Tom Stock

Poet, Essayist, Photographer, Naturalist

Report #4: A Sail On Sampawams Creek: Sept 28, 2017

I guided Nancat down Sampawams Creek toward the Great South Bay. This creek is one of seven that form the Necks in the Town of Babylon. Suffolk County’s south shore has about 75.These creeks were formed about 5,000 years ago when a breach in the Ronkonkoma Moraine, The Terminal Moraine is a deposit from the glacier. This linear ridge along the island held back glacial melt water until it forced a breach in the Dix and Half Hollow Hills area. A huge volume of water rushed through a low spot and flowed south creating seven shallow valleys. Sampawams Creek is the easternmost creek of those seven.  In recent years it was designated as a boundary separating the Towns of Babylon and Islip.

“There are holes in the bottom of the creek. One is 35 feet deep just south of the three boathouses on the Islip side. Fishermen know about these holes because fish congregate there.” Roger Holzmacker commented. He sailed the creek as a youth and has witnessed many changes.    He is a neighbor who helped me restore and launch Nancat four years ago. I hauled her out for two years and with his encouragement, and have launched again for two months of sailing. “September and October are the best sailing months of the year.” I refer to him as Saint Roger because without his help and encouragement, I would not be sailing. He helped me restore the boat and his encouragement and generous spirit gave me the confidence to try. I have no outboard motor and this limits my distance. He is my nautical angel. My goal is to sail to Oak Island and sail around it and go clamming. The distance is about 2 miles across open water. Without an outboard motor, I’m tempting fate.

CIndy and Paul Theiss were willing to let me tie Nancat up at their dock. I called her and she graciously invited me at no charge. I was annoyed at the high fees for a slip on the Babylon side. I had to pay the same fee as boats three times the size of mine. Not fair. I kept my boat in storage for two years. Now I had an opportunity to sail again.

I looked at an 1875 map of the creek. It showed extensive salt marshes all the way up to Montauk Highway. The Sampawam Indian tribe lived on the neck and lived off the creek’s abundant shellfish.

There were no bulk heads, their canoes had no engines, their food was right beneath their feet. Their pantry eventually evolved into bulheads with fill behind them. Money, money, money… clams oysters, scallops.

Nancat inspired my curiosity. Where did Sampawms Creek come from? One day roger and I canoed up to the culvert under Montauk Highway right next to Southards Boatyard. What was above Hawley Lake on the other side? I decided to find out. The estuarine portion of the creek is ¾ mile long. The fresh water part is 4 ½ miles reaching all the way up to Deer Park. This ended uptaking over a year of research and the creation of a power point program.

Today I left the Theiss dock with an east wind 5-7 knots. Perfect for my little boat. With sail raised, I began a slow downstream sail. The east wind was a remnant of hurricane Marie. Roger said “East winds mean trouble and bring stormy weather.” I was tripping on Marias coattail, a remnant edge of a storm that has created strong waves at Robert Moses State Park.

I had no trouble sailing south. I passed over 100 slips on the Babylon side with boats of all kinds: fiberglass power boats; fiberglass sail boats; clam boats; vintage and sail boats.  I approached four cormorants swimming nearby. They float low in the water due to less oil on their feathers than ducks have. They have the ability to slip below the surface because their webbed feet and set far back. One strong push and they descend. Their bill has a sharp point which aids in capturing fish. I once saw a lone cormorant swallowing an eel. It stuck it’s neck, head and bill skyward and worked the entire eel down into its gullet.

Sampawams Creek has had two other names: East Creek, and Work Creek. Dozens of clam boats docked on the Babylon side in the 1960’s the mother load of clams was available within a short distance. I asked one old time clammer what the water was like. He said, “I was able to see clear to the bottom.” Today, powerful horsepowered engines stir the bottom. Mud fills the water column and had eliminated clarity. Scientists call this turbidity. I made a crude measuring tool called a Secchi Disk. I lowered it into the water at slip 24. I lost sight of it when it was two feet down. The whole ecology of the creek has been impacted by this. So have the two superfund sites at the headwaters.

I passed the two capsize points in the creek that I had two years ago. Both events were my fault. First one was due to improper rigging. A gust pushed the boat over because the mainsheet wasn’t rigged properly. The boom couldn’t swing and let the wind pass by. The second time I just didn’t react in time to a gust that tipped the boat so far that water poured in. Both times I was rescued by nearby boaters. I learned that boaters look out for each other.

I reached the municipal dock and decided to head along the Islip shoreline. The bay had small waves and good wind. So far, I’ve spent most of the time traveling up and down the creek.

The banks of the creek on the Islip side are completely different. Private estates add much more charming scenes. There fewer boats.  I found some sections with bulkheads that are slowly falling apart. There are no bulkheads in three places which private landowners use to launch a boat. One is a private beach where kids swim and launch kayaks and paddle boards.  I see these places where there are no bulkheads as an opportunity to restore the edges of the creek to their natural habitat. The 1875 coastal map shows salt marsh along all the edges of the creek. Now there are none. One of the benefits of a project such as this is to create the original nursery where the tides flow unimpaired and fish, crabs, and shellfish thrive.

I never tire of sailing up and down the creek. Here I quote writer John Burroughs:

“If you want to learn something new, take the same path you    took yesterday.”

This is true for me. Every time I sail the creek, I see things I didn’t notice before. I have sailed over forty times. Now that I have mastered my sailing skills, I pay more attention and learn new things. This is the way I learn best…”Boots on the ground, not with nose buried in paper.

Today I sail Babylon Cove with not a single boat in sight. I have this grand body of water all to myself. I see the textures on the water which tell me about the wind. The water blabs gusts, calms, and prevailing direction. I have to be attuned to rudder and main sheet all the time.

As I passed the parking lot by the village pool, I was able to take full advantage of a brisk east wind whose velocity was about ten knots.

Occasional gusts threw me off balance. The boat heeled over. I quickly spilled wind by letting the boom swing wide and turned the rudder to slow down. These are the last two skills I have finally perfected.

It is a joy to see the bubbling wake off the stern and hear the gurgle of water beneath the hull. Bob Dylan sings a song called “Idiot Wind” wind just follows the heating and cooling of the earth which in turn heats and cools the air above it. Ocean and land temperature differences create land and sea breezes. It is a rare day when there is no air motion on Long Island shores. Fickle wind; unpredictable wind; steady wind; light wind; no wind.

Sailing gives me the opportunity to obey the wind. For me, it’s all hands on deck. Me myself and I with both hands occupied and my senses enlivened on a typical south shore creek.

A thousand years ago, if I was around, I’d see oyster and clam shell middens piled along the banks. The Babylon side was developed long before the Islip side. Islip was farmland. Babylon became a destination because of its location and train station. City people took the ferry over to Oak Island and built summer homes. Many urban people settled in Babylon.

Nancy and I live in a house that was built in 1858. There was a carriage house in the rear. Today it is a two car garage. I dug a ditch along the back for drainage. I found a foundation of crushed oyster shells. The Sampawam Indians provided the building materials.



Nancats Third Sail : September 24th, 2017


Visit To Robert Moses State Park: October 2, 2017

1 Comment

  1. Susan C.

    Thanks so much for the sailing essays. Back in the 1940’s, my uncle used to sail a small boat from Babylon to Fire Island. There were no bridges then. It is nice to hear about what that experience may have been like for him. –Susan C.

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