Cruising the Great South Bay on the Lauren Kristy

Long Island’s summertime heart is pumped by its beaches, bays, and boats, and during a cruise on its Great South Bay, I was able to take its pulse.

Area activity, as evidenced by the parking lot overflow at the Bay Shore Marina on a hot, crystal blue Saturday in late-June, had taken root on both land and sea. A family dragged a cooler from their car to the sand. The occasional wave of a colorful beach towel hinted at the red, white, and blue threads stitching the country together and the soon-to-be-celebrated Fourth of July. Sweet scents of suntan lotion rode the airwaves like olfactory surfers.

The silver silhouette of the Robert Moses Causeway, spanning the Great South Bay with its characteristic camel’s hump bridge, retained its tether from Long Island proper to Jones Beach. Ivory white wakes, like powerful fountains, sprang from the myriad of motor and fishing boats plying summer’s “expressway.”

By 16:30, the brisk breeze crossing the parking lot from the dark blue and navy gray water to the boat bobbing marina tamed the otherwise sultry, 91-degree temperature with its wind-filled whip.

Bay Shore itself was both created and defined by the waters that provided its very name. Harvesting fish, oysters, and salt hay, its early colonists earned their living by capitalizing on its very treasures, and by 1776, its artisans had equally earned a reputation-in this case, for their small boat-building skills. The fruits of their labor had played their own part in the Revolutionary War against the British.

But it took connections to put the town on the map, and those connections-to other areas-had both aquatic and land chains. In the former case, scheduled service to Fire Island, now a narrow ribbon of mostly summer communities, commenced in 1862, and a Long Island Railroad link with Manhattan cultivated a continual crop of city-escaping tourists whose sprout to this seaside resort some two decades later took form as business: people lined its gas-lit streets, stayed in its hotels and summer estates, and took to the water in its sailing boats. The community quickly earned the reputation as the “garden spot of Long Island.”

After World War II, permanent residents replaced temporary tourists, as they disconnected from mounting Manhattan and formed seaside suburbia.

Located on the widest point of the Great South Bay, Bay Shore today preserves both its architectural and maritime heritage.

Centerpiecing its marina, and appearing out-of-place, is a torpedo dedicated to the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the US Submarine Service during the Second World War.

Also appearing out-of-place (and era) amidst the otherwise ubiquitous fiberglass expressions of sleek, motor-propelled speed of the slip-tucked boats, was the 65-foot, dual-decked, turn-of-the-century wooden riverboat sporting a wind-nudged paddlewheel on its stern and designated the “Lauren Kristy.” It was on this vessel that I would feel the rhythm of Long Island’s summer beat and, by the collecting crowd, I would not be alone in my quest.

A check next to my name on the clipboard-attached reservation list, South Bay Paddle Wheel Cruises’ mobile office, preceded my step aboard and step up the wooden steps to my assigned, “starboard two” table for the three-hour cruise-the table itself only one removed from the upper deck’s highly polished Paddlewheel Bar and a magnet for the boat’s passengers, whose party mood settled on to the boat as quickly as I had settled into my seat.

As DJ-provided music-albeit initially with a soft beat-pumped its way across the deck, the entangle of octopus tentacles stretched from the dozens surrounding the bar reached for the raw vegetables, dips, cheeses, pepperoni, and crackers long before the engine was pumped with fuel. Wafts of alcohol rode the refreshing breeze all the way to the door-accessed, although narrow, outside deck at the stern.

Released from its mooring restraints and imperceptibly inching away from the dock at 18:00, the “Lauren Kristy,” displaying its third-deck wheel house, dual stacks, and surrounding lattice window frames, seamlessly merged into the marina’s departure channel like an aircraft converging on a single runway at JFK during its evening departure peak.

Trailing a Fire Island ferry into the gray, corrugated Great South Bay, it rode its wake, laterally rocking, as the open water’s cool breeze wrestled for dominance with the music’s audible waves.

Maintaining a southwesterly heading beneath the early-evening’s dirty-white and metallic-gray quilt, which was penetrated by an orange ooze on its western horizon, the “Lauren Kristy” bit into the Great South Bay with its bow, inching toward the Robert Moses Causeway.

Sandwiched between Long Island’s south shore and Fire Island National Seashore, the Great South Bay itself, with a 26-mile length, three-mile width, and 151-square-mile area, is both the area’s largest south shore bay and New York State’s largest shallow saltwater bay. Injected with 5,231 gallons of water per second, it has an average 4.3-, but maximum 20-, foot depth, and provides a habitat for up to 85 species of fish.

Once a significant domain for Long Island baymen, it serves as a major marine transportation artery for fishing, pleasure, excursion, and ferry boats.

Slipping under the green-metallic Robert Moses Causeway Bridge at 18:45, the riverboat once again emerged into open waters, joining the scatter of craft whose sails, billowing to the point of bursting in the fierce wind, appeared like overblown tubes.

Spanning 8.10 miles between West Islip and Captree Island, the causeway itself proceeds, via the State Boat Channel Bridge, to Jones Beach Island and the western tip of Fire Island. The original, north- and southbound span, completed in 1951, was doubled when a second artery was constructed next to it.

The paddles on the “Lauren Kristy’s” stern-attached wheel, mostly pushed by the wind’s hand, managed to skim the water’s surface, each re-emerging from its temporary, although paltry, propulsion providing dip.

Integral to both sea and airborne craft, the wind provided lift to the periodic private airplanes following their departure paths in the sky from Republic Airport in Farmingdale.

Dinner, announcing itself in the form of main deck-escaping aromas and tickling the passengers’ ping-ponging stomach pangs, entailed a mixed green salad with creamy Italian and Russian dressings; dinner rolls; carved prime rib of beef, chicken francaise, seafood Newburg, rice pilaf, and broccoli; chocolate fudge cake and apple tartlets; and coffee.

Having amended its mostly-westerly to a current southeasterly heading, the paddlewheeler entered the Captree Island boat channel, threading its way through light green patches of eelgrass, dock-provisioned homes, and Captree State Park, with its kindred-spirit “Delta Lady” paddlewheel vessel and fleet of fishing boats.

Established in 1954, the 298-acre Captree State Park itself, located on the eastern tip of Jones Beach Island, is in the heart of the fishing grounds whose crop of fluke and flounder is supplemented by seabass and blackfish in the autumn. Facilitating this sport are two fishing piers, a boat launch ramp with parking for 64 boat trailers, and a basin for charter, scuba diving, excursion, and sightseeing vessels. Its other island- and water-related fowl include white pelicans, terns, gulls, common loons, black skimmers, and duck.

By 19:50, the Fire Island Lighthouse loomed in the distance.

In order to plug the hole through which numerous Long Island inlet-entering ships had fallen–resulting in the mishaps which did not quite let them “in”–lighthouses naturally rose from the once-barren land like overgrown concrete sentinels waving warning lanterns. The first, on Montauk Point, was built in 1796, while its Fire Island counterpart followed 29 years later, in 1825, rising from its edge after a construction project whose cost had fallen only 35 cents short of its $10,000 budget.

The 74-foot high, octagonal pyramid, covered with Connecticut River blue split stone, both guided transatlantic ships entering New York Harbor and served as a symbolic landmark for European immigrants arriving in the land of freedom and opportunity.

But its height quickly proved its own handicap, leaving its stunted growth to counteract its intended purpose, and in 1857 Congress appropriated $40,000 for an almost 100-foot taller structure on an 82-acre tract of land. Phoenix-like, it stretched from a terrace made of its first version’s stone.

Lit for the first time on November 1 of the following year, the red brick tower, painted a creamy yellow, employed a First Order Fresnel Lens, rising 168 feet to the occasion and subsequently passing the torch to modernity and electricity in 1938 after having employed a succession of intermittent fuels, such as whale, lard, and mineral oil.

But the plug to its purpose was pulled 35 years later when it was decommissioned on the last day of 1973 in exchange for a flash tube optic installed on the top of the Robert Moses State Park water tower. Its restricted, seaward direction of illumination, however, failed to promote the bay’s safety.

After $1.3 million had been raised by the 1982-formed Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, it was restored to its electricity-introducing guise, sporting the black-and-white bands introduced as far back as 1891. Re-lit on Memorial Day, May 28, 1986 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it once again became an official aid to navigation, its two, 1000-watt, counterclockwise rotating bulbs flashing every 7.5 seconds and visible more than 20 miles away.

Proceeding southeasterly, the “Lauren Kristy” brushed the Fire Island community of Kismet, which was just receiving an inbound ferry. Its westernmost one, which also encompassed Lighthouse Shores and Sea Bay Beach, it sported 250 beach houses–most of which were owned, but further rented, by Islip and Bay Shore residents-as well as two restaurant-bars, three guest houses, a grocery store, and a 30-slip basin. Its year-round residents numbered about two dozen.

The pre-dusk sun had parted the seas-or, in this case, the skies above them-revealing a scintillating orange which tinged the bay’s surface a tangerine, Swarovski crystal and injected the horizon with post-swelter plasma. The winds had been deflated to an evening-imminent calm, yet the dance floor on the “Lauren Kristy’s” upper deck vibrated with the collective feet that mimicked the music’s increasing beat and volume.

Turning to a northerly heading, the paddle wheeler thread its way between Sexton and West Fire islands, poised to close the three-mile gap to its Bay Shore origin, as the heavily-scented sea air confirmed the dance floor’s aquatic foundation. More than anything, however, the vibration responded to the beat of Long Island’s summertime heart, which pumped life on to the water that surrounded it and therefore gave it its “island” status.

Hovering above the western horizon like a rotorless helicopter, the cylindrical sun, a blood-red bullet, equally proved that that day’s denouement did little to dampen the pulse propagating across the Great South Bay, as several speed boats and yet another Fire Island ferry– part of the nautical equivalent of the “rush hour”–overtook the lumbering riverboat.

Impatience would have ordinarily overtaken me, as I longed to reach some destination. But, during the summer on Long Island, it was to here that I-and apparently countless others-went.

The big hand on my watch had reached the “30”-mark-as in “20:30”-indicating that only a half hour remained to close the distance to shore and end my temporary suspension from land. The dozen on the dance floor, fusing into a single, song-paralleling step, had no need for watches, as they elevated themselves to that timeless dimension created by sun, sea, music, and fun.

The last daylight minute of that last day of June flicked out as the rim of the sun dipped itself into the sea, creating the purple glow on the horizon behind the Captree Bridge.

Closing the last half mile to Bay Shore, the “Lauren Kristy” swallowed gulps of the now oily-black water with its bow, seeming caught in a sea-and-sky void presently pierced by the pinpoints of light defining the approaching coast ahead and the 7.5-second intervaled flashes emitted by the Fire Island Lighthouse behind.

Disconnecting from Long Island’s summertime dimension, it turned toward the Bay Shore Marina channel, threading its way back to the dock at 21:00-and pulling my plug on Long Island’s summertime heart.