Changes in Latitude - CHESAPEAKE BAY

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Living aboard - CHESAPEAKE BAY

Ice, thin as the glass of a clear light bulb, spreads in one sheet from Robin’s hull, out past the pilings that create the slip, out — apparently — to the broad, calm waters of Chesapeake Bay. This sheet, black as the winter water beneath it and thinner than the crust on a crème brûlée, shares none of the power, none of the terror of the ice pack that I had anticipated before I first wintered here in Annapolis three years ago.

Regardless of the port you call home, the waterfront is a different place during the winter. Here are perspectives from other latitudes:   Changes in Latitude - MAINE   Changes in Latitude - THE KEYS

My expectations took form one night in the company of a burly, bearded crabber sharing stories with a gathering of his friends around a large banquet table. The crabber was a celebrity in his community. He recently had been released from prison after completing his sentence. Other watermen were convinced the charges against him of an illegal harvest were trumped-up.

At some point, the crabber told of a winter voyage north of the Chesapeake BayBridge. There were floes moving with the tide, but he was negotiating between them when, without warning, he found his boat locked in their grip. The tide was falling, and the floes moved implacably down the Bay toward one of the bridge towers. Stopped by the tower, thick cakes of ice built into a mound like slabs of broken pavement heaved up by an earthquake. He felt his boat begin to rise with the ice, ready to tumble back into the frigid brine. He seemed to be doomed.

Obviously, he was not. Either he was rescued or his tale was tall. I don’t recall the outcome, but I know that in three winters aboard my Westsail 32 in and around Annapolis one thin sheet on a December morning is typical of the only ice I’ve seen.

I would not, however, claim that Chesapeake winters are balmy. For two winters I worked in an office and returned late each night to an unheated boat. My arrival almost every evening was met with the outraged squawk of a great blue heron startled from its perch. Getting into my cold berth required the same resolve as ripping a bandage off hair. In a sudden burst, I’d remove the down parka, the sweater, et cetera, and pull on my nightwear, then jump into the sleeping bag, ducking my head inside so I could breathe heat into the cloth. Sometime after midnight, well before the commercial fishermen across the cove started their morning rituals and their diesels, my little ceramic heater would have warmed the boat adequately.

Now, Robin is my office, and living aboard is more as it should be. Heat is not the same issue. Once I arrive I never have to leave or turn off the heater. There is an inch of foam insulation throughout, isolating me from the cold. Once the companionway is shut tight, I enjoy the total solitude that can be found within a boat in winter. Here, one is snug, enveloped, embraced, cradled, even as the season outside turns the world inhospitable.

The cold on the Chesapeake doesn’t come quickly. I winterized the engine after Christmas and the head after New Year’s Day. It was after the start of 2008 that I found it prudent to drain the water tanks. Now, there is a 2-gallon portable water tank poised on the galley drain board, its spigot overhanging the sink, whose seacock I haven’t closed. To work I sit with my laptop on the saloon table, the heater underneath it by my feet. In warmer months I use the chart table as a desk, but now it’s too cold there, next to the uninsulated cavern of the engine compartment.

To cut down on drafts, a slab of styrene foam occupies the companionway in place of the washboards. Another slab fills the passageway to the forward cabin. I’m confined to the main cabin, which glows with lamps shaded by brass, their beams reflecting off varnished mahogany trim that shines like warm honey. In time, I will replace the decommissioned propane water heater mounted on the saloon bulkhead with a propane cabin heater, and any warmth issues will be resolved.

My compact disc player is on the fritz, which is good. I am left with the music of life on the water. The dock lines creak like the machines on a guitar when, tightening the strings, you give them that last twist. The chronometer above the nav station ticks, the clock above the galley tocks and, in its own cadence, the refrigeration hums. Perhaps I should turn on the VHF radio just to give the humans outside an opportunity to invade Robin’s heart. But probably not. I might miss the distraught moan of the wind when it rises and blows through the rigging and we heel to north or south, starboard or port.

Robin is heavy for her length, nearly 20,000 pounds, so normally the motion inside in any season or weather is minimal at the dock. Two years ago there was an exceptional night in December. I had taken a slip for the winter on Annapolis’ Ego Alley. It was the best winter storage deal in town: $5 a foot per month. On this particular night the wind came from the north, racing straight down Main Street and sluicing out through Ego Alley. Snug in my bunk, I heard the wind’s jet-roar as Robin heeled about 25 degrees and held there.

This winter, in a marina on the MagothyRiver north of Annapolis, I had a project that absolutely had to be completed before Robin could reliably be my office. I had bought an antenna to bring the cell phone signal into the cabin. This required mounting one end of the antenna on the mast top. I enjoy time up the mast. The week before, as a friend helped me move Robin to her new home, I found an excuse to go aloft while under sail, tacking below the BayBridge. The day after Christmas I set about installing the antenna. The view, as always, rewarded the effort.

Under a silvery sun the trees on a distant peninsula were gray and leafless, their tips all the same height, forming my horizon in that direction, their branches like the colorless bristles of a hairbrush grooming the pale-blue sky above. Across the water ahead of Robin’s bowsprit, a flock of Canada geese floated quietly. To port, a couple hundred yards down the creek from the marina, two men in a jonboat cast toward the far shore, bundled against the cold, hoping to lure the last catch of the year into their cooler.

There were probably two dozen boats still in slips on both sides of Robin. Three were shrinkwrapped — white, floating igloos. Up on the bank, where at times a car or pickup truck moved quietly, almost apologetically, crunching the gravel, the yard was filled with yachts cheek-by-jowl on spindly jackstands. The yard crew worked busily with shrinkwrap, making an earnest attempt to cover all with plastic. Above them, crows — yearlong residents — perched on naked branches and cawed, their voices calling attention to the black-and-whiteness, the stillness of the season in the absence of summer boatyard noises.

Suddenly there was a racket below me. The geese, numerous as the docked boats, rose each in its place, flapping wings vigorously but going nowhere, not even leaving the water. Their raucous display lasted a half-minute, with a furious splashing, spray flying everywhere. Some among their numbers used the opportunity to dive. Then, apparently by mutual consent of the flock, calm returned as the fowl, with winter upon them, resumed preening or gossiping, like old folks in the day room with no place to go.