It was a crisp fall afternoon when a pair of brothers—roughly the same age as my brother and me—joined a growing game of flag football. Our field was a sandy stretch across from the bulkhead at Watch Hill, Fire Island. I don’t remember who won the game—it never mattered, we always lied about the score anyway. The one thing I do know is that after that weekend a fast friendship formed between those brothers and our families.
Before I knew it we were spending weekends at our marina together and in the winter we’d share meals at each other’s houses. We’d recount stories from boating seasons past and dream of the summer to come. When we first started cruising together we started small, testing the waters with weekend trips to a nearby cove. The dye was cast.
It became not a question of if the McGraths would be joining us on our longer summer cruise but where we were going. More often than not, that meant a trip to Block Island, a favorite destination of both families. These trips punctuated my formative years and left me with enough happy memories to last a lifetime.
John, the patriarch of the McGrath clan, is front and center of most of these memories. Man, was that guy funny. Whether we were sitting around a picnic table beside a ghost town on the Erie Canal or at a restaurant somewhere, John would always provide the entertainment. I tell stories for a living, but I’ll never be able to touch his ability to capture the room.
We had fierce dinghy fights that started out with the use of Super Soaker water guns and quickly escalated to buckets. We would fill those dinghys so full of water. I’m glad there was no social media back then; it’s not the kind of behavior people like to see in a marine magazine editor.
I found an old blog recently that I wrote during a trip up the Erie Canal about eight years ago. A couple parts stood out. I wrote:
We arrived at Haverstraw Marina, fueled up and made our way over to Silver Slip 47. The aluminum dock was not an ideal spot during the heat wave. At this point the temperature had climbed into the 100s. My dad began spraying everyone with the hose. It would have been refreshing except for one problem: The water was hot!
John emerged from the cabin and sought refuge from the heat by drinking a cold Corona. John continued to drink from the bottle despite the fact that my dad was spraying water on him. We hadn’t been in our slip for more than 20 minutes and we were already making a scene.
And then there was this one:
The McGraths were about a mile ahead of us during this portion of the trip. John and Lisa would later tell us about how everyone in the local marinas were such jerks. Nearly everyone flashed them the bird.
One boater even chased them down and yelled, “Where do ya think you’re goin’?”
Not understanding what the man meant, John candidly pointed forward and said, “Up the Hudson.”
“What’s wrong with the people here?” his wife, Lisa, asked.
Only later would they realize that they were cruising at 20 knots through a (poorly marked) 5 mph zone.
“Well that explains a lot. I thought everyone was just telling me I’m number one,” joked John as he motioned the middle finger.
John became like an uncle to my brother and me. He was funny and you wanted to hang around him but he also supported us.
John, a husband, father, grandfather and friend passed away last October at the age of 54, leaving a wake of unforgettable memories. I don’t think I’ll ever go boating and not think of him. For that, I’m thankful.
Years from now, I hope to have my boat tied up alongside the younger generation of McGraths. I hope our children go off on long dinghy rides together, go exploring, maybe get into just a little trouble, and start a game of two-hand touch. I hope nobody keeps score.