For a few years, my son and I lived at the Jersey Shore with his stepfather, Jack, on the confluence of a fresh water river and a saltwater bay. The east-west Toms River begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells its way east, eventually slamming into the Barnegat Bay. Sailors love the Toms River, especially during the summer’s prevailing southerlies.
I am not a sailor.
In our family, swimming, passed down from one generation to the next, was a right of passage for a three-year old. Water is in our blood. Our sandy backyard, bulkheaded rich brine that nourished vibrant sea creatures and, in turn, fed migratory bird colonies. Life on the water with my inquisitive six-year old was pure joy.
Jack arrived home one day with a used polystyrene Sunfish trailing his ’65 Mustang. For fifty dollars, the previous owner threw in a booklet on ‘how to sail’. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the thirty pound Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats. A perfect learner’s boat”
I called it a styrofoam bathtub.
Joe and I practiced our new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead. On our first untethered day at sea, Joe rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I stood up, pointed toward shore and shouted “go home!” Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.
The next time Joe and I unmoored, we sailed expertly into the middle of the widest part of the river. We took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back downriver. 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. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. And the sail luffed out of control. We. Were. Trapped.
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 brow. I could swim to shore 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. 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.’”
At twenty-seven years old, I had no reason to believe motherhood would come naturally. All my choices to that point had been daring, radical, reckless. Only four years before, I’d taken LSD, left toddler Joe with his father and trekked to Woodstock in a station wagon full of Rolling Rock chugging hippies. I was separated from them on the first night while swooning over Richie Havens’ performance of “Freedom”. During the muddy aftermath, I smoked opium with a stranger and hitched a ride home with him to New Jersey.
Ancestral maternal instincts swelled up out of nowhere that first day battering around in the Sunfish on the roiling Toms River. No matter how afraid I was, I had to show no fear, lest my six year old become traumatized and frightened by open water for the rest of his life.
“Let’s try again,” I announced one day and we eagerly sailed into the prevailing southerlies on a sunny calm morning. Upriver, nature turned against us again.
“We need help,” Joe shouted in the sea spray. And we beached the boat once more.
Our sailing adventures made for wild-eyed good stories with our friends and family, but I feared my recklessness may have given Joe a subconscious dread of the sea into adulthood.
I needn’t have given it a second thought. In his fifties now, Joe and his family leave their midwestern flatlands to vacation on tropical seas—snorkeling, bodysurfing and scuba diving.