Before Gray Hair and About 10 lbs.
By Cecil Hoge
I was born and raised in New York City for the first eleven years of my life. Very early on my parents took me to the ocean on Long Island. Sometimes we went to the Atlantic Beach Club. That was a kind of private beach club that was still very close to the city. We could get to The Atlantic Beach Club in about 45 minutes from my parents apartment at 520 East 92nd. If we were starting late then we would go to Jones Beach, which you could get to in about 30 minutes.
My father would drive us out in his green convertible Cadillac. If it was a sunny day, my father would put the top down. That was a fairly intricate job. His convertible Cadillac was not like the digitally driven cars of today. It was necessary to un-snap several levers above the windshield and push a button (a great innovation of that day) to persuade the top to begin its journey up and down behind the back seat. If all went smoothly, there was still some wrangling necessary to snap on a top cover to keep the convertible top down and out of the wind. Once this ritual was completed, we would drive from 520 East 90th to the ocean. My father was very proud of that car.
The Atlantic Beach Club
Even at the age of 4 or 5, I preferred the Atlantic Beach Club because it was less crowded, because it had a convenient hamburger and hotdog stand with tables where you could sit outdoors, because it had a swimming pool that was not too crowded and because the beach was just a short walk to the ocean. I am not sure exactly when my father and mother started taking me, but I would guess it was when I was 2 or 3 years old.
So on sunny summer weekends we would cruise out from East 92nd Street to either the Atlantic Beach Club or Jones Beach and bake in the sun and go swimming in the ocean. From that early age I always remembered that I loved the ocean and the beach. I loved everything about it. In particular, I loved when my father would bury me in the sand and the warm, hot feeling of the sand grains on my small body. From that early age, my father and mother would each take one of my hands and walk me into the ocean. At first I was terrified, but as I grew older and a little bit larger, I became used to the ocean and the waves became a little bit smaller, at least in relation to my size, and I loved to try and catch waves, to dive through waves and to body surf.
My father and his family had grown up summering in Quogue, so he was very used to the ocean and loved to take me in the surf. My mother, an Olympic class swimmer, was born on and around water, so she was also an enthusiastic ocean swimmer.
Occasionally, we would go out to the Hamptons and visit with my uncle who had a house rental in Southampton. This was at a time that almost anyone could afford a house rental in the Hamptons. Today that almost anyone had better be a billionaire. When my uncle was renting, a nice house on South Main Street or First Neck Lane might be two or three thousand dollars for the summer. Today, the same house might be $50,000 or $100,000…for the month! And if you want a really nice house on the ocean, get ready to multiply by 5, 10 or more.
So we can say that much has changed in the last 70 years or so and prices is one of those things. What has not changed is the actual Atlantic Ocean which laps up on the shores of Long Island’s beaches. There is a good 120 miles of oceanside beaches so there are plenty of places for people to go. These days the beaches, all of them, are pretty crowded. It was not so different 60 or 70 years ago.
The ocean was then and is now still pretty clean, excepting occasional occurrences of tar oil and brown algae washing up on our shores. In summer the ocean waters on the East End of Long Island can take on a turquoise blue color that makes you think you are in the tropics. This is because the Gulf Stream sweeps close to the East End of Long Island, making the ocean water, when clear, even more beautiful.
The ocean has its calm days and its rough days. In June, the ocean is still pretty cold. By July, it is usually in the low to middle 70s and it stays that way until October, although the temperature of the air starts to get pretty cool by the end of September. By the middle of September, tropical storms and hurricanes try to make their run at Long Island, but mostly they miss.
Generally there is a good 12 weeks of beach going weather and my father and mother took advantage of that just about every weekend from the middle of June to the middle of September. The trip to Southampton was quite long in those days and surprisingly the traffic was not much better than it is today. The highways were much more limited, so it could take three and half hours to get to Southampton. That meant that most weekends we headed to the Atlantic Beach Club. As mentioned that was my favorite ocean location because it was still quite close to the city and yet not as crowded as Jones Beach.
At the Atlantic Beach Club, my father taught me the fine art of body surfing at about the age of 5. It took me a while to become comfortable with body surfing. At first, I was terrified by the breaking waves, but by the time I was eight I was the proverbial fish. I loved the ocean, I loved the waves and when I finally learned how to body surf, I loved catching waves. When I would come out of the ocean, I liked to bury my body in the hot sand to get warm. If my father was in a good mood, I could usually con him into burying me up to my neck.
My mother, who generally was fond of French food, condescended to introduce me to the hotdogs and CocaCola available at the Atlantic Beach Club. So a good day at the beach included body surfing for hours at a time, coming out and getting buried by Dad in the sand and then conniving my mother to get me a hotdog and a CocaCola after I took a shower. The outdoor shower was not heated, so that could be as invigorating as going in the ocean.
It was on one of our weekend visits to the Atlantic Beach Club that I got to sit on Charlie Chaplin’s lap. I do not remember the event very clearly, but apparently I was running by and he started a conversation asking where I was going in such a rush (it was to the hotdog stand, if I remember correctly). I ended up sitting on his lap for about 20 minutes, jabbering, no doubt, about the ocean and the beach, while my mother also carried on an excited conversation with the famous actor, happy to have the opportunity to speak to a true celebrity. My father told me that Charlie Chaplin found me to be a very exuberant and very well-behaved child. Charlie was half right.
When I was eight or nine, my parents decided to buy a summer house in Bellport, Long Island. Bellport was considerably further out on Long Island, just about 65 miles from New York City, just east of Patchogue. The house was a small two story Cape Cod cottage with three bedrooms. It was about a quarter of mile from the Great South Bay. It was easy walking distance on the gravel road right by our house directly to a small beach on the Great South Bay.
My parents had two friends, Smokey and Ethel, who lived about a half a mile directly on a small point jutting out into Great South Bay. At first I did not like Bellport because it was not on the ocean. To get to the ocean, you had to take a small ferry across to Fire Island where there was the Bellport Beach Club. It was a pretty primitive setup shared by 300 or 400 hundred Bellport residents. It consisted of a strip of little beach with changing closets made out simple plank wood. It had a dock where you landed, a wooden walkway from the dock to the Beach Club. There was a cold shower and the row of wooden changing closets. There was a male or female bathroom that was really an outhouse. Food and entertainment was provided by the hotdog stand, which when it was open, provided Coca Cola, Gingerale, coffee, hotdogs, hamburgers and French fries. You could tell the stand was open when the wooden window to the stand was propped up.
The Bellport Beach Club was a wonderful place if you loved the ocean and sun. I believe the Beach Club is now gone, wiped out by a hurricane or just plain abandoned. There is a place that you can take the Bellport ferry to now called “Ho Hum Beach.” That kind of summarizes what The Bellport Beach Club was like. You had ocean, sun and sand in spades. Some days you also had something else in spades…horseflies. When the wind was blowing offshore the horseflies came in and they could be murderous.
A swimming pool would have been nice, but there was none. There were some simple beach chairs and umbrellas. There was a supply of towels brought out by the ferry each week. Sometimes they were available, sometimes they were not. It was a supply and demand situation. If there was a big demand that day, the towels would run out early. So it was best to bring your own towels, which we did.
I loved that Bellport Beach Club because I loved the ocean. Each day we came, we would spend 4 or 5 hours on the beach, alternating between swimming in the ocean and sunning ourselves on the beach. This was before the time people were sun conscious and when it thought that a good sun tan was truly healthy. Yes, we did use suntans lotions, but those lotions were designed to enhance our tans, not to protect you against the sun. Coppertone was the leading brand of the day.
When we were hungry, we would get a hotdog or a hamburger. If you got too hot, you went into the ocean or took a cold shower. If you got cold, you went back out on the beach and sunned yourself some more. It was a kind of circle of activity.
It was at the Bellport Beach Club that my father almost drowned me. Perhaps, when I was 9 or 10, my father decided to take me into the ocean on a particularly rough day. Being smaller than I am today, I am not sure just how big the waves were. I am thinking they were 5 or 6 feet, but they appeared far larger to me, at least 12 to 14 feet. We went into the ocean in the usual manner. That is, me on top of my father’s shoulders. Now this system had stood us well for many a summer, but as time went on I got taller and heavier and my father remained his skinny, tall 6′ 3″ self. You might say as I got older and heavier we became, as a water going unit, top heavy and with time the center of gravity shifted upward. This meant that we were not the most stable in 2 or 3 foot waves and we were really unstable in 5 or 6 foot waves.
No matter, both my father and I liked a challenge. So we lurched into the Atlantic and for a while things went swimmingly. That is to say we were able to dive through and re-emerge after the first two waves. It was the third wave that got us. I am not sure what happened. I remember re-emerging triumphantly after the second wave only to be greeted by a third waves about four feet away. In short, we were caught in the crosshairs of the wave and there was simply no way to avoid it. It came crashing down on me and my father.
I am not sure just how tall that wave was, but for sure it was a lot taller than me and my father put to together. Within seconds we were no longer put together and I found myself tumbling for what seemed like forever underwater. Usually, in a situation where we had been up ended, I was able to pop up to the surface in seconds, but not this time. I just kept tumbling in the deep frothy water and when I finally did come up, I was immediately greeted by a fourth wave which propelled me back under the wave without the opportunity to grab even one short breath.
Things were now getting serious because I was still tumbling under water without any air. After what seemed like hours I did re-emerge for the briefest of seconds and got the briefest of gasps of air before being plunged under again by a fifth wave. Things were now more serious because I was still tumbling under water without air. Worse, I had lost my sense of direction. I started to swim frantically only to hit the sandy bottom. I tried to surge to the surface but a sixth wave came rolling in sending me tumbling once again sideways, upside down, every which way but to the top. I could sense that I was losing consciousness when a hand grabbed my arm and pulled me up. When I came up I saw my father proudly displaying me like a soggy fish. I gasped in some air and realized that I was among the living.
I came to love Bellport and our little summer cottage. In time, I learned to fish with a bamboo pole and a bobber. We used minnows that we bought from the local bait shop or we caught our own minnows with a seine. One day I caught 108 snappers in 40 minutes.
I also learned to crab. We used chicken heads tied to some string which we would throw into the water off of Smokey and Ethel’s dock. The line went out about 15 feet, we would stand on the dock where the water about 3 feet deep below and wait. This afforded a pretty good view of the line and the chicken head. When I saw the line move, I would pull the string back slowly and grab a nearby net that was on a long pole. I would pull the crab up close to the surface and then I would swoop in with my net. If you worked hard at this, you could get a couple of dozen crabs in a couple of hours.
I would bring the crabs back to Eldora, the black lady who looked after me, who cooked my meals and who cleaned the house. Eldora was afraid of crabs so I would have to be the person to put the poor devils in the boiling pot. Of course, they would try to crawl out and Eldora would scream in fright and I would scream in delight.
I did my fishing and crabbing mostly off of Smokie and Ethel’s dock. Smokie was well named because he liked to smoke, something my father did not approve of. Smokie and Ethel were also avid drinkers. My mother was very happy to have Smokie and Ethel around because she was a both smoker and a drinker. So on weekends, we would go over the Smokie and Ethel’s for dinner. It was usually a casual affair with Smokie, Ethel and my mother all having cocktails while my father drank Ballantine Ale, which I always thought was very cool. They would all sit around and talk and drink cocktails and smoke, except my father who stuck to his Ballantine Ale.
One day I learned a far more efficient system to crab off of Smokey and Ethel’s dock. I should say one night because that was when I learned how to catch a whole bushel of crabs in less than an hour. It was a dog stupid, dog simple system. Eldora would shine a light on the water off of the dock and I would swoop down with my trusty net. Some nights, literally hundreds of crabs would come up to the light at a time. All you had to do was swing your net down through the water and then you could scoop up 20, 30 or 40 crabs in one swoop. Eldora would hoot and scream as soon as she saw the crabs. She was terrified of them and she would not touch them, but she was entranced by the crabs.
“There’s they be,” she would scream, “Oh Lordy, look at those evil looking things. Theyse crawling, theyse creeping, don’t you bring them evil looking things near me.”
It was a true love/hate relationship between Eldora and blue claw crabs. I would have to carry the crabs back to the house at night. And of course, the crabs were not to happy about this so they would get busy trying to get out of the bushel basket. How many blue claw crabs were lost on the way home was never known, but we always had more crabs than we could eat. Trust me, I tried my best to eat every single crab, but after the first 20 or so, I would begin to lose interest.
At the house when we got back with the crabs that were still in the bushel basket, we would cook them up. Eldora would scream and yell while I put them in a big boiling pot of water we had for the occasion. The crabs would try to get out, but soon the boiling water would still their movements and then they would turn red. We ate those crabs on the little kitchenette table. We would cover the table with newspapers, get a pile of napkins, some paper plates and a couple of wooden hammers and Eldora and I would go at those crabs. She may have called them “evil looking things”, but she more than happy to eat them evil looking things. That table looked like an ancient battlefield after Eldora and I finally gave up eating as many as we could, with crab shells everywhere and bits of crabmeat flecked all over the table. But those crabs was good.
“Lordy, those evil, foul smellin’ things do taste good,” Eldora would say after twenty minutes of crab carnage.
Eldora was our cook, our maid and my best buddy. I did have a couple of local friends who would come over and teach me the fine art of fishing or of apple stealing. We had local apple orchard down the street and me and my friends would take great delight in trying to steal as many apples as possible, often eating them before their time and getting stomach aches as a result. That never stopped our apple acquisition program, although it did slow down and occasionally disrupt our apple consumption program.
If I was not out with my fellow tiny buddies, all aged around 10 or 12, I was out with Eldora dragging her out to some adventure she did not want to participate in. Somehow around that time, I convinced my father to invest in a small 16 foot boat and a 5 hp. I would gather up towels, fishing poles, crab nets and Eldora and I would motor across the Great South Bay. Now the Great South Bay was the same Great South Bay we took the ferry across. The ferry ride was unbearably slow, about 45 minutes, but the ride to Fire Island in my 16′ foot lap strake boat powered by my mighty 5 hp motor was even slower. Sometimes, it took two hours to cross the Great South Bay.
Now Eldora was not very comfortable with the water. The fact was that she could not swim probably had something to do with her concern about her safety. I never let that bother me. I always convinced Eldora that she had to come with me, that it was her duty to come with me. So Eldora would get into the boat remarking what a great tippy thing it was. But Eldora was a good sport and she screamed only occasionally.
Every afternoon the wind on the Great South Bay would come up out of the Southwest to 15 or 20 miles per hour. That often meant that we cruised over to Fire Island in morning in a dead flat calm and by the time we came back in the afternoon, it was windy, wet and the whole bay was covered by whitecaps. At age 10 or 11, it never occurred to me to think of safety. Most of the bay was only 2 or 3 feet deep and you had to motor very carefully or the prop would get tied up in salt water marsh grasses which covered most of the bay. I don’t remember if we had life jackets. If we did, they were the boxy orange foam block kind.
I have to tell you that one reason I preferred to swim in the ocean and not in the Great South Bay was that the Great South Bay was infested with nasty stinging jellyfish. So we would make the great one or two hour journey across the Great South Bay, Eldora and me. When we would finally get to Fire Island, I would force Eldora to walk with me across to where I could go for a swim in the ocean. Often we landed where there were no wooden plank walkways, only salt water marsh grasses and high sandy dunes. After we made our way through the tall, tough grasses, we would trek over dunes, and sometimes it was a half a mile or more. I would go then for a quick swim and then we would trek back. As you can imagine, Eldora had quite a lot to say about the indecency and hardship involved making this trek.
“Why you have to go this way, can’t you go where there is a walkway. I got sand in my shoes and I got bunions and theyse hurting.”
I would explain to her if we went to the Bellport Beach Club, it was two miles further East and a good extra 30 minutes by water.
“Why it’s 30 minutes to walk across them dunes and them grasses is just tearing at my bunions.” She would say.
Generally, I got my way because I was the captain of the ship and she was mortally afraid I might leave her in the boat alone. Her fears were well justified. One day I took her out to go fishing in the boat. We were about a half mile off shore. I was having a banner day pulling in snapper after snapper with my bamboo pole and bobber. Things was going good and then catastrophe struck. After hauling in a bunch of fish, I went to start the motor and to my horror, my beautiful little 5 hp power motor just rode up on the transom and slipped off. Down it went into the deep. Eldora greeted the catastrophe with a series of death curdling screams.
“Oh, Lordy, we gonna die. We gonna drown. Oh Lordy, this be the end. I knew I should not have gone out with that boy. The horoscope said something terrible was going to happen today and now, Lord, here it is. We are going to die.”
Frankly, I was more concerned with my loss of a motor than Eldora’s screams. Having a level head even at 11, I dropped anchor and decided I was going to dive for the motor. It was not that heavy and it was only about 10 feet deep in that particular spot. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate anything but jellyfish, which stung my legs, my arms, my face, my hands and just about every inch of my body. I persevered for a few more dives into the deep but soon the jellyfish stings seemed to have a cumulative effect.
Before going further let me tell you about the jellyfish that inhabited Great South Bay. They are very pretty, being almost a transparent silver color. They had long tentacles and regularly were two or three feet long. The real nasty ones had some purple blob coloring to them. Their stings were not so bad one at a time, but after twenty or thirty stings, you begin to feel pretty miserable. And if you have the misfortune to swim underwater and run into them with your eyes open, as I have, you can go blind for a week or so, as I did once. Fortunately, since I had previously gone blind from running into a jellyfish with my eyes open, I took great care to close my eyes every time a jellyfish came into view. That made looking for my motor somewhat more difficult and it still did not prevent me from groping around in the deep and being stung 20 or 30 times.
What with the stings stinging and Eldora screaming, I decided to give up my rescue effort to get the motor. That left me with a new rescue effort and that was to get back to shore. Fortunately there was an onshore breeze and, by throwing an anchor ever few minutes about twenty feet towards shore and then pulling it in, I was able to make slow, but steady progress towards the shore. This method took a full 30 minutes to get to shore. Eldora did not stop screaming until I had pulled the boat up to shore.
“Oh Lordy, thank the Lord, Ize back on land. God bless the heavens. I was lost, oh lord, and now I am saved.”
Eldora was only partially right because she had gotten out of the boat and was standing in the shallow water up to ankles. She was holding her two blue sandals decorated with two yellow daisies with one hand and her calico dress out of the water with the other. Part of her hair was hanging across her face, which was now one half hair and one half face. We had come back to land and we had survived. Despite the jellyfish stings and the loss of the motor, I was grateful I had gotten back to terra firma. And I was especially grateful now that Eldora had stopped screaming. And it only took about a week for the stings to stop stinging.
One of my most memorable experiences in Bellport was when a sailing catamaran appeared on the little beach where Smokey and Ethel had their dock. I was crabbing when a 25′ plywood sailing catamaran cruised up to the beach and crash landed on the sandy shore. That caught my eye. I felt a natural gravitational pull towards the catamaran. I had never seen anything quite like it. It had boxy sides created by the plywood construction. As far as could tell the bottom of the wooden pontoons were flat and the sides of the pontoons were also flat, although slanted inward and rectangular in shape. The pontoons did come to a point – a kind of V bow that widened out from front to about two thirds back and then they tapered back to a narrower square end. At the widest point the pontoons were only about one foot wide. At the narrowest point the bow they came to a sharp V. And at the stern of the pontoons they narrowed to about 8″ wide.
Two things struck me about this craft. It was huge. A good 25′ long and at least 12′ wide. The other thing was it had a huge sail and a large jib. It turned out this craft had been built by hand by a friend of Smokey’s and he brought it over to show his new, hand-made masterpiece. He asked if Smokey or anyone else wanted to go for a ride. Intuitively, I got on with Smokey. There were five of us on that catamaran. It took a little negotiation to turn the craft around. Basically, three of the sailors jumped in the bay and maneuvered it around so it was pointing towards Fire Island. The wind caught the sails and I felt the big cat lurch forward.
I heard someone say, “Here we go.”
That was an understatement. We started out slowly enough, about 3 or 4 miles per hour, just getting a hundred feet offshore. And then the afternoon Southwest wind broadsided the catamaran and we started to fly. The amazing sensation was the great surge of speed without the sound of a motor. We just kept picking speed. It was pretty windy day, with a 20 to 30 mile from Southwest. That was strong, but as mentioned every afternoon on the Great South Bay, the wind picked up from the Southwest.
The 20 to 30 mile wind almost immediately propelled us at 15 to 20 miles per hour. Now I was used to my 16′ lap strake boat with a 5 hp engine. That was slow, especially if there was a chop, as there was every afternoon. I was used to my 16′ boat slowing down in the chop, but that is not what happened with this new kind of sailing catamaran. The further we went out in the bay, the faster we went. We just skimmed over that bay. The catamaran hardly leaned, it just listed slightly with the wind and whenever there was a gust it surged forward even faster. I just could not believe it. This was the 1950’s, so I said, “Cool!”
If it was the 1960s, I probably would have said, “What a rush, man.”
Whatever I called it, it was without a doubt the most exciting sailing experience of life. We skimmed across that bay in about 25 minutes and almost ran Fire Island over. Before crashing into Fire Island, we came about and raced back. The return trip was even faster, no more than 20 minutes. That was the fastest I ever crossed the Great South Bay. In Smokey and Ethel’s open Chris Craft, an old classic with a wood deck and sleek lines, it was a good 40 minutes, mainly because you had to slow down in the chop that rose up every afternoon. On the Bellport ferry that went from the town dock to the Bellport Beach Club, it could be an hour and twenty minutes in heavy chop. And in my 16′ lap strake boat with a 5 hp motor, it could be an hour and three quarters or even two hours.
So to skim across the bay without the noise of the motor and only the splashing sound of the freshly painted plywood hull skimming over the two or three foot chop was simply amazing. The only thing remotely like it was riding an iceboat one winter across the Great South Bay. That was just about as fast, but bumpy and scary as hell and noisy as hell. Riding that sailing catamaran was not bumpy or scary or noisy. It was just fast as hell, exciting and quiet.
That was the first and last time rode on the catamaran. Every time I went Smokey’s dock after that experience, I looked for that catamaran to show up. I would ask Smokey when it was coming over. Maybe next week he would say, but it never did. And I never, ever forgot that sailboat ride. It left me with a lifetime love of sailing catamarans that one day I would fulfill.
In Bellport I had my first real experience with the true power of a hurricane. I should have known that this was a truly powerful hurricane because a few hours before the hurricane began in earnest, I walked down to our little beach on the Great South Bay. There was already a 40 mph wind coming across the bay. The whole bay was all white caps with 2 or 3 foot breaking waves. That was impressive enough in itself because most of the bay is so shallow, it cannot really have higher waves.
But what caught my eye was Fire Island. There in the distance (it was about 5 miles across the bay to Fire Island) I could see ocean waves breaking on the dunes. Above the dunes, I could see the ocean spray rise up after each breaking wave. That was really impressive because I knew the dunes were 50 or 60 feet high. I am guessing the waves breaking on Fire Island were at least 30 or 40 feet high. This was before the hurricane had actually arrived. This was early evening. The hurricane was not supposed to arrive until the early morning the next day. This was Hurricane Carol and the year was 1954. I was 11 years old at the time.
For me, a hurricane was a time of extreme excitement.We did not have the weather channel then, but even then radio and tv reports tracked its every movement up the East Coast. It had hit Cape Hatteras and it was headed straight up the coast aiming directly at Long Island. At that young age, it never occurred to me that such a hurricane could be dangerous. For me, there was only extreme excitement and anticipation. In retrospect, that hurricane could have wiped out the town of Bellport and could have washed away my little Cape Cod house. But that did not happen.
Now, having gone through 20 or so hurricanes on Long Island, I can say that Hurricane Carol was easily the strongest hurricane to hit Long Island in my lifetime. Nothing I experienced later came close. Hurricane Gloria, Hurricane Bob, The Perfect Storm and the most recent Perfect Storm, Tropical Storm Sandy were all pretty serious hurricanes or storms to hit Long Island, but Hurricane Carol was substantially worse. It arrived with steady winds of 125 miles per hour and at times, the winds gusted to 145 mph. It was a really serious hurricane and it hit Long Island directly.
Just about everybody in New York realized how serious Hurricane Carol was. Everybody except my father who confidently told me the reports and predictions were exaggerated. My father remembered the hurricane of 1938 and that, in his mind, was the only serious hurricane ever to hit Long Island. He told me, as a young boy, he remembered seeing a 50 foot motor yacht, securely lodged 25 feet up in a tree on a Golf Course. Well, I have no doubt that the Hurricane of 1938 was an extremely serious hurricane and maybe even stronger and more dangerous than Hurricane Carol. That said, Hurricane Carol was surely the second strongest hurricane to hit Long Island in the last 100 years.
But my father was adamant. The weather reports always exaggerated the strength of storms coming. Most of the time they just missed and the reports were wrong. Therefore, my father decided he has going to drive to New York City in the midst of Hurricane Carol when it was raging at its height. And that is what he did. I knew immediately my father had mis-judged the strength of the hurricane. As he went to open the side door to the garage, the door was thrown inward and my father was flung to the floor, just as he was saying what a minor storm it was.
I will say my father was not deterred. He got off of the floor, carefully maneuvered his way out the door and with great effort pulled the door shut behind him. He said few more words just emphasize how minor the storm really was and then he lurched back out the door towards the garage. It did take some time for me and my father to get the door shut, but with my father pulling from outside and me pushing from the inside, we managed it in about five minutes of tussling. Shortly thereafter, I saw my father’s Cadillac pull out of the garage and head down the street. I did not see my father for the next two days. My mother and myself survived fine. The house did not blow away. It did not wash away. We lost electricity about a half hour after my father left and it did not return for another two weeks, but I had a great adventure. I was the master of the house and we did fine.
I later learned that it took my father about 6 hours to make what was normally an hour and half trip. Apparently, he spent a good deal of time dodging trees and electrical wires. The closer he came to the city, the more he found his way blocked by abandoned cars, but my father was serious businessman and he did make it into the city and he might even have gotten some work done. Thinking about this from the viewpoint of the present over-cautious age, it was an outrageously stupid and dangerous thing for my father to do. And certainly, it could have ended in disaster for my mother and myself or for my father or for all of us. In the end, it was just something we all experienced and went through with no one the worse for wear.
By the time I was 14, I started spending my summers in Southampton. Since the divorce of my father and mother was dragging on and my mother’s condition was deteriorating, it was felt that it would better for me to be in the Hamptons with my father, his brothers, his sister and their extended families. And that proved to be a wonderful thing for me, for suddenly I had a whole bunch of cousins and friends to hang out with. So I spent summers in Southampton living in the rental house shared by my father, his brothers and his sister. Since his brothers and his sister were all married and all had kids, that meant that basic operating unit of the house was 14.
Now people came and went so the house was rather like an accordion, sometimes extended, sometimes contracted. During the week, the men of the house, went to the city to conduct their work. The exception to this was Ivan Obolensky, the husband of Barbara, my father’s sister. Ivan was the sole representative of Taittinger Champagne. Ivan spent his week calling on restaurants and other accounts on Long Island and in New York. That connection served us well when the family had parties.
My time and schedule was simple in Southampton. Get up pretty much when I felt like it. Have breakfast and then ponder whether to go to the beach club or the Meadow Club. That depended on whether I thought there was surf. Surf ruled my life at 14. If there were waves, then I went to the ocean. I was a mat surfer by this time, using the Hodgman canvas air mattresses that were sold at Lillywhite’s, the local toy store. These were pretty simple rigs with a rope handle, a bicycle valve to inflate through, the air mattress was rectangular in shape, blue, white and red in color.
Over time I became a truly excellent mat surfer. I could ride just about any wave up to about 14′. Me and my surfing buddies would spend literally hours in the ocean, if there was surf. Not only did we compete to catch the biggest wave, we would try to find ways to wipe out our fellow surfers. The most effective way to wipe out a fellow surfer was to station yourself at the bottom of wave where you thought a fellow friend might come by. Because the Hodgman air mattress had a rope handle at the front, this was an easy target to grab as your best buddy was coming down the side of a really big wave. All you had to do was wait at the bottom of the wave until your best buddy was almost on top of you and then reach up with a stealthy and deft move of one hand, grab the rope and pull down.
The result was truly delightful. The nose of the surf mat at would dive down into the wave and your best buddy would begin a wonderful somersault in which he was completely turned upside down and then the wave would complete its work by driving your best buddy into the sand. It gave the phrase “pounding sand” true meaning. If this was done delicately enough, your best buddy would not see you at the bottom of the wave and he would be beginning the exhilarating thrill of being propelled down the side of the wave, only to find something has gone terribly wrong and instead charging 75 or 100 feet down the side of the wave towards the beach, your best buddy would be tumbling helter skelter in the wave soon to eat sand.
Nothing was more fun and hilarious than to bring your best buddy to doom. It was worth 5 minutes of hysterical laughter. And of course, if you were successful it would lead to retribution by your best buddy. When you are the receiving end of such an insult you quickly realize how little you can do about it and how quickly your fate is sealed, for suddenly a hand would emerge out of the deep, grab the rope every so gently and pull down. Sometimes, you would see part of a face emerge from the water just before disaster strikes. It would always be smiling. And then you find yourself tumbling helter skelter through the surf, soon to be ground into the sand.
Since the sand was just sand and not rocks, there was really never any damage to your body. Just your pride. You just tumbled through the surf, gasping for air, confused by what was going on, but never really hurt. Often you would emerge just in time to be crushed by yet another wave. And if the sabotage was exquisitely done, several waves would crush you in a row. No matter, it seemed that even the biggest waves and the most humiliating spills did nothing to harm you physically, aside from not being to breathe for short periods of time. In truth, all of us admired a good ambush as much as we loved a good ride.
So that is how we occupied our days on rough ocean days. And after we had been in the ocean two or three hours, we would come out for short time to sit on the beach and warm up in the sun. Even at that age, I still loved the sensation of laying directly on the sand and warming up on the toasty granules. For some reason I have never understood, the plague horseflies that sometimes infested the Bellport Beach Club, never affected Southampton. It was if some old stodgy, long dead Society matron stood invisible on the jetty to Shinnecock Inlet, 24 hours day, all summer long, saying, “Halt thou vile horseflies, you are not permitted beyond this jetty. This beaches are consigned to families of good standing and upright moral character, not foul black insects with green heads that consort with horse manure.”
On calm ocean days, we would go to the Meadow Club and play several sets of tennis. And some days, we would hang out as a group, chit-chatting endlessly about inconsequential things, like whose party to go that night, whose house. It was a carefree life and I enjoyed for five or six summers before doing anything remotely serious. Unlike many kids, who when they got to be 16 or 18, immediately took a summer job, I never worked during the summer. No, I spent 100% of my time playing tennis, swimming in the ocean and going out to parties in the evening.
When I was just 14 there were not many parties to go to, but by the time I got to be 16, I came to hang around in a more sophisticated group of kids. Most these kids came from really rich families. I will not name names, but many were the sons and daughters of some of America’s great industrial and financial companies. As such these kids had money on their own. Not only money, but when they came to be 18 or 19, also nifty little sports cars. XKE Jaguars, little Porches, Corvettes, Mustangs, Mercedes Roadsters. Everybody that is except me. I had almost no money and only occasional driving rights to my parents Nash Ambassador. No matter, I hung in with my peers, even if I could not keep with their level of luxury.
One of the things we used to do was go to beach parties. This was a time in Southampton when the west end of Dune Road was just dunes. Today, those dunes are covered with billionaire homes and there is no public access to what were dunes and to the ocean itself. In those days, however, the dunes were wide open and just about anybody could go there. Rich, poor, male, female, young or old, black, white, Asian, green, pink, anybody could park on Dune Road and walk over the dunes to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
In the early days, we would bring transistor radios that did not sound great and some beer that did taste great, even if it was not. We would be in somebody’s house, doing nothing, and somebody would suggest going to the beach for an impromptu party and that is what we would do. 20 or 30 of us would mount up in various vehicles, some very sporty and luxurious, others very simple and functional like the Nash Ambassador that I borrowed from my parents and off we would go, first to pick up beer and munchies, and then to the beach, armed with a hopelessly underpowered transistor radio. Whatever, we always had fun, even if it was a long walk across the dunes and a long walk back.
In later days, these beach parties became more elaborate as some of my fellow buddies came into more money, they would hire a band, round up lobsters, hamburgers and hotdogs and get a cases of beer or kegs, depending on the size of the celebration and then we would all migrate to the beach for a real party complete with funky band, sodas and beer, food and snacks. On those occasions we would gather driftwood and light a huge bonfire. Then we would gather round the fire to listen to the band or the radio and maybe even dance on the beach. And sometimes we would go skinny-dipping in the ocean.
Swimming in the ocean naked at night was exciting because you could not really see the waves that well and you felt kind of unprotected and vulnerable. I mean what might happen if a crab went nipping? Another question was the waves. They just rose up out of nowhere and crushed you if you were not careful. Still another interesting aspect of swimming in the ocean at night was the phosphorous, which was all about you and which lit up, like millions of underwater fireflies, whenever you took a stroke swimming.
At the end of each summer, hurricanes would take aim at Long Island and make their run. Often the hurricanes missed Long Island by hundred of miles, but even if they did, there would be days when the surf got really big. Often on these days, because a hurricane was passing by, the wind would shift around to the Northwest or Northeast and you would have an offshore wind.
Now, as many people know, the surf on Long Island is generally small and choppy. Usually you get a Southwest wind in the afternoons and a chop would rise up. The surf could get to 3 or 4 feet, but generally not much higher. And because these waves were essentially wind blown, they would be sloppy, not break evenly and not have a clear defined shape. Sometimes, in the summer, a set would come in and the waves would rise out nowhere from almost nothing to 6 or 8 feet in a matter of minutes. That would be because some waves were reaching us from some offshore storm which could be hundreds or thousands of miles away.
In late August or mid September, when the hurricane season was underway, then the really big swells could come in and they could be 12 or 14 feet under certain conditions. And if there was an offshore wind, the waves would take on much more defined shapes, more associated with the West Coast or Hawaii. The offshore wind would clean up the shape of the waves and they would come rolling in and as they came to rise up and break, with great white wisps of water and mist being pushed back off of the top of the waves by the wind. This was when the waves could be at their highest and have the most defined and clean shape. They were beautiful to behold.
As I and my friends became better mat surfers, we would begin to ride the waves that broke offshore on sandbars a quarter to a half mile offshore. Usually, we would just ride waves inshore. These were short but fast. The waves out on the sandbars beyond the first break, were generally larger, better formed and far more powerful, especially if there was a hurricane within two or three hundred miles. Then the waves could be really impressive.
Getting out to the sandbars where those waves broke took a lot of effort on the old Hodgman air mats because those air mattresses were pretty thick and rectangular in shape. It was not like paddling a surfboard out which cuts through waves far easier and can be paddled far faster. So It was hard paddling surf mats out to the sandbars and getting beyond were the waves broke was even more arduous and sometimes very frustrating. Often as you got close to the big waves a big wave would catch you and knock you back 200 or 300 feet, giving you a long and quite unexpected ride that you really did not want.
To get the ride you wanted, you had to catch the wave at the top of the crest just as it was breaking and ride it all the way down the curve of the wave and beyond. So getting knocked back 200 or 300 feet, when you had not caught the wave as it was breaking was not what you wanted. Again, it was not easy to paddle back and often you would get knocked back towards the shore again and again. The Hodgman surf mats had great buoyancy which floated you above the water, but that also meant the wave could push you back to where you came from very easily. It took a lot of determination and a lot of energy to paddle your way through the break of the waves on a sandbar and beyond where the waves actually broke.
So a great deal of effort was expended in just getting into position to catch a wave. My friends and myself did go out to the sandbar waves whenever the waves were large enough. Once you were out there, it also took time and judgment to catch a wave. You could easily squander all your efforts to get out there on a wave that either was not worthy of your efforts or was more worthy than you realized. On the not worthy waves, you would get a slow disappointing ride that kind of fizzled out. On the more worthy waves than you realized, the wave would break in front of you before you could actually catch it and come roaring down on you and it might give you a fast and very bumpy ride.
Often such a wave would wipe you out, throwing you off the mat and sending it shoreward. And then you might have to swim two or three hundred feet to get to your surf mat. And by the time you did that, you were one tired puppy and you probably reconsidering your judgment to come out there in the first place. Sometimes, if a wave broke just behind you and if you acted quick enough, turning to get into position and then paddling hard to catch the wave, you could get a pretty great ride, even if often had a very bumpy start, bouncing you up and down three or four feet at a time, until you finally landed on the surface of the wave and started to skim down it like you were supposed. That could be a really great ride.
One of the disconcerting things that would occur from time to time was that you would look down and you would notice 5 or 6 sharks swimming below. Now it was generally 10 to 15 feet deep where the sandbars were and most of the time you could see the bottom clearly if there were no waves breaking at the moment. And that was then we would see the sharks.
To fair these were not big sharks and more importantly, they seemed to have no interest us. They just seemed to like to swim below where we were floating. When we first saw these sharks, we tried to figure out how to get our bodies completely on top the 28″ x 42″ Hodgman surf mats. That was not easy. The only successful way to do that was to kneel. That worked for a while but it could become uncomfortable kneeling for long periods. Over time, as we came to realize that the sharks had no real interest in us and we would lay down on the mats, our legs dangling in the ocean water, ready meat for the sharks below.
We found out from our local lifeguard that these were sand sharks and that generally they were harmless. That is not to say that there were not other sharks swimming in the same water who had a more material interest in our body parts. Some years later a Great White Shark was caught off of Montauk. It was 25′ long and apparently had a ready appetite for humans. No matter, we were never molested in our surfing endeavors and no one I knew ever got bitten by a shark or suffered any bodily harm that I know of from surfing the outer sandbars.
One year a hurricane came near the Hamptons and brushed us with 40 or 50 mile an hour winds. The next day I went out and decided that I was going to surf the outer break with a couple of friends. The surf was bigger than I had ever seen it. In shore 14′ to 15′ waves were breaking. Overnight the wind had turned around to the Northeast and was blowing offshore. This had the effect of knocking down the waves slightly and giving them almost a perfect surfing shape. They were majestic rollers rising up and rolling in. There was no chop, only the clean curve of the mountainous waves as they rolled in.
I know by Pacific standards, these were not the truly large waves that sometimes came to Hawaii and the West Coast, but they were truly humongous by East Coast standards. So I and two other buddies mounted up and headed out on our trusty Hodgman mats. Just getting through the shore break took some doing. You had to wade out two or three hundred feet to get to the break and to dive repeated times holding on to your surf for dear life. In doing so, we would have to dive into the waves backward and pulling our surf mats with us through the giant waves. Often the wave would still catch us and pull us back 30 or 40 feet, but we kept at it and eventually we made it through the shore break.
Once outside the shore break we could paddle to the outer sandbar which was almost a half mile offshore. I should at this point mention that the offshore wind had the advantage of aiding us paddling out to the second break, but that was also a terrible hazard. If we got tumbled in the surf and separated from our mats, we could easily have our surf mats blown out to sea by the strong offshore wind. This was not only inconvenient, it was dangerous, because it was highly unlikely we could swim and catch out surf mats. So, if we did get separated from the mats, we would have to make the half mile swim to shore at a time when we were particularly exhausted from our surfing efforts. Fortunately, that did not happen to us. We were aware of the conditions and we held on to our mats literally for dear life.
So out we went, three teenagers, between 15 and 17, paddling to the get out beyond the second break. The second break by the sandbar proved to be far more difficult than the shore break. That was because when you were paddling out, in the ten to twenty feet of water we were in, there was no way to dive under a breaking wave. The idea was to paddle like hell and get out beyond the sandbar break. This was difficult because the waves broke a good 500 feet in front of you. So you could paddle for 50 or 100 feet and then a wave would come rolling towards you. Then you would have to decide. Which was easier. To roll off of your mat and hold onto the rope or to paddle right into the breaking wave and hope it did not take you too far back. I tried both methods. Getting off the mat and holding onto the mat generally resulted in less loss of territory, but both involved losses of territory that you had paddled hard to get beyond.
This process proved so difficult that my two friends headed back, giving up on the effort. But I was made of sterner stuff. There was something in me that would not allow me to quit. So I continued to try and plow my way out beyond where the waves broke. It took me a good 45 minutes of fighting forward, being knocked back and then fighting forward again, to just get beyond that second break, but I finally succeeded. I took a ten minute rest just beyond where the breakers were.
This finally put me in a position to catch a wave. Now I was out just beyond where the waves were breaking I began to realize just how enormous they were. As they rolled, I had the feeling that I was floating over and under mountains. When on top of the rolling wave came, I could see all other rollers coming in the distance beyond, then as the wave passes, I would fall into the valley between the two waves and it would seem like being between two mountains in motion. In front of me was giant wall, behind me was a giant wall. And these walls, rolling under me, rising up and then rolling by. When you were between two walls, it was almost dark in the valley and all you could see above you was blue sky, while the two walls enclosed you, with no sun in the valley.
Somewhere about that time, it occurred to me that this was probably not a very good idea. I was out beyond second break. There was a stiff 20 or 30 mile offshore wind attempting to blow me to England. I had to keep a close watch on the shore to be sure I was not being blown out to sea. I also had to keep a sharp eye on the incoming waves to be sure they were not going to break and not pummel me into the deep. It was a tricky situation because I also knew I had to catch the crest of a wave if was to get a good ride. So I hung out there for almost another 45 minutes waiting for the perfect wave.
And then it came, a Mount Everest among the Himalayas. When I saw it, I was not sure it would even break. Then it started to rise and rise. It was an easy 20′ from the bottom of the wave to the crest of the wave, which was not yet breaking. At that time, I was about 5′ 6″, all of 130 lbs., riding on this 28″ x 42″ surf mat. I turned toward shore and started paddling not sure if I was to far in or not close enough to catch the wave. Meanwhile the coming wave continued to rise up, like some elemental force of God.
I caught the wave about 4 feet from the crest, but the crest had not broken. Below me was the moving 16′ deep valley. The wave caught me, I was at about 60 degree downward angle as I was suddenly propelled down the side of the wave. And then it did something no other wave ever did to me before. It threw me out 20 or 30 feet ahead the wave before it even broke. And then it did break. At first I was still being propelled ahead of the wave, skimming over the surface at a tremendous speed with no apparent form of propulsion. And then the breaking wave broke, the top 8 feet of the wave turning into a 6 foot wall of white foam. The 6 foot wall of whitewater caught up to me and thrust me forward. I had to hold on to that surf mat with all my strength. Somehow I emerged from the wall of white and again found myself skimming over the surface of the wave 20′ ahead of the breaking, foaming white wall, apparently with no source of propulsion.
Soon the source caught up with me and shot me forward again, skimming ahead of the breaking wave, as if carried forward by an invisible force.
This recurrence of the breaking wave catching up with me and then spitting me out ahead occurred 5 or 6 times before the actual breaking wave caught up and carried me forward as I bounced up and down 400 or 500 feet on the breaking crest of the wave. This was, without question, the most exciting ride of my life on an ocean wave and I will never forget it. The terror and exhilaration and adrenalin mixed in equal parts and with fear and joy and infatuation as I raced down the side of that wave.
I have no doubt that the surfers of today experience far more exhilaration and fear and astonishment on the many rides surfers get on far bigger waves, but my ride was before the time people used surfboards widely and for me, at that time, it was the most exciting thing I had ever done.
I spent summers in Hamptons from the time was 14 to the time I was 22. During this period I graduated from a Catholic Prep School, Portsmouth Priory, spent two years flunking out of The University of Virginia, two years getting back into The University of Virginia and two years graduating. This was a fairly standard method of curriculum going to The University of Virginia since it happened to be known as America’s biggest party school. It was also known for having a pretty high standard of academic training, especially if you went to classes. I found the freedom of that school literally too intoxicating, but I was able to get back in and I was able to eventually graduate in Philosophy, a course of learning that proved to be of dubious use in my father’s business selling fishing lures and inflatable boats.
No matter, I graduated and after some sharp career changes – Clam Digger, journalist, newspaper delivery man, script writer – I went into my father’s business. The year was 1968 and that year was the same year that my father purchased an inflatable boat company. His theory was if he could sell dress forms, paint brushes, fishing lures, TV repair books, fertilizer, dance lessons, surely he could also sell inflatable boats. After all, inflatable boats were reasonably small and came in boxes and you could use that new delivery service, UPS, to deliver our boats. He was right.
At that time, my father’s main business was mostly fishing lures and ladies’ dress forms. Of course, there were a few other odd products – AutoCast fishing rods which had an internal spring to cast fishing lures about 30 feet, Lure Glow, a kind of toxic glow powder, that made fishing lures luminous (“Illegal in 13 States” was my father’s brilliant headline copy), Addiators, a mechanical precursor of calculators, that added and subtracted with a hand stylus and now inflatable boats.
Admittedly, it was an odd collection of goods, but my father was a true marketing genius and, one way or another, he found ways to sell all of these odd products. But the moral of this part of the story is that I now found something to get interested in because now my father had this weird inflatable business. One of my first duties in my father’s business was to write copy for a catalog on the boats and get pictures taken of the inflatable boats.
Now for someone who all his life had only known about rigid boats, the whole concept of inflatables seemed crazy. However, after paddling and trying out these boats for a few weeks I began to get the idea. Here were boats you could pack in your car, store in closet, keep in garage, that you could take out, blow up in a few minutes and literally go paddling. It was and still is a whole different concept of boating. The hardest point to get my head around was fact that inflatable boats actually worked and could be used in many different ways.
So I spent some time just getting to understand the new business and the meaning of inflatable boats. The particular meaning to me was that I now had a whole bunch of reasons go boating and to use these new boats. And of course, because we had bought the boat business, I had the boats to do all this.
Well, one thing led to another you might say. I went to work for my father. My cousin, who was not sure what to do after college, came and did a stint in my father’s business. We moved into a little rental house on Lake Panamoka in Wading River. Of course, we brought some of our new inflatable canoes to the house and every evening if it was not raining, we went paddling on the lake. Not long after to moving into that house we met my wife to be and after some little tussle between my cousin and myself, I ended up with a new girlfriend and my future wife, Ginny Whitehead. That proved to be convenient because she lived three houses down from the house my cousin and I had rented. So my future father, mother, brother and sister-in-laws were nearby.
Not long after that my cousin decided he wanted to become a lawyer and he went off to law school in Washington. That left me with the house and my new girlfriend. We got married after a few years, moved to another part of Wading River into a very cool, very tiny house situated on Cliff Road, coincidently over-looking a 100 foot cliff out to Long Island Sound. There again, I brought along my boats even though it was logistically difficult to do, since you had to climb up and down a 100 foot cliff. Eventually I built a wooden stairway to make that somewhat more practical.
As I got more involved in my father’s business I naturally migrated towards the boat business because it gave me an excuse to do things on the water. I started to take the boats out to get pictures and started to write copy for catalog because we had none. Now, I had been an amateur photographer for sometime, but in truth, the emphasis should be on amateur. So the first thing really needed to do was find a photographer. I enlisted my new cousin, Freddy Havemeyer, and he took the first shots of our products on the water. That forced me how to learn to write copy and advertisements.
Having spent all my life inculcated with advertising, I had naturally absorbed something before even starting. As I started working on little ads and little brochures, I learned how to get photographs taken (not difficult, you tell someone to take pictures and then watch them take pictures), how to get ads laid out (you give a layout artist some words and some pictures), how to get catalogs laid out (you give the same layout artist more words and more pictures). In truth there more to it than that, but my father’s business came with built-in relationships with photographers and layout artists. It was not hard to find your way. Start at A and go to B.
Now when it came to my father’s other businesses, I did not find them particularly interesting at first. I came to understand them and to do reasonably good work in them, but they definitely were not my passion. I can’t say that inflatable boats were passion, but they were a whole lot closer. Why? Because doing ads and catalogs for them meant we had to go out on the water, take pictures and use the boats. And as I came to understand and appreciate them better, I began to really like being in the boat business.
Me Running the Chatooga River in Georgia
So after meeting my wife in Wading River and moving from Lake Panamoka in Wading River to Cliff Road in Wading River, one thing remained constant. We went out boating. And when we moved to Cliff Road, my wife met a couple who came to be our best friends. I had been in Europe visiting our new French supplier of inflatable boats when my wife told me she met this really neat couple and when I came back I would love to meet them. And that’s what I did.
By this time, I had already been producing ads and catalogs, mostly with the help of my new cousin-in-law, Freddy Havemeyer who became our boat photographer for a while. When I got back, I met the couple down the street, Michael and Joellen Schillaci. And my wife was right. They were a really neat couple. Michael was a Vietnam vet, and presently a spackler in the construction trade. He and Joellen had recently married, she was an art student and a recent college graduate.
I introduced Michael and Joellen to our boats and soon we were taking weekend camping trips. One of our first photography trips was running a river in Pennsylvania in our kayaks. I told Michael and Joellen about taking our kayaks down the Youghieheny River and showed them the pictures. That was enough to get them interesting in trying river running. Pretty soon we were taking river trips down various local rivers.
It is strange how people influence other people. My wife, who had been making jewelry for a few years, introduced Joellen jewelry design. I, who been getting boat photographs taken for a few years, introduced Michael to photography. One thing led to another and over time, JoEllen started making her own jewelry and Michael started taking photographs. In a few years, Michael became a photographer of our boats and Joellen became a full time jewelry designer.
Running The Farmington River
For the next 30 years, our lives were kind of entwined. We went off for numerous river and camping trips using our boats on lakes and rivers. Michael became our photographer and pretty soon we were organizing river trips and camping trips to take pictures all around the Northeast. My wife Ginny and Joellen started doing jewelry together. Each spring and summer we would go off on these river and camping trips, 10 to 15 people, gathering together boats, food, drink and heading off to the mountains and running a river or setting up a camping scene in which we all participated. It became a kind of lifestyle.
After living in Wading River, first on Lake Panamoka, then on Cliff Road overlooking Long Island Sound, I found a new, somewhat bigger house in Strong’s Neck, a part of Setauket, on the North Shore of Long Island. One thing remained a constant – we were still living on the water. This time, instead having lake right outside your back porch or Long Island Sound down a 100 foot cliff, I had bay in my backyard about 100 feet from our new house.
Me in 2015 on a Kayak I Designed
This is the house that we ended up living for the last forty years and it continued what I had been doing since I was about two – that is, it continued my life and love affair with water. Many things have changed over those forty years, but what has not changed is that I still go kayaking or rowing or swimming or boating whenever those activities are possible. Now, you might think that is a June to September activity, but in fact I go boating all year. My only rule is not to go boating when the ice freezes over the bay. That makes January and February often difficult, but even then I usually able to paddle or row 5 or 10 times in each of those months. The rest the year I go more often, usually 5 days a week, weather and tide permitting.
Circumnavigating Long Island.
One the many interesting experiences that I have had over the years was to follow a guy who chose to row around Long Island in order to raise money to support cancer research – a kind of strange quest in itself. Each of those trips took 8 to 10 days to go around Long Island. Why did it take so long? Well, for one thing, Long Island is pretty long – about 120 miles long and about 300 miles to circumnavigate when you go in and out of its many harbors and bays and inlets. For another thing, the guy I was following (Rick Shalvoy was his name), although in peak physical condition, was still human, so the fastest he could row was about 4 or 5 miles per hour. And that was with the wind and tide at his back. On some occasions Rick actually went into reverse when wind and tide were not co-operating.
On those trips I was the support boat and, as such, I carried enough water, food, radios, gas and electronic equipment to complete the whole trip, if I had to. And although I never had too, I had numerous run-ins with the natural elements of nature and I came to have a strong appreciation of how alone a human could be if you got into a little trouble, even if you were just a half mile offshore from a beach crowded with beach-goers. In doing these trips, I came to know and understand and to respect the many different waterways that surround Long Island.
I did that for 10 years in a row and each time it was an interesting and new experience for me. I have written a pretty long story on those experiences in this blog entitled “Circumnavigating Long Island Ten Times”, so I will not dwell on all the gory details, but suffice to say these experiences expanded and enhanced my other experiences in, on and around the water. Long Island, as seen from the water, is, in my opinion, a whole different place than Long Island, as seen from the land.
You may ask why anyone would write such a long article about going on the water? What is important about that? Well, it is important to me and I have a theory about that. This may be where my college degree in philosophy comes into play.
Here is my theory. I think we live in two worlds – the inside world that we work, play and sleep in and the outside world that we pass through and occasionally observe. To me the real world is the outside world. To me the artificial world is the inside world. I believe I get my almost daily exposure to outside world by going paddling or rowing and I believe it gives me another view of the world. It is a view that I believe cleanses me and makes me aware of what is really around me.
Now you can go for a bicycle ride or a jog and yes you are outside, but what will you see? Roads, houses, buildings, driveways, telephone poles, cars, all supporting characters in the inside world. And while it is true you will see houses, boats and other people on the water, you will also see wide horizons and bays and birds and sunny, blue skies and wet, gray days, hot sometimes, cool sometimes, cold sometimes. To me that is the true world.
Of course that experience can be further improved on by taking trips and paddling or rowing or sailing on truly remote and beautiful waterways. And yes, there still is a lot of real world out there. And guess what? You are free to go anytime you wish.
This is very important me. I feel if we lose contact with what I call the real world, we will inevitably destroy it. And if we inevitably destroy it, in doing so we will inevitably destroy ourselves. So I think that is important and should be remembered and understood by all.