Sag Harbor was always a scrappy little town, and when John Steinbeck was on the scene here in the early 1960s, the scrappy little town decided it should celebrate itself.
HarborFest was called the Old Whalers Festival when it started 50 years ago, in 1963, and Mr. Steinbeck was on-hand to give out the Whaler’s Cup trophies to the winners of the first whaleboat races the following year. Now my old boss, Bryan Boyhan, the editor of The Sag Harbor Express, is charged with filling John Steinbeck’s shoes.
When I first rowed in the whaleboat races, it was one year, almost to the day, before the terrorists crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers. It was a year before that bright Tuesday morning when Doris Gronlund burst through the front door of The Sag Harbor Express, collapsing in the arms of the reporters, looking for someone, anyone, to tell about the plane that had just crashed into the field in Shanksville, Pa., carrying her daughter Linda to her grave. It was a year before I took a break from a morning of staring in horror at the television and helping rip apart the front page for the next day’s paper to go find a creamsicle in the case at the Variety Store, hoping to also find a piece of the America that had existed at 8:45 that morning.
The clerk was standing behind the counter at the Variety Store with a box of Kleenex at her side, listening to the radio and weeping. I don’t think she would have cared if all the ice cream in that case had melted that day. I walked back out and blinked at the brightness of the sun.
It was a year before the summer people who had packed up and gone home just the week before began pouring back into Sag Harbor, telling tales of having inhaled smoke and watched bodies fall and walked across bridges with just the clothes on their back to get back to the only safe home they could think of: Sag Harbor. We were all so happy they made it home alive.
That first time I rowed in the whaleboat races was many, many years before the Sag Harbor bridge was renamed for Jordan Haerter, a Pierson High School graduate who was killed by suicide bombers just weeks into his first tour of duty in Iraq, less than a year after he left Sag Harbor to embark on what he hoped would be a bright future.
My first whaleboat race was on a sunny, breezy weekend in early September, like so many sunny, breezy September days, where the small old seafaring village kicked off its summer tourist throngs and suddenly became the place it really is, a place where the fire department has a fleet of whaleboats, dads drink beer in the afternoon, moms are whizzes with the clam knife, the kids sell hot dogs for the boy and girl scouts and everyone knows how to row.
HarborFest’s core has always been the whaleboat races. It takes some hard-core dedication to sit on the beach by the windmill for two afternoons straight, to wait for your heat to begin, and then to row until your arms are virtually ripped out of their sockets for about five minutes before collapsing on the shore and realizing you will have to do it all again in two or three hours. I don’t know why, but I was hooked the first year I tried it. I’ve been back every year since.
In the days following September 11, 2001, there was much debate all around Sag Harbor over whether HarborFest, which was to be the following weekend, should be cancelled. On the barstools at the Corner Bar, beer drinkers ranted about the Palestinian Intifada and they railed against the village leaders who were considering going forward with HarborFest, in spite of the smouldering ruins just 100 miles to the west.
Doris Gronlund told us all we should carry on and we listened to her. The terrorists had already cancelled her daughter’s life. They weren’t going to cancel HarborFest. We all listened to Doris a lot in the months and years after 9-11. She was our den mother. She guided us through the uncharted waters of the loss we all felt, but could not give a name.
And now, 12 years later, despite everything that’s changed in the world, HarborFest is exactly the same. And Sag Harbor likes to keep it that way. Sunday afternoon was sunny and breezy. Jim Turner was singing chanties behind the windmill. Bryan Boyhan was reading the rules to the whaleboat crews. The Corner Bar had a team and Sag Harbor Liquors had a team, and John K. Ott’s cesspool service team had their perennial green team shirts that read “There Goes Poop-Pee” on the back.
Sculptor Scott Partlow carried a giant carved wooden conch shell down near the water, as if he were Jesus and the shell was his cross, and then left it near the whaleboat staging grounds and disappeared into the crowd.
I walked down Long Wharf until I could see Jordan Haerter’s bridge and the American flags and the powerboats with their POW/MIA flags and the little firemen’s whaleboats racing round and round the Sag Harbor whale. Halfway across the span from Long Wharf to North Haven is the spot where I woke on board my boat on that horrible September day, shielded my eyes from the sun’s bright beauty, and rowed ashore to face the horror that awaited us all.
The band by the windmill was playing Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”
“Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.
Mother, mother ocean, after all the years I’ve found
My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around
I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown.”