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Making the most of it

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It’s hard not to love autumn, especially if you live in the Northeast. The fall air is crisply cool and tinged with the scent of wood smoke, but it’s still warm enough to sleep with a window cracked.

Trees wave their gold and red flags of surrender to winter, and on a brilliantly sunny day, when the sky is a perfect azure canvas for this masterpiece, there are few atheist witnesses. I’m not sure if autumn in the Northeast is just a really great consolation prize or Mother Nature’s deft but dazzling sleight of hand, meant to distract us from the impending horrors of winter — but in any event, I’ll take it.

Fall is magic, even though it is the time when many avid boaters in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Northwest pull their vessels, winterize and begin the slow march toward spring rebirth. I remember a time when I drove to work over the Claiborne Pell Bridge to Newport, Rhode Island, and it was usually the late November view that would hit me in the solar plexus: the harbor almost emptied, the yards full of boats on jackstands. By then the trees are bare, their gnarled limbs scratching pointlessly against the blank white sky, already begging for a little of spring’s warmth.

We mariners cope with our own five stages of grief, of course.

Denial: Some of us stay in the water until the bitter end, unwilling to go gracefully. I remember being huddled in the saloon on Bossanova, probably gripping a hot toddy with frozen fingers, and wondering if I could get one more month aboard my uninsulated steel trawler before I went ashore for the winter. My calculations were interrupted by a commotion on the dock that turned out to be spectators arriving for the annual Christmas Lighted Boat Parade. It was time.

Some boaters may experience a second stage of denial. There’s a lot of responsibility to owning a boat, and just after she’s put away for the winter there can be a little surge of euphoria. It’s very like the misguided way we comfort ourselves after a breakup: No big deal. Feels good to be free again. I can eat ice cream directly from the carton if I want to. If you experience this, you may also find yourself skipping Anger and Bargaining and going directly to Depression once you realize you’re totally kidding yourself.

Anger: This often arrives in the form of the yard bill for winterization and storage and leads directly to Bargaining with the yard.

Depression: This stage doesn’t usually kick in until January, when the holidays are over, tax season starts and you really notice just how long, dark and frigid the days have become. As a nature lover and outdoorsy-type, you may comfort yourself with expensive ski trips or simply assume the fetal position until the next stage arrives.

Acceptance: If you ski or find other ways to love winter, this can come quickly. The rest of us may not make any progress until mid-February, when we finally venture out of the house to check the mail for the West Marine catalog — though some would argue this leads us right back to another round of Denial … it is only February, after all.

Acceptance is the stage I historically struggle to reach. Sometimes reading a desperate man-against-the-sea story will provide a moment of gratitude for a warm fire and dry boots, but that’s more a way of psyching myself out than actually accepting anything.

The good news is that you can push this whole cycle back, thereby shortening it, if you leave your boat in the water and use it until it stops being fun. I have been out on the water as late as New Year’s Day, and it was glorious. But November seems to be the sensible limit for many. All I can advise — and it works for me — is that we use the waning fall and encroaching winter to plan our next season on the water. This is a time for dreaming: Read about new destinations you might explore next summer, budget and map out some long-awaited improvements to your boat, plan trips to the Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Palm Beach boat shows to see what’s new and get a little sun on your face. 

And maybe I’ll start a support group. In Florida.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.