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Safe Harbor: The Trip To Three Mile Harbor

Originally Posted: August 11, 2008

Ben Amato

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Three Mile Harbor - bursting with sailboats. Photos by Ben Amato

East Hampton - Sailing through Gardiner's Bay brings a realization that you are really on the edge of the world. On the west you have your home, the Twin Forks of Long Island. To the east is nothing but the sea - an expanse of waves and sky and clouds that stretch your imagination. You know that Block Island, Newport, and the Cape are out there but the Bay conjures up images of the East End's mythical past.

Captain Kidd sailed these waters, visiting his friend John Gardiner, owner of the island with his grandfather's name that lies to the northeast of East Hampton. The Indians called that isolated world Manchonake, "The place where many have died." Capt. William Kidd as the story goes buried his treasure there when he was declared a pirate by the British Admiralty. Legend has it that he was a loyal British privateer, licensed by King, until he became a political pawn, betrayed, tortured, tarred, and hung at the entrance to London's harbor. A monument stands on the island memorializing John's trusted friend.

If you sail close to the island to view the majestic bluffs and pristine forests you risk being caught in doldrums, with little wind nor desire to move on - the spot is so beautiful, the water so clear and in the summer there's a haze that makes you lazy. Crews have been prone to jump ship to swim in the calm waters. My crew and I swam in Gardiner's "pool," a stretch just east of the heavily wooded, bluffed shoreline. There was no wind, warm water, little current and lots of smiles and laughs.

If you sail a few miles to the east of the island, there's a constant breeze to push you north, to Plum Gut's strong currents and ferry traffic. But on this day we were headed to East Hampton's Three Mile Harbor to the south, with its narrow jettied inlet and expansive quiet bay.

The trip through Gardiner's Bay was magnificent, with steady winds pushing us along, surrounded not by the power boaters that once filled these waters with wakes, noise and the smell of exhaust, but by other sailboats. At least 50 dotted the horizon in every direction, with many sailing two, three and four abreast across the gentle waves.

The Long Island waters of 2008 are uncluttered and serene. The 26 ft. cruisers with twin 150hp outboards are staying at the dock, while every type of sailboat is quietly reshaping the bays into what it must have looked like a 100 years ago, which is pretty much what Three Mile Harbor looks like today.

Sylvia and Dick Mendelman

On the east side as you enter are the docks, there are marinas, restaurants and resorts. The East Hampton Commercial Dock, Harbor Marina, Maidstone Harbor, East Hampton Point Marina, Shagwong, Halsey's and Gardiner's are just some facilities stretched along the two-mile shore. To the west are hills and bluffs, massive estates and tall, majestic homes perched in the trees.

Years ago, the west side "had no road - there was a dirt path, a ruddy thing I wouldn't even call a road," said Sylvia Mendelman, the lady who wrote the book on East Hampton's "Priceless Gem," which is actually the subtitle of her 116-page pictorial history titled: "Three Three Mile Harbor - East Hampton's Priceless Gem". "The east side was steep. There was rum running along the harbor. You could easily pull into a creek and pull your goods into basements and then get away," said Sylvia during an interview I had with her at Gardiner's Marina, owned by her sons Peter and Mark.

The Mendelmans came out to the Hamptons 30 years ago. Dick Mendelman became the owner and sole employee of Harbor Marina. Sylvia raised her four children and had a fulfilling career in teaching and pre-school education. It took her a decade to compile the research, interview the elders who still remembered the old stories, and hunt down pictures which could capture the history and beauty of her adopted home. She explained, "I felt like an outsider, born in New York and came out here in the 1970s. I had no local roots. Both my parents came from a Midwest farm and all the records were lost. It was a difficult but wonderful life."

"You have to appreciate what's here," she said. "You have to respect what nature has for us. God gave us a balanced earth." And the two sides of Three Mile Harbor reflects that balance, with the east offering fine dining and beautiful marinas filled with large sailboats, power cruisers and mega-yachts. In the heydays of the 1920s, Carl Fisher, the real estate magnate who built Montauk, used Three Mile Harbor for his seaplanes. Clark Gable used to fly in regularly.

The west side is more pristine and natural. It has steep cliffs leading down to low beaches and sandy marshes, dotted by a few homes all sporting huge decks to let their owners relish the views. The most majestic is the Duke Estate sitting at the mouth of Hands Creek, which for decades has sponsored a Bastille Day celebration featuring fireworks and a charity bash.

In Sylvia's chapter on "Boating in the Harbor," she begins with a quote from "Wind in the Willows," by Kenneth Graham, "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats - or with boats - in or out of 'em, it doesn't matter." The mood and feelings generated by sitting at anchor or mooring in this place attests to that fact of nautical life. Three Mile is one long horizon of boats, serene, safe and at rest in its quiet waters. A large 40-foot sailboat, sporting a Swedish flag slid by us and it was easy to imagine that this was their first stop after their transatlantic voyage. A gigantic, wide beamed, two-masted yacht moored directly ahead of us, its gleaming blue hull reflecting the setting sun and glistening small waves. Stretched astern were dozens of sailboats, some classic from the 1960s to a few modern racers, sleek and fast, even as they rode the mooring ball or swung on anchor.

Since 1876, East Hampton and Three Mile Harbor has had an art colony, a significant community of artists who have made this their home and outdoor studio. Sylvia's conclusions on why painters are drawn to this town and shoreline sums up the special qualities of this place.

"Ask any artist why East Hampton is so special and the answer is 'the light.' The 'island light' is especially unique to this area." She continued, "When skies are clear the visibility can be more than 14 miles. The dazzle of the midday summer sun contrasts with the soft rosy glow of dawn. Early morning mists hover over the water until dissipated by the sun's warmth. At day's end, the blinding, intense rays of the sun descending in the horizon are just a prelude to a symphony of color. Clouds become palettes for a mélange of yellow, orange, crimson, and purple. This show is reflected on the water, bringing the masterpiece to our level - to touch, if you will. The landscape framing the periphery of the Harbor has singular beauty in the high bluffs, the sandy and rocky shoreline, the beach grasses and the verdant forests. If an artist needed more subject matter, there is also the variety of marine life, birds, animals and people."

Visit Three Mile Harbor and see the light, whether by boat or car. Sylvia can be found at Harbor Marina, still operated by Lynn, Peter, Mark, and Dick. Her book is available at the marina office or online at www.sea-incorp.com.

Sunrise or sunset - the views at Three Mile Harbor are truly lovely.

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Guest (Guest) from The Tip of the Point says::
I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him. ~Abraham Lincoln
Jan 18, 2011 9:33 am


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