December 29, 2011

A fantasy dispelled

MY CHRISTMAS PRESENT has brought me back to my senses. Like many amateur sailors, I have dreamed for most of my life about living on a desert island — an uninhabited tropical atoll in the South Pacific, with softly rustling palm trees fringing a white powder beach lapped by warm turquoise wavelets.
My present was a book called An lsland to Oneself, written by Tom Neale, a New Zealander who stopped dreaming a dream he'd had for 30 years, and finally acted it out.  I had heard of Tom, of course. His name comes up frequently on the cruising grapevine, but I had never read his book.

In 1952, when he was 50, Tom settled on tiny Anchorage Island, in the remote Suvarov Atoll of the northern Cook Islands. It was absolutely the island of his dreams. His book describes how he caught fish and crayfish with little effort. Coconuts grew in profusion. He established a garden where vegetables flourished so well that he got three crops a year.

Once in a blue moon a small yacht would call, and he'd spend a couple of days showing off his island and the improvements he had made.  It must have looked and sounded idyllic to his visitors.
 But no matter how much he loved his island and his way of life, you get the feeling that something was missing from his little paradise, or, rather, that something was incomplete.  It wasn't that he didn't know the physical risks he was taking.  He accepted them quite philosophically, and in fact he nearly died from a back injury.  By some miracle, two American men sailed into the lagoon on a yacht and found him immobilized in bed, unable to move, even to sit up to eat or drink. He had been there four days. They fed him, massaged him, and nursed him back to health.

He was finally driven off his island when a group of pearl fishers moved in and spoiled his solitude.  He went back later, though, and spent most of his senior years there until he was forced to make a final move because of cancer.

What comes across very forcibly is that this idea of living on an uninhabited island is fantasy, nothing more. It's true that some people will be able to live out a fantasy far longer than others, but in the end, it seems to me, human beings need change. Even paradise becomes boring if you have  no contrast, nothing to which to compare it.  Tom Neale actually experienced the pipe dream that so many of us fantasized about for so many years.  But in the end his book has done me the favor of  demonstrating that, as a long-term experience,  this desert island business is simply impractical. It will bother me no more.  A visit would be wonderful. Two weeks, even two months, knowing that there would be a change at the end of that time, but certainly not a lifetime.

I have sat under the rustling palms on a gorgeous deserted beach on a tropical island called Fernando de Noronha, but my time there was limited because I was on my way to greater adventures.  Now, in place of a fantasy, I have concrete memories of that limited episode. Those memories are enough to keep me warm in the cold wet winter of the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to Tom Neale,  I no longer need the Tom Neale dream.

Today's Thought
There is a need to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there, that stirs the yearning for solitary voyage.
— Barbara Lazear Ascher, Playing after Dark

Two homeless men helped a limping nun across the street.
"What happened to your leg?" asked one.
"I twisted my ankle in the bath," said the nun.
After she'd gone, one man asked:  "What's a bath, then?"
"Don't ask me," said the other. "I'm not a Catholic."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 27, 2011

Instant ancient whisky

MANY OF THE BEST-APPOINTED YACHTS have medicine cabinets containing Mackinlay's whisky. This particular brand of Scotch seems to be much in demand to combat the effects of head colds, general lassitude, lowered spirits, and other yachting maladies. It was with some interest, therefore, that I spotted this news report from Agence France Presse. It was published on January 17, 2011:

WELLINGTON (AFP) – Three bottles of whisky abandoned in Antarctica by British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton more than a century ago will be sent to Scotland for scientific analysis, reports said Friday.

The bottles of Mackinlay's whisky were part of a cache recovered last year from beneath Shackleton's Antarctic hut, built in 1908 as part of his failed attempt to reach the South Pole, national news agency NZPA reported.

It said the whisky would be sent to the Whyte & Mackay distillery in Scotland, which now owns the Mackinlay's brand, where it would be analyzed in an attempt to recreate the original recipe.

--You will have realized by now that almost a whole year has passed and no scientific report on Sir Ernest's whisky has been forthcoming. This is very suspicious. What do you imagine has happened to those three well-matured bottles of whisky?

I can see them now in my mind's eye, those scientists, I mean, standing around in their white lab coats along the flaring Bunsen burners and steaming test tubes, taking a wee doech an doris, and another wee doech an doris, and toasting the good taste of the Shackleton expedition, until the inevitable happened.

And yet, by some miracle of alcoholic osmosis, there is now on the market a product advertised as Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt, which, it is claimed, is a meticulous re-creation of the original malt whisky shipped to Antarctica in 1907 by the explorer Ernest Shackleton to fortify his 'Nimrod' expedition.

Less than a year after they allegedly re-discovered the recipe, they have a rare old malt whisky ready for sale. The web advertisement says:

"The story of how several wooden crates of this precious whisky were abandoned to the Antarctic winter in early 1909, then rediscovered over a century later, is one that celebrates the enduring spirit of both man and malt. You can read all about the journey and re-discovery on this site, and we also reveal how this unique whisky was carefully re-created for you to savour and enjoy."

Well, I still harbor my suspicions. I was brought up to be very skeptical about advertising. I wouldn't let a drop of this new/old whisky pass my lips until I had seen the scientific analysis.

And there's another thing that worries me. If the original whisky was so precious, why didn't Sir Ernest and his gallant Nimrods drink it? Just asking.

Today's Thought
Whenever someone asks me if I want water with my Scotch, I say I'm thirsty, not dirty.
— Joe E. Lewis

Two Wall Street CEOs walked into a car showroom.
"How much is the Rolls-Royce?" asked one.
"Three hundred thousand," said the salesman.
"I'll take it," said the CEO, pulling out a checkbook.
"No, no," said his friend brushing him aside. "This one's on me. You bought lunch."

December 26, 2011

Sailboat ban proposed

A LETTER FROM "Lifer" says:
I read in the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) that scientists are worried because the earth's spinning rate is slowing down. Days and nights are getting longer. But that's not the major concern. The big problem is that the earth is spinning like a top, and as it slows down it will start to wobble.  The poles will tilt nearer the sun in their arcs, and all the ice will melt.

The seas will rise and become diluted with fresh water.  Lots of land will be inundated and not longer habitable for humans. Lots of marine plant life and mammals will die out completely. In short, it will be a disaster.

Now it occurs to me as I lie here staring at the ceiling that is it perfectly normal that the earth's spinning should slow down as it gradually loses the energy that started it spinning in the first place. But, as usual, Nature has been compensating. Gravity has been moving the high spots of the earth down to the low spots of the earth ever since the Big Bang.  So the radius of the earth from mountain tops on one side to mountain tops on the other side has been shrinking.  Thus, as a ballerina spins faster when she pulls her arms to her sides, the earth has gradually tried to spin faster to make up for the slowing down caused by waning energy.  Thus the rate of spinning has remained more or less equal in all the earth's life.

But now, quite suddenly in cosmic terms, the earth is slowing.  And I believe I know why. Let me explain. As you know, the earth spins from east to west. As it spins, the surface of the earth encounters resistance from the atmosphere.  Once again, over the eons, this resistance has been lessened by gravity's habit of smoothing out mountain tops and generally sanding things down nice and smooth.

But in recent years this resistance has increased because of windmills and yachts.

Never before in the history of the earth have there been so many manmade things sticking up from the surface of the earth, all of them designed deliberately to encounter the atmosphere with force.  Never before have so many wind farms and private sailboats offered resistance to the atmosphere.  The surface of the earth is now fatally roughened by these foreign protrusions

which, in extracting energy from the atmospheric winds, also serve to retard the earth in its spinning.

If we are to save our dear earth for future generations, it is obvious that both windmills and sailboats must be banned.

Oh yes, I can imagine the chorus of protests from rich yachtsmen who don't give a damn for the rest of us as long as they can pursue their sybaritic pastimes without restriction, but we are talking survival here.  I have already contacted my senator regarding having yachting made illegal in my state and I expect other states to follow suit once my discovery is made general knowledge. The future of the human race depends on it.

Yours in great apprehension etc.


Today's Thought
The greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown.
— Carl Jung.

"My neighbor banged on my door at 2:30 this morning, can you believe that?"
"Wow, 2:30 a.m.?"
"Yeah, luckily for him I was still up playing my bagpipes."
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 23, 2011

That time of year

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when many are so busy with parties and presents and family and Christmas trees that their boats tend to be neglected. It's not such a bad thing, as long as the neglect is not long-lasting. Boating fever can resume with fervor after a refreshing break, and we can all look forward to a new season of sailing in the coming spring.

As long as there had been Christmas, it has been thus. Exactly 100 years ago, this is what Thomas Fleming Day, editor of The Rudder, had to say about it:

"When Winter gets up his hook and stands offshore, the boat fever comes on strong and the itch to be away on the blue again takes hold of us. Sunday finds the boys sidling off towards the yards and wading around in the slush looking over the laid-up craft.

"They walk round and round them, peer at the stern, eye the bow, comment on the spars, find fault with the bottom, and curse the price that makes it not for them. Year after year this is our amusement. Spring after spring we go through the same yards, see the same boats, and express the same opinions regarding their appearance and condition. If those boats have ears, how tired they must get, how weary of the silly comments that the boat-fevered busybody makes each March under their hulls.

'A few weeks after, the yard is almost cleared, except here and there a poor old cripple or rich man's forgotten plaything is left standing surrounded by a raffle of timber and truck. Over by the fence, lying on its side, is a once crack-a-jack racer, too rotten to be moved and going rapidly to punk.

"And we look on her and think of the days when we will be lying up against the fence, dismantled and broken, while our successors are out cleaving the blue and making a mainsheet haul of health and happiness."

 *  Well, he ended up a little maudlin, there, didn't he? I guess he was rather depressed after a Christmas that had gone on too long and kept him away from his boat.

But we, as his successors, can look forward happily to cleaving the blue once again. So Happy Christmas. Happy Hanukah. Happy Kwanzaa.

Today's Thought
Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults tell the government what they want — and their kids pay for it.
— Richard Lamm, former Governor of Colorado.

"My girlfriend thinks I'm a stalker."
"Your girlfriend thinks that?"
"Yeah, well, she's not actually my girlfriend yet."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 20, 2011

Bliss down below

PEOPLE OFTEN LAMENT the number of boats that seem never to move from their marina slips. Just as often, the pundits will seize upon this fact to proclaim the merits of small boats, compared with big boats.

Don Casey at Sailnet had some profound words on this topic: "When you have a modest, simple boat, you can sail at the drop of a hat, no small advantage for  a pastime entirely dependent on the vagaries of wind.... Smaller sails and lower stresses make smaller boats easier to sail and arguably safer for a small crew.... Small boats are handy, tacking easily through narrow waters. They can also traverse thin water. In fact, given seaworthiness, a small boat can take you everywhere its  larger sibling can go and lots of places beyond the big boat's reach. Small boats are also more economical to own, operate and maintain.... The ploy I favor is to own a boat substantially smaller than what you can afford."

This is all true, of course, and as a lover of small boats myself I have no quibble with it. But it does overlook one important point.

When I look at a full marina, especially on a cold and miserable winter afternoon, I wonder how many unseen people there are aboard those boats. Are the boats really as deserted as they look?

Just because they're not out sailing doesn't mean they're not being used. I have spent many happy hours down below on docked boats. Some of them were bigger than I could really afford, but they offered comforts that smaller boats could not match.

Nothing feels more cozy than the cabin of yacht when the wind is howling from the southeast and cold rain is drumming on the skylights. What better way is there for the harried city worker to relax than to stretch out on a bunk with a favorite book or good music on the stereo?

To go below into the womb-like confines of a cabin smelling of teak and lemon oil is to shut out the worries of the weekday world. And alone, or with a loving companion, there is a satisfaction approaching bliss in doing nothing in peculiar, in simply relaxing in a snug little vessel floating on a highway that — if you wanted to — would take you to all the exciting, exotic places in the world.

Even in summer, an afternoon spent in the sunny cockpit, happily tying a Turk's Head on the tiller, or lazily re-varnishing the little spot where the jib sheet rubs on the teak coaming, revitalizes the spirit and feeds the soul.

You may sometimes feel the pressure to go sailing when you don't particularly want to, simply to fall in with the popular notion that you have to leave your slip to prove that you're a proper sailor and not a veranda yachtsman.

But you don't have to fall for that. How you enjoy your boat is up to you. And if you can afford a big boat in which you can goof off standing upright, why should you make yourself miserable in one with no more than sitting headroom?   

Today's Thought
The bow that's always bent will quickly break;
But if unstrung will serve you at your need.
So let the mind some relaxation take
To come back to its task with fresher need.
— Phaedrus, Fables

Confucius say: "If man think by the inch and talk by the yard, he will be kicked by the foot."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 18, 2011

Quanta on my mind

AS I'VE MENTIONED before, I was reading Steinbeck the other day. Or trying to read Steinbeck. It's not always easy, especially when he says: "We doubt very much if there are any truly 'closed systems'."

He was talking about the workings of what he called a primitive principle known as the universality of quanta.

Well, it might be primitive to him, but it's way above my fire-make place, as they say in Afrikaans.

Nevertheless it reminded me of a remark I overheard at a dockside once long ago. A yacht had just arrived in port after taking a long, bad beating in a storm at sea. She was a beautiful wooden cruising sloop, 37 feet long, with the long graceful ends and short waterline of the CCA era. She was, in fact, Francis S. Kinney's lovely Pipe Dream design made famous in Skene's Elements of Yacht Design.

Her skipper, Dave Alexander, had just stepped ashore to make fast her mooring lines. He looked bleary-eyed and exhausted after days and nights without adequate sleep. A friend walked along the dock, greeted him, took a quick look at the battered boat and said: "Wow, how many systems are still working?"

Until that moment I had never imagined a sailboat as having "systems." But I gave it some thought and concluded tentatively that the man was right. There was a steering system, a communications system, a cooking system, an anchoring system, two separate systems for propulsion (sail and power), a system for pumping bilgewater, a system for removing human waste, and so on.

You could, of course, break some of these systems down into smaller components. For instance, the steering system on this boat consisted of a tiller and a rudder. The rudder, in turn, consisted of a stock and a blade. The blade, in its turn, was probably made up of separate pieces of wood to form its whole.

Nevertheless, as far as I could see now that I'd figured it out, none of these systems impinged on any other. In my estimation, each was a closed system. I mean, if the rudder failed, you'd still be able to anchor. If the mast fell down, you'd still be able to motor. If you ran out of beer you'd still be able to radio a Mayday.

Yet Steinbeck indicates that all these systems affect each other. He maintains they are separated from each other by only the smallest steps — steps that they can take in their stride.

He is certainly right when he says that such systems are not entirely "closed," because that would mean they could exist and do their work without outside help or interference. But I still don't accept that a broken toilet affects the steering system, or a fault with the VHF affects the cooking system. So I really don't understand what he's getting at.

I could be misinformed, of course. Perhaps in my youthful ignorance I wrongly regarded the whole boat as one unified system to move people from one place to another by sea. Or, even more simply, as a unified system to bring joy and pleasure to those who love yachts.

For all I know, a sailboat might well be a universalitied quantum, as Steinbeck insists. Or maybe — just maybe — Steinbeck might be wrong and I might be right. (And pigs, the universal units of the breakfast system, might fly.)

Today's Thought
In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.
— John Steinbeck

"Why are you crying, my love?"
"Oh John, I cooked you a lovely supper and the dog ate it."
"Jeez, don't sweat it, darling. Tomorrow I'll buy you another dog."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 15, 2011

Of boats and men

WHEN JOHN STEINBECK was still a comparatively young man he sailed with his great friend, Ed Ricketts, to Mexico to collect samples of marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California.  Ricketts was a biologist and had a laboratory in Monterey.  When Steinbeck wrote his charming and well-known work, Cannery Row, Ricketts became the eccentric "Doc," so beloved of the Flophouse Boys and millions of devoted readers.

But there is another Steinbeck book which, although not as well-known as Cannery Row, probably reveals more about the author himself and, interestingly, about his love of boats. That book is The Log from The Sea of Cortez, the day-to-day story of the expedition. Simply put, it is a wonderful book for people who like to read beautiful English from the mind of a deep-thinking philosopher with a rare gift for explaining things simply and humorously.

Steinbeck died in 1968 at the age of 66 but his books are still in print and I doubt they will ever go out of print. Here is a small excerpt from The Log from the Sea of Cortez in which he illustrates the strange identification of Man with Boat:   

"A man builds the best of himself into a boat — builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors. Once, passing the boat department of Macy's in New York, where there are duck-boats and skiffs and little cruisers, one of the authors discovered that as he passed each hull he knocked on it sharply with his knuckles. He wondered why he did it, and as wondered, he heard a knocking behind him, and another man was rapping the hulls with his knuckles, the same tempo — three sharp knocks on each hull. During an hour's observation there, no man or boy, and few women, passed who did not do the same thing. Can this have been unconscious testing of the hulls? Many who passed could not have been in a boat, perhaps some of the little boys had never seen a boat, and yet everyone tested the hulls, knocked to see if they were sound, and did not even know he was doing it.

"How deep this thing must be . . . the boat designed through millenniums of trial and error by the human consciousness, the boat which has no counterpart in nature unless it be a dry leaf fallen by accident in a stream.  And Man receiving back from Boat a warping of his psyche so that the sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in his chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it  . . . man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul. His spirit and the tendrils of his feeling are so deep in a boat that the identification is complete. It is very easy to see why the Viking wished his body to sail away in an unmanned ship, for neither could exist without the other; or, failing that, how it was necessary that the things he loved most, his women and his ship, lie with him and thus keep closed the circle. In the great fire on the shore, all three started at least in the same direction, and in the gathered ashes who could say where man or woman stopped and ship began?"

Today's Thought
Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.
— John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley.

"Hey, didn't I see you at the shrink's the other day?"
"Yeah, I'm having treatment for thinking I'm a racehorse."
"So what's the treatment?"
"Oh, he gave me a big bottle of medicine."
"How much do you take?"
"Depends whether I want to win or just run a place."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 13, 2011

How power corrupts

I CAN'T BEGIN TO COUNT how often I have heard the owner of an older displacement sailboat say: "I need more power to fight the current.  I need a bigger engine."

Whenever I hear that, I know this is not a true sailor talking. This is a land person, not a water person.

Land persons know about power in cars. More power enables a car to go uphill faster. With enough power and low-down torque, you don't even need to change down.

Land persons appear to equate a boat struggling against a current with a car going up a hill, which is something a natural-born water person never does.

Water persons are blessed with a natural affinity for sensing the speed and direction of their craft. They can "feel" movement that they can't see. Something deep down inside tells them they're also going sideways or even backwards when it looks as if they're going straight ahead.  They know without ever having to think about it that the thin sheet of water they're sailing in is often moving with respect to the ground beneath it because of a tidal stream or an ocean current.

They know when they are steaming upstream against an ebbing river that the current they're fighting is not the same as a hill on a highway. Their speed through the water does not decline, as an underpowered car's does with respect to the road. It's the current that robs them of speed over the ground, not the lack of engine power. Always presuming, of course, that the engine is capable of pushing the boat at hull speed.

A bigger engine is not going to help, unless it's a whole lot bigger, because it takes an enormous amount of extra power to make a displacement hull exceed its hull speed by even a small amount.

This whole business seems to be quite difficult for land persons to comprehend, but I expect the manufacturers of new, more powerful engines are quite happy to let them remain ignorant.  And the water persons are quite happy, too, knowing that the land persons will always be the lubbers they suspected them to be.

Today's Thought
Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer, NYT 3 Dec 78

 "Hey buddy, I thought you had a date with that blonde tonight."
"Yeah, I did."
"What happened?"
"Well, we went to her place and sat around and chatted and then she put on some quiet music and changed into her nightie and lay down on the sofa. Then she turned out the lights — so I came home. I can take a hint."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 11, 2011

The writing business

The 15-foot Albacore

I WAS THINKING the other day about mankind's most desperate desire. I was reminded that mankind's most compelling urge is not to make money, make war, or make your neighbor sick with jealousy over your new sit-on lawn mower. It's not to romance your boss's wife or make a million on eBay. Mankind's most urgent desire is to change what other people have written.

I know this because all my working life I have written words for money; and all my life a certain species of human called a copy editor has pounced upon those words with glee and changed them, willy-nilly, without justification, and for no good reason whatsoever.

It doesn't matter what you write, or whether you're an amateur or a professional, somebody always wants to change it. Somebody always knows better. Somebody is always ready to believe you're an idiot who never learned no grammer and can't spell no how.

It was with more than the usual trepidation, therefore, that I e-mailed my latest offering to Joshua Colvin, editor of a nice little magazine called Small Craft Advisor. I have to admit that Josh has always been kind to me. Unlike most other editors, he seems to be equipped with a heart. But this time I may have gone too far. I may have provoked him.

You see, one of the things an editor likes most is to be told how many words a forthcoming article will contain. This is so that he can estimate the space needed, and so plan a place for the article in his magazine. They're always planning, these people, and always having to re-plan at the last moment when their first plans don't work out.

My offering was a nice little story about a newly married couple here in Bellingham, Wash., who spent their honeymoon sailing and rowing to Alaska in an open, 15-foot Albacore racing dinghy. It took Michael Kleps, a practicing attorney, and his wife, Elizabeth MacDonald, a qualified commercial electrician, seven weeks to cruise the 900 miles to Juneau, sleeping almost every night among the bears and other wildlife in a small tent pitched on whatever wilderness spots of beach or rock they could manage to land on.

The trouble is that I told Josh rather brashly that I could squeeze the story into 1,000 words. We professionals are good at stuff like that. That's why we are professionals.

So I was at first astonished, then disbelieving, and then chagrined, when the little word-counter on my computer told me that the story had come out at 2,000 words, not 1,000. Of course, you can't rely on word-counters too much. They lie. I have often found that. So I counted the words myself. Er, yes. Two thousand. And no way could I shorten that article. Every word was golden, every phrase a gem. Nothing was wasted or repeated.

So now I know Josh will have to change it and squeeze 2,000 into the space he left for 1,000. The only thing that consoles me is the fact that this is a symbiotic relationship. It is the job of a writer to pour out everything he has learned. It is the job of the editor — nay, his primal urge, his greatest delight — to change everything, to slash and cut and purge like Attila the Hun, leaving bleeding nouns and wounded adjectives littered all over the countryside to die painful deaths.

This is how we live. This is how it has always been. Writers create. Editors slaughter. It's too terrible for words.

PS: The sweet little Albacore is for sale in Juneau, Alaska, for $500. She's ready for the return trip next summer. If you're interested, click on Comments below, leave a phone number or e-mail address, and I'll put you in touch. Your details won't be published.

Today's Thought
The reason why so few good books are written, is that so few who can write know anything.
— Bagehot, Literary Studies: Shakespeare

Here’s a hint for beginning gardeners on how to distinguish weeds from proper plants:
Pull everything out. Those that come up again are weeds.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


December 8, 2011

The island's lure: 3

(HERE IS the third and final part of the story that started last Monday about a sailboat trip my wife June and I did some years back in a Cape Dory 25D called Jabula. The article was first published in Cruising World magazine.)

The Lure of Vancouver Island: Part 3

WE LEFT SEA OTTER COVE the next day in high spirits. The day was beautiful, with a clear blue sky and a calm sea. We were over the worst, and we could look forward to two more weeks of exploring the five major inlets on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

We saw bears at Winter Harbour and Checleset Bay, and dozens of eagles fighting like seagulls over scraps of salmon in Barkley Sound. In almost every little anchorage we came to we were greeted by a bald eagle. We came across sea otters in the remote Bunsby Islands, including one a mile out to sea that stayed fast asleep as we approached, and then peered at us quizzically through his flippers as we passed by. We greeted Gray whales and Humpbacks as if they were old friends.

We bathed in natural hot springs in Clayoquot Sound and rowed ashore on remote islands to visit the sites of ancient Indian villages. We walked through dense old-growth forest on the untamed Brooks Peninsula to a sandy beach as white and pretty as we’d ever seen anywhere and sat to have sandwiches in the shade of a gnarled madrona while green-blue water rushed in and out of a rocky cove below us. Patches of soft grass spread over the rocks like blankets, and in every sheltered spot the ground bloomed with wild bluebells and buttercups.

We ran under jib only at three knots, dragging a lure to catch fish, and feasted like royalty on grilled salmon and white wine in the warm cockpit.

Day after day, we worked our way south and east, occasionally finding another cruising boat in a quiet anchorage and making new friends. In Barkley Sound we met up again with Wind Song and Pyreneenne. We swapped yarns like long-lost pals. Burl Romick of Wind Song gave us a bucket of oysters he’d gathered in the nearby Brabant Islands, and Stuart Briscoe of Pyreneenne served up delicious gravlox they’d made from salmon they’d caught.

But our days in paradise were numbered. June had to get back to work, so reluctantly we set off on the long crossing to Neah Bay, Washington, across the wide mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

There was a small-craft warning in effect, and it blew hard from the northwest that afternoon. Little Jabula broad-reached down the long swells, occasionally touching 7 knots, which made steering very difficult. Tokoloshe surfed along quite happily at the end of a 75-foot painter that formed a loop and slowed it down when it started to run into us.

For most of the day there was no sign of land ahead, but in the late afternoon we raised Cape Flattery and Tatoosh Island. When the wind got up to about 30 knots in the gusts, I dropped the mainsail, leaving the working jib in place. It hardly made any difference to our speed, but it certainly made steering a lot easier.

The tide turned a couple of hours before we reached Neah Bay. It started running against the wind, which made the waves rough and steep-sided for our final approach. We were very glad when we eventually tied up in the Makah marina and cleared customs by phone. Cold and tired, we declined an invitation to drinks on another boat, had a supper of good, hot soup, and collapsed in our bunks.

We ran into patchy fog the next day, but when it cleared the rest was easy. In bright sunshine, we motored non-stop over glassy swells to Bowman Bay, where we crossed our outward track. Safely anchored in the beautiful state park just after sundown, we celebrated Jabula’s circumnavigation of Vancouver Island with a good hot meal and drinks in the cockpit.

Next day, as we were waiting for slack water at Deception Pass, two tugs came along with a huge log raft. They halted near us and I read their names--Vulcan and Snee-oosh.

“You won’t believe this,” I said to June, “but when I started out, right at the beginning of the trip, these same two tugs were in exactly this same spot with a log raft, waiting for slack water in the pass.”

“Oh, I believe it,” said June. “It’s just another circle closing.”

It was a glorious day for our homecoming. We caught the new flood through the pass and carried it all the way down the Saratoga Passage to our berth in Oak Harbor marina.

There we sat in the cockpit and looked at each other, listening to the engine idling:

Quite a trip, yes, quite a trip,

Saw the eagles, saw the bears,

Saw the orcas, saw the whales,

Saw the islands, saw some gales,

At four knots plus, all thanks to me,

Four knots plus, all thanks to me ...

Good to be back, good to rest

Good to be at home at last ...

            Good to be . . .

I pulled the stop control out and the little Yanmar gurgled to a halt.

“Chatty little guy,” I remarked. “But a bit swollen headed.”

“He has a right to be,” said June. “He’s a Vancouver Island vet now.”

Today's Thought
We are all sailors on the spaceship Earth.
—Frank Braynard.

“Is it true that the trouble with this country is ignorance and apathy?”
“I don’t know — and what’s more I don’t give a damn.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 6, 2011

The island's lure: 2

(HERE IS the continuation of the story that started last Monday about a sailboat trip my wife June and I did some years back in a Cape Dory 25D called Jabula. The article was first published in Cruising World magazine.)

The Lure of Vancouver Island: Part 2

WE DUCKED INTO snug Bull Harbour to wait for calm winds and a slack tide. There, in our northernmost anchorage, we joined three other bigger yachts intending to run down the west coast.

The northwester came rushing in over a low spit of land and whipped up the waters of the anchorage. Bent over against the wind, we walked along a little dirt road bounded by high hedgerows bursting with blackberries, salmonberries and strange berries we’d have liked to taste but didn’t dare. We met a Native American man and requested, belatedly, permission to come ashore, for this is First Nations territory. He smiled and told us to make ourselves at home. We soon came to Roller Bay and watched high surf storming in from thousands of miles of open Pacific, pounding the shoreline and throwing up a thick salty haze. It was majestic, but a little scary, too.

Back in the anchorage, we were invited to join Burl and Abigail Romick aboard their C&C 35, Wind Song, for coffee after supper. Burl, a retired engineer from Portland, Oregon, asked: “Does your dinghy fit on board?”

“No,” I said. “We’re going to tow it.”

“Across Nahwitti Bar? It can get very rough.” The Romicks had been this way before.

“I have a secret weapon,” I said smugly. “You haven’t seen it yet.”

While I’d been waiting for June to join me, I’d made a spray cover for Tokoloshe out of a cheap blue poly tarp and a length of shock cord. It was the first cover I’d ever made, and I’ll admit it was a bit short in the front and a little lopsided, but it would surely keep the dinghy dry and buoyant even if waves rolled right over it.

I lay below wide awake that night, listening to the wind howling in the rigging, and calculating my worry factor by the number of flaps per second from the stern-mounted ensign. Flutter-flip-flip-flap-flap was bad. I got up to check my anchor bearings, but the holding was good. We didn’t drag.

The gale lasted three days. We rowed over to visit Stuart and Pip Briscoe aboard Pyreneenne, a 41-foot Jeanneau sloop from Sidney, B.C. They were sailing around the island with their daughters Kate, 7, and Lizzie, 3.

They’d been listening to reports from fishing boats at Cape Scott describing 12-foot seas.

“I don’t care, I’m leaving tomorrow, come hell or high water,” Stuart announced. He spoke in the desperate manner of a man who’d been cooped up with bouncy kids for too long. 

“So am I,” I said.

That evening, I tried Tokoloshe’s new spray cover. It was difficult to fit it from Jabula’s cockpit. I stretched out and managed to roll the shock cord over Tokoloshe’s gunwale. I pulled the cover forward as far as it would go. I let the dinghy ride aft on the painter again and looked at my handiwork with some pride.

Then a heavy gust of wind came along. In the flicker of an eyelid, the two sides of the cover sprang up over the gunwales and contracted themselves into a fat sausage along Tokoloshe’s centerline.

June almost choked with laughter. I could have bitten her.

I ripped off the cover and hurled it into Jabula’s cockpit. “The dinghy will just have to take its chances,” I said grumpily.

That night, a change in wind speed woke me up. The ensign was lazily going kerflap ... pause ... kerflap. I turned over happily and went back to sleep.

The next morning was misty and cold. As we approached Nahwitti Bar under mainsail and motor we could see breaking water ahead--whitecaps on the top of standing waves. The current was still flowing seaward at about 4 knots, and we were soon sucked into it. For 45 minutes, Jabula stood on her head in short, steep seas. June chocked herself into a corner of the cockpit and clung on tightly.

A large fishing boat, a dragger, passed us slowly to port, plunging her bows through the steep swells rolling in from the Pacific, and sending heavy spray high over her bridge.

I didn’t dare look back as I wrestled with the tiller. “How’s the dinghy doing?” I asked June.

“Still afloat,” she reported. “Rolling like mad, but so far, so good.”

When we came to buoy “MA,” marking the end of the shallow bar, the seas gradually lengthened and flattened. We pulled Tokoloshe alongside to bail it out. To our astonishment, it was almost bone dry.

“Doesn’t need a cover after all,” I observed.

“Just as well,” said June, trying not to giggle.

The wind was fitful that morning and came at us from all directions as we motor-sailed slowly toward Cape Scott against a 2-knot current. Wind Song and Pyreneenne passed us at about 1 p.m. and disappeared ahead, flying down the coast with the new ebb.

Strong currents seemed to change direction every few minutes as we rounded Cape Scott at a respectable distance. Although the weather was calm, the waters around the green-gray, sinister-looking cape were restless, sometimes rearing up suddenly as a swell rode in from seaward, then flattening out again in another swirl of current. Jabula’s constant tugs at the helm made steering tiring, so June and I took one-hour shifts, anxiously watching the GPS and correcting all the time for sideways sets.

Then, to our great relief, we were free of the notorious cape and in deep water once again. We laid a course for Sea Otter Cove, the first fully protected harbor down the coast. It’s only about nine miles from Cape Scott, but the going seemed very slow, perhaps because we were emotionally drained. The engine’s chattering became more obtrusive, specially as it seemed to be talking about us:

Such fun today, such fun today,
We crossed a breaking bar today,
We passed a dangerous cape today,
And they were scared,
They were scared,
I could tell, I could tell.
Not far to go
Now thankfully,
Not far for them, not far for me . . .

It wasn’t far, but the landfall was difficult. The entrance to Sea Otter Cove is very narrow and hidden among rugged islands, none of which look like their outlines on the chart. We couldn’t see any sign of the rock-and-reef-strewn entrance to the deserted cove until we were within 100 yards of it.

But eventually we made our way in and found ourselves in sole possession of a beautiful, perfectly protected bay fringed with evergreens and sandy beaches. We lay back with drinks in the cockpit to soak up the evening sunshine.    The sun was putting on a spectacular show of oranges and purples.

“This is simply gorgeous,” I said.

“It’s our reward for a hard day,” said June. “It’s always better when you’ve had to work for it.”

Tokoloshe misbehaved during the night, jamming the painter between the rudder and the keel. For a while I feared I might have to dive into the icy water to free it, but I found to my great relief that I could pull the loose end through after untying the stopper knot. I tied Tokoloshe firmly alongside to stop any further nonsense.

Today's Thought
Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.
— Rebecca West

“Mommy, Mommy, come quick, there’s a spider as big as a house.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, Johnny, haven’t I told you 20 million times not to exaggerate?”

(Coming Friday: The third and final episode of The Lure of Vancouver Island)