I noticed that the water temperature in Woods Hole this morning is 40 degrees. Offshore, southeast of the Vineyard, it's warmer, about 44. These are meaningful data points, if you measure the quality of any particular winter as I do. For me, a wicked winter is one in which there is chop to chop harbor ice in Vineyard Haven, a jam of ice in Woods Hole when the current is ebbing, and a mosaic of ice and sea smoke over Nantucket Sound. When winter has met each of these standards, you can be sure it's been terrifically cold for a terrifically long time. There may even be skating and ice boating ice on Squibnocket Pond. That's a wicked winter.
Another distinguishing characteristic of a wicked winter is ice gathered around the pilings that support docks along the Eastville shore. After a cold front passes, the northwest wind whips the water against the pilings, and each splash freezes until all the pilings wear spats, frozen in place. Eustace Tilly at the seashore. Aboard fishing vessels, wind chills are more than mere couturiers. Scallopers and draggers that fish offshore find the water warmer than inshore. Except that they often get caught in winter storms, the conditions in which they fish on George's Bank and vicinity are more benign than we might imagine. But, bound home, deep with a heavy, profitable trip, these 90-footers push into the northwest wind, and the spray they send up freezes on deck, bulwarks, superstructure, and in the rigging, adding weight where it's dangerous. The crew will have to chop the ice away. Nasty work, at six knots, plunging into a frigid head sea, with 150 sea miles to run to get to market, all of it upwind.
On a less heroic scale, just before Christmas, my son had to collect some water samples from three precise locations in the east arm of the Lagoon Pond, more than 50 samples in all, half on the low tide one afternoon, half on the high tide the next morning. Now, this work might have been done in October or November, or a mild day in early December, but Christian didn't choose any of those possibilities. He chose two frigid mid-December days. We borrowed Gannon and Benjamin's diesel launch, Patrol, to be the platform for the work. The low tide afternoon was not a problem, because the sun was still high enough to keep the blood flowing, and the wind was fitful. Early on the high tide morning, it was a different matter altogether. There was skim ice at the west end of the Lagoon near the herring run where fresh water enters. Christian collected the samples at different depths using a Niskin bottle. He stored the water in small containers - bought at vast expense at Cronig's - and labeled each appropriately. I just steered. The northerly wind screamed. Christian's fingers, messing with all that water, were bright red with cold, on the way to frostbite white. When the last Rubbermaid container was filled, we headed for the bridge, and the spray froze in sheets and smears on Patrol's windshield. Our thoughts turned to Shackleton, now a kindred spirit. We felt his pain. It was all we could feel.
With temperatures in the thirties and forties all month, gentle January has taken a big bite out of winter. A February deep freeze could turn winter around, but harbor ice is unlikely to form, no matter what. Last winter, snowy as it was, made no significant salt water ice, but the winter of 2003-2004 froze the west end of the Lagoon Pond solid and Vineyard Haven Harbor as well. For several days, a seal sunbathed on an ice floe (bear with me) just off the beach near the office. Some days you could paddle out to your boat at her mooring behind the breakwater. A few days of westerlies and the ferry's passage into and out of her slip free ice from behind the breakwater and shift it toward the outer harbor. Other days, six inches of soft, undulating, saltwater ice surrounded her. It looks as if it would support someone intrepid enough to step from the skiff onto the ice sheet, but of course it would not. She was unapproachable, held by the ice, her stern to the wind, just 20 yards away.
This year, there are green shoots appearing in the perennial garden in front of the house, attracting rabbits who scatter like the trails of tracer rounds in the dark as I arrive home from work. The deer drop by every day also, looking for anything young and green, and of course the dogs never notice. They are shams who hold themselves out as family guardians, but it's a joke. It's not a winter like last winter, nor like the one before. It's a rainy, mild, ice-less winter, better than some I can remember, not as nice as others, and it may change altogether next month.