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A life on the ocean wave


Driving past our local harbor on the first day of spring I had to dodge through a maze of trucks and trailers, each one carrying a large white pleasure boat. More were being launched down the ramp into the water, and a few were already rocking quietly at their summer moorings in the harbor itself.

For months the docks and marinas have been sadly empty, all the gleaming fiberglass vessels removed and lovingly wrapped in plastic for the winter. Now, like caterpillars out of the chrysalis, they are emerging. Here’s a sure sign of summer: the return of the great armada of pleasure boats, unpackaged, tuned up, and ready for fresh seagoing adventures. In the words of the Royal Marines marching song: “A life on the ocean wave, a home on the rolling deep.”

I am not much of a sailor myself, although I have been on the Port Jefferson Ferry. The ocean wave and the rolling deep make me uneasy, and I can’t help remembering that all boats are kept on the surface only by a mysterious phenomenon called buoyancy, which is not to be trusted. In my swimming days I often lost buoyancy and sank like a stone. Presumably this can happen to boats too. Remember the Titanic.

New England has a great seafaring tradition. Fishing, whaling and sea cargo were historic industries up and down the coast, and the perils of the sea claimed untold numbers of lives. Generations later the call of the sea is still strong, but today’s mariners take fewer chances. Every harbor is packed with boats — but nine out of ten are powerboats. Instead of fragile porous wood they are made out of sturdy leak proof fiberglass. Instead of launching out into the boundless ocean at the mercy of the wind and waves, where very nasty things can happen, many of today’s sailors confine their activities to roaring up and down Long Island Sound.

The love affair with boats, like most love affairs, has grown more expensive over time. A modern motor cruiser costs more than a frigate in the War of 1812, with thirty guns and a crew of two hundred. Walking around marinas a landlubber can't help being impressed by these dream craft. Some of the dreamier ones are a hundred feet long, or about the size of the Mayflower.

So much has changed, so much has improved in the nautical life. The old-time mariners, always at the mercy of the wind, who found their perilous way around the ocean with a chronometer and a compass, would be amazed by our modern pleasure boats with massive engines and enough navigational electronics to equip a space station. They seem ready to set off around the world, if not to other planets. But, at least on Long Island Sound, navigation seems relatively straightforward.

If you pass under the Throg's Neck Bridge, you have gone too far west. If you are about to be run down by the Orient Point Ferry, you have ventured too far east. Even the most careless navigational error can result in nothing much worse than making landfall at Bridgeport instead of Northport, although this can be inconvenient if the crew have luncheon reservations.

With all these modern conveniences a life on the ocean wave can be almost as safe and comfortable as life on land.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.