Many things that I learned from my father I learned on land. He taught me how to change the oil in my car, do a brake job, how to measure an angle and how to use a table saw. But the most important thing that I learned from my father, I learned on the water.
Growing up in my family, you hadn’t a hope in hell of spending a Saturday or Sunday on dry land. I was born Labor Day Weekend and by mid-September I was strapped down to the motor box of my father’s 31 foot, twin-screw Chris-Craft bouncing along the waves of the Great South Bay. New baby or not, my father was not about to miss the start of a good Striper run. For me, there was no turning back – the bay was in my blood.
Our family shared a lot of good times out on the bay. On any given weekend, you could find us tied up to the docks at West Island netting for shiners, chasing horseshoe crabs in the shoals off Sexton Island, or laying up anchor to watch the Grucci family light up the South Shore on the Fourth of July. Wherever we were out there, you could be sure of one thing – we were having fun.
But for all those great times that we shared as a family, there are moments that I cherish above all others. The moments when it’s just a boy and his old man. It was in those moments that I not only learned how to rig my bait, cast my line, or lie about how big “the one that got away” was, but it was in these moments that I learned the most valuable lesson about life. It is one that I am reminded of each time a little squall blows my way.
As the son of a bay man, you learn that early summer is prime snapper fishing. Nearly any dock or stern of any boat will do. All I ever needed was a Bamboo rod, 10 feet of line with a dobber, and a shiner on my hook and I was a happy kid. You learned that mid-summer brings the flounders and the bluefish up into the bay, and on good morning you could find me and my dad laying up off the Lighthouse – cutting up squid and baiting our jigs for the day ahead.
There were times we’d be running the channels and he would shout down from the bridge – “Hey, Steven, you smell that? – watermelon!”. Then he would quickly back down the engines, sending me and whatever loose gear I hadn’t secured, sliding across the cockpit of the boat. By the time I could get back up on two feet he would have us drifting alongside a frenzy of Blues. We’d start casting out some of my Grandpa’s home-made surface poppers – you know, the blue and white ones with some glitter on the sides. And sure enough, in a matter of moments we’d be reeling them in.
Other times in our relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, we’d both be knee deep in the water pushing the bow off the flats between West and East island. A two-foot draft in one-feet of water does not make for a good day of boating.
In early fall the stripers would come, and you might find us drifting off Kismet, or out by the Coast Guard Station hoping to land a few trophy stripers or maybe a slow Weakfish that forgot to head south. Anyone who knows me or my Dad, never did see those trophy bass, but I can assure you that the ones that got away were “THIS BIG” – I swear to you!
But no matter where we were or what we were catching, the most important lesson I learned from my father didn’t come when we were fishing. In fact, what I learned had nothing to do with fish at all. It was after the fishing was done, and we were headed back in that I learned the most valuable lesson in my life.
When we would start back home and we were out in the channel, he would turn the wheel over to me. He would stand up and slide me over into the middle of the bridge and put me in command. He would point toward the water tower just east of South Side Hospital and then down at the compass. “Just keep the bow pointed at that tower and keep the compass at 335 degrees”, he would say. Then he would light up one of his Pall-Mall’s while he took in the surrounding waters; then suddenly – he would be gone.
When you’re 9 or 10 years old, being given control of the helm of a three-ton boat, is equally exhilarating as it is down-right terrifying. But it was on these trips, at these times when I would be in command, that I learned my greatest lesson.
At first glance, it would appear to be a rather simple task for me to navigate us back home. I mean, after all, he gave me a landmark and a heading for flipping sakes – How could I screw that up? Never wanting to disappoint him, I would do my damnedest to keep that bow pointed in the right direction and that compass dead on 335.
What I hadn’t known then as a little boy, was that in order for me to maintain my heading and keep us pointed in the right direction, there were a few things I had to consider, which my father never told me about. For the non-bay man – you learn about a little something called the winds and the currents. And to a young boy at the controls of his father’s pride and joy, these are the forces of evil trying their best to get you in trouble with your dad.
One moment the compass would be pointing at 320 degrees – and in a panic I would cut the wheel hard and suddenly we were headed due north! Trip after trip, I would meander across the bay toward home. Then one day it clicked – I realized that you had to feel the boat – to feel the waves beneath the hull. To feel the current in your gut and the wind against your face. To not panic. To make slight corrections, and you will get where you want to go.
What I learned out there on the bay with my father was that life, as with boating, is never as simple as picking a heading and pushing up the throttles. I learned that there are winds that will blow, and currents you can’t see that will sometimes push you off your course. And just as it was out on the Great South Bay, I would have to learn to make little corrections along the way to get where I want in life.
For many of us, leaving our families and setting out on our own journey in life, we often think that it will be smooth sailing, and that we’re prepared for whatever lies ahead. But rarely are the conditions ideal, and thanks to those days spent on the bay with my father, I learned everything I ever needed to know.