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A great cruise over Great South Bay

Despite what may be Long Island residents’ roots set in sedentary cement, there is nothing like a cruise on the Great South Bay to offer an aquatic alternative to their view and enable them to briefly adopt a tourist’s perspective of the area they call home. It was this philosophy that lured me from land to sea on the “Moon Chaser” excursion boat from Captree State Park on a recent mid-July day.

“Captree State Park (itself) is located at the eastern tip of the narrow beach known as Jones Beach Island,” according to its self description. “This ideal location, at the intersection of the Fire Island inlet and the State Boat Channel, places it within easy access of some of the finest bay and ocean fishing grounds on the East Coast and provides for an extremely scenic view of the Great South Bay and the western end of Fire Island, including the Fire Island Lighthouse, the Fire Island Coast Guard Station, the Robert Moses State Park Water Tower, and the Inlet Span Bridge.”

The park offers a snack bar, a nautically-themed, full-service restaurant, a bait and tackle shop, and two fishing piers for land-launched lines.

The area on this dry, flawlessly blue, 80-degree day said summer on Long Island. The air was suffused with the sound of seagulls, which flapped, flocked, and flew, and the scent of the sea. The parking lot on the concrete side yielded to the one on the aquatic side, as a line of mostly fishing boats–Long Island’s largest fleet of them, in fact–bowed into the dock, including the “Capt. Eddie B. III,” the “Spectrum,” the “North Star II,” and the “Bay Princess II.”

Water lapped at the deck. The seagulls sang. And fishing rods projected from everyone, as if they constituted their third arms.

Designed and constructed by the Blount Marine Corporation, of Warren, Rhode Island, and launched in 1982, the blue-and-white “Moon Chaser” vessel intended for my own nautical excursion, stretched 65 feet, accommodated up to 220 on two decks, and was tied to the furthest pier from the restaurant complex.

A short line in front of its mobile ticket booth, as occurred every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon in the summer, indicated a complement of about 25 on its trip today.

A laborious engine grind signaled its 13:00 departure and a brief backward jolt preceded a 180-degree turn and trace through the buoy-lined channel, as the Captree Boat Basin receded in the sunlight.

Mimicking the “Moon Chaser’s” course, two other, fishing excursion destined boats trailed it, riding its wake, while two inbound vessels, the “Laura Lee” and the “Captree Princess,” made their approaches.

Settling into a gentle sway, the “Moon Chaser” itself glided over the sun-glinted blue bay, paralleling Fire Island National Seashore.

One of the proverbial bread slices, along with Long Island itself, it ensured that the 45-mile-long Great South Bay remained sandwiched between landmasses and thus protected from the Atlantic, whose access was provided by the inlet between Jones Beach Island’s eastern and Fire Island’s western ends.

Native to the area were the Meroke Tribes, but the earliest settlers were those from Europe, who encountered them in the 17th century, eventually establishing a succession of south shore bay towns, based upon boating and fishing, including Lindenhurst, Babylon, Islip, Oakdale, Sayville, Bayport, Blue Point, Patchogue, Bellport, Shirley, and Mastic Beach.

Managing to pierce the otherwise bright day, the lens atop the black-and-white towered Fire Island Lighthouse blinked at the boat as it inched toward it, abreast of the sand and scrub shoreline off the starboard side.

Appearing like an uninterrupted pattern of projected fishing poles wrapped around its deck, the “Island Princess,” anchored a short distance away, passed off to port.

Established on September 11, 1964, when Congress designated 26 miles of Fire Island as a national seashore, that narrow tract of land today encompasses 17 residential communities, New York’s only federally deemed wilderness, marine and upland habitat, wildlife, beaches, recreational facilities, and several historic sights.

Toting itself, it invites the visitor to “immerse yourself in an enchanting collage of coastal life and history. Rhythmic waves, high dunes, ancient maritime forests, historic landmarks, and glimpses of wildlife, Fire Island has been a special place for diverse plants, animals, and people for centuries. Far from the pressure of big city life, dynamic barrier island beaches offer both solitude and camaraderie, and spiritual renewal.”

While the Statue of Liberty was the symbolic entry to New York Harbor, the Fire Island Lighthouse was the actual one since the 19th century, guiding transatlantic ships and those transporting the millions of European immigrants from the Old World to the new.

The initial, 74-foot-high structure serving this purpose, a cream colored octagonal pyramid of Connecticut River blue split stone constructed in 1826 at the island’s end, certainly marked the inlet, but did not necessarily serve the purpose. Too short, in fact, to do so, it was dismantled when Congress appropriated $40,000 in 1857 for a 168-foot, creamy yellow replacement that sported a red brick tower and was first lit on November 1 of the following year, although stone from the original was incorporated in its terrace.

Reflecting technological advancement, it employed several methods, including whale oil, land oil, mineral oil, kerosene, and, finally, electricity, as of September 20, 1938, to fuel its four concentric Funk lamps housed in its First Order Fresnel lens to produce one-minute interval flashes.

Like many devices in history, however, it entered a period that would later see it coming full cycle.

Decommissioned as a navigation aid on December 31, 1973, it was replaced by an inadequate facsimile-a small flash tube optic installed on top of the Robert Moses State Park Water Tower. But its singular, seaward-direction shine failed to serve any purpose for Great South Bay plying vessels, and private citizen support, gaining momentum during the second half of the 1970s, led to the formation of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society in 1982.

After significant fund collections facilitated its restoration to its 1939 appearance, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and, completing its cycle, was reinstated as an official navigation aid two years later, on Memorial Day, casting its guiding light onto the bay when it was relit.

Today, two 1,000-watt, counter-clockwise rotating bulbs provide flashes every 7.5 seconds and are visible up to 24 miles away.

Separate from, but complementary to, the United States Lighthouse Service, the Lifesaving Service established its own station, which was constructed in 1848 on the island’s west end, not far from the location of the original lighthouse itself. Both were created to patrol the coastline for watercraft stormed, stranded, or stuck, and facilitate rescues, the latter by mostly volunteer baymen and farmers between October and May.

Seven such stations eventually lined Fire Island by 1854.

Their value was not to be underestimated, however: between 1871 and 1915, more than 7,000 people were rescued from 721 ships.

Dipping deeper into the now darker blue surface, the “Moon Chaser” spit foamy white reactions from its sides each time its bow plunged into the water for a gulp. A wisp of thin cloud, like whipped cream, hung across the eastern sky.

Continuing to parallel Fire Island, the boat cruised past its communities, as if they were notches that silently ticked by. From Robert Moses State Park, it moved past Kismet, Saltair, and Fair Harbor.

Those wishing to have lunch on board had several options, including doing so before sailing at Captree’s lower snack bar; upper level, nautically-themed restaurant, the Captree Cove; having either prepare something to be taken away; or bringing a box lunch of the passenger’s own. Choosing the latter and maintaining the cruise’s natural sea-and-air theme, I took a vegetarian approach, enjoying cream cheese on date nut bread, honey roasted almonds, and cheese puffs at one of the main deck tables. Chips, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages were purchasable from the bar, located on the same level, although many elected to take them to the upper canopied sun deck.

The Fire Island communities continued to slip by off the starboard side: Ocean Beach, Seaview, Ocean Bay Park.

Envisioned as a community for retired New York City police- and firemen, the latter pursued a divergent path when World War II-necessitated gas rationing and international travel restrictions prompted residents to seek “area-backyard” alternatives-in this case, Point O’ Woods domestic servants planted the first seeds of this eventual vacation resort when they used it as an after-work gathering place.

Partly employing its already established foundation, the community transformed the existing Coast Guard stations into the present-day Fire Island Hotel and Flynn’s Restaurant, re-purposing them and reflecting its accurate self-description.

“The architecture of Ocean Bay Park tends to be modest, but with character,” it says.

All its residential streets were named after lakes.

Considering its compact, 350-home encompassment, it is particularly rich in services, including a grocery store, a bicycle shop, a tennis court, two hotels, and several restaurants. Flynn’s, of the latter type, has its own 50-slip marine and is the destination of the “Moon Chaser” on select weekday evenings for a package that includes a lobster buffet dinner.

Again according to its own description, “Ocean Bay Park is a small town with a big personality. Largely populated by share houses, it knows how to throw a beach barbecue blowout. The riotous weekend warrior reputation is reinforced by the serious drinking and all-night dancing at Flynn’s, Schooner, and The Inn Between. The town’s laid back, nonrestrictive lifestyle is especially appreciated by the waves of young renters seeking a beach party environment. However, Ocean Bay Park also has its share of longtime seasonal residents.”

Serving as the halfway point, it marked the “Moon Chaser’s” 180-degree arc to port, swaying, like a seesaw, as it negotiated the wake of passing speedboats. A Bay Shore originating ferry passed astern and tucked itself into its Ocean Bay Park dock.

Maintaining a westerly heading and leaving its own white and dark green churn behind its stern, it inched toward the erector set resembling Robert Moses Bridge that spanned the bay and now loomed in the distance. Subjected to nature’s silent tug-of-war, upper deck passengers witnessed the hot sun’s competition with the breeze’s cooling cut.

Gliding over the dull blue, glass-resembling surface, the “Moon Chaser” passed to the left of East and West Fire islands, before reducing speed and entering the buoy-lined channel, abreast of the intensely green, seemingly floating patches of shellfish dependent eelgrass.

Now down to only a few knots per hour, it initiated its left arc into the basin and made contact with the Captree dock from which it had departed an hour and a half before.

Stepping off the boat, I had, in many ways, been refreshed by the air, the sun, the sea, the breeze, and the view-especially the view-by rediscovering, as a temporary tourist, a lifetime resident’s own backyard during a season that defined it-summer on the Long Island’s Great South Bay.

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