The Mast-Head: Watching the Agitated Sea

The local habit of driving to the beach just to see if it was still there

Sprinting down the asphalt path at Lowenstein Court in Montauk late Monday afternoon to get a look at the ocean before the light faded, I had a passing thought about how excited many of us who live on the East End get about a good northeaster. I was clearly guilty of that as I ran from the car to take a few photographs, then back to the car to check them, then back to the shuddering wood walkway to take some more.

At lunch earlier that day at John Papas in East Hampton, I got talking about the weather with an acquaintance from high school whose name I had forgotten. In my defense, he had forgotten my first name, referring to me only as Rattray, and asking how my brother was doing as if to fish for a clue about which of us I was. I left before I could ask a waitress, who seemed to know him, who he was.

At any rate, he told me that he had been up to the beach that day to look at the ocean as the surf came up and that until recently he had been taking a 92-year-old woman there from time to time as well. “She just liked to look at the water,” my old friend said.

Jean Stafford, the great novelist who lived on Fireplace Road in Springs for many years, wrote an introduction to a picture book about the sea that made note of the local habit of driving to the beach just to see if it was still there. If I recall, she was both amused and a little perplexed. 

The storm wind that wrapped East Hampton in its fists on Monday was blowing hard as I stood on the walkway. Salt spray pelted my coat as the whitewater rushed forward. Grinning and giddy, I turned to protect my camera. A quarter mile to the west two men and two dogs stood on a low dune, watching as successive surges grabbed at the s­and.

It is easy to get swept up, in the figurative sense, by the sight of a riled up ocean. The roar of waves breaking to the horizon goes straight through your coat and into your chest. What the agitated sea represents, whether death, mystery, or power, is hard to say, but we watch, and it is difficult to turn away and head back to the car and shut the door.