I once watched the ocean for six straight hours, not taking my eyes off for more than a minute or so to tend to other things. Here was the circumstance:
I had finished last watch — 3 to 6 a.m. on a sailing trip from Fort Lauderdale to New England on a 50-foot Hylas sloop. There were four of us making the trip; after about three days into it, we were somewhere out between Bermuda and Virginia Beach, a couple of hundred miles out. My watch was pretty uneventful: wind about 25 knots from the northeast, us on a fast beam reach in which our boat mounted the crests of Atlantic rollers then surfed down the front of wave walls with big plumes of white foam catching silver in the moonlight.
The sunrise showed us a cloudless sky and empty horizon in all directions as we galloped along making our way north as fast as the boat could sail. I went down and made myself coffee and an English muffin, then returned to the cockpit where I just watched, as I said, for the next six hours.
Those hours rewarded me through the morning with the sudden heart-stopping crash of a breaching humpback about 30 feet from the deck, then another, and some time later, a pod of dolphins leaping, playing along with us at the bow. But then, I wondered, what am I really watching and hearing, taking in with all senses?
Even a little way out on the ocean, or really even on the dock or beach, we are confronted with the infinite. And of course, it’s not always pretty, as coastal New Englanders remember, rather freshly. But even with the spectacle of a stormy shipwreck or devastating flood, there is, at bottom, a kind of thrill at the very display of such infinite power in nature.
And maybe John F. Kennedy got it just right in a speech when he noted “an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact percentage of salt in our blood as in the ocean. Therefore, we have salt in our blood and sweat and our tears. We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea — whether to sail or to watch — we are going back to whence we all came.”
So, as the summer deepens, outside of a sailboat, here are a few of my favorite places to encounter the ocean:
Provincetown: At the top of the Cape Cod National Seashore (a JFK gift, by the way) is the funkiest little fishing and beaching town anywhere. Jutting into the Atlantic, I think of P-town as the exclamation point on Cape Cod. It has beaches in ever direction. My favorite is Herring Cove Beach, where you can find private spots in the dunes to bake before your dash into the waves.
Sand Beach at Maine’s Acadia National Park: This dramatic land with its rise of Cadillac Mountain and huge rock formations with crashing Atlantic waves holds a hundred summer activities, but if you really want ocean swimming, make this one a late summer choice. Maine water is plenty cold, especially early.
For warm, try the 235-acre Sherwood State Park in Westport, Conn., where swimming in Long Island Sound is very manageable, from a temperature point of view. And the world around it is beautiful and worth the visit. Also:
Old Orchard Beach, southern Maine, which has an amusement park and is a great trip for kids.
Crescent Beach State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Nantasket Beach in Hull, Mass., which features a long beautiful beach and, for kids, an authentically restored 19th century merry-go-round and calliope.