Heading Out on the Open Sea
By Michelle Trauring
Jim Larocca’s friends tell him he’s gone to the dark side.
Sag Harbor had grown accustomed to seeing the longtime boater’s masts in town—those belonging to Bojangles I, II, III and IV, all sailboats. But his newest acquisition, Bojangles V, is a whole different breed — a 36-foot, Grand Banks single-engine trawler.
And, as he tells every single one of his buddies when they start to poke fun, he downright loves this boat.
“Our last sailboat was a 50-footer, two-masted. And it was just too much after a while,” Larocca said. “The kids were grown and not available for enforced labor, so it was time. It suits me just fine, being out there and going all sorts of places. I’ve always been drawn to the water.”
Out at sea more than he’s not, Larocca takes full advantage of Sag Harbor’s healthy and ever-popular cruising season, which stretches from May 1 to around Halloween. Fellow boater Charlie Canavan even leaves his 33-foot Chris Craft Express Cruiser until December, when he takes the boat and his family to local restaurants to watch football games.
And there’s nobody on the water but them, he said. But when they’re no longer isolated and tethered to the land, the boating culture is one big party, he said, especially during the summer — a time for sun, swimming, barbecues and camaraderie.
“It’s a colorful cast of characters in this boating world. They’re a barefoot kind of people. Outdoorsmen, delightful, you really can’t rattle them. They love sight seeing, new adventures,” said Canavan, whose schedule as an airline pilot allows him to take about 10 boating trips per season, where he crosses paths with all sorts.
“You run into new people all the time and they have the same interests that you have, and you always get along famously,” he said. “They’re really accomplished in what they do. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing it.”
For architect Blaze Makoid, he works his boating obsession into his professional schedule, often taking out his custom-made, 26-foot-long Vanquish after work to relieve some stress. On a recent evening, he was getting ready to meet up with his friend and longtime boater Bill Collage for their Wednesday night tradition.
“We hop on either his boat or my boat and go by the Wednesday night sailing race in Sag Harbor,” he said. “Neither one of us are sailors — we’re boaters — so we’ll cruise by the race, wave hi and give a thumbs up to whoever we might see, and go to Sunset Beach for, literally, sunset cocktails. We try to get back by twilight, when the sun has just set and there’s still a little light you can navigate by. We’ll pull into the docks, we both have slips over by Beacon restaurant, and have dinner there.
“That, to me, there are only so many of those nights in the summer,” he said. “I very much enjoy that.”
Makoid — who grew up landlocked in Philadelphia — was instantly hooked to boating when Collage first introduced him to it. The learning curve was admittedly stressful, he said, but these days, he’ll take the boat into town just to grab an ice cream.
“If I could only travel by boat, I think I would be a pretty happy guy,” he said. “It just opens up an entirely different part of the world out here. Our days are completely different on the weekends. Instead of packing up the car and going to the beach and sitting on the beach — my family and I aren’t big ocean swimmers — we go out and anchor near Shelter Island and meet a bunch of people with their kids, friends. Everyone’s jumping off their boats and picnicking, whether it’s Shelter Island or Greenport or Montauk.
“And the destination is one thing, but the event of getting there is just as much a part of that journey, or that day,” he continued. “You’re not dreading getting into the car and sitting in traffic and worrying about parking. It’s not part of it.”
Canavan rarely needs an excuse to take out his 14-foot McKee. He’ll even take the boat into town for grocery shopping, he said.
“In the summer, parking can be difficult so I just take the boat, tie it to a tree on a beach someplace, and fill up with groceries and shoot back home,” he said. “Pull the kids in a tube all the way to town, grab the groceries and head on back. Everybody loves it.”
That’s not to say these boaters haven’t had their share of misadventures. Oftentimes, non-boaters have an exaggerated view of all the terrible things that can go wrong, Larocca said, but it can be a dangerous environment and powerboaters and sailors alike need to be careful.
In the early 2000s, Larocca, his wife and two other couples were out on Bojangles IV, working their way up Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts and headed toward Woods Hole when an un-forecasted storm system suddenly showed up, bringing some very violent cells in tow.
As the sky darkened, they quickly took down the sails and battened down the hatches. But they were too late.
“Right in the middle of all this, a wind came up. We later learned it’s something called a microburst, a column of air that drops straight down. But it’s not cyclonic, it doesn’t turn,” he said. “Now, we’re talking about a 50-foot sailboat, 22,000-pound sailboat, and this microburst dropped down on us and knocked the boat over on its side, right on its side. For several seconds, we were flat on our side, everyone hanging on. When the microburst eased a little, the boat righted itself and up we came. The boat was a mess, as you can imagine, but nobody got hurt. And 20 minutes later, the sun was out, beautiful day.”
He laughed at the memory. It’s one of those tales he tells when swapping war stories with fellow boaters, kindred spirits who have often been boating all their lives. Canavan remembers his parents docking their boats up and down the South Shore from when he was just 2 years old, and Larocca can fondly recollect those days spent at his grandparents’ house in Amityville, taking out a fleet of rowboats with his three siblings and 16 cousins, all of them growing up together in a bunk-bed dormer.
It is a tradition they’re both instilling in their children. As a family man, it’s the perfect chance for Canavan to keep his kids as a captive audience, he laughed, adding on a more serious note that days at sea give them an opportunity to have real conversations.
Whether it’s local day trips — Greenport, Shelter Island and Montauk — or longer journeys, such as Martha’s Vineyard, Provincetown or Nantucket, Larocca said his favorites are always those spent with his family.
“It would be just us and the kids on the boat, making meals, swimming, sometimes rendezvous with other families. The first boat we had was a 27-footer, and we took our son, Josh, sailing for the first time when he was 7 weeks old,” Larocca said. “I have three kids now, and as they got older, everybody learned to do everything. I don’t want to idealize it too much. One year, one of the kids said, ‘My God, do we have to do this again?’
“There was one time, I won’t tell you which child it was, this child refused to leave the boat when we got somewhere just because that child didn’t want to be on that trip,” he continued. “Yet if you hear that child tell the story of that trip, it sounds like one of the best trips ever. It’s only my memory that hangs onto this.”
Whether they’ve liked it or not, they are the new generation, indoctrinated into a boating culture on the East End, a playful rivalry between sailors and power-boaters — or blow-bums and stink-potters, as they’re affectionately called — and one that brings a retired Larocca tremendous peace and joy.
“This is an old boat, it’s not a yacht. It’s a very solid, comfortable powerboat,” he said. “Because of its age, it’s a lot of maintenance, but I like the chores of the boat. My life was always at desks, and this is, I like the manual labor of it, I like the outdoors of it. I like being on the water. Doing the chores and the maintenance is sort of a form of mental health exercise.
“Sometimes I get very frustrated,” he laughed, “but most of the time it’s healthy.”
As for living on the boat full time, that’s not on his radar just yet, he said.
“The cruising life is something I’ve thought about a lot earlier on, but unless I had 152 feet and a crew of 11, I don’t know,” he said. “You never know, the lottery may come in.”
Tips for First-Time Cruisers
With their combined half century of boating experience, Jim Larocca, Charlie Canavan and Blaze Makoid have learned a thing or two while navigating the open seas — and have a few pearls of wisdom for their more amateur comrades.
Don’t skimp on the prep work. A boat is not a car.
All it takes is one look around to see a tremendous number of boaters on the water who have not had any training, or much experience, with boats, Jim Larocca said.
“You see it all the time in terms of courtesies, but more importantly in terms of sometimes dangerous situations — passing too close, not being aware of the consequences of their wakes, not understanding signaling, even failing to turn on their lights at night,” he said. “I don’t favor government mandates, but I think people who are going to get a boat and entrust themselves and their families to the water should take a course, get some real experience, start small, and really learn about the water.
“Sailing, of course, takes additional knowledge, but any boat you buy, it’s not a matter of just getting on it, turning the key and driving away. It’s not a car. It’s not always clear people understand that. Work your way into it. You want to be safe, and you want to be knowledgeable.”
Check the weather, and be prepared for worst-case scenario.
Charlie Canavan couldn’t stress this enough: check the weather before you leave, as well as the GPS system before getting on the boat. Know tricky harbors, always have enough fuel and make sure the boat is stocked to Coast Guard standards — with plenty of water, life jackets, safety equipment and anchors.
“Know what to expect before you get to where you’re going,” Mr. Canavan said. “That doesn’t always work, but it’s best to be ready for anything that can go wrong.”
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t be hesitant to actually use your boat.
Just get out and use it, Blaze Makoid insists. Starting out can be intimidating—especially alongside more experienced seamen—but the key is to put boating at the top of your list.
“If you’re looking at it as the third, fourth, fifth priority, you’re never going to use it. I really use my boat — three, four days a week. I was once just starting out, too. The more comfortable you get, the more it becomes second nature.”