As if there were not enough disease in town, what with flu having emptied the schools long before Christmas and the Redskins' offense causing bald spots at RFK Stadium at season's end, there is yet another affliction: boaters' melancholia.
The symptoms resemble those of the football fan after the Super Bowl: sense of loss, depression, lassitude. I, along with with thousands of other boaters in the area, fell victim to the disease a few days ago. All it took to contract this peculiar form of melancholia was to pull the boat out of Chesapeake Bay for the winter.
This act symbolized the end of timeless days and nights on the water, ones that won't return until spring when the boats go back into the water after winter layup. The images of that time on the water keep going through the boater's head all winter, helping to keep the crises on land -- from taxes, to tuitions to the nuclear high-noon acted out by Washington and Moscow year after year -- in perspective.
As the ice closes the docks, every boater has memories of the season:
The living poetry of ghosting up at dawn to that blue heron which was fishing, with head cocked, in the grassy flat off Hooper Island. The heron finally flapped its long, thick wings, tucked its stilty legs under its belly and flew off a mere 50 yards to finish breakfast in peace.
The excitement of battling the summer storm which suddenly roared eastward out of the Potomac and pushed my 22-foot fishing boat, then in the middlee of the Bay with four trolling lines, like a surfboard along with the giant waves. Nature backdropped that boat-versus-sea contest with black skies streaked with lightning. The reward for riding it out was a brilliant sunset of orange and blue.
Crabbers and their wives on Smith and Tangier islands telling me with certitude back in August that Ronald Reagan would be elected President. "That other fellow has had his chance," they said matter-of-factly. "Time for a change." If only the pollsters had gone to Smith or Tangier.
My instant admiration for that 14-pound bluefish, seeing its end was near which rammed the side of my boat like a torpedo, throwing the lure and winning its freedom.
The joy of floating Woodstocks at buoy 54 off Point No Point in the Bay last summer: Dozens of boats gathered there at dusk, dropped anchor, tossed over lines baited with peeller or soft crab and waited for sea trout, nine to 14 pounds, to strike. The waiting was a time for songs, calling across the water to friends and ringing a bell or blowing a whistle every time a sea trout was boated. The wine flowed, too.
The adventure of discovering places far from the boat's home port of Solomons Island, Maryland. The boat took us, for example, to the Great Wicomico River and on into Cockrell Creek where the stately homes of Reedville, Virginia, command the waterfront -- and their owners, most things in town. The homes were built with the money made from netting and selling tons of alewives -- the food fish of the Bay. The docks which processed the swimming wealth of alewives have been allowed to rot, Cannery Row fashion.
The shock of waking up in the middle of the night to find the boat tilted at a 45-degree angle, the tide having gone out from under it. Nothing to do but sleep on that angle until the tide changed.
The parental pride of my boat partner, Charlie Gardner, as he watched his son, Danny, and teen-age friends ski up and down the Patuxent River, nettles with stingers out notwithstanding.
The companies which live off boaters know how to exploit their melancholia. This is the time catalogs hawking everything from depth finders to teak chart-racks jam the mail slots of boaters' homes. Leafing through them eases the disease for which there is no cure short of spring.