Eight. It takes twelve 7th graders to slug a hull to the beach, dark rising. They have not been on the water before and the plug for the safety launch is missing, so I must coach them from the shore and keep them in the cove. I have no megaphone, so I will have to below. Sophia, Ella, Yosh, Kyler, Jessie, Ethan, Roman, and Michael in the eight; Brendan is the coxswain. Too tall, petite, distracted, awkward, chatty. Some of the port oars are upside down, the footboard shoes are big, and the baggy shorts snag in the seat tracks.
Sophia seems to spoon the water well, so I ask the stern pair to take strokes. The Ted pushes out and immediately merges with the current, heading towards the wood pylons a hundred feet north. A jagged row of sharp, dead trees to make the border cove. A crane, the tug, and barges that mark the centre of Hempstead Harbor begin to catch colour in the rising light. Behind my practice course. Out of play. Rusted red.
The water proves calm. Thank God. I can see it now. The sun ticks and grey comes up green. Keep them safe, away from the wood, and breathe. With ages of experience, it is hard to be specific and prescribe instructions for beginners. But they are young and know to listen. “Don’t panic. Sophia, take strokes — yes, like that — until I say stop. It’ll bring the boat around back to me. Ella, join in. Watch her back in front of you and put the oars in at the same time. One catch. Yosh and Kyler, set the boat. That means put your hands under the handle and make sure the blade is flat on the water.”
The September bay is still warm but fish kill-ripe. There are many dead ones in the hard sand on the water line. A tire. Cinder blocks. Crocs. Socks. Weeds. I feel the scene but focus on the kids. I have them paddle in pairs back and forth. They have a safe rhythm now. I sense the cars streaming on Shore Road past Tappan Beach across the Bay, the way I drive to Port in the dark. All this time here, the edges shift in frames and leave remains. Like the tide. Swings out and leaves another block on the shore, unburied. Right here. Like the Sound. Broad brushes of restless sea. In front of New Rochelle and Connecticut. Out there.
Emerson, Mark, and Liam play in the sand behind me. My spares. They want to row as well. They will.
“I want 4 and 3 — Jessie, Ethan, that’s you — to start at the finish, extend your arms, tilt your torso, roll the slide up, put the oars in the water, and push with your legs. Do it again.”
Two skiffs appear Southwest by the pier, flicking rods.
“Yes. Do it again. Stay focused. Simple… Not easy.”
Austin Kuebler is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.