The Mast-Head: Landward Ho!

The funny thing about the beach is that it is relatively stable most of the time

People used to be surprised when I said that the beach along the southern reach of Gardiner’s Bay has eroded at about a foot a year since about the time I was born. When my parents had a small house moved to the property in the early 1960s, there were just over 400 feet between Cranberry Hole Road and the high tide line. One of these days, I’ll go look at a neighbor’s recent survey on file at East Hampton Town Hall to know for sure, but I’d say the distance is no more than 360 feet today.

The funny thing about the beach is that it is relatively stable most of the time. Before the 1938 Hurricane, folks from away looked at the setting along Dune Road overlooking the ocean in Southampton and assumed that was how things were going to be for a long while. Sept. 21 of that year arrived a beautiful sunny day; by night, something like 275 houses and a dozen lives had been swept away.

Gardiner’s Bay beaches can handle an ordinary winter. But when the wind rises to a gale and holds from the northeast for several high-tide cycles, it is another thing entirely. The worst storm I recall, a three-day blow, took 12 feet of dune. Now I watch a stunted cedar just back from the edge. When it falls, I’ll know the jig is up.

Back in 2012, as Hurricane Sandy approached, my friend Jameson Ellis and I went onto the dune with the idea of placing one of those self-operating game-hunter’s cameras on a tree to record the action. It had started to blow hard from the east by that time, and we could find nothing we thought stable enough to strap the camera on. 

Yellow-tinged water was moving laterally, from east to west, along the dune. We went back to the house fearing the worst and carried my tools from the basement up to the second floor in case the bay flowed in later. There was nothing else to do. Sandbags would have been pointless, and there wasn’t any place to get them anyway.

Oddly enough, the beach survived Sandy just fine. What changed was my perception. I had always said that moving the house back from the beach would be my kids’ problem. 

For whatever quirk of nature, the highest part of the dune in the 1960s is long since on the bottom of Gardiner’s Bay. Now, each foot landward that the bluff crest creeps is lower than the last. Soon enough even someone standing in the driveway of our house will have a glimpse of the water.

These days, the feds require houses in our coastal floodplain to be elevated something like 15 feet above sea level. In some parts of Long Island, the Rockaways, for example, this has spawned a new line of work for businesses — driving pilings into the sand and such, then placing existing houses on top of them. The first floor of the neighbor’s house, whose property survey I mean to have a look at, is level with my upper deck; the view from their second floor makes my house look like a miniature model, like those in the Town Marine Museum on Bluff Road.

When he was considering where to place the house before I was born, my father asked some old-timers how the area had fared back in 1938, and he chose a site on a rise as far back from the bay as possible. Other property owners who came along later were not so prudent. Today, a house off to the east is almost fully on the beach. Several more are but one bad storm away. My place will join them someday, but it has a few years to go before I call in the pile drivers.