Tommy and I sailed eastward from Iverson’s Dock in Bellport, though after a late departure had only reached the very eastern end of the bay…a voyage of less than a mile.
But after that ill-fated start the glorious morning on our second day was more promising. Mouette’s varnished mast and furled white sails and hull stood against a pale blue sky and reflected on the surface of the water like a Winslow Homer watercolor. Even the newly poured cement of the new Smith’s Point Bridge was lit like pale marble in the morning sunlight. Tommy got into the dinghy and rowed to a proper distance, unfolded his camera and made a single exposure of me posing, seemingly confident- part of the boat- a fourteen-year-old in a dirty white shirt and cut-off khaki shorts holding the wire shroud on the port rail. That effort bore a lone black and white snapshot, later to be slipped away in the folds of a wallet and lost forever in a robbery in New Orleans.
In the morning calm we raised the sails. Being the crew, I towed Mouette to the bridge with the dinghy, pulling hard at the oars. Tommy blew the horn for the bridge to open. As he gazed down on us through his little window I turned my neck upward and looked into the bridge tender’s face and saw a look that became fixed in my memory. His expression was one of a longing envy, wishing he too was again young and sailing off in a boat for adventure. He waved us on as we silently ghosted through in the shade of the open spans.
‘Just think…we can be slobs for the next two weeks,’ Tommy said as he lit his morning pipe. Though for an instant, as he smoked his corncob and looked off with an eye open for weather, I thought he looked older than his fifteen years, perhaps too old to be much of a slob. After all it was his boat and he was the captain.
The wind filled from the southwest and gave us easy sailing. A 22-foot wood boat, Mouette was a Shorebird class sloop and by 1963 was beginning to show her age. She leaked and leaked a lot, but I had always forgiven her for that since she sailed with the speed and grace of a seabird. I eyed the large gaff-rigged mainsail. On it was the number 22 and above that the class logo of two outstretched bird’s wings. The sail seemed so large, but we had always managed to handle it well. The old sailors said that the sense of smell becomes stronger as one journeys far from land but we had not sailed very far when, on the wind blowing across the island, I began to smell the misty salt of the Atlantic ocean mixed with beach grasses, scrub pine and beach plums. We heard breaking surf in the distance the whole way as we passed Captain Andy’s, the Moriches and Westhampton Beach and eventually sailed the length of the Quogue Canal.
Late in the afternoon we moored near the Shinnecock Canal just inside Cormorant Point. We could see the old Canoe Place Inn in the distance.
‘Listen Rabbit’, Tommy said in the light from the kerosene lamp hanging from the boom. ‘Tomorrow the tide should be just right. It will flow toward Peconic Bay, so it should sweep us right through, right under the bridge. The first one is South Country Road. It’s the lowest…If we get under that one we’ll be OK. We just have to make extra sure we don’t get the top of the mast stuck in the steel girders under the bridge. If that happens we’ll lose the whole rig for sure… mast, sails, the works… when the tide pulls us through. The other two bridges are higher so we can fit under them. We’ll tie the halyards around our butts, heel her over and drift through. It should be easy.’
Tommy was the optimist. He was the captain.
Sure enough, the next day was perfect. The sun rose accompanied by a slight south wind. We hauled the anchor, left the mainsail tightly furled and sailed by the smaller jib alone. In minutes it was before us…a narrow flowing watery gauntlet girded above by three fixed steel bridges with a set of locks at the far end waiting to lift us the three feet from sea level to the water level of Peconic Bay…. and us with no motor. We sailed up and tied up to a bulkhead just inside the canal. This was the Canoe Place, where the Indians carried their canoes across the narrow strip of land traveling from The Great South Bay to Peconic Bay. In the stillness I could hear cars crossing above.
We untied two halyard ends and gave each of us enough slack that we were able to make loops large enough to go round our rear ends. The idea was to plant our feet on the port rail of the boat, hang from the mast, stretch way out and heel her over as far as we dared…to just barely not capsize, and in so doing, lower the height of the boat just enough so the mast would fit under.
What we hadn’t taken into account was the peanut gallery.
There were fishermen-enough of them to make up a small audience-lined up in the shade under the bridge on both sides of the canal bank. They had already taken notice and seemed more than a little interested.
‘Here we go Rabbit…into the Valley of Death…’ We untied and began to drift toward the bridge.
I sized up the crowd and it was a motley crew. I saw long dark trousers rolled up to the knees. I saw sleeveless white T-shirts and a few men much fatter than us smoking cigars and drinking morning beer. Talk about slobs. A dog started to bark.
‘Hey…Would you look at those kids in that old sailboat…’
‘Ha…Get a load of those two!’
We drifted closer to the bridge.
‘OK Rabbit…let’s do it…all together…’ Each of us slowly leaned out. Mouette began to heel over, ever so slowly. The bridge got closer and closer. We seemed to be standing straight out from the port rail, our bodies parallel with the surface of the canal. Our butts were now trailing in the water, soaking. It seemed we were about to capsize. My face was inches from the water. I could smell the briny canal water and moss and barnacles on the bridge pilings…even the cut squid of the fishermen’s bait. The dog barked.
‘Hey! I think I hear ya mutha’s callin’!’
But we did not capsize. Mouette glided along as naturally as a leaf in a stream. I looked up at the mast top as it appeared to miss catching the steel girders by a fraction of an inch. I heard the car traffic rolling above… and the next thing I knew we were under…and the cat-calling had stopped.
For a moment there was absolute silence…I looked at Tommy as we slowly bent our knees and Mouette stood back upright. And then we heard the applause. It came to us from both sides.
‘Would ya look at those two…I swear I never seen any sailing like that! Bravo!!’ They shouted.
We maneuvered through the locks, raised the big mainsail and headed out the mouth of the canal. An early west breeze filled the sails and Mouette spread her wings and headed east on the broad Peconic Bay with Robin’s Island looming in the morning haze on the far horizon.