May Day

For a few years my son and I lived with his stepfather at the confluence of New Jersey’s freshwater Toms River and brackish Barnegat Bay. The east-west river begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells as it picks up smaller estuaries on its way east. Just ten degrees north of the subtropical Horse Latitudes, the Toms River is beloved by sailors, especially during summer’s prevailing southerlies.  

Our sandy backyard bulkheaded the rich brine nourshing vibrant sea creatures that, in turn, fed the migratory bird colonies.

We lived for the water.

The used Sunfish we purchased for fifty dollars came with a booklet on ‘how to sail’. With a crab claw sail and simple two line rigging, the thirty pound polystyrene Sunfish distinguished itself as a perfect learner’s boat. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats.” I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

1973 Budweiser ad

I practiced my new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead with a double braided dockline. On our first untethered day at sea, six-year old Joe, who’d studied the how-to manual, rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I pointed toward shore and asserted “go home”. Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we made it to the middle of the wide river before the dog got to us. We were too far out for her to swim back so we hauled her aboard and headed to shore. The only solution was to tuck the faithful dog away in a bedroom before heading out to sail. 

One breezy afternoon, we took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back east. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. We were trapped. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. The sail luffed out of control.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my worried brow. I could swim with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other.

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. No beaches. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. “You should name her ‘May Day’.”

And we would have.

If we’d ever sailed again.

At The Shore

At The Shore

Once upon a time a long time ago I got tumbled round and round and somehow knew to go limp, relax my breath, close my eyes and not wriggle toward the sky I couldn’t see. I let myself go, with, the, flow; let the tide churn my body turned-fish-turned-seashell-turned-driftwood-turned-mermaid. Sanded, winded, exhilarated and afraid I ended up splayed out on the beach—waiting for someone to acknowledge my courage in facing the swollen ocean alone and coming out alive. But they were all in their beach chairs smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, telling jokes, gossiping, hissing—the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the friends, the neighbors.

That was the summer my father taught me to swim and I made friends with the ocean.

Twenty-two years later, second-husband Ed moved me and my child Joe into flat-roofed, low-slung stucco in the tidal flatlands of Ocean Gate, New Jersey, where freshwater Toms River flowed into saltwater Barnegat Bay and made the brackish brine off our sandy backyard abundant with sealife, birdlife and shorelife. Ed, a no-good sometime-recovering alcoholic raised in the working-class Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, had spent gobs of time at the shore and had one good characteristic—he loved nature. The first summer on the bay, he taught Joe and me to fish, crab, birdwatch and seine.

In knee-deep water, Joe’s five-year old body, barely holding up a pair of trunks, stood on one side of the seining net. He gripped its wooden pole with both hands. Holding the other pole, I stretched the net six feet to the side of Joe. On the count of “One, two, three!” we dug our poles into the bottom and slowly pulled them through the sand, dragging the 220px-Seine_(PSF)slackened mesh to the shore and heaving it waterlogged onto the beach to see what lived beneath and around our sea-shored feet. We scrambled to our catch before low-flying seabirds descended to snatch up bottom-feeding young flounder; then we examined the rest of the bounty, which always contained a variation of tangled fishing line, faded lures, pieces of styrofoam, oyster shells, mussel shells, small rocks and pebbles, and once in a while a prized jellyfish, baby turtle or blue crab.

One time an osprey flew overhead scouting out what may have been his next meal. He held something flapping herkyjerky in his talons that dropped smack on the beach in front of our seining net. Screeching like seagulls we threw up our arms, jumped up and down, pushed and pulled each other screaming for Ed. Ed grabbed a stick and an old ice chest and lifted the six-foot rat snake into captivity. That snake lived in a glass tank in the kitchen for a few months eating live frogs and mice before we released it back into the seagrass.

Once upon a time a long time ago I learned to be the mother of a boy, face fear and love nature. And she loved me back.