One of my favorite memories from long ago in the Hamptons was the time that one of the Halsey boys called and invited me to go iceboating with him on Mecox Bay. The appointed day was a bitter cold Sunday in January of 1973. The wind was howling. This was the day, he said. Be there around two in the afternoon.
I bundled up and drove down Bay Lane in Mecox, following his directions. The last quarter-mile of Bay Lane was straight as an arrow, heading south to a dead end at the waterline. You could see the sails of the iceboats in the bay way off as you made the turn onto the straightaway because the land was potato fields the whole way. (Today it is all houses on both sides, most hidden behind hedgerows. We don’t have that view anymore.)
At the dead end I got out of my car and waved to the half-dozen iceboats whizzing around. One of them pulled in turned into the wind, the sail luffing aimlessly. John Halsey waved a mittened hand in my direction as an invitation to walk across the ice to him.
I so remember the next 15 minutes. John wanted to keep me in the seat directly behind him for a half an hour or more. But flying silently around the bay at 40 miles-an-hour, sometimes with the outrigger on one side raised up off the ice in a big gust, was quite enough. The only sound you could hear during that ride was the slicing of the blades under the outriggers stopping and starting as the other iceboats crisscrossed in front and behind. I’d shout out to John. He’d make some sort of reply. I held my breath for most of it. Wow. I’ve never forgotten this.
Thanking him and hopping out near the shore, I staggered over the ice to what was certainly a wonderful oasis out of the wind. Right at the end of the road there, facing the ice from 10 feet behind a flagpole with a flag flapping up top, was a little wooden cabin no more than 10 by 20 feet in size. It had a front door and a porch. I went inside.
A wooden table was in the center. Several men were playing cards, hot cups of coffee from the Candy Kitchen at their elbows. I nodded at them and sat on a bench along the wall and caught my breath. After a while, I went home and wrote about the experience for the paper.
Farmers back then did lots of things to fill the time when the fields were fallow. These iceboats were handmade by them in their barns, probably from sets of plans handed down.
In the summer, some of the farmers built small airplanes on their property from kits. The planes, kit planes and little pipers, would take off from mowed grass areas they’d set aside between potato fields or cornfields. There wasn’t a whole lot of regulation about this. I was once offered a ride. Somebody was flying to a lunch at a farmer’s house in Jamesport and wondered if I’d like to come along. I declined. There was also sailing in Mecox Bay from that clubhouse. Summer in the Hamptons.
I don’t know that it meant anything, but the farmers using that little clubhouse paid for it to be there—somebody else owned the land—by paying $100 dues to a “president.” They called the place the Mecox Bay Yacht Club. The club flag went up below the stars and stripes. It was kind of a lark.
What happened after that was kind of sad. People stopped using the little clubhouse. I was told the landlord had jacked up the rent. The building fell into disrepair. By about 1980, it was quite a wreck. Even the flagpole was now bent at an angle. I think vandals had got at the place. It remained that way until this spring.
The clubhouse, it turns out, has gotten a new life. It’s been completely rebuilt. The flagpole is up with the flag flying and a big sign invites you to enjoy the amenities of what is now called Mecox Bay Park. The biggest little park ever: Less than a quarter-acre, but with 80 feet of waterfront. Last week, the town held a ribbon-cutting ceremony there. There is to be sail boating, kayaking and—maybe by next summer anyway—sailing lessons, probably for kids.
What’s happened in the interim for the last 30 years is a study in selfishness, malfeasance, lawyers, determination and patience.
Sometime in the late 1980s, the owner of this property was discovered to have failed to pay his real estate taxes. As the property owner did not to pay the back taxes and fines, the Town declared the property in default and took ownership of it. But the Town did nothing with it. Just let it sit.
Also during those 30 years, the potato fields on both sides of that final straight run to the little bay beach were turned into rows of houses, mostly vacation houses, on both sides with walls of hedgerows in front. Life goes on. Meanwhile, the Halseys and others continued with their iceboating and sailing. There is a little boat ramp anybody can use at the end of the dead end alongside the clubhouse. They’d just bring their boats.
About 2010, someone, with the same memory as me (but it was not me), proposed to the Town that the little falling-down warming house be restored and the place turned into a site where sailing lessons could be taught to children in the summertime. He’d head up a club, open to all, and would sign a lease with the Town.
Some of those now living on Bay Lane would have none of it. They believed their peace and quiet would be disturbed. There would be children playing, rows of cars and trucks down there at the end. They imagined, inaccurately, that because the place would still be called the Mecox Yacht Club, it would be exclusive. Eventually, they hired lawyers who filed lawsuits against the town to forbid the town from doing anything that would result in lots of people going down to that little “club.”
Last fall, the Town Attorney announced that the smoke had cleared. The lawsuits were over. And so the town, finally, could do something for the townspeople.
I spoke to Kristen Doulos, the Parks Commissioner for the town, who told me the following: The lawn is mowed, people can park on the street, the flag is flying, a new wooden outbuilding is now in place to replace the old (I’m told it is a pre-fab, bought for $85,000 with town park funds from Walpole Woodworkers in Water Mill), three racks for six kayaks each are in place on the lawn and a lottery has been held where 18 citizens have won slots on the rack for their kayaks or Sunfish.
The little building is secured with a combination lock, but these 18 have the combination and can keep their gear, paddles and bathing gear on the hooks inside. As for anybody else, they should feel free to bring their kayaks or Sunfish down to the launching ramp atop automobiles or trucks, have fun on the water and then drag them back to land and off to home.
Next year, the Town will probably install some park benches on the grass, or sitting benches on the front porch of the new building, and that hoped-for sailing school might come to pass.
The farmers, playing cards, will not be there, though.
However, guess what?
“I was down there this past January to watch the iceboats fly around,” Ms. Doulos told me. “Mr. Halsey was piloting one of them. So he’s still there. I’ve got pictures.”
Send them over, I told her. We’ll put one in the paper and on the website. Some things never change.