Commentator Michael Carolan recently returned to the Jersey shore, where his family been sailing for six generations. He made some surprising connections to family and place while he was there.
My wife and kids and I joined my father, sisters and cousins on Long Beach Island. Its sandy shoals have sunk three centuries of schooners and square-riggers alike. My sailboat’s a Hobie Cat, a sports car for the water: light and speedy; I’ve overturned it more than once.The first day there’s wind, we’re off. My son hangs over the water, suspended by a trapeze wire attached to the mast. The boat rises into the air. He smiles.
It’s memorable, this trip. I’ve just turned 50 and he’s about to enter his last year of high school. Suddenly, he’s taller, taking more risks, like getting on a boat with his old man.
My own dad learned to sail here about 70 years ago. He taught me when I was my son’s age. The first sailor in the family though was a great-great grandfather. John William Rose was 17 when the Ontario brought him from London in the 1800s.
A cabinet-maker by trade, he built coffins in Philadelphia during an epidemic. His descendants continue the funeral home that he started as a result. They crack mortician jokes. And sail Little Egg Harbor Bay. There’s Eddie’s sloop, Bud’s scow, Tink’s sunfish, John’s 25-footer.
I visit the local museum with my dad. There’s an old anchor out front. I inquire after its origins.
‘The Ontario, of course,’ the caretaker says. We learn that five years after the Ontario brought my great-great grandfather over, it sank a mile from where we stand ‘in a good breeze, dense fog, a high sea, and a rising tide.’
A haunted synchronicity overtakes me. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of this ancestor’s death. This year, too, marks the moment my son wrestles with the Big Questions.
What do I want to be? How will I get there?
Questions I had at his age. That my father had. That John Rose surely had as he set sail into the wild blue unknown. How will what my son does today affect those who come after him?
Back at the beach-house full of family, I tell the tale of our common ancestor, his month-long sea voyage, his startup company, our remarkable discovery that his ship sank. Off this very beach in shallow water.
‘We could dive for it!’ cousin Eddie says.
My son smiles and nods.
‘We’re leaving tomorrow,’ I say. ‘Next year? How about next year?'”
Michael Carolan teaches writing and literature at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.