Just like my father, I love the ocean. No year is considered complete unless I’ve been on and in the water. I can still see him at the helm of his 42 footer: Pall Mall dangling from the corner of his mouth, crooked smile, Gin & Tonic on ice at his side as he glides past the harbor master’s shack and puts the throttle into high gear in the open ocean. Strapped to the bow – a bizarre practice my mother insisted upon if we were even to be allowed on the boat with him – I fling my skinny arms out and into the quickening breeze. Looking back over my shoulder, I give my father the thumbs up. Two miles out and headed into the wind, he cuts the engines and I carefully un-cleat the jib. As we angle at 25˚ for the unknown, Van Morrison plays on the 8-track below deck and I begin to think about our dinner of fresh crab spiced with Old Bay that will be waiting for us once we find our mooring.
Together only for these brief times, I regretted every tick of the sun westward. Our mutual silence punctuated only by the lick of the sea on the stern, as if we somehow knew that whatever the storm at home, the sea would hold us. For now.
In truth, my father was a reckless man. But so were the 70s – a decade when we’d careen down I-95 at 75 miles per hour in a Ford station wagon with 9 bell-bottomed kids packed three rows deep moving like undulating fish bait.
Now I am older, but I haven’t quite abandoned the rituals of summer nor their recklessness. At this time of year, going to the Outer Banks (OBX) is not just dangerous, but kind of like an adult fool’s errand. Hurricanes menace the edges of the Atlantic, but if you are lucky, they also pull all the bad weather south making the calm before the storm exquisite – searing hot sun, wonderfully calm ocean.
If you are not lucky, you hastily pack whatever you brought into your caravan of cars and crawl with the traffic down highway 12 toward the mainland, with last night’s dinner of Oregon Pinot (a gorgeous Rivers Marie whose color can be off-putting, but whose perfume is magnificent) and grilled swordfish making a meal of you and your six a.m. hangover. In the crunch of not-moving, you try to remember if you checked the box for the vacation rental insurance – guaranteeing you at least a portion of the monies lost due to unforeseen weather. You wonder to yourself – what’s so “unforeseen” about the weather in August on the Atlantic coast? Nevertheless, you’ll be back, because summer isn’t complete without that small dose of riptide.
Every sea does have its rituals. This year is no exception. Before we get to the decorator’s travesty that will be our “luxury,” “Oceanside” home on the beach we have already begun room selection negotiations in anticipation of the pastel-colored furniture and mildly disturbing beach-themed artwork. As always, we make a stop at the Atlantic Coast Café in Waves, N.C. We are looking for the OBX version of the New York Deli Ruben: a lightly fried southern-style crab cake on rye with house-made 1,000-island sauce and slaw. Crisp rye makes you anticipate corned beef and sauerkraut, but instead delivers nothing but the salt of the ocean laced with the bittersweet sour of a NC-style pickle. Such salivary pleasure gets you in the mood for sun, sin and surf. You are still a city girl after all and with a belly full of crustacean a la special sauce, you feel you can weather any storm.
On this trip, the sea doesn’t disappoint – at Risky Business Seafood I pick up each night’s supper and grill it, holding a wine glass in one hand, a spatula in the other. After about ten minutes in the dunes, we have all but abandoned our eco-friendly bug spray – the mosquitoes are like Blackhawks – they descend upon us and our foodie pleasure – taking their bloody meal first, as always. By the end of the week, we are sleep deprived and cranky in the kitchen. On our last day on the island, instead of a fresh catch, we settle for a New York style pie from Nino’s (a short ride from Risky Business) and it is clear from the line outside the door that everyone else has reached the same point in their beach vacation. The peace of the ocean is slowly eroded by: the screaming kids (“no I did not tell you that you could put the couches together and make a fort with dune sand in the living room – the dunes are a PROTECTED habitat for Pete’s sake”); the presence of sand – everywhere (months later you will find granules clinging to the sticky bottoms of your insole and smile); and the décor, which didn’t bother you at first but has now captivated you in that Martha Stewart kind of way. In truth, you have all become giant toddlers, dangerous to yourselves and others. For the sake of your friendships, it is time to make the journey out – the rituals of the summer are fast becoming a memory.
Somewhere out there my dad still sails the open ocean – mainsheet unfurled, Pall Mall dangling, his multicolored whiskers reflecting the Maryland sun. In truth, all storms cannot be weathered, it turns out. But, you can sail into them, nevertheless.