A portion of every one of my summers as a child and teenager was spent with my family on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. My grandparents, George and Edna Katz, owned a modestly sized, boxy house located at the mid-point of the eighteen-mile long barrier island just north of Atlantic City, and just south of Seaside Heights. Every year, my mother, a speech pathologist and school district administrator would count the minutes until 3:00pm, June 24th, when she, my sister, and I were free from the previous nine months of early morning alarm clocks, cold bus stops, and treacherous drives on dark, windy, and snowy upstate New York roads to begin our journey south, towards a beachy paradise, or at least the New Jersey version thereof. My father joined us too, though often he had a gig that would delay his departure, and Mom, Randi, and I would go before him, anxious to catch a whiff of the briny air rising from Manahawkin Bay that signaled the end of a long car ride from Ithaca to Beach Haven Crest, and the beginning of our summer rituals. We knew these days would be different from the monotonous but necessary one-hundred-eighty that we had endured since early September after Labor Day, and the sibling bickering and bad blood that had accumulated during the day’s sticky commute blew away with the Atlantic Ocean’s eastward winds.
Our trips to Long Beach Island were our summer holiday getaways, but they were also opportunities to reconnect with our summer neighbors from West Lavenia Avenue. The MacPhees, the Hasans, John in the backyard, and Rosemary across the street were kind and familiar people who enjoyed listening to our wintertime lives, or so we assumed. Eddie MacPhee, a boy from Nutley, was my age, and we spent almost every day together playing Nintendo games, boogie boarding at the beach, and playing whiffle ball or street hockey after dinner. Omar and Jennifer Hasan, from Delran, were my summertime older brother and sister. Omar was my guide to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Ferris Bueller quotes, and I could count on Jen to go back into the ocean with me, without fail, and no matter the temperature. They were, and still are, the only people I knew who owned ferrets for pets.
The back story here is really to set the scene for my infatuation with watery adventures and the people that helped me explore them, particularly of the sailing variety. Mom and Nanny (my grandmother) weren’t hesitant about taking me to play in the water, either on the bayside across the street from Bayview Park in the mornings, the sun-warmed kiddie pool in the back yard, or the oceanside three blocks from the house. These were my happiest summer memories; the snails between my toes in the squishy bay beach sand, the skin-peeling enslavement of yellow swimmies, the wild hunt for sand crabs between encroaching and receding ocean waves, playing jellyfish hop-scotch, and burying my Star Wars figurines in the sand in a purgatorial stasis to await their watery liberation and Trans-Atlantic journey to Old World Portugal. I wonder if Chewbacca ever made it.
However, none of these memories were viscerally equivalent, or as formative, as the sensation of sliding down the face of a steep wave on my boogie board or surfboard, or feeling the cool summer ocean water rush over my feet for the first time that season. There were no natural sounds as exhilarating as the sshhSSHHHssshhh of the ocean waves as I walked towards the beach, and no sights as enticing as the first glimpse of blue-green as I sunk stepped over the dune to our street’s pseudo-exclusive jettied stretch of LBI’s eighteen-mile long oceanfront. The water was all-consuming, expansive, comforting, limitless, exciting, beckoning, and homey. It had forever become part of my identity, and its influence on my life subtle, but persistent. It was on those waters of Long Beach Island that my interest in sailing began, with the help of my uncle Herb Katz, his friend, John Whitehall, and John’s Catalina 22 sailboat.