Getting by this time of year

April, 1999

By Dodge Morgan

Now is worst of times for a sailor in Maine. It is March, the month of no progress on the promise of spring. It is like being horny with the woman nowhere to be found. It is like waking at three in the morning for a seven o’clock sunrise. You feel like you’re carrying an ax across the desert or your oars west as you look for someone to ask what they are. You know the photos of last fall’s cruise belong in the fiction section of your library. The road down to your boatyard is chained off because of molten mud and frozen crust. Your boat-gear locker is crammed with items you cannot actually identify. A guy at the bar in a T-shirt stands next to one wearing a parka and both appear perfectly comfortable.

You can’t tack your sport utility vehicle. You are really pissed off at people who own and know how to use skis. Your calculation on the hours of daylight seems like a sick joke. You want to wring the neck of that stupid groundhog with your bare hands. You find yourself flipping the bird at seagulls. You deeply wish the Pulitzer judges would award the drama prize to Monica, the fiction prize to the federal budget authors. You consider petitioning Congress to declare war on the IRS. You wish that codfish were actively represented on the panel of bureaucrats setting our fishing rules. You consider a vacation in Iraq. You recall the image of that hi-tech America’s Cup contender breaking in half in a two-foot chop on San Diego harbor and it makes you happy. You wish that the NBA and the NHL would completely swap player personnel. You see your last year’s Eldridge’s tide book and experience an epiphany for the book burners of the world.

Okay, so I am writing this blather in February, only anticipating March. There is still no doubt that this is and has been another lousy winter for a sailor in Maine. My sloop is in Tortola but I am not. The schooner is hypothermed in her Riverside Boat Company shed in Newcastle.

Two boats, however, have remained urgently in service throughout this Maine winter. The lobster-style workboat Wingnut and the nameless Carolina Skiff have been plying multiple daily runs with building material and work crews for an island construction project in Quahog Bay. This winter boating experience has mystified us all on what really are the conditions that cause ice to form on seawater.

On days following single-digit temperatures the bay is unfrozen and on days following a thaw the bay is flat-white ice covered? We have not bothered to ask anyone who might know the answers to this apparent illogic on the theory that it is personally more satisfying not to know you are wrong than it is just to think you are right (you might have to read that line again to get it; the meaning will be clearer to those who hold a cynical view of knowledge in the first place).

So our theory goes: It is not the salt water that freezes in an open bay, but the fresh water on top of the salt water. A thaw frees ice from the small coves and streams, and tides then carry these mostly freshwater chunks into the bay. That further cools the bay surface so that precipitation, landing on the semi-solid surface and tending to stay there, sheet-freezes over. You follow me? Now a most significant factor in this theory is the wind, more so certainly than the air temperature. Because the wind, and the more of it the better from any direction, churns the bay, which disperses the chunks and mixes the salt and fresh waters into one, freeze-resistant bay cocktail. And this occurs more often when a cold front passes.

There is something hypocritically satisfying in the sound of a glass hull plowing through a sheet of air-filled ice. Like hammering your kneecap with a mallet to rid yourself of a headache. Like being a sailor in Maine in March.


Dodge Morgan can say what he wants because he owns a couple of drop-dead-gorgeous sailboats and broke a record for sailing around the world alone. He lives in Portland.