of surf pulling at his feet as it rolled back out. I did remember to take a photo to capture his outstretched arms soaring like a seagull, and the pure joy on his face as he experienced the ocean for the first time. He was at home… and so was I.