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Dashing through the surf

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When the sleek dolphins bounded playfully toward the boat in pairs and trios, the crowd on deck offered a standing ovation. One child was so moved she burst into song, singing "Jingle Bells," the happiest tune she knew. At that moment, we all forgot about the heat, our lack of sunscreen and the pile of dishes and expanse of unmowed lawn we'd left at home. As the boat hurdled the Atlantic waves, the fishing pier faded on the horizon behind us.

For me, the family beach trip is all about those unscripted moments of joy, when a tribe of project managers, list-makers and problem-solvers dials it back for a few days and, well, just hangs out. The tides and the sun dictate the agenda, not calendars or computers or Siri.

First off, though, we had to figure out the meal schedule: Who's shopping? Who's cooking? Who's cleaning? We gathered around a large table to pluck names from a hat, so that two people—no couples—had to execute each evening's meal. The dinner could (but didn't have to) include cocktails, snacks, local fish, fresh vegetables and a dessert. There's no such thing as cooking too much for this family, in which leftovers become objects of aggression. Dinner conversation careened wildly: from the fate of the Racial Justice Act and Kimbra's backup singing on the Gotye song of the summer to the height of Shane Battier's socks and plumbing disasters of yesteryear.

At low tide, Sunset Beach's sands roll like a movie set, creating football fields of activity, a sandy circus under forever clouds. Like a tamer Venice Beach, the shore teems with bikes, strollers, every style of umbrella, every kind of ball, kites, sandcastle shovels and colorful buckets. Families assemble volleyball games, horseshoe contests and bocce every 50 yards. A tame Ultimate Frisbee toss-around provided our first fireworks: The dunes fooled my sister as she went up gracefully for a finger roll. She landed hard, breaking her wrist. It didn't seem to slow her down through a week of reading and crossword-puzzling. She even nailed her dinner of sautéed tofu and veggies.

Each year, I get the house, send out a monster checklist, pack up some kitchen dry goods, and roll out the bikes and chairs. My job gets simpler all the time. Packing was epic when the kids were little, but now they're in charge of the load-in.

With the white noise of the waves lulling us to sleep every night, it wasn't hard to forget the heat wave we left behind. We kept up with the news, of course, via the smartphones and laptops that had made everyone's checklist.

My favorite newsgathering part of the day, however, was our daily walk to the pier with a roll of quarters for morning papers. Walking east toward the sunrise, with the parades of smiling dog walkers and trim joggers passing by, we'd veer into the warm wake-up whitecaps to cool off, taking time to embrace each magical beach morning. We're back home now, dispersed by time zones and interstates. A few days later, though, I can close my eyes and still see us dashing through the surf.

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