We were sitting on the floating dock, listening to the gentle slap of water against pilings, sipping good red wine, and watching the sun set over one of those marvelous flood tides that fills the salt meadows to overflowing and reminds you how generous Mother Nature can be with her bounty when she’s in a peaceful mood. Now and then small boats cruised past, enjoying a twilight cruise on a perfect night in the water-world that is the South Jersey shore in August.
If you flew in a small plane over the coast on such an evening, and I have, your view would be magical. Vast areas of water from the endless ocean on the east to the flooded bays and marshes west of the barrier islands, which themselves sparkle with the lights of the boardwalks, their intensely green miniature golf courses shining like emeralds set among the white diamonds of street lights and moving traffic. Laying at our feet on the dock like a sleeping beagle dreaming of uncaught rabbits was a Sunfish sailboat, tiller and mast removed and ranged alongside, all waiting for the morning sun.
I was a Brigantine boy of fourteen when I saw my first Sunfish. It was lust at first sight — a 13 foot long fiberglass invitation to fun and adventure no growing island boy could resist. A buddy owned one and, being young and skinny enough, the two of us fit on it and rove all over the bay. It was his boat, so he got the tiller, but even being a passenger was sheer delight. Growing up on a barrier island along the Jersey coast is filled with such adventures. You start off as a toddler digging holes in the wet sand with your little bucket and shovel and first thing you know it’s inner tubes, water-skis, and the never-to-be forgotten moment when you misjudge your timing on the floating ski jump and take your first head-over-heels high-speed tumble.
Pretty soon you’re on a jetski tearing out of the cove at 70 miles an hour and maybe even a 16 foot “Sweet Sixteen” Donzi slamming out the inlet bound for the open ocean. We do love our summer toys – especially the ones where you get wet. Golf clubs and baseball gloves and Frisbees all have their place and are lots of fun, but for me the all-time best is the Sunfish, It was years before I had the time or money to get my own. It was cheap, only a few hundred bucks used, but almost indestructible.
Odd as it sounds, I had never learned how to sail but wasn’t about to admit it. So I shoved off, tried to tack, and went laughing into the water, tangled up in sail, hull and centerboard. The charm of the Sunfish is you can recover from such mishaps. Do it again and again until you learn to right the boat, clamber back aboard, and be none the worse for it. Eventually you learn to sail, which is one of the world’s oldest skills. That’s when the real fun starts. You go out alone, with your lunch and a soda packed in a waterproof bag tucked in the cockpit and instantly the whole world is yours to explore. You don’t need gas and precious little wind. What boy could ever resist such a rely-on-yourself challenge when the day lies before him? And what man hasn’t still got that boy inside him?
I’ve enjoyed great times afloat. Fishing with friends, a tall-ship cruise in a windjammer on the Maine coast, pontoon boating on the Mullica, rowing in our bays and on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, a day cruise with hang-gliding down the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat south of Israel, even a week-long October cruise with our mutual friend Manny Gottlieb as guests aboard Art Henry’s “Harem”, a 42 foot teak paneled cabin cruiser, down the inland waterway from Margate to Florida’s Daytona Beach, watching dolphins play in our bow-wave as we crossed the 80 miles of Pamlico Sound off the Carolina coast. Hardly a moment afloat that wasn’t pure joy, the occasional seasickness excepted and a price worth paying for all that fun.
Of all of it, the greatest joy that still brings a thrill of remembrance was sailing around the whole island of Brigantine all by myself in that Sunfish, heading out the ever-treacherous Brigantine Inlet, then down the island’s length and around the jetty into the Atlantic City inlet, under the bridge and threading the “Little Panama” canal that brings you into the back bay and home to the cove known as Baremore Quarters. Almost anything you can do on the water is great, but it’s hard to have more fun than you can get simply fooling around in a Sunfish.
© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins