Dan Rattiner's Stories

Out My Window: Bird’s-Eye View of Life on Three Mile Harbor

The picture you see above was taken from my living room on February 8. It is looking southwest out through the sliders and across our deck to where the sun sets over Three Mile Harbor every afternoon. The Hamptons offers great views over water everywhere. This is one of them. And this year is the 40th anniversary I have enjoyed this particular view.

Forty years ago, for reasons I still do not understand, I went through a divorce. I had never expected it, and I didn’t want it. Our two children were five and three at the time.

Having thus failed at marriage, I became depressed and found solace in watching sunrises and sunsets out here. The sun rises over the sea and it sets over the bays and harbors. I’d enjoy this activity walking along the beaches or, on bad weather days, sitting in my car. It was something grand and important that could be counted upon.

It was at this time, moving out of the family home, that I came upon this house on Three Mile Harbor Road where I could enjoy a sunset almost every night. It was for sale, and I bought it from a man named Richard Levin for $41,000.

I remember the first day I saw this house. There were tenants living in it, and out by the garage there was a boy of about 10 playing basketball where a hoop was set up on the front of the garage. It was just at sunset.

I didn’t know quite what to say to him.

“Are there sometimes really great sunsets?” I asked.

He bounced the ball. “We have our red ball days,” he replied.

I made my home office a table in the center of the living room facing directly out toward the sunset. This “office,” 17 feet above sea level, was my cockpit, my power position in the house. It has remained so to this day. My kids are grown and gone and it’s an empty nest now. Nevertheless, I still love it.

In the early days of my tenure here, serious fishermen kept their boats in the slips in front of my house. The harbor was home to clammers and lobstermen, to commercial fishermen and sport fishermen. In the summertime, the men would go out in their boats. In the afternoon they’d return, their bags filled with fish. At this part of Three Mile Harbor, most of my neighbors were Bonackers, men and women who had been living in East Hampton since colonial times and who earned their living from the sea.

I thought, being amongst them, I ought to have a small boat in one of the slips, just to putter around the harbor. I called the town to rent a slip. There was a three-year waiting list. I put my name on it. I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait three years, but there it was. Then I saw there were rowboats with little outboard engines on the back, sitting just off a beach that separated these slips with those of Gardiner’s Marina next door.

Making inquiries, I learned these boats were Bonacker boats for clamming. They paid no fee. They just parked their boats there. So I bought a clammer boat and parked it there. I didn’t clam. I used it to take the kids up the harbor to one of the three waterfront restaurants near the inlet. The sun would lower, I’d start up my 2.5 hp engine, and off we’d go in the clammer boat on this long, adventurous journey at 3 miles an hour, to dinner. We’d motor back through the sunset. It was a wonderful, beautiful time.

After the three years were up, I called the town and asked if I could rent a slip. They rented for $400 a summer.

“Don’t see your name on the list,” the clerk said.

I got angry. I yelled. I had a receipt somewhere.

“Okay, okay,” the clerk said. “You’re next.”

The rowboat with the outboard looked very tiny in the slip the following year. So I got a bigger boat and then a still bigger boat. You always get a bigger boat. It’s true. I went from the rowboat to a speedboat with a steering wheel to a bigger, faster speedboat you could use to tow a water skier, to a used cabin cruiser with twin bunks in the bow, shag rugs throughout and a dynamite stereo system on which to play John Denver 8-tracks.

One of my sons, when he was 16, took the cabin cruiser out for a short spin with my approval and wound up spending the night sleeping in it at Groton, Connecticut. I was not happy he did that.

Another time, having a picnic lunch onboard with my new wife while anchored in the harbor halfway to the inlet, a sudden squall hit, creating violent seas, sideways rain and blackout conditions. We were now dragging anchor, heading for who-knows-where and taking in the sea over the railings. I radioed for help, and 10 minutes later a Bonacker with a much larger ship came through the storm to lash the two ships together and head for shore, where rows and rows of cars were parked with their bright beam headlights on to guide our rescuer through the dark rainstorm home. I have never forgotten this.

Once, in spite of what the laws said, a seaplane landed in the harbor as we motored up for dinner and roared by, nearly running my little family down. There were times in the summer when athletic folks would swim the two miles across the harbor and back early in the morning to start their day. Several years, red tide closed the inlet to clamming. Twice in 40 years, during storms, the banks of the harbor overflowed onto the lawn in front of our house. The last time was during Sandy. There was one winter the harbor froze and people went ice-skating on it.

One peaceful summer day, sitting out on the deck, I watched as an enormous 150-foot yacht with a new red Fiat on its roof come poking down our little inlet, come to a stop, and then begin to go backwards, creeping along to finally get itself back out the way it had come in.

We’ve watched schools of fish jumping out of the water, seabirds diving for them, white swans gracefully paddling along and huge turkeys taking off from the shore to flap with great effort high enough to cross the harbor.

When the kids were small, I bought a ship-to-shore radio and put it in our living room to listen to the emergency channel. I called the Coast Guard to report a sailboat stuck on a bar inside the inlet. One Sunday, when the marinas were not pumping gas, I hauled a can of it from my garage to a slip to give a sailor some. For two summers, holding drinks, friends and I would fire a salute cannon from our deck as the sun went down. I installed a flagpole on the front lawn and lowered the flag to half-mast when others did.

Today, a lot has changed. Many Bonacker families, offered millions for their little homes, have moved away, their homes now occupied by the extended families of Hispanic immigrants who are largely not seafarers. The docks are not as busy. Many boats just sit there all summer.

Their rich owners drive their guests down Three Mile Harbor Road in their BMWs, slow down, point, and then say, “That’s my boat. Let’s eat.” And drive off.

Oh, I should mention taxes. My first year here, the property taxes were $540. Last year they were $11,000.

And we’re setting up for another stunning red ball sunset tonight.

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