Walking It Off (Boat Edition)
Let's get nautical.
Fall is here.
If I’m being honest, things feel off. But I put those misgivings aside for today, because today I’m going on a boat.
It’s a rainy Sunday morning and I am walking—sans umbrella—along the piers of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. I pass Randazzo's Clam Bar, and regret not being able to stop in for a cold bottle of Bud and some breakfast calamari with red sauce. But I’m running late, and it’s probably too early for fried food anyway. Even for me.
Turning toward the water I notice a bevy of swans, along with two discarded white roses. I wonder if they were tossed (the roses, not the swans). A date gone wrong, perhaps? Or maybe they were a remembrance—a scattering of ashes along with those two roses. A lost loved one. Either way they look beautiful, even as they mix with discarded cigarette butts in the oil-sheened water.
The rain begins to fall harder. But I don’t mind. Any day on a boat is a good day.
Even a rainy one.
The Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club is not as fancy as its name might suggest (a theme that will continue throughout the day), but it is quite charming. Founded in 1908, the club is located on the water in a summer home that was originally built for the Liebmann family, founders of New York’s famous Rheingold Beer. No longer a vacation house, the club operates year round and is only a 20 minute stroll from the B/Q Sheepshead Bay subway stop. The place even has a pool.
It’s here that I’m meeting my friend Pat Walters, who is a member of the club. Pat and a group of sea-loving pals collectively own and maintain two boats—a sailboat and a motorboat—that are moored in the harbor. Given the weather, rainy yet also windless, we’ll be taking his Grady-White motorboat out today.
On our way out of Sheepshead Bay we pass multiple ships that have wrecked on the shore. There’s something surreal about seeing these abandoned vessels—not on some rocky coast in the middle of nowhere—but here, abandoned on the banks of New York City.
My view of the city is about to change entirely, though. To see this city, a city I know by walking, by public transit, by taxis, or (when I’m lucky) a friend’s car—which is to say a city I know by land—from the water? Well, it’s a new perspective I didn’t even know I was longing for.
How magnificent to see New York City for what it is, a city of islands.
Pat pilots the motorboat close to the West Bank Lighthouse (also known as the West Bank Front Range Light) and then kills the engine. The boat’s small, hardworking windshield wiper takes a moment of respite.
The managing editor at Radiolab, Pat has a wild history filled with some incredible stories about how he got to where he is today, but seeing as we are currently on the ocean and not on land, we both agree to do an actual Walk It Off (where I properly interview him) at a later date. For now, we simply sit and talk—our conversation unrecorded—as the boat rocks ever so slightly upon the glassy water.
After we each finish a can of beer from the six-pack I brought along for the journey, Pat fires up the engine and we cross The Ambrose Channel—the main (and only) shipping channel in and out of the Port of New York and New Jersey. We head past Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach, eventually rounding Point Breeze on Plumb Island and making our way under Gerritsen Inlet Bridge and proceeding down Shell Bank Creek.
Along the way, I wave and nod (I love a good nod) at the other boaters braving today’s rainy weather, along with the few fishermen in yellow slickers who dot the shoreline.
The waterway is lined with boats. We pass marinas and piers and the Coney Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. The surroundings remind me more of Long Island than Brooklyn—and yes, I know Brooklyn and Long Island are technically one and the same, but you know what I mean.
To put it a better way, it looks more like the Long Island I am familiar with than the Brooklyn I am familiar with, which is to say New York City is once again peeling back and revealing a new layer of itself to me.
We tie up at the Tamaqua Marina, which has about as many frills as the Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club, maybe less—save that it does have a gas pump. Pat fills the boat’s tank with the help of the dockmaster while I take in the scenery.
A sign that reads, “Sitting on the dock of the bay,” catches my eye, and I quickly notice that the “O” in “dock” has been replaced with an “I,” which makes me smile.
Pat and I head up to the Tamaqua Bar for cold drinks, hamburgers, and some of the best fried shrimp I’ve ever had. The small crowd at the bar is watching the New York Jets lose to the Baltimore Ravens. Pat strikes up a conversation with a nearby couple—I watch and listen as he coaxes story after story out of them, impressed by how easily he gets strangers to open up.
After we finish our meal, drain our glasses, and settle our tab with the bartender (a kind woman named Debbie who encourages us to visit again soon) we walk a long hallway covered in photographs—some new, some ancient—of people proudly holding fish of varying sizes, shapes, and colors. One of the many beauties of this area is how quickly you can be out on the open ocean, or in “blue water” as it’s sometimes called, meaning that deep sea fishing is a favorite pastime. Pat offers to take me out sometime, and I’m all too happy to say yes.
On the pier Pat gets the dockmaster to open up to him, same as the couple at the bar. The young man shares that he is from the neighborhood, “born and raised,” and tells us about the many things that have changed over the years, and the many things that have stayed the same.
“I once saw a brawl in the parking lot up there, by the Tamaqua Bar. Bunch of out of town bikers mixing with a local crew. No weapons. Just hands. Not a bad bit of entertainment for me to catch, as a kid, from my bedroom window.”
Back on Pat’s motorboat we head back the way we came and then turn to our left—I’m sorry, turn to port—eventually crossing under the Marine Parkway–Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which spans Rockaway Inlet (linking Brooklyn and Queens) and enter Jamaica Bay.
Pat slows the engine as we pass past the numerous islands that make up the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Planes fly overhead, taking off from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport. I’ve been on those planes numerous times, looking down at the boats in the water below. But here, today on this rainy Sunday, is the first time I’ve looked up from the water at the planes launching into the sky.
Eventually we make our way around Dubos Point Wildlife Sanctuary to Marina 59 out by Rockaway Beach in Queens. Here the docks are incredibly well maintained, each slip with its own shiny electrical outlet, and a boat tied up—most of them houseboats.
Pat, who has many friends who either live here full-time or own boats here, tells me about parties that happen at Marina 59 during the summer. “There was even a poetry reading recently.”
The community clearly has an artistic heart.
After a few more beers from my six-pack we head back out into Jamaica Bay and find ourselves behind a ferry. I love the ferries of New York, from the free Staten Island Ferry to the NYC Ferry routes maintained by Hornblower Cruises (only $4 a ride). But out on Pat’s boat, we can go anywhere across the water we want. There’s no path. No route. It’s one of my favorite things about being on a boat. Sure, you have to be aware of shipping lanes, but in general, there is no private property out on the open water. Nary a “No Trespassing” sign in site.
New York City is one of the most densely populated areas on the face of the planet. But step off land, and a very special type of tranquility can be found.
The whole place opens up.
The rain grows heavy. Harder than its been all day. The aforementioned “lil’ windshield wiper that could” slips off its arm, so we stop to reattach it. The wind has picked up and the water is growing choppy. But the way the boat rocks, riding each wave, isn’t unpleasant. It’s as if we’re sitting in a big, wet rocking chair.
Pat takes a bottle of whiskey out of his bag along with two small metal cups. We sit, drinking as the sky grows darker—a sun we can’t see setting behind the dark rainclouds. We talk about family and the past, until the time comes for us to turn on the boat’s sidelights and head back into Sheepshead Bay.
Before we go, though, Pat encourages me to sit out on the bow of the boat and enjoy the quiet.
Back at Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club I catch the mooring line on the first try and Pat secures his boat to the buoy. The whiskey keeps us warm as we wait for a man in a smaller vessel to come pick us up and return us to shore. There is an undeniable crispness to the air. Like I said, fall is here. The seasons have changed, as all things tend to do. But after a day on a boat, I feel more open to change. More accepting of whatever comes next.
Don’t get me wrong, things still feel off. But now I have a bit of boat-fueled faith that could maybe change too.
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