North to Alaska – Summer, 2018

There’s no such thing as a cheap boat. The first nautical joke I ever heard was that boats are holes in the water into which you pour all your money. It’s taken me years to realize that it’s not actually a joke. And to “money” I’d add all your time, effort and dreams.

In spite of it all, I have come to love the things. I think about them constantly. Boats in general, and mine in particular. I once lead a happy and simple life. Get up in the morning, take some pictures, cash the check and sleep in a warm bed dreaming contentedly of business class upgrades.

Now, not so much.

Instead of f-stops and shutter speeds, I obsess over smoking marine diesels and weepy transmissions and balky electronics.

I wasn’t even looking for another boat. Just idly following the swirling eddies of my wandering attention over to the online used sailboat listings. My first boat, the long-suffering C-Sick, had withstood much at my hands, enduring ten years of Alaskan and Arctic summers. More than 10,000 collision-prone miles of clumsy seamanship, dubious navigation, and negligable maintenance. We would soon be parting ways. I’d sworn to God and my wife Janet, not necessarily in that order, that if I lived through that final Hudson Bay gale, I’d never take her north again.

I had convinced myself that a pilothouse sailboat, around thirty feet or so, was just what I needed. Something sturdy with proper sails and a heavy keel and a cozy teak cabin to explore the waters closer to home. If I was going to afford her, the boat would likely be a fixer. A little rough around the edges, but nothing a little elbow grease couldn’t fix. And not twenty minutes up the road floated a prime example of “be careful what you ask for.”

When I first poked my head inside, I was struck by a number of things. The smell of mold and mildew and years of neglect. The scattered chaos of old blankets and fishing gear and damp cushions down below. But it was hard not to focus on the foot of oily water rising above the floorboards. I took one look around, stopping just long enough to peer down into the watery depths of the engine compartment at a half-submerged diesel, then walked back to the dealer and handed the keys back, and said “She’s a project, but she’s somebody else’s project. Good luck with that.” I wanted no part of it.

And yet, I started rolling it over in my mind. If there was ever a sailboat to be bought on the cheap, this was it. I went back. Poked around. Turned the bilge pump back on and a hundred gallons of water into the port of Edmonds before the batteries died. I sought the advice of an wizened Norwegian boat mechanic who pointed at the muck-covered engine and said, “Them things are hard to kill. Bolt on a new starter, change the belt, put in some new oil and see what she’ll do.” Offer a coupla’ thousand bucks to take it off their hands. A bit of hard work and she’ll shine right up.”

Proving that I learn from past mistakes, I ran this one past the Minister of Finance at home. She took one look at the boat and shook her head in disgust. “Did I neglect to mention that I don’t want a boat?” But she never actually said the word “no.” I offered a pittance. We dickered while the boat filled again with more rain water. They accepted a third of the original asking price and too soon Abuelos (Spanish for both “grandfather” and “old codger”) was mine.

The trail has been long, and the litany of repairs both expensive and exhausting. I bought a new alternator and starter, then followed You Tube videos to bolt and wire them into place. When I turned the key and the 30-year-old diesel coughed to life, it felt like I’d raised Lazarus from the dead.

Encouraged, I tore out the drooping and vile-smelling vinyl headliner and replaced it with cedar tongue and groove planks. Filled a dockside dumpster with debris then scrubbed down every surface with industrial-grade disinfectant. Took a pressure washer to the birdshit-spattered deck and topsides, then dragged it inside and blasted away at the bilges for good measure, washing away a decade of neglect and goo. Her sails hung like dirty laundry from lines rotten and gray with age. Squandering a rare photographic windfall, I replaced them all, too.

It’s been a long road, but after more than a year of work and worry and the steepest of learning curves, we’re heading out.

North to Alaska.

I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. Every summer, more than a million cruise ship passengers make the 800-mile passage from Seattle’s waterfront, up the Inside Passage, to the 49th state. There they will gawk and snap pictures and then return once more to a buffet table groaning with food. For me it will be a chance, if the repairs and my spirits hold up, to see a bit of new country, watch the miles unfold at a stately five or six knots, and return to Southeast Alaska, a place I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. There I will gawk, snap some pictures, and then put on another can of soup and pour myself a finger or two of scotch, see if I can find a drifting piece of ice, and toast absent friends.


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