I have owned a Sunfish since I was twelve years old. Sunfish are 14-foot mono-hull, mono-sail sailboats. As a child, when I could shake my sisters loose, I escaped on my Sunfish to recite my awful poetry or sing with no destination planned. These days, when I can shake responsibilities loose, I hoist my sails and let the wind take me anywhere. I taught my daughters rudimentary sailing skills. I have enjoyed the peace of a lone sail, the private company with a pal, and the challenge of only friendly regattas.
There are many Sunfish Stories in my repertoire. One of the best is one of the earliest.
My family home was a big colonial with a backyard bulkhead securing the Great South Bay. Fire Island was about four miles across the bay. My bedroom’s wall-length window faced the sunrises. I witnessed the fury and the calm of the bay and watched the moon shimmer a path on its surface through the night.
It was our first summer in the new house. Sayville kids did not play Double Dutch Jumprope or Ring-O-Lievio like the kids at our previous Amityville home. They did play tether ball and SPUD, and many knew how to sail. My sister Mary, 10, and I, 11, took sailing lessons at Wet Pants, a neighborhood sailing club. We learned the names of boat and sail parts, how to tie knots, what to shout when changing a tact, and ducking before the boom flew across the boat.
I loved it!
The following Christmas, my parents gifted the family a Sunfish. It laid on the back deck in the snow. The hull had a fiberglass patch and the sail was crispy white with a blue stripe. I couldn’t wait for summer. Dad built a manual lift to pick the Sunfish up off the dock, swing over the bulkhead and crank into the bay. Someone, usually me, unleashed the straps and swam the boat to a mooring marked by an empty Clorox bottle about ten yards from the dock. From there, the sails and mast were floated to the boat and rigged. Soon, the Sunfish was bobbing on the mooring, with its sail waving in the wind.
Mary and I were not skilled sailors, but my parents were content with the one season of lessons. It was just a matter of practice to get the hang of sailing. Practice involved horsing around in the bay with my younger sisters, Barbara, 8, Diana 10, and Mary, and the neighborhood girls, Irene and Kim. Kim had a Scorpion, named Upsie-Daisy, that was a foot longer than the Sunfish. We flipped boats, dragged each other behind sailboats, raced to and tried not to crash into the Blue Point Clam Company’s markers that were planted 100 yards from the bulkheads. It was great practice.
Soon Mary, Irene, and I schemed a Sunfish adventure. We could sail across the bay to Barrett Beach on Fire Island. On a clear day, the dunes were visible from my dock. During the week, mostly kids hung out at Barrett Beach. The ferry fare was cheap (fifty cents), and, with a concession stand, bathrooms, and life guards, it was the best playground for the tween-teen group. We could save the ferry fare for ice cream money.
Sunfish were designed to sail solo, but two could comfortably ride. Five girls, my three sisters, Irene, and I between 8-12 years old, pushed the limits.
Summer mornings usually brought calm wind and a flat bay. We stuffed our towels and wrapped salami sandwiches into a garbage bag. Mary and I rigged the sails at the mooring. Irene waded out with the garbage bag over her head. Diana and Barbara doggie paddled to the boat. There was no room for life jackets. With the garbage bag lashed to the mast and the main sheet pulled for the sail to catch the wind, Barbara, on her belly at the bow, unhooked us from the mooring. Mom and my six-year old brother, Billy, waved from the dock.
Along the way, Mary, Irene and I debated on the best tact to keep on course. Diana bailed the cockpit with a Clorox bottle cut in half. Barbara remained on her belly at the bow, holding onto the bow handle. I weaved around the clammers’ garveys as we approached the beach. It took an hour. Once on land, we pulled the Sunfish up onto the beach, wrapped the sails, took out our towels and sandwiches, and stuffed the empty garbage bag into the cockpit. We walked the boardwalk to the ocean side.
It was always a great day. We met friends, body surfed, collected shells, and buried one or more of us in the sand. First efforts with flirting were unsuccessful. Transistor radios blared, and no matter where you walked, Coppertone and baby oil scents waft. Ice cream tasted better at the beach. Although it seemed like unbridled freedom, we did stick to a few rules; swim in the life guard area, watch Barbara, be home by 4:00.
In the afternoons, the wind was usually stronger. The bay whipped to a frenzy. Mary and Irene took turns holding the mainsheet to control the sails. Diana furiously bailed. Barbara gripped the bow handle whooping at the sight of oncoming waves, sputtering out the bay. We were almost flying. The ride took less than 40 minutes.
Mom was ready at the lift with Billy at her side. At the mooring, the sail and mast were taken down. Irene floated them to the dock. Diana and Barbara doggie paddled behind her. Mary and I pulled the boat to place the lift straps. The waves ricocheted off the bulkhead threatening to crush the hull and our bodies. Mom shouted, “You are going to crack your heads open!” We never did.
We rinsed the sails, boat, and our bodies with the garden hose. The soggy towels were left to dry on the deck chairs. Great fun.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer.The memoir chronicles a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year with cancer. It is published by She Writes Press and will be available everywhere books are sold on October 3, 2017.
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