When I was a child, my family had a little cottage on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in Western New York—a three-hour drive from our home outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (It’s of course the same lake and cottage that figures so prominently in Heeling is Healing.) A polite person might have called the cottage “rustic.” (It could sleep 11 but only had one bathroom.) It was a summer only cottage; besides its magnificent stone hearth and collection of old quits, it had no heating. In August, as summer was waning and the Upstate New York evenings were getting chilly, we’d pick a weekend after Labor Day but before hunting season to “close up the cottage.”
The weather on our closing weekend was invariably a lose-lose proposition. If it was sunny and beautiful, we’d ask ourselves why were closing up the cottage when we could enjoy it for a few more weeks. If the weather was miserable, our teeth would be chattering and our lips blue after getting the dock out of the water and crawling through puddles under the house to drain the plumbing so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. However, regardless of the weather, on Sunday afternoon our brown Buick station wagon would be idling in the cottage’s gravel parking area. “The wagon” as we called it, was the reverse of a magic carpet—it would transport us from the mythical lake that I loved, to the banal reality of the city-suburbs and an upcoming school week. After my dad locked the creaky back door off the kitchen, he would start toward the car and then turnaround halfway and face the quiet cottage. Like a pastor blessing his flock, he’d call out, “Good-Bye, And Keep Cold.”
For many years I accepted this repetitious behavior as just another of my father’s strange idiosyncrasies. (All fathers do things like that—right?) Eventually, on one fall drive home to Pittsburgh, I asked him what he meant by the phrase “Good-Bye, And Keep Cold.” Fortunately I queried him early in the drive, because the next hour or so he occupied the time by describing the eponymous poem by Robert Frost and dissecting its various meanings.
On its surface, “Good-Bye, And Keep Cold” is a poem about a person leaving a young apple orchard on the outskirts of his farm for the winter and wishing the saplings well. The biggest wintertime risk for temperate zone fruit trees is an early warm spell followed by a freeze. The trees are fooled by the warmth and start to blossom, then the subsequent freeze kills the blossoms and the season’s harvest is lost. As Robert Frost says, “Dread fifty above more than fifty below.” Thus, well designed orchards (in the Northern Hemisphere) are on north facing slopes to keep them shaded from the low, early season sun.
As I crawled into bed that evening at home (dreaming of “the lake,” and dreading the school week ahead), instead of reading a bedtime story to me, my dad pulled out his thick hardcover Poetry of Robert Frost and read the poem to me as I drifted off to sleep…
This saying good-bye on the edge of the darkRobert Frost, Good-Bye, And Keep Cold, 1923
And cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don’t want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don’t want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don’t want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn’t be idle to call
I’d summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don’t want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
“How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an axe—
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.
My father is now gone and I keep that book in Hazel James’ “library.” Every week or so I crack it open and either find one of my father’s dog-eared favorites or discover a new verse. As its spine hits Hazel’s dining table and the pages unfold, revealing a blossom of words and rhymes, my nose is greeted with a swirling essence of old paper, bookbinder’s glue, and my childhood home.
As Rhett and I were preparing to leave Hazel for the winter in Gaeta, Italy, I kept thinking of my father, our final weekends of the season at the cottage, and “Good-Bye, And Keep Cold.” While it was comforting to get to know the marina staff, see their professionalism, and know she would be in good hands, I found the entire process incredibly disconcerting. While we would winterize our lake cottage every year and the process had become rote, in the five years that Hazel and I have been together, I’ve never been away from her for this long and I’ve never “winterized” her. (Fortunately Gaeta doesn’t get hard freezes so while there’s lots of preparation, we don’t need to protect against freezing.)
If I can be a bit obsessive-compulsive with details on a normal day, I’m totally over the top when my and my crew’s lives may someday depend on my preparations…so it was for our winterizing.
An abbreviated list:
- Sails unbent and to the sailmaker – (In marlinspike [proper] nautical parlance, when a sailor attaches a sail to a spar [mast or boom] he’s “bending it on.” “Unbending” is the reverse.) Even covered, the sails can take a beating in the winter weather so they should be unbent and stowed below decks. Better yet, the marina introduced me to Luigi the sailmaker. He carted off the sails and over the winter will wash them, repair a few tears, reinforce thin spots, and examine all stitching and restitch as necessary.
- All food off the boat – A weird one for me. Exactly three years ago, I was starting to provision Hazel for our first extended voyage to The Bahamas and Virgin Islands. Before that point, I never kept any food onboard, after that point I’ve always had some food onboard. I was raised by depression-era parents who taught me to finish every morsel of food on my plate, therefore the thought of throwing out food pained me to no end and, for some reason, I lobbied hard to keep staples onboard through the winter. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed (i.e., Rhett’s head) and she took care of donating all unopened packages and cans to the local community food bank and disposing of the rest (I don’t think there was much thrown out, but Rhett was discreet and—besides—I couldn’t bear to look).
- Decommission the watermaker – The watermaker’s membrane is the thing that does the high-pressure magic of extracting potable water from seawater. In normal use, it needs to be flushed with freshwater at least every five days. When we’re onboard that’s no problem, a freshwater flush is a three-minute procedure. However, when away for an extended period the watermaker needs to be pickled by pumping the membrane full of propolyne glycol (a nontoxic antifreeze). (We’ll flush it thoroughly with freshwater in the spring to recommission it.)
- Canvas, halyards, and anything else possible off the deck – While the Italian winter is cool, the Mediterranean sun is still beating down and the UV rays will degrade most anything. Therefore, the dodger, cushions, sail covers, lines, etc. all have to come off and get stowed below.
- Winterize Ox (Hazel’s diesel engine) – Change the oil (old oil has acids that shouldn’t be allowed to work on the metal of the engine through the winter). Replace the antifreeze (the anti-corrosives in antifreeze wear out with time). Run freshwater through Ox’s raw water (saltwater) cooling system; disassemble his raw water pump and store the pump’s impeller out of the pump so it doesn’t deform over the winter. Lots of other little items here.
…and the list goes on—you get the idea. One common theme you probably picked up from the preceding list is “stowed below decks.” Every day we were bringing more and more of what’s normally on deck, below into the saloon. At the same time we were trying to live on her 31 feet, and also packing for our tour of Europe and a trip back to the States. The whole thing reminded me of one of those sliding tile puzzles that would engross me as a kid on long drives. Whatever we needed on Hazel was invariably beneath three or four other things. And—of course—when you needed to move the three or four other things, there was no room to put those things without blocking access to something else!
It certainly wasn’t all work. Through our couple weeks of preparations, we also took some time for fun around the beautiful little village of Gaeta.
One interesting thing we discovered is that right next to the marina is an Italian-US joint naval and army base. Every day at 0800 sharp from the base’s loudspeakers we’d hear the Italian national anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song of the Italians) followed by the Stars and Stripes—a beautiful way to start the day. One morning we awoke to find that the USS Carson City had arrived the night before. (For security reasons, military ships arrive and depart without announcement or fanfare.) The locals said the base had been much more active since war in Ukraine had broken out.
On the land-side of the military base there was a display of a WWII era submarine conning tower. It reminded me of the USN nuclear sub that I saw on my first day of sailing of the voyage off the coast of South Florida.
Finally, our last morning on Hazel rolled around. The alarm clock rousted us early from slumber and—after a string of fine weather the days before—we woke to a cold, driving rain. Undaunted, we got to work right away on final preparations, taking a break at 0800 to respect the two national anthems. We had a taxi to the train station scheduled for 10:00 a.m. to catch an 11:00 a.m. train to Rome. To preserve any living space possible in the saloon, I’d put off doing a final clearing of the decks until that last morning. While it seemed like a good plan, I hadn’t considered the possibility of rain. Oh well, we were on “final approach” at this point and there was no turning back.
With the clock ticking closer to 10:00 a.m. faster than our last-minute list was shrinking, we decided to change tactics and divide and conquer. Rhett got the luggage and Sunny off the boat and to the taxi meeting spot while I stayed back on Hazel feverishly but methodically working through the final checklist items.
After completing my last tasks below decks, I popped up into the cockpit for my final stem-to-stern survey. It was raining harder and I turned my foul weather jacket’s collar up to keep my travel clothes as dry as possible. My good girl Hazel looked naked—without sails, canvas, halyards, and all her other on-deck sailing equipment.
Her “bare poles” reminded me both of Frost’s apple trees and of the majestic ash and maple trees that surrounded our lake cottage, all denuded of leaves by the shortened days and frosty mornings.
I buttoned up her companionway hatch-boards and sliding hatch and moved toward the bow to make sure all on the foredeck was shipshape. As I did, my phone buzzed—a text from Rhett: “Are you coming? Cab is here!” I responded with a quick “Yup.”
As I reached her pulpit (the metal rails at the very front of the boat), I swung myself down and onto the soaked wood of the dock. I gazed back at Hazel and thought of my misty-eyed dad taking his last autumnal look at our cottage.
I started down the dock but then pivoted after a few steps and returned to her bow. I leaned out over the water and grabbed a pulpit rail with one hand and patted her turquoise hull with the other. She’d gotten me through 6,500 nautical miles and across an ocean this year. More importantly, she had helped me discover parts of me, and parts of Rhett and me that had never been explored. The pat on he hull was the least she deserved for that.
I whispered to her, “Good-Bye, And Keep Cold my girl. We’ll be back in the spring for more adventures.” I turned again. This time for good. As I ambled down the dock through the pelting rain, I pulled my hood over my head and hunched deeper into my warm jacket. Hazel was on the end of the dock and although I had to walk past fifty or so other boats, only a handful were occupied. Although I’d usually wave and give a hearty “Ahoy!” to the other sailors when I was on a promenade down the dock, this time I was taciturn, staring straight ahead, lost in thought. I’m not sure if anyone noticed me when I passed but, if they did, I’m sure they couldn’t tell if my face was wet from rain or tears.
Fair winds and following seas; good-bye, and keep cold.