Fall is a small-batch bourbon. Fleeting, bittersweet, aromatic. It's the best season. Autumn offers a bit of everything for those who linger on the water before it officially exits on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, effectively slamming the door until spring.
This year, fall sailed in on a full moon in September with a voice mail from Sea Savvy writer Tom Neale, reminding me to bark at that big white orb ascending the evening sky. I've been out on the water and miss his call.
When I get back to the dock and listen to the message, I laugh and, as instructed, let loose a bad imitation of the coyotes I often hear calling up the moon at this time of year. It is midweek, and the docks are empty of people. And if they weren't, it wouldn't matter - Lotteryville Marina is still a place where regular folks keep their boats. Bark all you want.
Tom tells me this is an historic moon, and he is right. NASA says it is the first time in almost two decades that Northern autumn begins on the night of the full moon, which it labels a "super harvest moon." The two sources of light - from the setting summer sun and the rising fall moon - will "mix together to create a kind of 360-degree, summer-autumn twilight glow that is only seen on rare occasions," the science agency writes. That alone is worth a good howl.
Several days later, early autumn feels more like summer than fall. Inland, temperatures climb into the low 80s. Out on the water, when the sun comes out from behind the clouds streaming eastward, it is warm enough to take off your shirt.
"Endless summer," crows the Codfish, a friend and fishing partner, "endless summer. I predict we'll be out swimming here the first week of November. We can handle the high 50s." Well, maybe - and maybe not. (For our Southern readers, the reference is to water temperature, not air temperature.)
We are anchored in the lee of a sandy island that is gradually slipping to the northeast, pushed by prevailing winds, currents and winter storms. Good place to be this time of year, when everything is on the move, even the ground under your sandy feet.
Flocks of wind birds bank into the westerly breeze; the instant they cant their compact little bodies, their coloration changes from white to brown and then back, as if window blinds were being opened and quickly closed. The tops of the spartina grasses are turning tawny and red. The wind eases at the top of the tide but will build again as soon as it starts pouring out.
During the last couple of weeks, the anchorage has thinned from more than a hundred boats on a nice summer weekend to a couple of handfuls. There will be fewer in the weeks to come.
"The fact that it's the end of September," proclaims Codfish, "and you can sit out here and feel warm, and you need sunglasses and a hat - we'll take that any day." With cool weather and frost just a few wing beats away, you take comfort in what warmth, sunshine and light winds you can find. Even today, the drop in temperature when a cloud sails across the sun is noticeable.
I drop my fishing partner off at the dock around 1 o'clock in the afternoon and pick up my wife, kids and dog. We head back out for several more hours. You either grab this last handful of days now or, come winter, wish you had.
I anchor in a thimble of water on a sandy shelf and let the wind and current push the boat back into about six feet so my son and I can dive without worry. I take a big white surf clamshell and give it a good toss. It falls and flutters through the clear water like an oversized petal. The young boy dives off the port bow and snares it before it reaches the bottom. He comes up beaming.
"You threw it pretty far. But I got it when it was this far from the bottom," he says, motioning with his hands a distance of about a foot. The late-afternoon light is lovely. The moon tide is way, way out - no better time for exploring the flats with a black lab and two young water rats. The wind falls off, and we get to experience autumn at its best.
Three weeks later, the water temperature has dropped about 10 degrees, to 54 F. That's chilly, even for the locals. I remember what Codfish had predicted a month earlier. So on a brisk day in late October, as we scour the inshore waters for migrating bass and bluefish, I ask him, deadpan, whether he's ready for that swim.
He gives me one of those looks and says, "What are you, crazy?" Between that and the gales, another fall on the water comes to an end.
"My experience with engines is that if you depend on them, they fail you, but if it just doesn't matter, they serve you." - Frank Wightman
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.
A 1981 Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate, Bill has been writing about boats for more than two decades. His boating travels have taken him from the Persian Gulf to the Baltic Sea, and always back home to Little Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. As editor, Bill is responsible for planning and executing the publication's boating coverage each month, and his Under Way column starts each issue. Bill has been with Soundings for 20 years and in 1997 won the Moulton H. "Monk" Farnham Award for Excellence in Editorial Commentary.