Hey, look here. The waters are empty.
Well, not exactly empty, but after Labor Day there certainly are fewer boats out there. And the trend accelerates as we move down the calendar. Late-season boating — it’s my favorite time to be on the water, whether sailing or powerboating.
Not only are there fewer boats, but those that are out seem to be run by better boaters. They’re safer and more courteous. There are more late-season boaters who appear to know what they’re doing than there are during the height of the season. Maybe they were there all along, but their presence was diluted by those who sort of know what they’re doing and by those who don’t have a clue — and those who couldn’t care less.
It’s not as if I burst onto the boating scene with a cap full of knowledge and experience. Those who’ve read this column through the years know of the screw-ups and near disasters I’ve perpetrated during my years at sea, not all of them early on. The difference, I hope, is that I tried to learn by experience and from the wisdom of others. I really try not to repeat my mistakes. (Some might say I seek out new ones to make.)
It does bug me to see youngsters without life jackets or supervision zooming around in RIBs and inflatables. So maybe I should be more tolerant of other boaters, except for drunks and others who disregard the law and Rules of the Road. The fact remains, I feel safer and more relaxed when there are fewer boats between me and the horizon.
1. I love to cruise, and there are more open berths, anchorages and slips in the fall, so cruising is easier and more fun. There’s a reason popular destinations are popular: They are worth visiting — and even more so when you don’t have to make reservations weeks or months in advance, and they are relatively uncrowded and less noisy. It also helps if you find a berth and feel you can leave it and return to find it still vacant. It also doesn’t hurt that the watering holes are less populated as fall progresses.
2. I love the sun, but it’s nice to endure it with less humidity, and there’s usually much less humidity at this time of year. The cooler nights also make for better sleeping. Among the best places for summer sailing — with hot, sunny days and cool nights — are the upper Great Lakes, Superior and Huron. There, evening temperatures in the fall are downright wintry, and you’ll need woolen sweaters and other cold-weather clothing.
3. As in any season, you have to keep an eye on the weather. While afternoon thunderstorms are a regular hazard on hot, humid summer days, tropical storms and hurricanes can ruin your fall boating experience. These weather conditions usually start cropping up in late August and early September. Even if a hurricane or tropical storm doesn’t make landfall, they almost always kick up seas and rip currents. So even a miss requires situational awareness on your part. Fortunately, weather forecasters have become very good at tracking tropical disturbances; however, it’s up to you to be aware of changing conditions.
4. Our worst fall boating experience came while sailing Lake Superior in mid-October. The weather turned cold (32 F), a north wind developed, and we barely made our berth at Madeline Island before the “Witch of November” hit, with strong gale- to storm-force winds, 20-foot seas and a blizzard.
5. Two of the best things about autumn boating are the winds, if you happen to be a sailor, and the colors. If you are lucky enough to be boating in New England, you’ll be treated to some of the most spectacular fall color anywhere on earth. The Connecticut River is especially beautiful. Other worthwhile places are along the Hudson River, especially along the west bank around the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. If you can arrange to get to them, New York’s Finger Lakes, Lake George and Lake Champlain are also wonderful places to go “leaf peeping” from the water. There are also the Great Lakes and lots of places from the Carolinas north.
6. For sailors, perhaps the best element of late-season boating is the quiet that comes with the reduction of powerboats while sailing in the wonderful winds of autumn. For powerboaters, there’s also the peace and relaxation that comes from fewer boats on the water.
7. Unfortunately, there are still sailboat racers who seem to believe they own the water. They kind of do, since sail has right of way over power. And I say this as a lifelong sailor.
8. While the waters of the Upper Great Lakes are cold year-round and carry with them the risk of hypothermia, the waters along the Atlantic coast remain warm through September and October. Be that as it may, the air is colder, and a dunking carries with it the risk of hypothermia, even if you come out of the water immediately. The breeze and cooler temperatures will suck the heat out of you very quickly, so change out of wet clothing as soon as possible, dry off, and put on a cap and polyester fleece or wool sweater for a while. A hot drink also might be called for.
9. Whatever you do, don’t pass up the opportunity for late-season boating. If you respect the weather, you’ll be in for a wonderful experience.
Tbius article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.