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.