Monday, June 28, 2010

The 2010 Intermodal Beach Expedition

All aboard!

I have been obsessed with beach adventures for a couple of years. How many, how different, how unique. Not the fantasies of the Seychelles or Bora Bora that I had in my youth, but fun things I could do on the spur of the moment. Followers of this blog will recall last year’s attempt at The Quick Six.

At the time that jaunt was percolating in my mind, I also wondered how many beaches, in how many states, I could visit for a swim by taking public transportation only. I had lived for a good part of my younger adult life without a car, and used to pride myself on getting anywhere I wanted or needed to go by bus and subway. I used to take the bus to Marblehead, the subway to East Boston, and the train to Rockport just to go to the beach.

So, last Friday I set off to see if I could get in the water at three ocean beaches in one day (dawn to dusk) without entering a private automobile. I had begun calling this The Intermodal. I had downloaded the timetables, packed my kit, and checked the forecasts. All looked ripe.

Thursday night I called the local cab company to arrange a ride. Even though I am not a frequent rider, they had all my information in their database and promised me a taxi at 5:45 a.m.. (A note to the skeptical – while a taxicab is a conventional passenger car, it is also a part of the public transportation web. Cabs operate under various public licenses, have professional drivers with special licenses, and are available to all members of the public for a published fare.) I turned off the alarm, washed, and fed myself. When I looked up, the clock said 5:46 and the cab was at my door. I kissed my long-suffering and ever more beautiful wife goodbye, left my key ring on the counter, and off I went.

First stop was the AMTRAK station at Route 128. A license check and credit card swipe ($46.00) later I had a ticket on the 6:30 a.m. Northeast Regional bound for New London, CT. Bought The Globe and joined a few others for an on-time departure. At 7:30 we pulled in to Westerly, RI. Westerly features a pretty Mediterranean-style station house. After Westerly the train runs right along the shore, past salt ponds, marshes and small boatyards. At 7:52 we pulled in to New London.

At New London, I had (at least) two choices – the SEAT bus to Ocean Beach Park, or the Cross Sound Ferry to Orient Point, NY. I decided to hotfoot it to see if I could catch the 8 a.m. ferry. The ferry dock is adjacent to the train station, but separated by a safety fence. I chose what turned out to be the slightly longer way around, but again, with a license check and a credit swipe ($25.00 for a same-day round trip walk on) I just made it.

The MV Cape Henlopen takes autos and passengers across the end of Long Island Sound from busy old New London to the relatively deserted dock at Orient Point. The day was perfect. 100% sunshine, calm seas, fair winds. Interesting views of the Navy sub pens and the Electric Boat works to port and the Cost Guard Academy to starboard. Had a bagel and coffee and cracked open a used Carl Hiassen novel I had picked up at the library fundraising sale. To my great relief, it was one I had not already read. Always chancy with guys who have published a lot, and whose books come out in a variety of paperback editions. Jacked into my iPod and settled down.

At about 9:20 the ferry docked at O.P. The “port facilities” here consist of a bulkhead, a paved road, and a small hut for tickets and coffee. That is it. Now I had been here twice before, so none of this was any surprise. I also knew that in addition to the official state park beach down the road, there is a little strip on the water just to one side of the dock. This is very unofficial. There are no signs (on that side anyway) which I interpret to mean that this is a public beach open to all. There are some No Trespassing signs on the other side, and I avoid it. I walk a couple of hundred yards down a beach consisting of tumbled whitish stones, park my gear on a weathered log, and wade in. A quick dip. My definition of “swim” is at least one full head to toe immersion. More as time and the inclination of the participants permits. I am alone. No-one else in the water or on the “beach”. I might be the only person who ever swims here.

Ferries leaving Orient Point

As I get out to dry myself I see that the 9:30 ferry back to New London is just boarding. I think to myself that if I had not walked as far, I might have made it. I don’t worry. I have done this before. I dry off (mostly) and walk back. By that time the Cape Henlopen is about to make its 10 a.m. departure for New London and I embark. As soon as we leave the dock, the bar is open and I treat myself to a turkey sandwich and a Long Island microbrew by Blue Point. Up on deck to dry myself and my towel in the sunshine. Hiassen is a reliable page-turner with his South Florida motleys.

Dock, train and AMTRAK station in New London from the deck of the Henlopen

At 11:30 we arrive back in New London, where things have begun to heat up on the dock. In addition to the OP ferries, there are vessels bound to Block Island RI and to Fisher’s Island NY. My mind is drawn to other possible itineraries but I keep to my plan. I walk around the barrier and back onto Water Street. Right next to the AMTRAK station and the Greyhound bus terminal (more choices!) is the bus stop for the SEAT (Southeast Area Transit District) bus. I confirm that I want the #13 and catch a seat in the kiosk to wait for the noon bus to Ocean Beach. The bus (air conditioned!) comes on time ($1.25 cash) but has to wait for another bus to accommodate transfers. Once underway the driver weaves her way swiftly and skillfully through a maze of streets in downtown New London. The bus seems more like a jitney (fixed route but no fixed stops) but since this is my first time I can’t really say. We get to the beach at 12:45, about 15 minutes behind schedule.

There is a gated pedestrian entrance to the beach, and I had been informed that there was an entry fee for walk-ins. This must just be for weekends or something because there was no attendant and no charge. The day is bright and hot and the beach is well populated with families, couples, teens on the make. All shapes, sizes, and colors. In marked contrast to OP, this beach has facilities. Facilities to spare. It is under the jurisdiction of the City of New London, but has a surprising mix of public and private activities. The beach, of course, a long boardwalk with bandstand, restrooms, snack bar and the like. But Ocean Beach also has a bar (!), a Workout World facility, a swimming pool, miniature golf, and more. Sand is hot, water is cool and the quick dip is accomplished.

Ocean Beach Park

I am reminded that one of the things I always say when people ask me why I love the beach is that it is the most democratic of American institutions. Most places are free or cheap. There is no dress code. The ones I go to are (within reason) safe for kids and old ladies. No one hesitates to just stick your valuables in your sneaker, strip off (most) of your clothes and walk away - to the water, the tidepools, or the snack bar. Sure, there is an advantage to being young and beautiful, but being old, fat, or funny-looking certainly never kept anyone away from the beaches I go to. Doing this by public transportation just raises the democratization by a power of two. I love this country!

I use the restroom to change out of my suit and into a dry one for the next stage. This turns out to be a wise decision. I head back to the bus stop to catch the scheduled 1:30 back to Water Street. A short shady wait later, $1.25 into the fare box, and I am on my way. We arrive just before 2 p.m..

I had cut short having a nice time at Ocean Beach because I did not want to miss the 3:03 AMTRAK back to Boston. The last time I had to take the train from New London, I missed getting on a train that was in the station because you cannot access the northbound platform while the train is in the station. The 2:30 SEAT was supposed to arrive about 2:50, which I thought was cutting it too close. The 1:30 should have left me plenty of time to buy a ticket, grab a beer, and get on. Not so fast, pal.

The northbound 3:03 was showing a delay when I got to the station. Ticket agent said 30 to 40 minutes, so I bought a ticket to South Station ($55.00) and went around the corner for a beer. No DUI worries on the Intermodal! The bar was dim, not very cool, and deserted. I ordered a Sam Summer and watched the World Cup on two screens. Same match with slightly different feeds. Play was the same, commercials different. Barmaid’s friend came in to talk about shamrock tattoo designs. Lots of loud motorcycles with unhelmeted riders. Walked back to the station.

The delay is now an hour or more. Thank goodness for Hiassen’s enduring power to keep me turning the pages. Walk outside to see the swells getting off the Fisher’s Island ferry, some into a limo. Wonder if limousines qualify as public transport? The 3:03 finally departs New London at 4:25. This is not a serious kink, but wastes the effort to make the 8 a.m. ferry, and/or means I could have spent a lot more time at Ocean Beach. It also means there is no chance of trying to sneak in a dip at Westerly, RI, not today at least.

At 6 p.m. we roll into South Station in Boston. Lots of very dressy young women. Lots of romantic reunions. It is Friday night, and these young lovers probably haven’t seen each other since Monday morning. The longing is palpable. I buy a $5 Charlie ticket from an automated kiosk and I am on my way. Momentary thought of taking the Silver Line to Logan Airport, the shuttle to the subway and on from there. One stop on the Red Line to Downtown Crossing (will never stop calling it Washington Street.). Change to the Orange Line. One stop to State Street. Change to the Blue Line. Under the harbor, past the airport, (think about getting off at Orient Heights to hit Constitution Beach in East Boston. Remember that I did not like the water there much in the 70’s and decide I probably won’t like it any better now.) and on to the Revere Beach stop.

Revere Beach
One block down Shirley Avenue and there it is, - the oldest public beach park in the United States. Again the routine – strip, dip, and dry. I call home to announce the third wetness and stop to catch my breath. This is a different crowd. The remaining families all have a “Stayed too long at the fair” aspect. A group of Brazilians doing that samba/futbol/volleyball thing. Some very pale kids who look like college students here from out of town for summer school. The beginnings of a Friday night social whirlwind for under-21’s from all the nearby neighborhoods and towns. More loud bikes, this time with helmets.

I go across the street to Sammy’s Bar. This is the place I often warm up in after swims at Revere in the winter. It has windows that look out onto the beach and the water. The TV set is tuned to the NHL Draft ceremonies. The two guys on the other side of the bar are talking very knowledgeably about Taylor and Tyler and several others.

Back to Shirley Avenue and the Blue, Orange and Red Lines. By this time I figure I will be catching the 9:15 commuter train back to my home in the suburbs. Lady Luck is smiling on me. Owing to seamless subway connections, I am there in time to buy a ticket ($4.75) and hop on the 8:10 MBTA commuter rail out of town.

Not very crowded. I exchange nods of happiness with a nice family whose kids have balloon animals, but have not been to a circus. Hiassen is finished, having dispensed a kind of rough justice to the deserving and undeserving. I dial the iPod to Geoff Muldaur as the sun fades. When I get off the train it is not either light or dark. I would say it is the time of day when a kid who was told to be home before the streetlights came on could still mount a pretty good argument, but might have to concede defeat. The gym bag weighs heavy as I walk the few blocks home. Muldaur buoys the spirit. I have to ring the bell when I get home. I turn to the west and see a faint brightness. Close enough for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Action from Suffolk Downs. Race 6 on June 7, 2010

Dyn Panell (foreground) is up on #11 Prince Kisses, a 5 yo Gelding.

Prince Kisses coming home a winner by more than 10 lengths.
Oorah, a 6yo Gelding finishes second, but looks good doing so. Paid $7.80 to place.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Media Criticism #4

The following is a copy of an email to Susanne Althoff, Editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine


Just a quick comment on the photo that accompanied Tom Keane's piece in the Magazine last Sunday (5-23-10).

The photo caption says it is a view of Nantucket Sound "from Hyannis Port." I have spent a lot of time looking at Nantucket Sound; from West Yarmouth, Chatham, and Nantucket Harbor. The use of what is clearly an aerial shot markedly distorts the effect of any sea-level viewing.

The context (the jetty and the spit of land at the left for instance), and the distance to the apparent horizon available in an aerial shot are orders of magnitude greater than those available to any boater, a viewer standing on shore, or someone looking out an upstairs window.

The result is that the photo is at odds with the argument Keane is trying to make. From the vantage point of that photographer, wind turbines might mar the view. It is simply less possible for anything to similarly affect the view from on shore at sea level.

Media Criticism #3

I read James Surowiecki’s article “The Age of Political Risk” on The Financial Page in the May 24th edition of The New Yorker. As usual I found the piece timely, informative, and accessible. I was taken aback, however, by a statement made in the fourth paragraph. Surowiecki says, “Markets work best when there’s lots of information available and a historical track record to go on; they excel at predicting things like horse races….”

If only this were true. After spending some years of my professional life teasing stories out of data, I took an interest in horse racing under just that assumption. I thought that with the proper analytical framework, the rich mine of data available in The Daily Racing Form and other sources would yield at least a modest return on investment (ROI).

As I learned more about horse racing, I came to find that even the best handicappers (those who study past performances, pedigree, track biases, etc.) correctly predict the outcome only about forty percent of the time. If by “markets” Surowiecki means the run of horseplayers generally, the answer is even more dismal. The preference of the “market” of parimutuel bettors is displayed by the final odds on the various horses in a race, with the lowest odds attached to the “favorite.” Historically “favorites” have won only about one-third of the time. More disheartening, flat bets on all favorites will inevitably produce a negative ROI over time.

In his blog entry of February 25, 2010, Steven Crist, Publisher of The Daily Racing Form wrote “…it turns out that the ancient rule of thumb that favorites win one-third of all races may need a longer thumb: In 2009, favorites in fact won 36.66 percent of the 55,984 thoroughbred races run in the United States and Canada.” Crist looked at 71 racetracks where the percentage of winning favorites ranged from a high of 42.73% to a low of 25.91%. While he did not report on ROI, I strongly suspect that it was negative in all cases of flat bets on favorites.

I would love to be found wrong, as would many who share my enthusiasm and frustration with handicapping. I invite Mr.Surowiecki to join me (my treat) to an afternoon at the racetrack of his choice. Saratoga is nice, and I have heard many good things about Del Mar, as well.