POOR MAN'S PARADISE
by Robert Barrie
I HAVE sailed at odd times on Barnegat Bay, and one summer kept a launch there, and pottering about found it more interesting than I had supposed. It is the largest of the lagoon-like sheets of water on the New Jersey coast, and a pretty good place for the small boat sailer and lover of open air life. With a land breeze on a summer's night the mosquitoes are the bugbear of the place, but then there are mosquitoes at Mt. Desert and Nantucket when the conditions are right.
The greatest length is about thirty miles; this is in a north and south direction from Bay Head to Harvey Cedars. At the lower end, opposite the Inlet, the width is about five miles; this width gradually decreases up to Bay Head, but there are quite a number of broad and deep indentations on the western shore, such as Toms River, the Metedeconk, Forked River, Cedar Creek, Kettle Creek, Oyster Creek, and others that considerably increase and add variety and interest to the cruising ground.
It seems as though these rivers must one day have emptied directly into the sea. The western shore is quite bold; for instance, the bluffs at Island Heights are eighty feet high, and it would have been a nice piece of coast, with several good harbors up these rivers, if the action of the sea had not beat up a long range of sand dunes. which commencing above Bay Head must have gradually worked down the twenty-five miles to the Inlet, as these Jersey outlets are called.
Outlets they certainly must be, for if it were not for these openings, kept clear by the surplus waters of the rivers, they would certainly have closed long ago. Proof of this is to be found in smaller bodies, such as Wreck Pond, north of here, where an easterly blow will bank up a bar ten feet high that will completely close the opening, which will remain like a dam until the pond behind it has filled up. Once filled, however, as soon as the slightest stream begins to flow over, the dam is doomed, for a rapidly increasing cut soon eats down to low tide level and the "Inlet" is again in being.
The sand dunes, more picturesque in themselves than those of Holland, are ranges of little hills covered in most places with long, bright green, wiry grass and sturdy shrubs. In parts there are wind-twisted cedars. The marshy spots are, in summer, covered with large marshmallows. Indeed, the scene on the eastern shore of the Bay -- on a morning in late summer, when after a squally night there is generally a brisk northwest wind and cloudless sky, is one seldom equaled outside the tropics. The western hills with pines of the darkest blue, the waters a slightly lighter shade, and the sky a still paler blue make fine contrasts to the almost inconceivable gayness of the other colors, no mere tints, that range from pure white of the sands through the pinks of the marshmallows to the riot of the bright yellows, greens, and vivid reds of the marshes. It is a paradise of color for painters.
The western shore is bordered with large patches of pine woods, stretching far back into the country, which give to the water in the upper reaches a coffee color, but there is no muddiness, and the water is perfectly transparent. Where the good land comes down to the Bay there are prosperous farms; these are seen at their best near Toms River. In general, however, the shores are as wild and deserted as the most violent hermit could wish. In winter these pine-strewn glades should be fine camping grounds for consumptives.
The average depth of water in the channels of the upper Bay, that is above Barnegat Pier, is about five feet; in some rivers there are stretches with thirty feet. The depths appear not to change, and the reason is found when one anywhere in a channel shoves over the bronze end of a boathook and feels the clank as it strikes the shale on the bottom. Apparently, the floor of the whole thing is glacial drift not likely to change in centuries. Out of the channels there is a mixture of mud and sand; in the lower Bay generally only the latter, perfectly clean and hard. For some reason the Bay is a great place for breezes; possibly because Barnegat, the elbow of Jersey, so sticks out into the ocean; at any rate, there are seldom calms and any are of short duration.
In addition to sailing, fishing and shooting are the great sports of the Bay. In summer when the weakfish are running they can be hauled out as fast as one can bait; down by the Inlet and outside all sorts of sea fish are to be had, with, in particular, bluefishing in season. Beach birds and duck will fill the cruiser's larder if he is a shot, so that to the man in a small, light draft boat this little world makes a pleasant little cruising ground.
For the racing man there is plenty of fun; the sneakbox and cat classes show some clever sailing. The Barnegat gunning sneakbox has been so often described that it seems unnecessary to do so again here; the boats used in racing are a development of the same idea, twenty-one feet over all, nine feet beam, eight inches draft; the crack boats being fitted with hollow spars and silk sails. Morton Johnson, the boat builder at Bay Head, seems to be the most successful designer and builder of these; at any rate, owners of his boats seem to win the most prizes, and the Bay Head Yacht Club, where many of his boats are owned, appears to be at the head in this class. The catboats, generally about twice the size of the "boxes," are from the boards of well-known designers, such as Cary Smith and C.D. Mower. William P. Kirk, of Toms River, is the most successful builder in this class, and in this the clubs at Seaside Park and at Island Heights generally come off best.
These little yacht clubs on the Bay are wonders; they all have a good membership of live men who take an active interest in sailing. Their initiation ($10 and dues ($5) are as modest as in the English clubs. They have surprisingly good houses and the members get remarkable service; for example, the care of a boat costs but five dollars for the season; this means pumping out, drying sails, bringing in to the landing stage for owner and taking back again to mooring every day in the four months of the season if he wishes it. A good mooring, made of cement, can be rented for two dollars per season; so the man without a bulging purse does very well. The weak point is that sleeping accommodations and restaurants are not, but where the clubs are there are hotels. These clubs are at Bay Head, Mantoloking, Toms River, Island Heights, and Seaside Park, the two latter have the largest clubhouses and best anchorages, and are the most convenient as to trains for Philadelphians. Bay Head can be reached in two hours from almost any part of north Jersey. Seaside Park itself is a Godforsaken looking place, without a bush or blade of grass, on the sand dunes between the Bay and ocean, with buildings of an unutterable ugliness; but a fine healthy spot that might be made as green as the New Yorkers have made Seabright, where the conditions are precisely the same. Seaside Park has the great advantage to Philadelphians that there one has saltwater within ninety minutes of Broad Street.
If there was a yacht club station with bed and board and a shipkeeper at the little harbor at the western end of Barnegat Pier it would be a fine spot to keep a little boat, for from there there is ample sailing ground, and a short run of twelve miles would take one down to the Inlet, where there is a good harbor, the dike behind the Sunset House, and plenty of salt, and fishing, and bathing. As there is good train service up in the morning and cheap commutation, it would be a boon to the business man who wants to get into old clothes and a boat and have a sniff of the sea, but does not care for Atlantic City with all its silly caravansaries and the summer boardwalk rabble. An ideal spot for a sailing headquarters could be made at the deep cove known as Winter Anchorage at the lower end of the long stretch of land that runs down from Bay Head. It is at the north side of the Inlet, protected on the south and southwest by a small island and on the north and northeast by the hook of the land, has ten to fourteen feet of water at low tide, with sticky bottom.
The twelve miles of this land below the Pier all belong to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which could create a fine cottage colony there if a good road were built down to the point. It would be practically an island, as it would be surrounded by water in every direction; the ocean on the outside and the Bay on the inside would make the nearest land five miles away and practically no breeze could be a land breeze. A lot of Japanese could turn it into a garden spot; today, within a couple of hours of the two largest cities in the country it is absolutely deserted except for a couple of lifesaving stations.
If the new places like Seaside Park are appalling in their rawness, the villages of old Barnegat, Waretown, and Toms River on the western shore, with their overhanging elms and oldtime flavor more than compensate. The best of these to my mind is Toms River, of revolutionary date, which has a little the air of Nantucket village about it. It is at the head of navigation on the Toms River, seven miles from Seaside Park, the longest east and west stretch to be had on the Bay. Here Kirk has his shop and seems to do a good business, both in building and laying up. Faunce Brothers are also here, but further down stream at the deeper water, so they get the larger craft. Still further down, at Island Heights, are shops and hauling out yards; so that, bearing in mind those at Bay Head and old Barnegat one sees that this little sheet of water is the best supplied in this respect of any of its size and depth in this country. Indeed, there are few bits of water, cut off as it were by themselves, that can equal Barnegat in turnout of small sailing craft, and some of them are high sided, able seagoing vessels that surprise one until he sees what they have to face down at the Inlet.
Engines are being put into lots of old boats and all the new cruisers have them. There is a horror of grass, but this terror can be got rid of by a quick reverse. The engines take the place of poling as a means of getting home on quiet nights; before they came, when the wind died out, the plan used to be to work over into shoal water and then one could pole along on the sand as fast as a man could walk along the deck; some tall stories are told at Bay Head about this sort of work.
The people about the Bay appear to have all the good qualities that we are in the habit of attributing to Anglo-Saxon water folk all the world over; their records on the lifesaving stations are equal to any, and if there was wrecking and robbing by decoying vessels ashore in the old days, as historians and romancers claim, the habit does not descend to the present generation, for prices are no worse here than at other sailing centers. Barnegat men make good sailors; I have known several yacht hands who have become masters. They are spunky too; one man when a boy of thirteen used to make regular trips from Toms River to New York in his father's trading schooner in the days before the railroad. Rough runs outside they of course sometimes had; they risked it once too often, and one night the schooner went ashore just above Sea Girt and broke up, and all the father saved was his boy, whom he managed to bring ashore on his back through the surf.
It must have been a ticklish run, for although the Inlet is over a mile wide and the channel is deep, yet it is crooked and shifting, and the two outside entrances north and south of the Shoals are not easy to pick up. The Shoals themselves, stretching out almost a mile to sea, are nasty. I have seen them on a moonlight autumn night in a dying southeaster twisting and boiling, like the rapids at the whirlpool below Niagara, in an awe inspiring way. I was on shore, I am thankful to say. Struggling along against the wind I passed down to the beach near the lifesaving station; here the wind was driving along the sand about a foot above the beach in a never ending stream that produced the same feeling of dizziness that one gets in looking closely at the road from a fast motorcar. Nearby, as I went back awed and cheerfully gloomy, I passed gruesome reminders of the Shoals' work in the shape of over a dozen figureheads of wrecked ships decorating the grounds of a bungalow.
In the Bay the small boat cruiser, the fisherman, the gunner, and the lover of wild life in general, has pasturages which may not be the greenest and best in the outdoor world, but which are far from being the worst by a long shot. If he thinks he can better them he can go south inside through the various bays and sounds almost to Cape May, but will come back sadder and wiser and assured that, in Jersey at least, there is no better place for the purpose to be found. If the Englishman had Barnegat he would have painted it, and written books about it, and gloated over it as he has the Norfolk Broads, but in our great wealth of cruising grounds it is almost entirely overlooked.