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Under Way

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Breathing in the winds of winter

Breathing in the winds of winter

For those of us who live in parts of the country with real winter, this is the season of leave-taking. Anything that can soar, swim, slither, steam or sail has headed south. Those of us staying behind are either getting in our last licks on the water or finishing up winterizing chores. Too early to start thinking of spring.

Fall has a way of rolling right over you; it moves at something approaching the speed of light. You hop on board the season in September for a pleasant sail, and the next thing you know you’re pitchpoling into winter. That’s just the way it goes: You soak up what you can until the northerlies and easterlies chase you off the water.

Some years the cold sets in early, by Thanksgiving, and there’s a layer of thin, window-pane ice around the edges of the launch ramp when you finally haul out. The marina crowd thins with each week, and slip mates disappear on both sides of you. What starts as a trickle in late September is a torrent by the end of October. You get too many bad days in a row, and you start to wonder what you’re still doing in the water.

But then you find a little window between fronts, and you jump through. I stood on a small barrier island in Rhode Island in mid-October, the boat anchored in the lee, as the late afternoon sun rained down. I swam with a friend, drank a cold beer as we dried in the wind, shirts off, and glassed the waters to the south and west for gulls and breaking fish. Several days later I was scraping the first hard frost off the windows of my van — but for now, heaven. We motored back, in no particular hurry, as darkness rose from the waters and gathered us in.

Fall always makes me want more boat. Something longer, beamier, heavier, deeper. Something to make a fair fight out of it. That’s what happens when you get caught out a few times in a small boat when you should be home carving pumpkins. You leave the marina after dark to fish and find more wind and sea — more of everything — than you bargained for. You wind up scurrying home with your tail between your legs.

“Enough,” you say out loud. “Enough already.” You are never happier to round a headland and feel the seas flatten out than you are on those nights. You promise yourself that you won’t do that again, but you know there’s another busted forecast just lying in wait for you out there somewhere.

It’s usually the wind that gets you in trouble. That’s the one thing you can count on in fall. Tireless, Boreas and Eurus roam day and night. The wind gods have more energy now, too. A chilly 20 knots in late October is denser, and therefore stronger, than a warm southwesterly of comparable speed in July and August. And I have learned the hard way about forecasts this time of year: If they’re calling for 10 to 15, you’d do well to add the two numbers.

The wind cuffs you. Spray runs down heavy, orange foul-weather gear, and you sink down into your jacket and pull a wool or pile cap over your ears. Hands turn red; they sting, burn and, if you stay out long enough, grow numb. You’re alone, save for the sea ducks and gannets and striped bass. Alone and alive.

A November night. No wind or cloud cover, and the earth cools rapidly. You come in off the reefs, where the ocean has kept the air temperature moderate. And just as you enter the tidal river, the cold nails you squarely. You shiver involuntarily. Plumes of sea smoke form over the surface. The night air is remarkably still: a fish breaks the surface, somewhere across the river a dog barks, you smell wood smoke. In one breath, you take in the start of a new season and exhale the old.