Changes in Latitude - THE KEYS

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THE KEYS Where uglydays are few and far between

The Keys Where uglydays are few and far between

The water under Capt. Jeff Belsik’s flats skiff is crystal clear, like a mountain stream. Ahead of us, the surface is reflecting the sky almost perfectly, with slight rumples giving it the look of an antique mirror. Tarpon are tailing, rolling and splooshing along an uninhabited mangrove island. My palms are sweating as we glide silently toward them.

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 - CHESAPEAKE BAY   Changes in Latitude - MAINE

It is 11 a.m. New Year’s Day in the Lower Florida Keys backcountry. A shelf of high clouds to the northwest is telling us that this spell of summer-like weather — air temperature of 82 degrees and water temperature just a few degrees below that — is about to end.

We hook several tarpon and tie-off at the Old Wooden Bridge Marina on Big Pine Key as the rain begins and the breeze starts. By the next dawn, the breeze is a gale and the temperature has fallen to 59 degrees. The next morning the National Weather Service in Key West reports a new record low of 45 degrees, breaking the record of 46 set in 1898.

The gin-clear backcountry, viewed from the safety of the fabled Overseas Highway, has been churned into a greenish froth that could pass for Class 5 rapids. Yesterday it was like summer; today it feels like a blustery fall day on the New England shore. And so it goes in the Florida Keys during the winter. The island chain is far enough south to conjure tropic-like warmth most of the time, but far enough north to receive blasts of cool air from the central United States now and then. The strength of this particular “cold” front is surprising, but its timing is not.

The good news for the boaters of the Keys is that on all but the windiest days there is a way to get out, provided you have a vessel matched to the conditions. If it is too windy for a small powerboat, it might be OK for a bigger charter boat or sailboat. For Belsik and other small-craft captains, getting on the water again is a waiting game. The winds gradually will subside, and each morning the sun will feel a bit warmer until those who have spent winters up North are overcome by a familiar, undeniably wonderful sensation: spring fever.

The difference is that Northerners get to feel the fever once a year. Residents of the Keys might experience it three or four times from New Year’s Day through March. The winter weather typically cycles from fall-like to spring-like to summer-like and back again. The average winter temperature is 75 degrees, but conditions are rarely average.

The fury of this particular front has stirred some rare winter excitement in the National Weather Service office in Key West. Winter in the Keys is typically a time to train new staff before the arrival of summer’s thunderstorms, waterspouts and hurricane threats. This front has given forecasters something to talk about.

“The swells have been incredible,” says forecaster Jon Rizzo when I reach him at his office in Key West. “Some of the buoys were reading 17 feet out in the Gulf of Mexico,” he says.

It is the geography of the Keys — an island chain with the Straits of Florida on one side and the Gulf of Mexico and FloridaBay on the other — that has nudged these strong, high-pressure winds into something unusual for the Keys: a full-fledged gale. “Gales are infrequent events down here compared to New England and Seattle in the winter,” Rizzo says.

In this case warm air at the surface of the Gulf and Straits has been rising into the cool air in a process called turbulent mixing. “That taps into the winds overhead and brings them down to us,” Rizzo explains. “The Keys are hanging out there over the ocean, completely exposed to them.”

Local boaters know the weather cycle well. When the next cold front blows through many will hunker down inside flannel and fleece once again, and the scent of fireplaces and fish smokers will fill the air. They will leave the waves and wind to Gore-Tex-clad sailors and offshore sailfishing captains. And it is not just human behavior that is affected by these cycles. The wind and waves in the wake of a cold front can excite the sailfish offshore the way those last hours of warmth excited the tarpon in front of Belsik and me.

I am an inshore boater, but I have been offshore enough to picture what is happening now that the gale outside my window has calmed to 15 knots. The tidal currents are washing the green, inshore froth out beyond North America’s only living coral barrier reef. The mixing of the green inshore water with the deep-blue water of the Straits creates a magical, mini-ecosystem called the color change. The resulting eddies and seams will be rich with plankton, baitfish and the bigger creatures that eat them.

In a phenomenon that happens only a few times each season, the sailfish might well choose to surf down the faces of the waves, their black fins breaking the surface. They will be chased by anglers in twin- and triple-screw open fishing boats. They will cast live baitfish in front of them in a technique called “running and gunning,” and it is a test of a captain’s boating skills and an angler’s sea legs and penchant for seasickness. It is one of the highlights of winter in the Keys.

Fair-weather boaters from the North tend to dread the arrival of our fronts, even if there is something good and ecologically necessary to them. They razz us from afar when we try to explain by telephone, blog or e-mail that it does, in fact, get cold here sometimes. Their disbelief is understandable. They have stood on frozen subway platforms gazing at posters of the Keys. They have watched television commercials while swaddled under blankets in the family room. Now they step off the airplane and ask to borrow sweaters. Or maybe not. It’s the luck of the draw.

If visitors stay here long enough — and more than one has sworn never to return north — they will find a kind of freedom in these intermittent chills. A cool, windy day can be a welcome respite from the crushing burden of carrying out one’s personal resolution never to waste a beautiful day on dry land.

The snorkelers and divers among us arguably have it the hardest during winter. The nature of things is that there will be warm days and there will be calm days, but the two do not always coincide. When they do, the divers and snorkelers snap into action. They motor out to the reef and tie off on one of the mooring buoys set up by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to protect the living coral from anchor damage. They dive in and revel among the coral and reef fish.

When I was growing up in New England a summer surf temperature of 75 degrees called for no more than a swimsuit or cutoffs. In the Keys, anything below 80 degrees means it is time to break out the neoprene — as in a “shortie” wetsuit. We’re not just wimps; 75 gets chilly when you plan to explore a reef for 20 minutes or longer, and your body wants to operate at 98.6.

It is the sailors, however, who live for winter in the Keys. One of the rites of our season is the annual regatta informally known as Race Week and officially as Acura Key West Presented by Nautica. The event draws nearly 300 of the world’s top sailors, who compete in eight classes.

Conditions that are cool and breezy by local standards are balmy to these competitors. “The Brits and the Irish will say, ‘Do you know what it’s like at home? This isn’t cold,’ ” says race coordinator Jeanne Kleene from her office in Marblehead, Mass.

In the tug of war between breezy and calm conditions, it is the breeze of the Keys that most typically prevails in the winter. “There’s very rarely a no-race day in Key West,” says Peter Craig, president of Premier Racing, which runs Race Week.

There are, it could be said, no bad days in the Keys. That is especially true in the winter when there is never — knock on wood — a hurricane threat. A few years ago an ad writer for the Keys tried to capture that notion in a tag line, though the line was scrapped as too negative to run on the subway platforms. Beneath a blackening sky and turquoise sea it declared: “Even our ugly days are beautiful.”

It is so true.

Ben Iannotta has been a freelance journalist and flats fisherman on Summerland Key for the last 11 years.