It was some winters ago in the northeast. I was very sad. The boating season was coming to a close. All the signs were there. The days became noticeably shorter, the nights colder and the annual migration of boats from their slips to their winter gardens had begun. Sure, a couple of clamming garveys would continue to ply the bays and even a handful of larger boats that will stay in the water, but many of them have had their systems drained and sit in their slips entangled in a bubbler system stranglehold that will keep the salty ice away from their hulls in the months to come.
It is indeed a remorseful time of year, and that year a friend of mine was taking it particularly hard. He’d purchased a fine offshore boat that spring. I had the pleasure of going along on many trips. We caught a lot of fish, soaked up a lot of sun and had a hell of a lot of fun. But the hammer of autumn leaves had begun to fall and I became worried about him. I don’t want this to sound too maudlin, but for some of these guys, laying the boat up for the winter is like dearly departing with a loved one.
You never do really know when the end will come. You’re out there on the water the first weekend of October. The almanac says the fall will be exceptionally warm, but the rain ruins one weekend, a wedding takes another and high winds whipping up small craft warnings claim the last two. November arrives with the regularly pelting rain and winds. The time has come. It’s over. Done. Finito. No mas.
Like, throw-dirt-on-it over. All the plans we had made, all the hopes and dreams we had for just a few more fish, gone. We’d forgotten the mortality of the season. We must now put our friend, the boat, to rest. We visit the marina director in the ship’s store. He consoles us. “I’m so sorry, fellas. None of us ever thought it would end like this. It was all so sudden. It’s so meaningless. What a waste.”
My friend is solemn. “I want the best,” he whispers. “It’s the way she’d want it.”
The marina director leads us back to his office. There’s a pile of used Kleenex on the corner of his large mahogany desk. We couldn’t help but notice. The director motions for us to be seated and notices our stares at the pile of tissues.
“Cap’n Howie was just in,” he tells us as he bows and shakes his head. “Poor guy. There was so much he had wanted to do with her. He blames himself for not breaking away from work more often. Feels he neglected her. They’ve been together for 10 years now. He’s been transferred to Kansas, you know, no place for her there. Asked us to find her a proper home.”
My friend chokes back a small sob.
“Let’s get this over with,” I suggest.
My friend blows his nose. “Like I said I want the best for her.”
“Of course,” agrees the director. “We’ve got a nice spot left over by the work shed. She’ll be in a nice crowd; that trawler on her port, the lobster boat to starboard, and that adorable little Mako just behind her.”
“No,” my friend says flatly. “It’s too sunny over there. Something beneath a shade tree.”
And before I knew what I was saying, I interjected, “So? All the leaves will be dead and gone anyhow.” The director shot me a glance. My friend just stared off.
“How about a spot down by the fish weigh-in scales?” the director knowingly continued. My friend looked up with a crumpled smile. “Oh, she’d like it there. Yes, YES, she’d be happy by the fish scales.”
“By the fish scales, it is” echoed the director. “Now, would you like to prepare her or shall we?”
My friend has tears running down his cheeks and he’s fighting a losing battle to maintain his composure. I put my hand on his knee and give it a good squeeze. “I’m right here”, I assure him. “Lean on me if you need to.” The director thoughtfully slides the tissue box over. I grab a wad and hold it to my friend’s nose.
“Blow,” I said. To the director, I continued. “We’ve removed all the personal belongings already. You winterize all the main systems, drain the fluids… and cover her over.”
My friend is shaking.
“Very well,” says the director. Um, would you like us to clean her up any?”
My friend leaps to his feet. “Whadda Ya mean by that?! She looks just as fine and Bristol as ever! I gave her everything to make her look her best. I installed most of the gear myself, everything was just right! I used to rub and oil her teak until it looked just like the first time we met at the boat show. I wore out a bundle of chamois, and kept her waxed and polished, no thanks to you!!!” I was holding him by the shoulders. He was losing it.
“Now now” I comforted. “He only meant steam cleaning her hull and taking down the Bimini top enclosures.
“Yes, yes, of course” assured the director. “We all used to sit up and take notice whenever you to pulled out of your slip.”
My friend had his head between his knees and was rocking back and forth, gurgling a mourning tone. I did the finger twirl to the director that we better hurry it up.
“And what about her cover?” the director gently continued. “ We’ve been getting a lot of response for the nice blue shrink wrap we started using last year.”
“Shrink wrap?” my friend mimicked.
“Sure, you know,” I told him. “It’s a nice pretty blue with vents, and they can even install a big zippered opening so you can visit her.”
He looked up. “Really?” he said halfheartedly but with a glimmer of hope in his voice.
“That’s right!” said the director, taking my lead. “You can come and visit her anytime you like!”
“That would be nice,” my friend says. “She’d like that. I could even bring her boating magazines and brochures from the boat shows!”
“Sure! I told him. “You can read all the new model reports together. And, she’ll always be next to the fish scales” I reminded him.
“The fish scales” he echoed.
“And before you know it, it’ll be springtime again!” exclaimed the director.
“Springtime,” echoed my friend.
We got up out of our chairs and shook hands with the director. My friend grasped his outstretched palm with both hands. “You will be gentle with her, won’t you?” he asked anxiously.
“As if she were my own,” he assured. I’ll select the timbers and cinder blocks myself.”
Walking out, my friend sighed deeply. “You know?” he said. “Now all we have to do is drain the pool filter and cover it over,” and a deathly shiver came over me as I remembered how much he loved to swim…