I hate this time of year. Some of my friends wax rhapsodic about crisp fall air, the changing of the leaves and the coming holidays. But all I can see at the end of October is the end of the sailing season and the long winter stretching out before me. Leaves clogging cockpit drains. Hard water instead of soft.
Five days ago we went out for our final sail of the year. We emailed crew and friends to invite them to join us, and by the evening before received only one response. But as the sun rose to a cloudless Sunday morning, texts and calls came flooding in, and we left with a full boat.
It was a lovely day and after everyone settled in, it became quiet. We creamed through the water, tacking the boat without having to exchange a single word. Once we were far enough uphill, we set a spinnaker for a long, breezy ride home. Softly we sailed, each of us lost in our thoughts. We put the boat away as if we would be back to sail her the next day, which—of course—we would not.
I told my crew I did not need help getting the boat ready to haul. But the truth was I wanted some time alone aboard. The main was still on the boom, and the spinnakers were stacked in the forepeak, sheets and guys hanging nearby. I thought of the countless little bits of knowledge we took for granted every Wednesday or Saturday or Monday as we prepared the boat to race—where each line is run, the little shackle we put on the spinnaker pole car to hold the topping lift for quick deployment, the small encyclopedia of shared experience—common sense that is not common until learned.
Today I throw spinnakers onto the dock to be jammed into an inadequate dock cart for the bumpy ride to my little station wagon. I walk back again to the boat to start the engine, which hesitates and belches, as though reluctant to leave the slip. As the engine idles, I pull out the tool bag to begin derigging. I cut away tape carefully applied to avoid the chance of a delicate spinnaker being snagged. I cut loose the makeshift ruler that tells us how much backstay we have cranked on. I can hear the raised voice of the main trimmer asking for a bit more backstay…and some checkstay. More common sense, put aside now.
I lean on the now-naked boom and look past our docks to the mooring field. It is calm and many of the mooring balls have already been replaced by winter posts. Only a few boats are left lying to the light breeze. Just 10 days ago a vicious northerly sent huge waves over the old breakwater, putting five boats on the rocks. Small, older boats that someone loved now lay somewhere beneath the calm of the bay, lost forever to a fall storm.
A bagpiper in the park begins to play “Amazing Grace.” I find myself overcome with melancholy in this brief moment of peace.
The crew begins to show up, and as we set to work we’re reminded of the care we took only a few months earlier tuning this rig just so in an effort to point even higher on a beat. All of that is twisted out with each pull of the wrench. We slash the seal at the mast boot and straighten the cotter pins so carefully bent back. We take the boom vang off (not eased, but off), lower the boom to the dock and remove the docklines for the final time.
Electrical connections on the mast are unplugged and checked for corrosion before their long sleep. For some reason this year, the mast seems to levitate out of the boat, which shrinks as it loses its prideful rig. Then the boat itself is hoisted free of the water, dripping like a child just out of a pool. I blast the scum from the bottom, and she is tucked away in her steel bunk, left outside to weather the long, cold winter.
Today my hands are sticky from the antifreeze that now runs through the engine, water system, head and bilge. I walk away through the pink puddles under the boat and look up. I do not have to listen hard to hear the easy banter, the waves, the laughter and the friendship that is the cargo this old racer hauls six months a year. Months of regatta planning, crew calls, maintenance, more plans and snow lay ahead.
I turn away, my squishy pink footprints following me as I push the final load of flotsam in a cart from the big boat to the little car. It is gonna need some new snow tires.
I really hate this time of year.
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Illustration by Tom Payne