The east wind has brought in a sea fog thick enough to can and sell to Midwesterners as ''Stonington Stew.'' The fog's salty molecules are infused with lobster flavoring: Upwind in the mist is a work boat pulling out last night's crustacean catch.
Suddenly, we see a lighthouse perched on a hidden reef only a few hundred feet away. There is no foghorn. Instead, the lighthouse issues a sharp, familiar ''bing.'' We know exactly where we are and how to get across Noyes Shoal into the harbor.
Fog is a regular customer here, at a port my wife and I consider the jumping-off point for New England cruising. Once you get used to navigating through rocky harbors with the equivalent with a blindfold on, sailing here brings out the old salt in everyone. On the days when the sun is bright, the breeze is fresh, and the vessel is ship-shape, it can be invigorating. From Stonington, it's easy to head east to Newport, R.I., and the Massachusetts islands of Cuttyhunk and Martha's Vineyard.
Our inclination is to vacation in September when cold fronts push the sea fog back to Georges Bank. On a brisk September day, it's an exhilarating ride into Newport.
One year, as SeaKap, our 35-foot sloop, tacked off Newport, I quipped to my wife, Kathy, ''Your job is to look for whales and sharks.'' She immediately looked off the stern of the boat and announced, ''There's a shark.'' A five-footer was attacking something on the surface. We did not stop to watch but continued toward Block Island.
In New England waters it's also not that rare to see whales. Last year, not far from Newport, Kathy watched as a long thin shadow swam just below the surface. A gull banked in a tight circle around the shadow. Melville's Captain Ahab is not the only sailor to see a New England leviathan. Thar she blows!
While the waters off Newport offer aquatic diversions, the town can entertain almost any sailor trying to avoid a nor'easter or just gawk at graceful wooden sailboats built to keep the America's Cup at home. At times during the summer, however, Newport resembles a different kind of maritime repast: canned sardines.
Schools of tourists flit into stores selling T-shirts, ice cream, and tickets for harbor tours. It has now become so crowded that Newport has added parking meters. Locals are upset - with the parking fines.
On the Newport waters - where there are no meter maids - there is plenty to do. For those with deep pockets, there are sailboats to charter. For those only acquainted with the sea through the writings of nautical author Patrick O'Brien, there are schooners that provide a taste of sailing while the crews sing sea chanteys.
From Newport, it's usually downwind to Buzzards Bay. As the wind funnels toward Cape Cod, it accelerates. We have had our share of exciting rides down the whitebeards on our way to Cuttyhunk in the Elizabeth Islands.
Cutty is the quintessential sailing port. A strong, cooling sea breeze whips across the island. In the evening, Seth Garfield arrives on a work boat carrying briny oysters, clams, and fresh-cooked shrimp. Seth and his crew shuck the Belons oysters, aqua-farmed on the island. Clam juice dribbles down your chin. You begin to dream about sailing to other islands off the beaten path.
Unfortunately, Cuttyhunk is not far enough off the cruising routes. In the middle of the summer, it's possible to have complete strangers raft up to your boat as you all watch the sun set over the small beach that separates the harbor from the ocean.
Because it can get crowded in Cutty, we have started
to visit Padanaram, Mass. Although there are no fresh oysters, there are hot showers at the New Bedford Yacht Club.
By the time we get to Woods Hole, it's time to think about throwing an anchor at Hadley Harbor, on the privately owned Nonamesset Island. Normally, the harbor is tranquil, with deer ambling down to the water's edge. One year, however, we ended up in the protected gunkhole to avoid a nor'easter.
I can't forget watching the wind accelerate to 40 knots in minutes. And how could I forget when a sailboat named Berserk, with its dinghy Amok, dragged anchor? Even at 6 a.m., I could not avoid a pun: ''Berserk has run Amok on us.'' Kathy was not amused.
Most of the time the fall storms hold off until October. So there is plenty of time to sail to Edgartown harbor on Martha's Vineyard. Don't be surprised if you see Walter Cronkite or a jaunty looking Robin MacNeil rowing ashore. The Clintons try to visit during the summer.
With some big fish on the island, it can be an expensive stop. But we've always found the visit worthwhile, if only to eat some of the freshest lobsters on the East Coast. If you like to fish, take along a rod and reel. The bluefish and mackerel often are swimming under your boat.
EVEN on a clear day, it's not unusual for fog to form at night. But, most of the time, the mist burns off in the morning. Sea breezes get you to the next port - unless, of course, the wind turns to the east. The fog, like an unwelcome house guest, can stay for days.
There's a yarn about a New England captain sailing in thick fog amid the dangerous sandbanks off Cape Cod. He orders the mate to lower a line with a waxed hunk of lead on the end. The captain looks at the color of the sand on the lead. ''Sail another three hours south,'' he orders the mate. Three hours later they check the sand again. It's the right color. The ship sails safely into port.
With depth sounders, Loran navigational systems, and global positioning satellites, you no longer need to memorize sand textures. But, when it comes to New England sailing, there's still plenty of romance in the fog.