Not everbody who spends the winter on Florida's Gold Coast lives in a high-rise and drives a Mercedes.

Delray Beach, where Philip Decker has settled in this year to escape the Maryland cold, is a sub-tropical Georgetown where cutesy shops carry cutesy names and the sun almost always shines on the big resort apartments.

But Decker watches the world go by from sea level and when he needs something he unlocks his ten-speed and pedals after it.

Decker is an American boat person. He has always been a boat person, he says, even when he had to do other things to get by.

Decker used to be an accountant for a steamship company in Philadelphia. It was a job about boats but it wasn't on boats, and the first chance he got he left it without regrets.

That was ten years ago when he inherited some money. Decker took the money and bought two things -- a boat and a house on the water on the Eastern Shore of Maryland near St. Michaels.

The boat was a beauty and so was the house. His yacht was, still is and probably always will be Skylark, a Mercer 44-foot sloop built strong and seaworthy in Cape Cod, where they sill put integrity in their hulls.

The house was a big one on the water, with 2 1/2 acres of land.

It was such a nice house, in fact, that by last year it had grown so valuable that Decker no longer saw any point in keeping it. He sold out and, in his words, "cashed in my chips."

Last week Decker sat in the cockpit of the only thing left that he calls home -- the Mercer 44. There was a warm south wind blowing gently over the decks of the two dozen other boats at the Delray Beach town dock, a safe harbor a mile from the Atlantic.

Decker was hard at work on his boat, which is how he spends his time these days. There is always something to do on a sailboat. Always.

"Phil Decker?" said a neighbor on a nearby sailboat. "Sure, he's right up at the end of the dock. Big white sloop, the Skylark. He's usually there."

I found him covered in sawdust. There was teak dust on his glasses, on his hands, in his hair and on the mask he used to keep it from his lungs.

He wore a tattered old madras shirt with one tail hanging out and a pair of grease and paint-bemirched white trousers -- standard garb for a working boatman. He switched off the shrieking sander and extended a hard hand.

"Come aboard," he said with a smile.

Decker is the epitome of a serious sailor. He's quiet, reserved and decidedly unfashionable. He goes where he pleases, when he pleases. "If I don't like a place, all I do is cast off the lines and go somewhere else."

His whole life now is sailing, which is how he would have it. In the summer he keeps a fleet of four Bullseyes -- 16-foot Cape Cod-built sloops -- on the Tred Avon River at Oxford on the Eastern Shore. He watches over them from the deck of Skylark.

Decker rents the Bullseyes to day sailors and teaches novices to sail on them. Sometimes he takes charter groups out for sails on Skylark, both in Oxford and in Flordia.

Does it ever bother him, having paying guests invade his home for a day? "No," said Decker. "That's the great thing about day sailing.You have them for eight or ten hours, you're sailing your own boat and then they're gone."

In October when the cold works south to the Eastern Shore and the sailboat enthusiasts disappear, Decker packs up the gear abroad Skylark and he and his wife set sail down the inland waterway for Florida.

"It's the most beautiful trip," said Decker "and no one but the people in yachts know about it."

The shift last July from a big house on the water to a close-quartered boat hasn't bothered Decker a bit. "As long as you go south in the winter, it's fine. If you get cramped down below, you can always come up on deck. Then you've got the whole world to look at."

The cabin on Skylark has a cluttered and lived-in look. There isn't room for everything, but there never is on a boat. The bulkheads are crammed with books and charts and radios and cooking gear.

There's a sweet smell of crowded living and oiled mahoghany wood.

When the traffic goes by outside it goes burble-burble-burble instead of graaaahr , the way it does outside my house. And half a minute after the last boat passes you can feel the gentle roll of Skylark as the remains of the wake lap at the hullsides.

"But it's bad on the weekends," said Decker. "These guys coming through in their speedboats never slow down. It's quite a sight. All the people in the marina get up on deck with slingshots and sirens and raise a racket."

So it goes for Philip Decker, who cashed in his chips when they were still worth something, and who does what he loves to do every day.