Winter's tide lifts all boats

On friday, right on schedule, the floating town docks were hoisted out of the water with a crane and stacked in the municipal parking lot for the winter. Our platform for mackerel fishing is gone; the red-and-white "20 minute tie-up" sign is sentinel to nothing. The harbor seals venture closer as the human activity withdraws. The yacht club long ago stopped firing the cannon at the official moment of sunset. Like turning back the clocks on Halloween weekend, we have recalibrated for the impending season beside a winter ocean. We are reefed.

The docks will rest until April, the barnacles, algae, and seaweed will gradually release their hold, shedding onto the macadam to stink on a warm day in January. The Breeze, the town's takeout food stand, has also closed for the winter, though its menu under the awning still advertises crab rolls, fried clams, and soft-serve ice cream, staples for summer visitors and hovering sea gulls.

This storing of the docks is the final phase of a ritual preparation for winter: freezing weather, flowing ice, punishing nor'easters that will sweep up the bay. As people begin to wrap their house, skirt the foundation with plastic sheeting, stack the firewood close to the ell, and call the man about snowplowing, the harbor too must hunker down. We are on the verge of the season in which it is weather's turn to impose. It is the season of storage, of firesides, of interior work, of waiting.

Kenny Eaton, whose father, Alonzo, and grandfather, Mace, ran the boatyard before him, has been hauling boats out of the water for weeks ... or generations.

The land side of the boatyard fills with sailboats standing on their keels, braced by stanchions, to be power-washed and then shrink-wrapped for hibernation. The weathered shingles of Eaton's, the steady retreat of equipment to the sheds amid the cultch for servicing, the abatement of dockside activity, like the shortening days, herald yachting's torpor. When you can see the propeller, rudder, and keel of a sleek sailboat, its charm is fled: The ungainly mechanics of its trick of flying before the wind have been exposed. The boat becomes an object of maintenance and not a fleet craft.

Eaton's yard isn't large and fills quickly, so the larger boats must be taken by trailer out of town. Like a parade of nautical floats, mastless ketches and sloops, bulky cabin cruisers, and muscular work boats slip down Court Street by the Unitarian Church on their way up the hill and out of town.

Scant spectators stop and peer as Kenny tows them to his upland winter harbor for storage or repairs. There, in a massive Quonset hut next to a peat bog, 10 miles from the harbor, the maintenance work of winter can proceed out of the weather, in the woods. The engines' vital fluids will be drained, the hulls scraped and caulked, sanded and painted; the rigging will be retooled, remounted, revived. The wooden boats, come up for air, dry and shrink; the fiberglass boats shed algae. Gallons of marine varnish are brushed into teak and mahogany decking, extending the usefulness of wood plying corrosive saltwater. Even Kenny says, "Why would anyone want to get involved with a boat?"

At the shore, the boatyard is now a forlorn collection of white rubber globes, buoys stenciled with the names of boat owners. They bob on the tide, but without their boats to turn their bows into the current, they give no telltale sign of the direction of flow.

A forest of masts during the summer, the harbor is now a field of these buoy erratics, vacant between the town dock and Smith's Cove and Brooksville. Nothing much interrupts flat water, skerries, and whitecaps except a channel marker. Nothing interrupts our inspection of the farms and forest on the opposite shore. All the leaves are down; buildings emerge from their summer cover. The hillsides are mizzened by maples and oaks. Nothing interrupts the perception of distance. There is no longer a middle ground in this picture.

But for a lone lobstermen, whose catch has not yet migrated farther out into the bay, the human boating presence on the water recedes, a tide of activity that will be out until the spring equinox, when the migratory process is reversed. Kenny will haul the boats back down to the water and reinsert them, following some improvised sequence, parading back from bogside to harborside.

Freshly painted, newly engineered, ready for rigging, one by one, the boats will float back to their globes to be tethered. The docks will be dropped back in place at the town dock, and patrons of the Breeze will flock back like the sea gulls at around the time "lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed." And the 20-minute tie-ups will resume.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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