My First Montauk
The Iron Wind was making good headway through Plum Gut and the winds and tide were in our favor. The NOAA weather report called for storms by late afternoon, but Jimmy was confident we would reach Montauk before it crossed our nautical path.
Around 2:30pm we neared Montauk Point and dropped anchor about a mile out in front of the now iconic lighthouse. It felt incredibly hot and humid once the boat stopped. Rusty, Jimmy’s feisty Irish setter along with my brother Tom and I were in the mood for a swim and some lunch. Once anchored, Tom and I scampered up the rungs of the tuna tower and jumped off. Rusty dove off the swim platform to join us. Pure summer joy!
While we were savoring Gold’s deli sandwiches and Mom’s delectable potato salad, Jimmy noticed fierce-looking clouds forming about a mile away. A wind kicked up and I was chilly so I slipped my JAWS T-shirt on over my wet bathing suit. Jimmy secured the anchor and started both engines. One turned over. He tried the second engine again but no luck. The ominous clouds were now directly above us, the wind was getting stronger and it started to rain. Jimmy kept trying the other engine for several minutes but it wouldn’t start. The waves, now 5’ high and white-capped were becoming a bit of a concern, to everybody.
As Jimmy struggled to keep the Iron Wind’s bow directly into the waves to avoid capsizing, he told Tom and me to go below deck and put on life vests. Rusty followed us into the cabin and tucked herself tightly into a space under the v-berth.
My mother remained on deck with Jimmy for moral support.
Without that second engine operable the boat was not as agile, and we were being violently tossed about. I was in a state of silent panic. For his age, Tom remained brave but I read the fear in his eyes. Suddenly, I felt the boat begin a slow, steady climb up a much bigger wave. It hovered a few seconds on the crest then made a swift, steep lurch into the trough. I scrambled up onto the deck of the boat. After gaining my footing I looked up over the bow and saw a huge wall of sea water looming before us. It didn’t look real to me. Booms of thunder and flashes of lightening went ignored. We crested the awesome wall then took another steep, terrifying drop into the trough.
As we were cresting the next wave, a ten footer, I slipped on the wet deck and grabbed my mother’s arm just in time to save myself from sprawling back to the stern or, worse, falling off the boat. My mother pleaded with me to go below, but my feet were riveted to the deck and I would not let her go.
Jimmy tore the navigation radio from its receiver and yelled “May Day! May Day! May Day! This is the Iron Wind!” along with our nautical coordinates. No response. I lost grip of my mother’s arm as we plunged perilously into another trough and fell backwards into the cabin below. Jimmy barked out another “May Day!” with our coordinates. The radio crackled loudly and I heard the Montauk Coast Guard copy, but I couldn’t hear their reply. Jimmy said “40’ Trojan. The left engine is out”.
It was 3:30pm. The under-powered Iron Wind was quickly becoming no match for the sea.
The Coast Guard, overtaxed with rescue calls from other vessels without power could not come out to help us. Jimmy made radio contact with a barge that was also en route to Montauk Harbor, but the barge was a few miles away. Jimmy gave the barge captain our coordinates and the captain agreed to locate us and shepherd the Iron Wind safely into port.
Tom and I were getting sick and needed air so we came back up onto the deck and clung to any part of the boat that was bolted down. The loose deck chairs went flying off the stern. Nobody cared. Each of us, consumed with great awe and fear of the ocean’s power, could not find our voices to speak; we silently communicated with direct, wide-eyed contact and gasps of breath. Tom went back down below to check on Rusty. I remained on deck. The rain felt like icy needles piercing my skin. The cold wind and my palpable fear caused me to shiver uncontrollably. Each time the boat crested and pitched downward over the next enormous wave my heart got stuck in my throat, but I could not look away from the raging, boiling sea. I felt I had a very critical job to perform; to silently will the Iron Wind to make it through the next wave, and the next, and the next, without capsizing.
At one point during this nautical hell ride I looked down at the tiny woman swimming above the mighty JAWS on my t-shirt. I fearfully wondered if we too would be victims of such a fate.
The barge had located us; a minor victory. We caught a glimpse of the barge each time we crested the next huge wave, then it would disappear as if swallowed up by the sea. I prayed that we would continue to see it again and again, until we were in safer waters.
This ordeal went on for over two hours. After the first 45 minutes the monster waves started to lay down to about 6’ in height. Still, no picnic. Around 5:00pm the wind began to lose power, and inwardly our hopes began to build. At 5:45pm the Iron Wind, following in the wake of the barge, began a slow, deliberate entrance into Montauk Harbor. As we continued to make our way toward Rudy’s dock my mother saw me snag a beer from the cooler and one of her cigarettes, which somehow remained bone dry throughout this joyride. I didn’t ask her permission and she didn’t protest. We had not yet regained our ability to speak …
Once safely docked I walked to the edge of another dock, alone. I plopped down, stuck my feet in the water and popped the beer open. The storm blew over and it quickly became a clear, dry, balmy night. The moon was huge. A star winked at me. An utterly peaceful moment. My first Montauk moment.
I smoked the cigarette, finished the beer, and thanked God for saving our lives.
The next night we dined on lobster and clams at Gosman’s Dock (a modest Montauk seafood restaurant in 1975, perched on pilings in the harbor with yellow canvas storm awnings). Despite our ordeal the previous day we were all in good spirits. After dinner we sat in the bar at Gosman’s off the dining room and recalled the details of our epic adventure the day before to the locals and to each other. We felt strong and proud that we survived. Slaps on the back all around! I stole some sips of my mother’s beer. She shot me a look and ordered me a Coke.
The next day we hung out on Rudy’s dock for the big Labor Day barbeque and the Annual Shark Tournament. Lobster, clams, hot dogs, beer, heaven! Tom and I were in awe of the sharks coming in off the boats during the tournament, which captured both our imaginations and attention for most of the day. We saw and touched the rough, sandpaper-like skin of huge Makos, Hammerheads and some smaller sand sharks, but “technically” not JAWS. According to us however, he was among the catch.
The movie JAWS is, and will forever remain for my brother and I our favorite movie, and was a catalyst of our Montauk trip. (Thank you, Steven Spielberg).
Surviving the storm; the warm welcome and hospitality we received from the locals; dinner and banter at Gosman’s; Sharks!! Montauk had me hooked.
The left engine was repaired on our third day in port. We were not afraid to be back underway on the Iron Wind when we left Montauk after that heart-pounding voyage. We were brave. We survived. We conquered the sea, and Montauk saved us!
My next visit to Montauk was not until 34 years later in 2009 aboard my own 28’ Grady White, the Czech Mate. I had been away far too long. I felt the magic of Montauk rock me once again as I stepped off the boat when we docked my beloved Czech Mate at Star Island Yacht Club.
A piece of my heart remained in Montauk since that Labor Day weekend in 1975. I have never felt more alive prior to or since that stormy day at sea.
My journey in life has led me back to the East End to reclaim that missing piece. I have been living and working in East Hampton since 2013.
I am, whole again. I am home.