Islands all around

Chapter 1


My last night at home had been comfortable. The air conditioner had cooled the room to seventy-two degrees and kept the humid New York summer night outside. It was a different story on the boat. Despite the open hatches, the air was stagnant and though the sun had long set, the heat lingered in every cranny. There was no one to talk to and I was too excited to sleep. I was sailing to places I could easily reach by car in under an hour, but it was an adventure and a challenge. Recently, not too far from here, the boat of two well-seasoned fishermen had capsized and they had drowned.

I had spent the whole day hauling food and supplies on board. Now it was all neatly stowed away. The batteries were charged and the water tank filled. I was ready. The trip I had been dreaming of ever since first arriving in the most famous city in the world.

Long ago I had fallen in love with the old nautical charts of this part of the eastern seaboard. They had revealed an archipelago that rivaled, in size and beauty, Venice, Istanbul and Hong Kong. By “archipelago” I mean more than a geographical description of a group of islands. I mean it poetically. It’s what the ancient Greek poet Homer had called the Aegean Sea — the aquatic stage of Odysseus’ long journey home. That very same sea, now the drowning ground of thousands of refugees, turns through the Strait of Gibraltar and pours into the Atlantic Ocean where my little plastic boat is at this moment bobbing. The five oceans of the planet are all connected.

I rolled out the nautical chart where I plotted my journey. There were islands everywhere. Within a 140-nautical-mile radius I counted at least seventy, some large and inhabited, some abandoned and left to nature, and some too small to live on. A few were now connected to each other through landfill, like Long Island to Brooklyn’s Barren Island. Tomorrow would be a long day. I rolled up the chart, switched off the light, and eventually fell asleep.

The screeching cry of a seagull woke me at dawn. When I stepped on deck, a hot cup of coffee in hand, there was already a commotion on the dock as a group of Chinese fishermen prepped their boat for the day. Most boat owners here at the Gateway Marina in Brooklyn are white middle-class men for whom fishing is a hobby. But in the last couple of years, a new group has become a regular fixture at the marina: those who developed fishing into a small side business in order to survive financially, and even some who, unable to afford New York’s rising rents, had taken to living on their boats full time.

I turned on the old marine diesel, untied my lines, and within minutes I was on my way. Getting out of the Gateway Marina, I carefully maneuvered around a sand bank and into deeper water where I could set the sail. I was in no rush. I ran the motor on a low speed and slowly made my way into Dead Horse Bay. There was a light southwest morning breeze and, three hours after low tide at the Battery, a good current to ride toward Breezy Point. This morning the bay seemed pleasant and, if you didn’t know any better, placid. But while today part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, Dead Horse Bay was once the worst dumping ground in New York. For more than fifty years, between 1880 and 1930, more than two dozens factories hummed along, churning horse carcasses into soap, glue, and fertilizer. Whatever was left was dumped right into the water. Meanwhile, Barren Island, site of Floyd Bennet Field, New York’s first airport, had been enlarged by more than eight hundred acres of landfill, mainly city garbage that even a century later continued to cough up bottles and other urban archeological artifacts onto Dead Horse Bay’s deserted beaches.

At buoy 20, I turned the boat into the wind, arrested the wheel and pulled up the main sail. No matter how many times I did it, shutting off the engine was always a magical moment . Suddenly I heard nothing but the sound of the wind and the boat gently pushing through the water.

Looking out onto the open sea and the sandy beaches of Breezy Point on portside, I saw no more traces of civilization; I had left the beach houses behind. It wouldn’t have looked too different when Henry Hudson first set anchor here — September 6, 1609. That day, Robert Juet, Hudson’s first mate, noted the shore party’s report in his log book: “The land they told us was very pleasant with grass and flowers and goodly trees as ever they had seen and very sweet smells came from them.” However, the first contact between Europeans and native New Yorkers was not as peaceful as described. On the very same day, the second mate of Hudson’s ship Halfmoon, an Englishman named John Colman, was trapped by a group of Algonquin and killed by an arrow shot into his throat.

Slowly approaching Breezy Point, the westernmost tip of the Rockaway peninsula, I passed a bell buoy whose random gong would guide me home should a sudden fog make any other orientation impossible. I had no need of the ringing at this particular moment, but it had a calming effect, part of a wider concert of sounds that encapsulated me on the boat. Sounds are an essential part of being on the water, and my ears are always attuned to the slightest variation in the tune. The pitch of the bow cutting through the water tells me how fast I am going, and I can gauge the wind from the sound of the airflow on the sail. The moaning of the standing rigging, the rattling of the halyards on the mast, and the sound of the lines stretching gives me an idea of the stress the boat is suffering under full sail. Right now, there was none; as I prepared to turn into the open ocean the wind hardly filled the sail. Looking southeast I saw the sea touch the sky on the horizon, the most beautiful nothingness one can imagine, only the glassy surface of the water blending seamlessly into the blue sky.


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