Under Way

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Farewell to the last gusts of summer

Farewell to the last gusts of summer

A sailor with gray in his hair and beard has pulled a beach cat up on the little sandy island as summer slips away on the ebb. He’s alone and appears in no particular hurry. Who can blame him? We’ve all rushed to get here this fall afternoon to soak up what’s left of a boating season that in New England lasts, what, seven months? Eight? And for most, that’s pushing it.

With the first heavy frost not too far off, I am intent on grabbing the last handful of fine days like this one. The tide is very low. Even for those oblivious to lunar cycles, it will be hard to ignore the large, orange harvest moon that lifts from the sea horizon in a couple of hours, causing the waters to swell. Tonight, we all ascend with the moon.

My plan is to fish the rips off a lighthouse just over the dunes to the north, but the forecast is for too much wind, especially with this tide. So we stay inshore and chase breaking bluefish and herring gulls as they herd large schools of baby menhaden over the flats. Bait fish shudder on the surface in fear. The gulls bawl. The fish crash the shallows. The season is a hot pot with a noisy lid — and it’s starting to boil over.

In early to midafternoon, the sun still hangs lazily in a sky the color of smoked glass. It says, “Don’t hurry. You’ve still got plenty of daylight left.” It’s a false promise, of course. Once the sun gets past a certain point now, she just rolls off the edge of the table. Going, going — darkness. We work the fish until they scatter with the twilight. I turn the navigation lights on and run back up the tidal river.

Everything is changing now, disappearing fast: the light, followed by warmth, chased by wind. A couple of days of warm southwesterlies are followed by a cold front and small-craft warnings. Winds gusting to 25 knots in the evening. Again, too much wind for the rips. We’ll find some fish inshore.

The world is in motion. Parachute seeds, monarch butterflies, a lovely motorsailer, all tumbling down that long flyway stretching south. The ICW is our I-95, full of snowbirds leaving here for who knows where? I know where. Any place warmer.

It’s late September, and I’m surprised by a big, warm, gusty wind. Water temperatures are still holding in the mid-60s. Almost summerlike. We seize the day. My son and daughter swim off the boat in short wetsuits.

We anchor off a little island — not much more than a sandbar, really — when the tide is up. It’s mostly deserted now. Gulls rest on the sand flats at low tide and don’t even bother to move as we walk past. They’ve reclaimed this piece of shrinking ground and turn their hungry eyes on the three interlopers with disdain. They’ll have it to themselves soon enough, but not today. We place hermit crabs in empty surf-clam shells and set them adrift across the breezy bay until they swamp and sink. The wind is warm, and fog eventually rolls in and covers us. It lifts, settles back in, lifts again. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was early summer.

Fast forward to late October. The kids have forgotten about the boat; they’re working on Halloween costumes. A cool, windy morning, and overhead comes the sound of barking. A string of geese approach from the south, turn over the river, and head to the northwest, calling up the sun. I listen until their cries fade into a washed-out, pale-blue sky. There are eight boats left in the harbor. Last weekend, there were probably 25. And the trees in the marsh to the north and behind the water tower are turning, leaves falling. They’ll disappear in the first good nor’easter.

Where does it go? The fog and east winds of June. The smell of chicken and steak cooking on a dozen grills in a crowded anchorage in July. A good cigar at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night in August, drifting behind StriperIsland on the new moon, the Milky Way brilliant, the wind light, chewing the fat between casts and fish with my newly minted son-in-law. No hurry back then.

But so damn fast now.

Was that really summer?