A funny thing happens at you approach the north side of Robins Island, a 434-acre teardrop-shaped island in Peconic Bay just off the coast of New Suffolk. Choppy waters turn smooth as a lake and the currents that race through the northern channel become dead calm.
And right there, just to the north of one of the largest privately-owned islands on the East Coast, a boat party breaks out.
“People hang out, people are drinking, people are playing music, there’s floating tubes, the kids are in the water and the reason behind it is just to promote fun in boating,” said Peter Chapman, who works at Strong’s Marine, which hosted its second annual Raft Up Party on August 24 in the cove at Robins Island. “People love walking along the sand bar, looking for shells and beach glass, and if you go there at high tide, the water will rush right over it. But you have to be careful with the tides.”
What makes Robins Island so unique, aside from its rich and interesting history that dates back to the 1600s, is the long North Race sandbar that shelters Robins Island Cove on the east side from southwesterly winds. The protected waters offer a tranquil setting for boats to drop anchor, tie up and spend the day in one of the more surprising settings the bay has to offer. The sand spit itself seems like it could connect the island directly to the North Fork at low tide, but eventually it dies off, and a green buoy clearly delineates the navigational channel.
On most summer weekends, Robins Island Cove fills with boaters enjoying a quiet day away from the hustle and bustle of more populated beaches to the north and south. Those who stop to go fishing or scalloping, especially near the south end of the island, which is directly across from the legendary fishing spot at Cow’s Neck, are rewarded with a bounty of porgies, blackfish, weakfish and fluke.
“Robins Island, especially the south end across from Cow’s Neck, is very good fishing,” said Al Daniels, the longtime fishing columnist for The Sag Harbor Express and an expert on local waters. “The west side around Roger’s Rock is known for the bottom fishing, a lot of porgies and blackfish. And Robins Island usually is a good source of scallops in the fall. Used to be people from Flanders and Riverhead who scalloped there, but now it’s everybody that’s after a buck.”
The history of Robins Island is unique, to say the least. It is technically within the jurisdiction of Southold Town, and its taxes help finance the New Suffolk School District, but the island is privately owned by Wall Street financier Louis Bacon, who purchased the land through a bankruptcy court auction in 1993 for $11 million.
Prior to that, ownership swirled between a series of individuals and even Suffolk County, which, as the story goes, seized the property following the Revolutionary War in 1779 from members of the Wickham family who were accused of being loyal to England. According to a 1998 article in The New York Times, a series of development threats, including plans to build 22 luxury houses on 33 acres, provoked a strong reaction from both politicians and environmentalists over the future of the island. When the development company that owned the island fell upon hard times, Bacon swooped in and purchased the land while agreeing to preserve the island forever.
Which makes the experience of boating and fishing in the area that much more rewarding. Robins Island is not the only privately-owned island in the Peconic Bay. There is also Gardiner’s Island to the east, which is said to be the largest privately-owned island in America, and there’s Plum Island, which is technically not private because it’s owned by the United States government. Great Gull Island, just to the east of Plum Island, is owned by the American Museum of Natural History and is known for its huge population of terns.
All of these spots offer an opportunity to fish and cruise through waters in incredible natural and tranquil settings, but it’s the cove and seemingly endless spit of sand that make Robins Island so special to the boating community.
“With the sand bar there you’re protected from the Great Peconic Bay waves,” Chapman said, “and when you’re on the North Race of the island in your boat it’s just the perfect spot.”