Sometimes a circle is the only way to go. For Dickie, Allen, and myself, getting up at 5AM to waterski before our summer jobs was routine. The weekends were different; we could ski all day if we could find a place with calm water. After years of pestering my father for a larger outboard engine, he finally purchased a 40 horsepower, and our 13’ Boston Whaler could now pull a slalom ski out of the water without a sweat. On this early July weekend it was windy, and the north side of Robins Island was the perfect place to carve through the brine. As we go round and round to keep within the flatter water, I am transfixed by the uninhibited freedom defined by the rope, muscles pushing to their limit as I cut tighter and tighter arcs, body feeling a slight chill from the wind, and the faint taste of salt on my lips.
This was before we realized the importance of the tides, and that while we started just after the high, we continued our fun deep into the ebb, and unaware that features of the bottom were drawing closer to us. In this case disaster does not come as a crash, but instead a sudden eerie silence from the engine and simultaneously a loss of tension in the tow rope. I pull myself back to the boat to see an oil slick and feel a pit in my stomach: something is very wrong. I pull the engine up and we all mouth the same curse word. The lower unit must have hit a rock and sheared off.
With our one emergency oar we make a laborious meander to the shore of the island, me occasionally glancing over to Holms Hill behind where we started, which seemed so far away. The island’s shore is rocky but we pull up on the beach, not knowing what to do. The birds are making a racket and seemingly within moments we see a beat-up WWII Wiley’s jeep slowly make its way towards us. Before the door of the jeep opens, a German Shepherd bounds out barking uncontrollably with lips pulled back to show its piercing teeth. The only thing keeping that dog from tearing into us was a thick linked metal chain arcing back to the jeep. A scruffy man ambles up, permanent stubble across a tanned face, thinning hair, and a shotgun loosely carried pointing to the ground in front of us. With a half-gone cigarette still dangling from his mouth, he says “you boys gotta leave. This is a private island,” in a manner that belies an unfamiliarity with seeing other people.
We blather back in a high pitch that our engine is destroyed and we have only one oar and no way to leave. We are thinking he will unleash the dog and that’s it for us. The caretaker glances at his watch and then without looking up says “today’s my day to go to the mainland. I’ll give you a tow,” and without further instructions gets the wild dog back into the jeep and drives away. About an hour later we see his boat approaching and we push back out and link up for a ride to New Suffolk over in the North Fork.
The panic of the moment eliminated any feeling of conquest over setting foot on an island that few have ever seen and has been privately owned since 1615 when William Alexander, then Earl of Stirling, was deeded substantial lands by King Charles I. Robins was the equivalent of a comma in the deal, for the Earl received all of Long Island and adjacent islands. Even at that time you needed a lawyer to get things done and the kindly Earl told James Farret, his agent and attorney in settling Long Island, to take what you want in payment. Farret selected Robins and Shelter Island, and quickly sold these properties to Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the New Haven Colony in 1641. In 1715 Parker Wickham fancied having his own island manor and bought the place, essentially keeping up with the Gardiners, but when he flipped his shilling to figure out loyalty, it came up “king” and he chose the wrong side, losing his lands to the revolutionaries. It was 1784 that Caleb Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge purchased the Island. They were notable members of the Culper Spy ring, initiated in secret by George Washington to keep track of English troop movements in New York. Fast-forward 200 years to 1979 and two German investors purchase the place for $1.3 million with hopes of cashing in on selling what the natives called “the place of wood” to developers to convert the tear dropped island to high end estates. In the late 1980s – early 90s a confluence of attention and demand settled on the island. Wickham descendants sued to regain the property. Suffolk County says they will buy the place and turn it into a nature preserve. Another developer signs a sales contract with plans for 22 luxury homes, but then finds his contract void as he did not perform an environment survey prior to purchase. Out of this vortex of interests to have an island lands Louis Bacon, an über successful Wall Street financier that in his youth worked as a mate on the chartered fishing boats of Montauk. With startling efficiency, he succeeds in his bid, works with the Nature Conservancy to preserve most of the island, and establishes himself as the lord of the manor, creating a family compound and restoring much of the island’s native vegetation.
Mike and I had shared a fascination of the origins of Robins Island and what could be going on there. As background you should know Mike was a Vietnam vet, one of those guys they would place behind enemy lines, since as Mike would say, “I was one of the few draftees who could read a map,” and lead the hit squad to their target. Mike says his survival strategy was to initially volunteer whenever they needed someone. After a while, they gave him his pick of missions. What I learned from Mike and other vets was that if you survived Vietnam, everything else was a gift and of no concern, no matter how crazy it was. For example, one time Mike and his friend took an 18’ MAKO skiff out of Shinnecock Inlet during a storm and used it to surf, like a surfboard, down the face of huge crashing waves. When one particular set left them high and dry on the beach, the police asked them what in the world they were doing. With no trace of irony or bravado, they said surfing.
So when I tell Mike my Robins Island story he one-ups me with his. It begins with Mike and Gene, both Marines, convincing Gene’s dad to motor by the Island just before sunrise, with the marines slipping into the water and swimming ashore, undetected. Mike and Gene tour the island, seeing the 1910 manor house, wild turkeys, pheasants, deer, numerous turtles, and ruins from prior homes and barns. All the while they outfox the caretaker and his dog. By late afternoon, they consume all their smokes, and having done so, eat all the supplies that were to last for the next 24 hours until pick up time. Its six PM. The wind is blowing strong against a tide at its maximum velocity. Mike and Gene decide to swim across the south race of the island, which at its least dangerous is treacherous, in order to get to the mainland. Mike tells me it was a challenge, but then again, compared to Vietnam, a pleasant dip in Great Peconic Bay. What Mike remembers most was the expression of a single woman that had hiked way down the beach and apparently thought she was completely alone, when she sees Mike and Gene materialize out of the waves, casually walk along the beach, give her greetings, and continue on their way, no vehicle nor vessel in site.
The lasting appeal of Robins Island is that it remains at once evident and secret: visible from large swaths of the North and South fork, a safe harbor for numerous boaters, and completely inaccessible unless you know the lord of the manor. Like a Japanese woodblock print that has the subject partially obscured by the fog, it remains floating in our consciousness as an indelible eastern long island portrait – a place we visit but never get to.