A northern sailor's winter used to be a dismal existence. Weekends consisted of trudging in a circle through unplowed snow in the back lot of the marina to check on the boat's cradle. The graceful lines of the boat itself were only a dim memory, covered completely by her heavy winter wrap - the nautical equivalent of hiding Cindy Crawford's curves in a floor length muumuu.
There were bright spots, of course. A sailor's basement and garage were monuments to the summer's logbook. The laminated ash tiller lying in one corner, clamps still holding the glued-up split that appeared during a Labor Day squall. Over here is the teak cockpit grate, a neatly accomplished dutchman covering the gouge created by a flying winch handle on the Fourth of July. The workbench in back is strewn with the innards of a recalcitrant pump, faintly odiferous entrails still partially attached and lying on top of a stained and dog-eared exploded diagram. Hanging on a ragged line of nails above the bench, freshly polished brass hinges sparkle like golden butterflies while the warm glow of hand-rubbed varnish plays off the cabinet doors spaced along the wall to dry. These projects, carefully nursed to last through the darkest days of a sailor's life, became the focus of endless evenings of tale telling when another sailor stopped by for a visit. Landlubbers, of course, didn't have any appreciation for beauty and history of these shrines.
The real days of joy, though, were when the mailman brought the latest sailor's literature to the door. Whole days could be consumed with just one Rudder magazine, dreams of building that sweet Tahiti ketch erasing the visions of frosted windowpanes from the sailor's eyes. And when the Sailor's Book-of-the-Month Club selection arrived, the more seriously addicted among us could spend entire weeks lost in winter reveries.
Sweet as these days could be, the routine reality of the sailor in winter was long, cold days trying to maintain dimming recollections of brilliant, wind-blown sails, of flashing rainbows in the bow wave, and of silver moon shadows spreading across a calm lagoon.
Thanks to modern inventions, more days of unbounded joy have been added to the sailor's winter repertoire. The communications and transportation revolutions of the past few decades have allowed sailors from every cove along the coast to gather for weeklong festivals of the sport. The lonely smell of varnish in the dimly lit basement has been replaced for a few days by the unmistakable odor of the boat show hot dog.
In the past few weeks, novice sailors and old alike salts have stormed Atlanta, Atlantic City, San Diego, London, New York, Toronto, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Chicago. Miami is bracing for the next onslaught. These multi-million dollar extravaganzas have turned winter into a sailor's dream instead of dreaded days of solid water, if only for a day or two.
For the total of one dollar per hour, a sum even the most impecunious yachtie can withstand, every sailor can walk the brightly-lit hall ogling the latest crop of sailboat designs. Open house aboard gives each of us the opportunity to study the newest thoughts in woodworking, interior layout, and decorator styling. Every new gizmo and gadget is on display with knowledgeable salespeople to assist in selection and enough slick color brochures are available to cause bursitis of the shoulder before the day is done. Free seminars are given on topics ranging from anchors to zincs, on how to race and how to cruise. We get to touch and feel the objects of our nautical desires, to weigh expert and neophyte opinions, and carry away enough dreams and plans to see us through to spring.
In the end, it is not so much the shiny fiberglass and acres of toys for sailors that cause us so much joy at the winter boat shows -- it is the re-creation of the summer dock atmosphere. Here we get to tell our sea stories to one another for the first time in months. We find ourselves among our comrades and peers, people who speak our language and who understand our love of sailing.
So, shake off those winter sailor's blues and come on down to the boat shows -- hoist a hot dog and maybe we can swap a tall tale or two.
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