Splash Down in the Hamptons


The New Yorker

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Ben McGrath

Tailwind Air, a competitor to Blade, wants its seaplane passengers to feel an Andy-Warhol-with-his pants-rolled-up vibe.

Afew weeks ago, the children’s-book author Billy Baldwin was enjoying an afternoon ride in his outrigger canoe, beyond a floating dock in Sag Harbor, when he noticed something that caused him to reach down and release the leash around his ankle, the better for abandoning ship in a panic. A seaplane was racing in his direction, its pontoons pointed at him like torpedoes. Lucky for Baldwin, the plane’s pilot noticed him just in time to swerve. Crisis averted; harbormaster notified.

That was before the recent heat wave, and the covid resurgence, and with them the desperate exodus to the beach. But how do you get there from here (wherever you may be)? Traffic on the L.I.E. has got so bad, or so one hears, that surgeons report a rise in Botox injections to the bladder, to enable travellers to numb time’s endless passage with road beers. East Hampton Airport continues to be threatened with closure, amid escalating noise complaints and high-class warfare over all the window-rattling choppers. (“EVERY SEVEN MINUTES,” one resident complained online.) A person could be forgiven for wondering—sorry, paddlers!—where to catch that seaplane.

“You’re part of a secret society, really, because not a lot of people fly like this,” Edmond Huot, an adman tasked with branding the “seaplane experience” for Tailwind Air, said the other day. He was seated inside a small, air-conditioned lounge off the F.D.R. Drive, at East Twenty-third Street. “I’ve seen executives get out of their big car, and it looks like they’re coming from somewhere in FiDi, and then suddenly they’re rolling up their sleeves and pant legs.” An e-mail confirmation to a rookie passenger had included the following warning: “Please be aware that you may need to remove shoes and get your feet wet.” Just outside, a thumping bass track emanated from a stocked bar belonging to Blade, Tailwind’s competitor. “So Blade, for example, has their way of serving their customers, their sort of style,” Huot said. Think “Succession.” Tailwind, by contrast, is hoping to conjure “the nostalgia of people using seaplanes in the seventies to go to Montauk—like Andy Warhol.” Its planes are Cessna Caravan Amphibians, with designs dating to the Reagan era.

The next flight, bound for Sag Harbor with a stop at Shelter Island, was scheduled to ascend from the East River in half an hour. Such are the perks of seaplane travel that the lounge—a leather couch, a few stools, a mini-fridge, no Pop art—was still empty, save for Huot and the rookie. Huot, who grew up on a farm in Canada, was free to dish. “I got word that one client bought the whole flight,” he said, meaning all eight seats, on a recurring basis, for one of Tailwind’s routes, which include not just the Hamptons but Provincetown and more business-friendly destinations, like Boston Harbor and, planned for the fall, Washington, D.C. “This guy is, like, ‘I’ll just take the whole plane.’ ” A one-way ticket to Sag or Shelter starts at seven hundred and ninety-five dollars.

Passengers trickled in, none looking especially Factory-nostalgic, and, once all eight seats were accounted for, an airline employee invited everyone out to the dock. “Watch your head on the wing,” a pilot said, as each traveller stepped out onto the port pontoon, which bobbed gently in the chop, then climbed a short ladder into the rear. The Cessna taxied out into the middle of the river, turned south, and accelerated up and away, eventually making a U-turn over the Williamsburg Bridge and heading for Queens, where it cast a moving shadow over parking lots and construction sites. Though Huot had stressed that the seaplane-experience business model relies on repeat travellers who value their time at a consistent premium, the rookie was not alone in holding his phone up to the window to film the sliding skyline from a height well below the clouds.

Inside the cockpit, it wasn’t chopper-loud, but you couldn’t converse without yelling, and so nobody did. Soon, the Long Island Sound broadened, and the plane veered away from the shoreline, offering little for a real-estate voyeur to ogle. A blond woman in a black pants suit unrolled her copy of the Post. The rookie’s bladder began to swell with San Pellegrino from the mini-fridge. Then, thirty-five minutes after takeoff, the seaplane swooped down and skidded across the Peconic River, toward Shelter Island, with no paddlecraft in sight. A fibreglass skiff pulled up alongside it, to provide ferry service to Sunset Beach. A passenger in a seersucker shirt remarked to the boat’s captain on the stress-free ride, and what it might portend for the sunny days ahead: “I’d knock on wood, but there’s no wood.” The rookie, heeding the advance warning, was wearing sandals, in anticipation of getting wet, but the tide turned out to be high enough that the captain was able to nose the skiff’s bow up to dry sand for a soft landing.

by: Alfredo Maldonado