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The double-hulled white streak

WINTER here has knocked once, politely, entered, and settled in at the feast table for a long meal of fine rains and p^at'e of frost. Consequently I find myself thinking about boats. If you ask a friend what's the first thing that comes to mind when you say ``winter,'' chances are ``boat'' won't be it. I understand this. It may be that I equate ``winter'' and ``boat'' only because I am an indefatigably messy person, and while looking for something else today I came upon a brochure for a very special kind of boat. This boat is one whose image has illuminated my life like Hector's shining helm since I was very little.

As I sat at my desk reading this brochure, while the frost caught light in the corners of the windows, I began to feel almost benevolent toward winter, like a man who simply has more to do than think about the weather. Winter is a good season for doing, because the more one gets done the more benevolent one feels, until even slush and snowdrifts almost become forgivable. By the time I was four or five pages into my brochure I was getting a great deal done and ready to forgive almost anything, but one test remained: Stacks of folders on my desk loudly declared their priority - ASAP! Need your input! Fix this! Get back to me! I thought about them for a few minutes, then forgave them, too, and went on reading.

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It would be a mistake for me to imply, however, that the time I spent with this brochure was merely frivolous. As any sailor will tell you, there is nothing frivolous about a Boston Whaler, even on paper - and a Whaler on paper was suddenly making my winter very bright.

Strictly speaking, a Boston Whaler is hardly a boat; it is even less a ``product,'' a thing that someone manufactures to make money and someone else buys to flaunt wealth. It is a plain legend in a world of hyperbole, a quiet repository of sea sagas in an age when soaps and automobile tires are ``classics'' and bask in their Madison Avenue refulgence. Recalling all this, I recalled as well some serious pleasures I had had long before this winter, when I watched a real legend grow in the south Jersey harbor where I lived.

Avalon, N.J., is a different place now, a town of condominiums and beach restrictions, but when I lived there it was a comparatively unknown expanse of sand dunes and crumbling asphalt roads and channels that snaked for miles through the western marsh lands. It was prime boating territory, and my family owned a boat, though not a Whaler. No one in Avalon had a Whaler in 1965, at least not that we had seen. We'd heard of them, of course - those unsinkable, fiberglass, double-hulled, low-slung, white streaks. Someone said they were the fastest production boats on the water. They hovered on our mental horizons like dreams at the moment of waking - half-real, half-chimerical, an intriguing possibility as we churned along in our old 13-footer with its complacent 25-horsepower motor. We often seemed to be churning over to Denny's garage, for Denny was known as the best mechanic in town, and my father, an avid mechanic himself, liked to swap stories about plugged carburetors and worn valves.

One day, when we were taking on fuel at a boatyard on the edge of the vast main channel, I spotted something that looked at first like a long whitecap. My father was still on the dock. ``Dad!'' I yelled, ``Do you see it?'' I gestured emphatically, but he had already seen it, already slipped the bowknot and leaped aboard.

``Let's chase it,'' he said. I sat down fast, gripping the gunwale as he slammed the throttle forward. The bow surged up and out of the water, and for a few seconds it felt as if we'd actually nurtured a spark of pride in our old tub: We hit planing speed almost before I could breathe again, and crossing the channel it seemed as if we might actually intercept this intruder.

We were wrong. Denny slowed down to give us a wave as we approached, and then just nudged the throttle with his right palm so that he and his new Boston Whaler streaked away from us as if they were modeling Einstein's latest equation. My father really did look as if he'd seen a vision. ``No one's going to beat that boat,'' we said to each other as we watched its white hull hum along above its white wake.

About that we were right. Denny's boat was stable, practical, sleek, and unbeatable. Over the summer it evolved from a novelty to a matter of civic pride, the best boat in the harbor for the best mechanic in town. For a time I thought my father coveted that boat - I certainly did, although I was only 8, so it hardly mattered - but now, as an adult, I think instead that he came to admire it, and even to take pleasure in its existence despite the fact that he could not afford to own one. We never did buy a Whaler. Yet I'm still touched by that legend, which started out - as all legends do - as a simple, astonishing display of excellence.

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It's cold outside; ponds are freezing in the evening darkness in the Eastern towns where I used to live, and even here the rain now arrives with its winter chill. The feast has begun; my seasonal friend sits at my table, indifferent to my benevolence. Summer is a long way away. I stare at the folders on my desk, wondering for a moment if this manila sea might qualify as the eighth ocean of the world, unprepared for what crosses the corner of my eye - a white streak, with a fading flash of white wake. As good as ever! Still eager to give chase, I smile, rocking back in my chair, getting ready, getting down to business.

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