It doesn't always happen, but sometimes just at dusk a stillness develops on the water and whatever chop existed during the day dies down.

The surface is flat and slick; in the pearly evanescence of failing light small boats race to harbor, dragging plumes of wake behind them, cutting through the crab-pot markers.

At the risk of sounding snobby, I will say that having a boat at a moment like that is the best thing a person can do. Most people will say that there's no money left over for that sort of thing. But then, most people spend everything they have on houses and clothes, cars and food, and they live in a dream world where they think they are free.

On the water, for a time, you can really be free.

There's a camaraderie among people who love boats. Last Year I told a kindred soul, "Sometimes I think the best thing I could do is spend every nickel I get on boats -- just buy all the different ones that appeal to me until the money runs out."

"That," he said, "is exactly the way I feel."

So today there are three Phillips boats, and they aren't enough. There's one for paddling down rivers, one for putt-putting around small lakes and ponds and one for zooming home at dusk when the big salt water grows pearly calm.A fourth vessel, a sailboat, is in the family.

Not enough. We read the boat ads end-to-end every Sunday.

I want one of those fast racing/sailing dinhies, like an Albacore or 505, and a big sailboat to take to the South Seas when the time is right, which is probably right now. Anyway, we'd need to get used to the big boat for a few years before we set off around the world.

The boats sit more than they sail, all of them, even the ones in my dreams, because there's never enough time. And there never will be enough time. Yet what time there is sometimes seems to last forever. One long afternoon on the water can revive the spirit for weeks. A good stormy day at sea can ease a troubled mind and put it to sleep without any rocking.

It's another spring and there's another boat in the family, raising again the eternal question, "Why is man lured to the sea?"

My mother used to stand at the kitchen sink after dinner, the water splashing as she scrubbed pots and pans. She would sang, in her booming baritone: "For the sea careth not for any man, any man. . ."

There are no stop lights, stop signs, warning flashers, rest areas, subliminal advertisements, gas stations, snack bars, time'n'temperature reports, doctor's offices, kiddie crossings, seat-belt chimes or parking lots at sea.

The first time I met someone who had sailed to Bermuda race I asked, in tender ignorance, "Where do you anchor at night?"

She laughed. "We just keep sailing. It's thousands of feet deep."

"How do you see where you're going?"

"By the stars and the compass."

"What if you miss Bermuda?"

"You go to Europe. So what?"

Her carefree spirit was captivating. I thought long and hard about how it must be, sailing through the night in a place so wild and empty that you couldn't find an anchorage if you needed one.

In my mind I envisioned sailing the ocean at night and saw it as scary and invigorating, challenging, big, unpredictable, incredibly beautiful.

Having done it, I know it's all those things and more.

But there's work to do, the rewarding drudgery of a 20th-century urban breadwinner, and nights at sea are precious rarities.

The next best thing is to own you own little boat -- power or sail, rowboat or canoe. You leave the dock and follow the creek, meandering along a liquid path carved by nature. At night tiny fish slap at the surface as they feed on bugs.

"You get a sense of freedom," a passenger said, "like flying a plane. You can go wherever you want."

He thought about that a moment. "But it's not like flying, either," he decided, "because if the motor stopped right now it wouldn't mean anything. We'd sit awhile, maybe paddle. Even if we stayed out all night we'd be all right. It'd probably be great."

I killed the motor. A globe of light encircled a hill overlooking the creek. There was a softball field up there, and a game going on. You could hear the cheering. You could hear the crack of bat on ball.

Eighteen players, two teams, encircled by a chain-link fence, engaged in a game that had a beginning and soon would have an end.

We could hear them. We could almost see them. Yet here, on this timeless, night-still creek, we were a million light-years distant, in some world apart.