Point O’ Woods, Fire Island: Flotsam & Jetsam (sink or swim)

“You’ll swim and swim and swim,” he told us at the beginning. “And then you’ll swim some more.” That was Art Hawkins describing the legendary “Flotsam & Jetsam” 1-mile ocean swimming race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.

In case you’re not familiar with Point O’ Woods, a private community — a legal corporation, actually — then you are also not familiar with the “Flotsam & Jetsam” race. Usually not found as separate words, like “Did you see that flotsam coming from the wreck of the S.S. Minnow?” or “We don’t need that chum; it’s soon to be jetsam,” flotsam and jetsam are basically the crap you see floating in the ocean, which could be the floating remnants of a sunk vessel or jettisoned rubbish, like styrofoam cups, which both float after a shipwreck and also form really effective jetsam. (In fact, white styrofoam cups are such effective flotsam AND jetsam that there should be an international campaign to replace all current flotsam and jetsam with white styrofoam cups. Preferably the white styrofoam cups that contained nasty coffee and had a brown plastic stir straw that was unintentionally and inevitably hit, knocking over said white styrofoam cup and spilling coffee onto table and splashing over “Jake,” the 250-pound boatswain who is likely to make you into flotsam and jetsam. (Again, please note: words used together, not separately.)

History of the Flotsam + Jetsam race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island

I switched here to the use of the “+” between the two words, because the early logo contained a plus sign, signifying safety (like the red cross).

In fact, that was what the race was originally designed for: promoting ocean safety. I won’t go into too many details about its history, because an essay in a book on Point O’ Woods’ 100th anniversary describes it better. It describes it better, because its author was me after researching it extensively. I’m not that “me” anymore.

Over the years, men and women have competed to have their names engraved on the silver trophy. Top man, top woman and now, I assume “Top ___” (however one identifies). I am considering going back this summer and tell them I now identify as “The Flotsam + Jetsam Winner.”

Everyone else can go play tennis.

After the win

I won the race the first or second time I entered.

Of course, it wasn’t really a fair fight, since I was in my 20s and doing triathlons regularly. I was competing against, mostly Wall Street bond salesmen whose generous torsos made them ideal flotsam. (Shoot! There I go… I used one of the words by itself.)

The year I won, my main competitor was my mate, Dave. He had done more triathlons, was in better shape, and pretty much could beat me in any physical sport. The one thing I had on him was underhandedness.

When you swim, you can employ same- or alternate-side breathing. Same-side swimmers usually breathe on the fourth stroke. Alternate-side swimmers do so on the third stroke. This does a couple things: gives us more oxygen per four strokes and also helps us “steer” better in long distances where one doesn’t have the benefit of pool markings to look down at. Breaths every third stroke balance out our trajectory, but in either case you have to occasionally breathe and look directly ahead to confirm your bearings.

It also helps in one other manner. And this manner is also where underhandedness comes in.

Dave breathed on his right side only. I was an alternate-side breather.

So I allowed myself to trail just behind him, letting him set the pace and perhaps wear himself out. About 100 yards from the finish (as far as I could tell in an ocean setting and half-looking at Mr. Hawkins at the shore’s edge with an air horn to blow for the winner), I pulled up to Dave’s left side. His blind side. I was between Dave and the shore.

He may have looked over at me a bit later, but at that point, I’d pulled far enough ahead on his blind side that I crossed the finish line comfortably and heard the air horn.

For participating and completing the race, everyone got a cloth patch to sew onto one’s bathing suit: An “F+J” patch that, I must say, was quite an honor. It wasn’t one of today’s “everyone who plays tee ball gets a trophy.” It was “everyone who started and who I see coming out of the ocean after a mile–Congratulations for making it, here’s your patch.”

Deviled eggs and martinis

Up until perhaps the late 1970s, Point O’ Woods had a post-race tradition of all swimmers going back to the Main Beach and leisurely heading out to the sand bar — a little offshore and somewhat shallow at the time — and enjoying deviled eggs and martinis.

You read right.

Someone would bring a thermos or five of martinis, and someone else would bring some deviled eggs into the ocean to enjoy while standing on a sand bar.

This practice was ended some time before I became F+J club president in 1990. It didn’t end because I was sober (that happened only in 1994). Nor did it end because most Americans over the age of Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex not only didn’t eat deviled eggs but didn’t even know what deviled eggs were. It ended, my guess, due to a combination of other things.

It ended because the ocean bottom changed. The sandbar was largely eliminated, so that deviled egg eaters would have to place a half-egg with paprika into mouth, chew, breathe through nose and risk choking and drowning. People of the Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex generation certainly didn’t mind dying, of course. But they’d have rather died by a Kraut bullet at the Battle of the Bulge than a cooked egg white filled with mustard and mayonnaise. Cause of death? “Choked on soggy hors d’oeuvre.”

It ended also because younger people joining didn’t like martinis — this dislike, however, went through a renaissance in the 2000s, but by that time, young people no longer took swim lessons, so martinis were forever de-coupled from the Flotsam + Jetsam race — nor did they like deviled eggs, nor cigarettes-after-sex, which for some reason were considered harmful carcinogens. (Battle of the Bulge bullet is more harmful.) They had no idea who Cary Grant was.

Death by device

It ended because analog life was replaced by digital life.

Swimming is inherently analog: You can’t have a device with you while swimming, the exceptions being a cocktail glass, toothpick for olive, and two fingers to grab the egg, and that’s only after the formal swimming part. Swimming is inherently analog: You do it with friends; you swim on their blind side for the win and then the shoreline hug, when you hear: “You sly dog, you!” A tired but intimate smile.

You do it and focus on nothing but breathing and good technique.

You don’t even think about winning.

You don’t even think about martinis and deviled eggs.

You think, if you think at all, about swimming and swimming and swimming. And swimming some more.

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