Situated on Unqua Point in the Nassau Shores neighborhood of Massapequa, Long Island, the yacht club provided berthing for a variety of small recreational sailboats and motorboats that spent their summers plying the protected and shallow waters of the Great South Bay. Only one of these vessels could properly be called a yacht, though. This was a broad-beamed, gaff-rigged, bowsprited New Englander, conspicuous for her size and design, and somewhat out of her element on the South Shore of Long Island. We saw her frequently at the dock, but seldom underway. At the time, I hardly gave it a thought, but my parents wondered about this boat as we sailed our diminutive Justine up and down the channel between Unqua Point and Karras Creek.
This channel was the thoroughfare that skirted the mud flats east of Massapequa and south of Amityville and led to comparatively deeper and more open water. From Karras Creek, where my parents kept the Justine, it was a fairly short and easy sail to the open bay, if the wind was right. When the wind didn’t work, we paddled. Eventually, when my father got tired of paddling, he invested in a small outboard motor. I was a small child then. My father did not appreciate my powers of observation when one day I remarked that while the new motor broke down routinely, the old paddles always worked just fine.
We sailed on the Great South Bay from Karras Creek in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s, my parents traded in their sailboat for a slightly larger Justine, and they berthed the new boat first in Lindenhurst and later in Babylon. Aboard these vessels in my formative years, we sailed the bay from Massapequa to Heckscher State Park. In my teen years, I decided that the bay was too small for me and yearned to sail on the open Atlantic. Eventually I did this, but aboard vessels somewhat larger and more durable than the twenty-feet-long Justine. In all my transoceanic travels, though, the memories of my childhood voyages remained with me, and I have returned to the Great South Bay many times.
On one such occasion, two of my sons accompanied me to Massapequa, and we visited both Karras Creek and Unqua Point. This outing took place on Saturday, June 2, 2005. Not surprisingly, forty years after my initial voyages aboard the Justine, many things had changed. Karras Creek, Unqua Point, and the Great South Bay were of course all still there, but the neighborhood had been revamped. Karras Creek abutted the Riviera, a waterfront party house used for weddings and other special occasions. Back in the day, this was a large but humble and down-to-earth affair. It has since been gentrified into a five-star, world-class venue complete with brick driveways, Belgian block curbing, and lavish landscaping. Down the street at Unqua Point, the yacht club was completely gone. In its place stood the new Nassau Shores Bayfront Park, a publicly owned facility with playground equipment, expansive lawns, and benches facing the water. In its simplicity of design and with its expansive views of the bay, this new park was quite impressive.
My sons were not very impressed, though, either with the new facilities or the family’s connection with the old facilities. I looked at it all philosophically. In four decades, places and people do change. Just as the old waterfront neighborhood in Massapequa had undergone a metamorphosis, so had I. Indulging my sons’ patience for a while, then, I gazed at the Great South Bay from the new park and found plenty of food for thought.
This was the place where my lifelong love of the sea had started. I was six years old when my parents bought the Justine. The bay was different then. The water was cleaner and there was less traffic on it. The mud and sand bottom teemed with clams ripe for the picking. People were friendlier. When boats sailed past each other, their crews waved and called out greetings. If someone’s boat got in trouble, folks on other boats would come by and help. It was all very neighborly, a microcosm of the universal brotherhood of the sea.
Since that time so long ago, many tides have come and gone, and the salt water that filled the bay then has since travelled around the world many times. The same seawater that carried the tiny Justine on her intracoastal cruises also carried the great cargo ships of my subsequent career on their more ambitious voyages. It was a big leap from the Justine to the Rigel and the Waccamaw and the Comet, but everything big originates as something small, just as the oak tree starts life as an acorn. Holding the Justine on a steady course as the wind filled her sails later became bringing the Waccamaw alongside an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean for underway replenishment and maneuvering the Comet through the fishing fleets in the Sea of Japan. Studying the chart of the Great South Bay and navigating by landmarks aboard the Justine became navigating by the sun, moon, and stars first on the New Jersey Sun and then aboard a host of subsequent ships. And recreational sailing under the tutelage of kindly parents became important employment, often with roughneck crewmen and demanding if basically good-natured Captains. The happy innocence of childhood was thus replaced by the serious responsibilities of an often difficult profession.
Indulging my sons’ patience just a little longer, I thought of what I had gained from going to sea. The sea gave me tangible experiences and also taught me abstract qualities that in turn produced tangible results. The sea taught me motivation, ambition, perseverance, and discipline. It taught me to set priorities and distinguish between genuine needs and mere wants. It taught me to do what must be done, to consider the next step, and to anticipate the likely consequences of decisions and actions. It taught me to gauge other people and determine what qualities they possessed. All this and more that I learned from the sea has accompanied me through life since. The sea was one of the three things that shaped my character and made me the person that I am. The other two influences were church and family, and while the three worked in harmony, I came of age at sea.
Like so many things in life, the yacht club had its moment in time and then passed into oblivion. But the small inland sea beside which it stood remains, as does the larger sea that encircles the Earth. The sea will continue long after I am gone, and it will teach future generations of young merchant seamen as it did me. In some ways the sea was the best teacher I ever had. And to think that it all started here, on the sheltered and shallow water of the Great South Bay! This was indeed the cradle of my craft, and for that I will always be profoundly thankful.
Now let’s look at some photographs of the old waterfront neighborhood:
|This is Karras Creek in Massapequa, Long Island, in the summer of 1967, in one of my very early attempts at photography. The sailboat in the left foreground is the Justine.|
|A much better view of Karras Creek and the Justine in the summer of 1967 taken by my father.|
|Your truly at the helm of the Justine, underway on the Great South Bay in 1967.|
|Returning after many years and many voyages, we see Karras Creek on Saturday, June 2, 2005.|
|The entrance to the new park on the site of the old yacht club on the same day in 2005. Steven and Michael pose by the sign.|
|Unqua Point and the Great South Bay on the same day with the same sons. Usually a very pacific body of water, the bay was an excellent place to begin a career at sea. Decades later, this small stretch of salt water holds a flood tide of memories.|