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Love of boating binds family together

Chris O’Shea came across the handwritten manuscript buried among his late father’s effects.

It was shortly after longtime boater Mike O’Shea’s unexpected passing in October at age 62, and Chris was visiting his mother’s home.

Nyala, a Bristol 32, was the last in a long line of boats for Mike O'Shea, and the vessel that carried him through the most harrowing night on the water.

“I saw a folder on the desk, and in that folder was a story I’d heard my father talk about, but that I’d never seen,” says O’Shea, 37, a digital printer from Patchogue, N.Y. Attached to it with a paper clip was contact information for Soundings magazine. “My father was a longtime reader, and he was hoping to have his story published someday. And here it was.”

Mike O'Shea

It’s the elder O’Shea’s tale of a night ride 10 years ago with a sailing friend. (See sidebar.) The pair took Mike’s Bristol 32, Nyala, along the south shore of Long Island, a harrowing coast of beach and inlet, surf and shoal thrusting out hard into the Atlantic, a grim lee shore in a south wind.

The story is written on lined paper, and the penmanship starts out neat and orderly. But as the winds and waves increase, the writing also gets more “animated.” It’s apparent O’Shea is recalling the intensity perhaps only experienced in a nighttime storm at sea, with a dangerous shore close and to leeward.

But in the midst of the maelstrom, he and his old sailing chum find the right sail set, the engine idles steadily along and the big sloop shrugs off the heavy following seas. The two worn-out sailors finally cross the bar and sleigh-ride through a south shore inlet into safe harbor. “We made coffee, cooked breakfast and enjoyed a most wonderful meal,” writes Mike O’Shea. “Although totally scared at times, I wouldn’t trade that night for anything.”

Mike O'Shea in 1961
The Tomato

 When the younger O’Shea finished reading, he realized the manuscript was more than just a sea story. It was his father’s way of sharing his passion for boating with the people around him — the way he’d done it all his life with his family and friends.

“I thought to myself, maybe I can get this published,” says O’Shea. “Because I knew it was something that he wanted to do.”

Mike O’Shea’s passion for boating goes back to his youth in Massapequa, N.Y. His first boat was a 16-foot runabout with a 25-hp Evinrude on the back. “He was 12 or 13, and he would get on his bike

Windrifter, a 25-foot Seafarer

carrying a can of gas on his handlebars and ride off to the bay for a day of boating,” his son recalls. “He fished and skied and did all the silly stuff you’d do as a kid on the water. And, you know, his parents weren’t avid water people. But for him, there was something within and the water just became a passion — a lifelong passion.”

So much so that when it came time to raise a family, O’Shea moved to Bayport, N.Y., on Great South Bay to be even closer to the water. A fleet of family boats followed: a 16-footer with an Evinrude outboard; a distinctive red bow rider nick-named “the Tomato;” a 25-foot Seafarer; and Nyala, a sloop with a full

Mike O'Shea with his grandson, Keegan, in 1996.

keel. (“Not exactly the perfect boat for Great South Bay,” recalls O’Shea. “I remember many times bouncing the bottom.”)

The family boated and sailed for fun, did weekday night sail races, and the elder O’Shea’s passion was instilled in his offspring as they went along. In the summer, it was boating every weekend, especially when visitors dropped by. “Early in the morning, my mother would pack the coolers and the bags, and my father, my brother and I would take the boat over to Fire Island,” he says. “He’d leave us over there for a few hours while he went back to Bayport, picked up whoever was visiting and came back across. And then we’d spend the afternoon having lunch, swimming and just being around the ocean.”

The elder O’Shea was an expert water skier, and he shared his love for the sport with his family. “He would take me out, I would get inside the tow rope with him, put my feet on top of his two skis, and he would pull me up,” says O’Shea. “That was just another example of being on the water and him teaching me to do something he liked.”

The 32-foot Bristol turned out to be the elder O’Shea’s last boat. “It was a real beauty, and he loved that boat with all his heart,” his son recalls. “And it was immaculate. He sailed the bay in that boat, did trips around Long Island and went out to Block [Island] a few times. But he could just go out sailing for a few hours, too, and not really go anywhere.”

Chris O'Shea with his daughter, Lily, in 2007.

A love for the water is what keeps the younger O’Shea connected to his father, and he knows the same holds true for his four children: Keegan, 14; Molly, 11; Lily, 7; and Maggie, 4.

“At lunchtime, I drive down by the water and just look, and I think of him and his love of the water and boats,” O’Shea says. “And I think of the amount of time he spent with my children, too. I know my son will remember his grandfather every time he goes down to the water.

“He gave me a gift, that’s how I look at it — and I couldn’t ask for a better gift,” says O’Shea. “And getting his story in Soundings would be a great gift that I could give back to him.”

See related article:

"When we tested our limits in angry seas"

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut and New York Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.