The low grumble of our engine mingled with the herons’ melodic warble. Inside the boat, we were quiet. A foot of filmy air hung above the water as we trolled out of the marina, as if the Shinnecock Bay was also waking up. I didn’t blame her for taking her time; I was a teenager than and any hour before 6:30 AM was godforsaken. It still might be.
There was that cool snap of an East End summer, the sun just peering through the July fog. I wrapped a blue and lime green beach towel whose fuzz had faded around my shoulders.
A southern wind frothed the Shinnecock with chop and Dad suggested heading over to the Peconic in the hopes of cutting the gusts. Ideal conditions for waterskiing call for little-to-no wind, the so-called “5 o’clock glass off.”
When there is any sort of wind, the water crests into salty whitecaps with deep troughs of blue-grey. It was possible to ski in these conditions but not fun. Skiing in ‘the chop’ felt like banging up and down stairs on an old Radio Flyer: possibly fun for the first few seconds but ultimately treacherous. Especially for your lower back.
Turning around, we headed for the canal. It sliced through the most narrow strip of the South Fork, rivulets of each body of water commingling in this metal feat of engineering. Before the locks were dug, the Shinnecock Indians, for whom the bay and canal were named, carried their canoes over this small spit of land as well.
As we entered, fierce torrents marbled under the water’s seemingly inert surface. Dad steered the boat, putting more and more power to the engine as we slid through, slowly chugging against the powerful currents. On the right, a rock jetty slid by.
We passed a sign whose red lettering screamed the end of the 10 mile per hour zone and Dad gunned it, the bow lifting as we pressed through the water, trails of foam stripping off the stern into a wider, wider triangle until the white froth of the wake bled into the white froth of the bay. Inside the hull, I noticed two fishing rods buckled under the railing and wondered if dad’s declarations about wind were a ruse and if really, there was a good fluke spot in the Peconic. One thing about dad: he’ll find any way to fish.
The boat was my grandfather’s originally. He died on the 16th hole of Shinnecock Hills golf course in 1981 but his legacy loomed large. When he died my parents were living in New Mexico and, as the only boaters in my dad’s family, they sold the Bertram, a 20 foot “Moppy” named “Me too.”
She is a classic boat with wooden trim and white stripes cuffing her deep navy hull, the kind of boat that even a small child would recognize as seaworthy. Modern Yacht down in Hampton Bays purchased her and mounted her at the entrance of their shipyard. She sat there, my father’s albatross until when we’d moved back to the East End and we could afford to buy her back. She wasn’t the best recreational boat – an inboard motor with not enough horsepower – but she had that sentimental currency, right down to her name: “Me too, II.”
That morning, I was first in the water. It was an awkward dance getting in, heaving one leg with a long ski over the side, clanging into the hull while the other leg went up and over the siding until both feet were parallel. My feet bobbed behind me, skis splayed akimbo in the lukewarm bay. I doggy paddled over to the line, the bulky lifejacket tight on my shoulders as I pulled through the water. Strands of thick, black sea weed caught around my fingers.
I reached for the line and, holding it taut in one hand, placed it in between my two skis. I could feel the watermelon jellies around me, their harmless blobs brushing against my legs.
The boat chugged slowly ahead, straightening itself in front of me until a loop of line encircled in rubber tubing reached me. I leaned back, the buoyancy of the lifejacket keeping me upright, as if I were sitting in a chair.
When I was seven, my parents bought a special set of skis so that I could learn. We were living with my grandmother that summer, in the cottage next to her split-level house that looked out over a creek. Teaming with eels and blue claw crabs and horseshoes and snappers and mussels and barnacles and fiddler crabs and shiners, I spent everyday in those muddy waters. I never noticed the thick, sludge smell until I was older.
The first time we tried the training skiis was the last. They were a pair of fat, bright yellow sticks with a short, black rope that linked the tips together. From the black rope ran another line to the boat so that an adult could pull the child up and out of the water, completing the complicated, technical and physically demanding aspect of the sport, so that the kid could get the hang of being pulled behind a boat at 25 miles per hour. At least, that is what the packaging promised.
The only thing I remember from that first attempt was the sensation of drowning. As soon as the boat took off, my skis flipped behind my body and my mouth and nose as flooded as my legs pulled me the other way. I couldn’t let go: that was the point.
Just as dad began to accelerate, thinking, maybe there’s a chance this will still work, mom flew out of the stern, dragged into the bay by my semi-drowning mass. Dad immediately cut the motor. My sister Seton was two and in the boat. He couldn’t leave her there alone and so he waited the endless seconds for mom to sputter up to the surface. He stood alert, hoping that she cleared the motor. After a seemingly long pause, she came up sputtering, wondering if I too, was ok.
Now, behind the boat, I yelled at my sister to hit it. Seton was usually the spotter; she had good water eyes and could spot a dropped ski or buoy from half a mile away. As I pulled myself up, there was the moment of anticipation, the moment of wonder, will I make it this time? I pulled and pulled and pulled, my skis beginning to make tracks, pushing the water to the sides until finally, finally, I was up. I leaned into my first turn, cutting across the wake.
When we were kids, mom shared stories about skiing on the Colorado River, carving into a turn and putting a hand down to the fresh water, scooping it up for a sip. It is hard to picture her, a teenaged blonde, coasting up and down the river with friends I’ve never met, drinking warm beers in the afternoon, landing trick after trick, arms aching at the end of the day. It is hard to picture her until I see her now, behind our boat, eyes scanning the velvet froth, timing her next jump.
When she is water skiing, her mouth is determined. She only looks ten feet ahead of her skis as she scans the emulsified water, deciding how to maneuver her next jump. Completely absorbed, her eyes are trained on the bay and her single slalom ski. She never signals to slow down, only whipping her short, blonde hair out of her eyes.
On that July morning, I waited, hand gripping the hard plastic railing as she careened out of the wake, building up speed. Every time she gets up behind the boat, my breath catches in my throat before she makes her first jump. I’m scared for that moment when her body will betray my eyes; instead of mom I’ll see an old woman, who can’t cut land a jump. I worry about dad too, waiting for the day when he bends over with the hunch of an old man, picking up a life preserver from the boat’s deck.
And so every summer, we find the time to water ski. We don’t go nearly as much as when we were ten, twelve, thirteen years old. Now, it takes awhile to find the gear, lines tangled together in a mess of neon yellows and blues in an old fishing bucket in the back of the garage. I still relish the silence early on a summer morning, the anticipation of the rushed days to come.