by Michael Conner
I was nineteen years old, returning from a winter in the jungles of Southern Belize, dramatically changed by a foreign climate and culture. On contract as a student of The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington, I’d been immersed in studying rainforest natural history and the lives and subsistence strategies of the Kekchi Maya. For the first time, I’d encountered a culture I could respect, a “wild” and often harmonious cultural landscape, the likes of which I hope and strive towards creating, yet have not experienced since. This journey provided an extraordinary series of human and wilderness interactions which still today affect my way of understanding and walking in the world. Return to the U.S. offered a culture shock that the years since have yet to cure.
After five months among mostly illiterate people who knew more about the things I wanted to know than anyone I’d met before or since, I determined that returning to academia was not an option. Where would these professors be without their salaries and pensions? Could they hunt, fish, grow food and medicine in a sustainable way? Could they build their own homes with only a few simple tools? No, college was no longer the place for me to get what I needed. What I needed was to get out. To get free. To separate myself as completely as possible from the culture of my birth, to join myself as completely as possible to the rhythms and ways of the natural world. I was bound for Alaska to be a homesteader. To learn to blend so well into that massive wilderness that I and my creations could not be distinguished from it. From this position, fur-clad and strengthened by the sweet milk of the bosom of the Mother Earth, I was to be a warrior, single-handedly defending all that is wild from the ravages of a society gone mad. This was where I was headed. Though reality has taken me in a very different direction, the roots of this young vision are still intact.
I had the great vision; it was the getting from here to there that was difficult. I was after all just some dumb kid not long out of a Midwest suburban upbringing. I was pretty well penniless, too stubborn and idealistic for a “regular” job in civilization, and up against the wall of my own ignorance. In the midst of indecision, I visited Sam, a shipwright and sailor friend in Port Townsend, Washington. Little did I suspect that the next vehicle for my transformation was waiting in Sam’s garage.
The Skybird (locally dubbed the Terdbird) was a boat. An 18-foot, plywood centerboard sloop. She had been built by a home builder on Vancouver Island around the same time I had been born. The old bird had weathered many storms, most of them heeled over in a previous owner’s back yard. What remained of her was a partial hull, a mast, two sails in fair shape, and a couple of buckets of bronze fastenings and hardware. Two previous aspiring skippers had begun rebuilding her, then abandoned her in favor of more promising life paths. It was the bronze fasteners and not the rotten plywood which had saved the bird from death by fire some months previous, as bronze to a shipwright is something as precious as gold. Too good to burn, yet not worth his time to rebuild, now Sam was stuck with her taking up precious shop space, and he had bigger fish to fry.
Sam’s own dream boat sat a stone’s throw away, awaiting her garboard planks. Though still a handful of years away from her first ocean voyage, she already shimmered sometimes deep in the night with a bioluminescent glow as if already underway in a ghost ocean. She often spoke to her maker as he slept in his shack which shared a windowed wall with her blue-tarped shop.
So here it was, a fine spring day, here was I, here was Sam, and here sat the Skybird, or Terdbird, depending who’s eyes you saw through. My eyes stared at these humble bits of plywood, cedar, oak and fir, seeing not a Terd, but a Bird. Surely summer would find my hand on the tiller, with fair winds and following seas all the way to Alaska.
Here was the end of indecision. A clear plan evolved. Life took an irreversible turn at this meeting of the bird and I. It must be due to the timely, if not continual, presence of guardian angels or some such power that looks after fools and sailors that I survived the era that began on this day.
The old shipwright and I struck a deal. One hundred hours of work in his garden valued at $5/hour, and the Bird was mine. I could live in the Truckhouse behind the Bird’s shop. The Truckhouse was built like a boat upside down, the kind of thing a boat builder makes while in the Rocky Mountains, a tiny cabin with large windows and exceptional woodwork made to fit on the back of a one-and-a half-ton flatbed truck. Sam would be around to instruct me in rebuilding the boat, and I would get the boat out of his life.
To date, my woodworking experience consisted of having built a jewelry box in a junior high shop class, a rough workbench in high school, and prior to that, a couple of forts in the woods. Nevertheless, I planned to be sailing northward by summer solstice. It was now March.
Port Townsend is the end of the world in some ways, especially for a boat builder. The neighborhoods around town are full of boat projects, large and small. There is a whole subculture dedicated to getting out of town, the hardest, slowest way possible, by building or rebuilding a wooden boat and sailing away to new horizons.
Though I was attempting to wash my hands of civilization as soon as possible (should have just walked instead of needing a boat), I was still impressed and enchanted with Port Townsend. P.T. enjoys a dramatic geographic location on the end of a peninsula at the very mouth of Puget Sound. The Olympic Mountains stand as a majestic backdrop, while the wild and expansive Straits of Juan de Fuca make a windy and watery front porch. The town exudes a strong maritime flavor, and is the wooden boat center of the West Coast. P.T. harbors wild folks, dreamers, radicals, and rebels of all sorts. Artists, craftsmen, writers, deadbeats and fishermen make a strong showing amongst the larger population of more “ordinary” sorts of folks, retirees, business people, and those willing to be inside the huge pulp and paper mill every weekday until a loud whistle alerts the whole town to quitting time.
P.T. was such an improvement over Averageville Illinois, that I even considered staying there long term. However, like so much of this region, P.T. was growing and gentrifying at a rapid pace. The new houses, the newly-restored Victorians, the rising prices, the increasingly clean look all seemed to say “Make big bucks or get out.”
So I shopped at the Food Coop, walked the beaches, worked the garden and on my escape vessel. Of course, I soon discovered that boats, even mine, cost money. They cost far more money than living itself. This was a horrifying realization. I began running out of certain sizes of bronze screws and found myself on many occasions walking out of a marine store clutching a small handful of the precious things having just spent a week’s worth of bread and beer money. This situation soon led to many hours of grunt work in the boat yard. Thanks to Sam again, I think. I had never been so miserably occupied, and haven’t been since. Not that the scene is without charm, amongst the surly tar-covered shipwrights, obsessed boat owners, fiberglass fumes, bottom-paint fumes and old lead paint scrapings, there is a unique salt and sika-flex flavored charm. One really has to be there to understand. There is high art happening in these boat yards, yet, despite my position as master of my own destiny, in these circumstances, I could be nothing more than a grunt. As one fisherman aptly pointed out, “Y and D, young and dumb.”
Sam’s garden, like my garden today, grew many a weed in the name of diversity, ecology and general harmony with nature. Despite this attempt to create a miniature Belizean jungle in the context of a temperate zone home garden, we were able to feed ourselves. By supplementing homegrown vegetables with some store-bought necessities (bread, peanut butter, honey, ice cream, coffee, and Australian Stout), I came up with a survivable diet which fueled boat construction and my other daily activities.
Not far down the road from the shop was a bluff overlooking Juan de Fuca Strait, the first crossing en-route to Alaska. From this bluff, I could look across 25 nautical miles of current-filled open water to the San Juan Islands, the first stop. To my Midwestern eyes, the Strait appeared huge and sometimes terrifying. It was hard to imagine crossing such a body of water; the caliber of that adventure was far beyond anything I’d experienced. I would sit on the bluff or walk the beaches during calm or gale and wrestle with my fear of what I was preparing to do.
I was not completely without experience. Throughout my time in P.T., Sam and I had been going out on day sails aboard his (he built her) 25′ catamaran, Winged. P.T. Bay is often windy, being on the turn of the corner where Puget Sound opens into the Strait. The corner proper is Pt. Wilson. A day’s sailing could consist of a series of close-hauled tacks into a westerly staying in the sheltered lee of the point, then reaching out off the point, crossing into the swells being carried down the 100-mile length of the Strait. Once in the Strait, we’d turn the stern into the seas and surf home. Pretty exciting stuff. Of course, Sam was the brains of the operation. I hauled on halyards, sheeted in, eased off, and generally tried to figure out what was going on. In time, I gained a very rudimentary, beginner’s understanding of sailing; I thought I was really hot shit.
In the shop, it was another story. Simple as it was for boat work, being of plywood construction, I was still incredibly challenged by the work of restoring this small craft. Without Sam’s guidance and tools, the task would have proven impossibly beyond my capabilities. Even with his step-by-step instruction, I was often stuck, staring for hours, days, at the odd-shaped pieces I needed to make and fit together in a way that even the mighty sea would not tear apart. Though Sam knew not to expect much, I believe he was often amazed and frustrated at my level of incapability.
By summer solstice, I had learned something that anyone who has ever built or rebuilt a boat knows: that, like predicting the weather, only fools and newcomers name a launch date. The bird was still far from complete. It would, in fact, be January before the bird and I would sail out of Port Townsend bay.
Summer took me away from town for a couple of months, to being the “mountain man” at a Boy Scout camp in the Cascade foothills across the sound from P.T. The job paid less than being Y and D in the boatyard, but held greater prestige and got me into the wilderness. As “mountain man,” I led week-long backpacking trips in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, each ending with a couple of days of canoeing down the Skykomish River. My partner and I emphasized teaching wilderness travel skills and basic survival skills (drink water, eat food, keep warm, good attitude). Along with this came daily solo times for connecting with self and the wild. We wanted to convey a strong sense of respect for wild things and places. We wanted to give these kids something more to remember from the summer than pizza and Nintendo games. We wanted at least a few of these kids to grow up to become passionate wilderness lovers and defenders of the Mother Earth. Maybe we succeeded.
August saw an end to the camp season and a solo wilderness journey for me. I fished and fried rainbow trout, talked with trees, watched the Aurora Borealis from a bed of boughs, scrambled up peaks and generally basked in the vast beauty and power of the high Cascades.
Back in P.T., I got back into the project. On came a new transom, new decks and an epoxy and cloth cover over the hull. Hurdle by hurdle, a new boat began to take shape from the remnants of the old. By December, the bird was ready to launch.
I was unhappy about the name Skybird. Of course, a bird can be in the sky, but what kind of bird is that? With so many cool birds in the world, why not use the name of a real bird? Skybird seemed like some symbol in a new age philosophy, and the name bothered the pragmatist, the naturalist, the realist in me. Now, everybody has their opinion about renaming boats. If you believe them all, you’re damned if you change the name and damned if you don’t, and no matter what you name her, a boat will still take all your money. Knowing I was possibly dooming myself, yet feeling I’d earned the right having brought her back from the dead, I decided to rename the bird the Crow.
Corvus Brachyrhinchos, the common crow, was more common than people in the neighborhood surrounding Sam’s shop. Like the coyote and raccoon, the clever crow has adapted so well to town and agrarian landscapes as to become the dominant bird in many of these settings. Their raucous caws and crackles were a near constant in the daylight hours. Evening saw their black forms by the hundreds flying westward to a communal roost, a nightly crow convention. The Corvids (crows, ravens, and jays) are generally accepted as being the most intelligent of birds. Folklore abounds with stories of their outsmarting the farmer who pursues them with a rightful but malicious intent. To the local natives, crows and ravens are tricksters, carrying elements of the supernatural.
P.T. had a story of an old timer who had a pet crow that would follow him into town and perch on a nearby building whenever he went indoors. When the man got into his truck to drive home, the crow would follow him flying above the road. Of course, such a story sparked my imagination, I dreamed of having a crow who would perch on the mast of the Crow and fly alongside as I sailed.
The ticket to having such a companion is to perch yourself in the proper spot at just the right time so that the bird “imprints” on you. What this means is that you must be peering into the nest when a baby bird first opens its eyes. Expecting to see mom, the bird instead sees you and forever onward believes you to be its mother. Hence, the opportunity to have a willing companion, and not just a captive “pet.”
The Truckhouse and the boat shop were in a small area (maybe one acre) of 40′ to 80′ tall Douglas Firs with a brushy, thorny under story. Surrounding this grove were yards, gardens, pastures and hayfields. The whole neighborhood was like this, and each stand of firs seemed to be home to a pair of crows and their hidden nest. Each morning as I stood outside the Truckhouse brewing coffee on my trusty “whisperlight” backpacking stove, the crows would fly in and out of the grove in their usual loud, cawing manner. Spring saw them carrying nesting material, and the wheels inside my caffeinated brain began to turn. I had only to hang out in my usual territory, appear to be minding my own business, yet keep a furtive eye pealed for the location of the nest. Once the nest was found, I would wait until the crows were off dropping clams into the road for cars to run over, or some such corvidian deed; then I would climb the tree, steal an egg, incubate it and wait for my new little buddy to emerge.
The grove was small enough and the crows seemingly public enough about their doings to make my plan seem achievable. Sure enough, the crows seemed to lead me straight to their nest. Morning after morning, they flew directly over my steaming coffee pot and into a densely branched fir whose base was less than 100 feet from my own abode. They cawed repetitively as they flew, then fell silent once in the tree. Due to the thick foliage, I could see no nest from the ground. This is what crows like, a well-hidden nest. I waited. For weeks I went about my business, boatbuilding and dreaming and making peanut butter sandwiches. Knowing that crows are intelligent, intuitive and possibly mind readers, I tried to shield even my thoughts from them. A crow is no fool.
I could only guess when the eggs might be close to hatching. Without any solid clues to go by, I determined one morning that it was time to check in on the youngsters. The pair of crows flew off for morning foraging in someone’s compost or perhaps to steal someone’s car keys. As soon as they were out of sight, I quietly walked to the base of the tree, keeping my eyes on the sky. No sign of the parents. I wrestled my way through a wild rose thicket to gain the first branches above the under story, then paused again to survey the sky. No sign of Corvids. If I was lucky, they would be all the way in town, on the outdoor deck of the bakery tipping over cappuccinos and trying to make off with cinnamon rolls half their own size.
Assured the coast was clear, I rested another minute to calm my racing heart, then worked my way up the tree. About 50 feet above the rose thicket was the dense mat of branches which I was sure would be home to the nest. Luckily, there were branches spaced along the trunk in a way that made climbing possible. As I approached the hidden nest, my excitement grew, my heart raced again. I paused once more to relax and scan the skies for black shapes. The coast was clear. I climbed a few branches higher, thrust my head through the dense mat and found no nest. Looking up the tree from here, I could see clearly to the top, no nest above me. I perched myself comfortably and surveyed the surrounding firs. There was no nest in sight.
How could this be? It had seemed so obvious that the crows repeatedly landed in this tree then took off from it again minutes later. I’d seen them carry nesting material and food to this tree on a daily basis all spring long. As I surveyed and speculated, I became aware of a cacophony of caws. One crow was circling above the tree cawing loudly and repetitively. The whole neighborhood, it seemed, had become agitated. From my perch, I could see crows in pairs and as individuals launching from the various islands of firs in the midst of the sea of cleared land. Within a very short time, there were scores of the shining black birds circling the tree. Though most were content to circle around filling the air with their rattling voices, a few began diving towards me like a hawk stooping on its prey. These dive-bombers would veer off almost within reach of my arm which I held up to protect my head from their attacks. I was at once scared, fascinated and thrilled to be subject of such attention from the North Beach tribe of crows. Crows stick up for one another, and my thieving intention towards one set of parents was enough to bring the whole tribe out in force against me.
After a couple of long minutes, the dive-bombers backed off, and I was able to descend into the safety of the thicket below. At this point, the attack seemed to be called off, the crows dispersed, and the neighborhood returned to normal.
Less than two weeks after this event, the young were fledged. I woke early one morning to one of the parents constantly cawing from a low branch in front of the Truckhouse. This was the first time I had been aware of this behavior. It continued until I had gotten partially dressed and stepped out of the Truckhouse door to stare at the crow who was staring at me. Sure of my attention, the crow flew up, still constantly cawing, and proceeded along its usual route, ending with a landing in the “nest tree.” This time, however, it continued to caw constantly as it flew the next hidden leg of its route. From the perch where I had been met with the full force and fury of the corvid clan, the crow flew to the other end of the small stand of firs. Its path was completely hidden from the ground view, by the dense upper branches of the firs. Until this occasion, the crows had flown this leg in silence. Now, however, I was able to follow the voice of the triumphant bird, which sat perched in the real nest tree, still cawing until I had worked my way through the underbrush to within sight of the tree. A few more caws, a momentary stare directly into my eyes, and the sleek, black trickster flew away. I was left there rubbing a couple of fresh nettle stings, realizing how well my unspoken intentions had been understood and cleverly thwarted by a bird-brained creature, Corvus Brachyrhinchos.
There was no doubt: The Skybird was pure Crow. I had scavenged enough bronze trinkets, pieces of rope and other goodies for her, enough to make any crow jealous. She was rebuilt in the presence of crows, by a guy who filled an ecological niche with many parallels to the real bird. Perhaps the most crow thing about her was in the way she tricked me into wanting her and giving her everything I had to make her fly again.
Looking at the finished (no boat is ever finished) bird, I was thrilled and even proud of my accomplishment. She had come a long way in these last nine months. Now she looked really good rebuilt and freshly painted. Ready for adventure on the salty sea.
The Crow’s first flight was down Admiralty Avenue on top of a flatbed trailer. She came in for a landing at the Port of P.T. boat ramp. December deals up some days where cold rain caught in a salt-tinged wind falls horizontal. This was one of those days. A handful of friends (true friends) came out for the launching, including my girlfriend Sue who had the honor of breaking a Sheaf Stout bottle on the bow. As she did this, she muttered the words that Sam insisted were essential blessing for a new boat (or a new/old boat) “I christen thee Crow. Fair winds to all who sail thee.” After these critical ceremonial elements were taken care of, we backed the Crow into the water. I held my breath. . . . she floated!
She leaked. I realized my error in neglecting to rebuild the centerboard trunk. Where the old trunk joined the stem, water poured in. I began pumping the bilge immediately. While I had my head stuck in the bilge, Sam got the sails up and started tacking through the narrow channel between boats tied to the marina docks. A couple worried skippers came out on decks to fend us off if we failed a tack. The Crow could turn on a dime, though; they need not have worried. My friends claimed that first sail was exciting; all I could pay attention to was the horrifying amount of water pouring in and my task keeping ahead of it.
We sailed out to a neighbor’s Folk boat near the Port entrance. Here we double tied (couldn’t imagine paying for my own slip). The weather being miserable and the excitement over, my friends all left at once talking about dinner and a wood stove. I, meanwhile, was trapped. The Crow needed to have her bilge pumped every 15 minutes or the water would come above the cabin V berth. These next few hours were miserable, cold, and wet with a driving rain of failure soaking in to my core. I couldn’t stand to be aboard my sinking vessel between pumpings, so I lay in the Folk boat and seriously considered walking away. I saw myself walking southwards down Hwy 101, just me, my large external frame backpack, thumb out, Mexico-bound, quickly forgetting I had ever heard of boats or Port Townsend. With any luck, I could have a ride out of town before the Crow went under.
These thoughts were close to becoming action when Sam showed up and saved the bird once more. He brought ice cream, a joint, a sheaf stout and some generous hunks of venison jerky to cheer me up. To buoy up the Crow, he brought some long strips of cotton, some dimensional sticks and some underwater gucky pucky. After imbibing in all the various decadences, we got to work stuffing cotton in seams, slathering gucky pucky and strategically wedging the sticks against the most obviously leaky spots. These efforts got my work down to about 180 pumps per hour by morning. With some swelling of wood and additional caulking, I was able to leave the boat for several hours at a time. Within a couple of days, the bird only needed pumping once a day.
Over the next week, I cleaned up my shop and outfitted the Crow for cruising and living aboard. My land life was transforming and dissolving to make way for a new era as a sailor and adventurer. A couple of sails in P.T. bay proved the Crow to be a light and highly-responsive sailor with good pointing ability. I was sure the Crow could do anything.
The Crow’s cabin had room for a V berth, 3 shelves to starboard of the companionway and room for a small wood stove to port. The stove was a homemade contraption made from a square five-gallon coffee can lined with slate shingles bolted to the inside, with another slate shingle for a door. Though it smoked out the cabin when I opened the door, it did easily heat the space and provided a flat cooking surface. It lasted almost three months before deteriorating beyond repair. Outfitting the Crow didn’t take too long; there wasn’t too much room. It was comparable to moving into a VW van, though with less head room. Though somewhat cramped, the cabin became a cozy, homey space, and I began to eagerly anticipate the chapter about to unfold.
Just before Christmas, a Northeaster blew through at over 100 mph. Trees came down in large swaths, and Hadlock marina at the end of the bay was blown to bits leaving dozens of boats piled atop one another or holed on the beach or the bottom. Salt water inside the breakwater at the Port began to freeze, though the ice never reached the Crow; she survived completely unscathed. A friend and I got to enjoy the onset of the storm from the top of the sandy cliffs above the Strait. We leaned out into the teeth of the storm and, through the darkness, watched and felt the Straits crash into shore in a furious froth. While the docks were icy and the outdoors wildly cold, the Crow was safe from Port officials who would be seeking payment for moorage.
Here was the pickle. So close to departure, so unwilling to work again in the boatyards, so much down to my last $50. The cold weather led straight into the holidays; thus the Crow remained unnoticed into the New Year. Sometime in the first week of January, the inevitable happened and a pink slip appeared on the boat. The gig was up, and paying up for a couple of weeks moorage was out of the question. I made one of the last runs that my dying pickup would do (I had let the block crack in the freeze, Y. D.), loaded more gear and sailed out of the Port.
It was a grey and silver day with a light chop from the ten to 15-knot breeze swooping down off the snow-covered Olympics. One reach under full sail brought me across the bay to the entrance of Kilisut harbor. Luck was with me, manifested in favorable winds and a moderate flood current, which carried the Crow and me through the narrow and shallow Harbor entrance, then on down between forested shorelines to Mystery Bay. I dropped anchor inside this sheltered cove, feeling a solid bite as the danforth dug into the bottom. As I furled the Crow’s main, the sun made its first appearance of the day, heightening my already joyous mood. Here I was, captain of my own ship, securely anchored in my own little pirate’s cove, having succeeded in my first ever solo sail and getting a first taste of the cruising life. As the sun descended below the treetops, I sat in the warmth of the cabin. I made toast and hot soup on the woodstove and marveled at my position.
Mystery Bay had a dock, a public access, a pretty little park with a picnic table and a general store with a payphone. What more could I want? In the long run, more wildness, more distance from Navy facilities like the bomb depot on adjacent Indian Island. For the present, the place suited me just fine.
The day of my farewell across the wide Strait was drawing nearer. I was down to tying up a few loose ends in P.T. so that I would be free to cruise to the San Juan Islands where I knew magic awaited (and, more important, my girlfriend was there). I sold my truck to an old timer who wanted it for parts and suddenly found myself $200 richer. This was a critical cash infusion. Another boon came when my dad visited from Seattle. He took me shopping at West Marine for a VHF radio, and a new 12 volt gel cell deep cycle battery. Way to go, Dad! He didn’t much like the idea of me sailing alone across the Strait in the winter without a motor. However, he knew there was no changing my course so he, at least, made sure I would have a way to call for help if worst came worst.
The motor thing. I was gonna be damned and wear a suit and tie before I was going to have some stinking, polluting, Earth-destroying, Gulf War causing, fish-killing, loud, obnoxious outboard motor on my precious sailing vessel. You might as well have asked me to join the military or take a job in the pulp mill as to put a motor on the Crow. I received strongly-worded and oft-repeated advice on the subject from Sam, parents and every boating person who knew me. One fisherman neighbor, knowing the territory enough to fully grasp the extent of my foolhardiness, offered a free outboard, begged me to take it. It never occurred to me that all these people might have a valid point of view on the matter. The Crow and I set about adventuring under sail, sculling oar, and at the mercy of the tides.
One friend who was as stubborn and idealistic as me was Bill. He, too, was on the way out of civilization. He was the black sheep of his East Coast family on account of his long hair and his job as an organic gardener for a local seed company. He understood my stance on the infernal combustion engine issue. He still sometimes reminds me of his first sail on the Crow.
We left Mystery Bay on a rare sunny afternoon with a light westerly breeze and an ebbing tide. Our intent was to enjoy a short day sail, then return to the bay. I haven’t seen Mystery Bay since.
The airs were light in Kilisut harbor, and I figured a better breeze could be found on the more open water of Port Townsend Bay. In working our way out the narrow and winding but well marked channel to P.T. Bay, we found ourselves with more tidal current than wind. The current swept the Crow to the side of the marked channel, and I looked down to see eelgrass and clam shells not far underneath the surface. I reacted quickly, raising the centerboard to reduce the Crow’s draw from four feet to 18 inches. We were swept across the shoal, then back into the navigable channel. On reaching this deeper water, I attempted to lower the centerboard again. I freed the line which held the board (actually a piece of 3/8″ plate steel) in the retracted position. Nothing happened. The centerboard trunk had swelled since the Crow’s launching and now the slot held the board in place in the retracted position. This eliminated the boat’s ability to sail to windward as well as reducing the amount of weight and surface area underwater to counteract the amount of heel generated by wind in the sails.
I flashed on an easy solution. There were a couple of 1/2″ by 1-1/2″ boards on board; I had only to slip one into the slot on top of the centerboard and use a hammer to drive the centerboard down. This seemed to be working, until I realized that instead of pushing the centerboard down, my stick had slipped beside the centerboard and was serving to more securely wedge the centerboard into place. When I tried to pull this stick out of the centerboard slot, it broke off, leaving the situation worse than before my attempted cure. The next stick I hammered into the slot only vibrated and splintered when caught between the irresistible force of my fear-driven hammer and the now immovable centerboard.
The tide carried us out into Port Townsend Bay and straight towards a large pier. This could have provided an opportunity to stop, tie up, and fix the problem at hand. This pier, however, was no welcome rest stop. It was designed for large ships and had no deck at Crow level — only pilings for the current to sweep us into or in between. Worse yet, this pier was owned by the U.S. Navy. There was a veil of secrecy around the whole facility. Rumor had it the Navy used Indian Island for storage of nuclear warheads. Nuclear warheads were not allowed in Puget Sound proper, so inbound ships would stop here, unload the hot stuff, and pick it up again on their way out the Strait. Such was the rumor around town.
So here we were, practically windless, in a strong current carrying us towards a pier plastered with large signs letting us know that the Navy was authorized to use deadly force against trespassers. To compound the hazards downstream, the pier was currently occupied by a warship, a huge monolithic beast. Its towering grey topsides and sharp bow creating yet another obstacle to avoid, as well as further reason for the Navy to keep intruders at bay.
Bill steered as I sculled. The sculling oar could propel the Crow forwards at a speed of about one knot. No amount of adrenalin-charged hustle on the part of the operator could induce more speed from this auxiliary power system. Bill picked up a paddle to assist with propulsion as he simultaneously steered with his foot on the tiller. Still, our forward progress was scant compared to the current’s sideways pull.
This homemade little black boat with sails impotently flapping in the breezelessness and two panic-stricken long-haireds sculling and paddling for their lives probably appeared more comical than threatening to anyone watching from the pier. Though at the time, we were feeling highly threatened by the threat of deadly force and failed to see the humor in the situation. God, Goddess, Poseidon, the Silkies, Guardian Angels, Benevolent Spirit of Wind or random luck spared us from finding out just what the Navy thought of our impending intrusion. A light but steady breeze came up from the direction of the deadly pier. We were able to sail our way out of the strong outflow current, and clear of the military complex hex. As we sailed along the length of the monstrous warship (at a respectful distance), scores of sailors (the other kind of sailor), lined up along the rail waving. I reached into the cabin for a Sheaf Stout to hold skywards as a form of salute. A cheer was heard from deck many stories above us.
With the centerboard hopelessly jammed and light but consistent airs having turned westerly again to be blowing straight from Port Townsend, we slowly tacked our way towards town, barely able to make progress to windward. The adventure part was over. Now we could relax and settle into a long trip across the bay. It was past midnight when we dropped the hook just off of downtown and rowed into shore next to the still-hopping Town Tavern. This would have been a great time to drop in for a beer and spin a yarn for some stranger at the bar with a willing ear. I was, however, still under 21 years old, and I looked it.
After dropping Bill ashore, I rowed Smile back out to the Crow for a fine and long-awaited night’s sleep.
“You left the Crow where?” cried Sam “When the next southeasterly comes up, you’ll be picking her up in pieces off of the bric-a-brac on shore.”
It was early January and more often blowing southeastern than not. We were sitting on some scavenged semi-derelict lawn chairs, having morning coffee outside Sam’s shack. For me, the focus was narrowing. Foremost in my thoughts was the Crow’s impending departure northward. I continually plied Sam for information, advice and reassurance that I actually might survive.
“There’s a herd of white buffalos out there in the middle, then another if you get up near McArthur Bank.”
Sam was referring to a couple of large areas of standing waves brought about by tidal rips and upwelling, their tops often tumbling over, creating white manes. The metaphor held a potent image for me. I could easily see the Crow as a fragile little animal dodging endless thundering hooves of giant creatures who, without malice or concern, might smash her to bits.
“Can’t I just go around those places?” I said, still holding out a naive hope of reaching Alaska without ever facing such a host.
“Don’t worry about it. Just keep looking over your shoulder so you know when the big ones are sneaking up on you. The Crow will ride through them just fine. After you get through the white buffalo, the rest is a piece of cake. Well, at least until you get to Cattle Pass. That place can rip you a new asshole.”
A crow landed atop the pilothouse sauna, leaning forward and lowering its head as it belted out a few caws before flying away again. I worried. Anything can be an omen, and I just didn’t know what to make of crows anymore.
To the small boat skipper, Cattle Pass can be the gateway to freedom. Once through, you’ve left the big water behind and can enjoy the relative protection of Griffin Bay and the San Juan Channel. It’s the getting through that can be tricky. Sam once described sailing Winged through the edge of a one-acre sized whirlpool in a narrow current-filled pass. He speculated that the center of such a vortex might suck a small boat right under, carrying the skipper to another dimension.
A long time purse-seine skipper who made an annual journey up the inside passage told me that, on a couple of occasions, Cattle Pass was the worst water he had encountered on the whole trip. An outgoing tidal current running against a large swell in the Strait can set up an area of steep, breaking waves that make even a seiner pitch and roll wildly. My imagination latched right onto this imagery. I decided that another exit from the Strait might be more appropriate.
With a head full of dire warnings and salty sage advice and veins coursing with caffeine and expectation for the upcoming adventure, I rolled out of Sam’s driveway on my trusty bicycle. Buffeted by a chill wind on the ride to town, I reached the bay to find it churned up and rolling. A southeaster was up and the Crow’s fine downtown anchorage was now a dangerous lee shore.
I launched Smile into the waves curling against the beach and rowed out to the Crow. Within minutes, sails were up and I was hauling up the anchor. Adrenalin and luck were with me. I was able to get the anchor on deck, leap back to the tiller and in several, short tacks, come clear of the two piers I’d innocently anchored between.
In the near calm of the night before, I’d failed to foresee that such a location could become a trap to crawl out of. I had set myself up so that one failed tack or unexpected difficulty on departure would send the Crow headlong into a pier or sideways into the bric-a-brac covered shore. Gaining the ability of foresight through the lessons of misadventure was beginning to develop as a theme. This was only the beginning.
Once free and clear in the bay, I was happily underway on my second solo sail. A downwind run turned into a reach as the Crow rounded Point Hudson bound for her next refuge.
Tucked just inside of Point Wilson was a pier and a dock protected by a small breakwater, not a breakwater proper but a line of tightly-spaced pilings which created some shelter shoreward. The waves still penetrated, but were diminished by this wall. Somehow I sailed in to the dock without sailing into the dock, tied up and thanked my lucky stars for the successful completion of one more mini-adventure.
In summer, this area would be busy with visitors and the activities of the Pacific Science Center, which was housed in a building atop the pier. Now, however, no one was around. I was free to tie up, live aboard and await the right moment, the right wind and the right tide to carry the Crow across the Strait. Here was the starting gate, a last shady grove at the edge of a wide prairie full of white buffalo, the last safe harbor at the edge of the universe.
For the last couple of months, my dreams had been intensifying. I was waking most mornings to experience vivid and extensive recall of journeys in the dream world. Now with sleeping aboard the Crow, these dreams were nearly purely boat and water. Often, disaster was narrowly averted, or only averted by my waking at the climax of crisis. One night, the Crow would be sailing along smartly, yet steadily sinking under, leaving me and a few random objects afloat. Another night there would be an impending collision. Repeated at least twice was the dream theme of the Crow being one quarter the size of the “real” Crow of the conscious world. She would be of highly-flimsy construction. I would be upon her in steadily increasing circumstances of wind and wave, wondering how she had gotten so small and flimsy.
In fact, the Crow had grown smaller. In her shops, she had been a dominating centerpiece. Now, perched on the edge of the Strait, she was a mere speck. She was, however, a cleverly-formed little speck, capable of steerage and locomotion. I was a fool with a little knowledge. The brains of the bird, the birdbrain. Together, we waited at the edge of the nest for the first real flight, the big flight.
Gales raged, rain and spray blew. I walked beaches, watched waves, puttered over details and listened to the weather reports on the VHF. One afternoon, the national weather service forecasted favorable conditions for our departure. The next morning, they predicted the winds, though still 15 to 25 knots in Admiralty Inlet, to turn easterly 10 to 20 knots in the Strait. This corresponded with an ebb tide, which the Crow could ride into and half way across the Strait. The idea being to be in mid-crossing at the slack before flood, then ride the flood northward to the other side. I excitedly envisioned a plan. With such winds, I had only to cross the width of Admiralty Inlet. Then I would be in the lee of Whidbey Island where there would be little fetch in which waves could form. An easterly would put me on a beam reach bound for Anacortes, happily sailing with the relatively smooth water in the lee.
That night, I had dinner with Sam and Bill. Sam referred to the meal as “The Last Supper.” He took the opportunity to reinforce some of his favorite bits of wisdom. “The prudent sailor reefs early. Look out for the seventh wave. Keep looking over your shoulder. Schlocky fucking lines will kill you!”
We all laughed at the bit about the last supper, yet I sincerely recognized the possibility. This was no bushwhack in the mountains. It was certainly no bass fishing trip on a Jon boat in an Illinois reservoir. This was serious stuff.
Dawn came to find Admiralty Inlet still whipped up, skies were steel grey and dim, rain pelted the decks of the Crow which pitched and pulled at her mooring lines. By late morning, it was the time of the tide to either depart or wait for another day. The forecast called for increasing winds overnight and I foresaw an extended delay should I miss this tide. The conditions were rougher than I would have preferred but I was young and impatient. On the other side of the Strait were magical island, sheltered harbors, a rural scene and Sue. I could not bear to wait here any longer in fearful anticipation.
I raised sails, untied the mooring lines and, in a few quick tacks, was out on Admiralty Inlet, the mouth of Puget Sound, entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. I pointed the helm towards Pt. Partridge which put me on a broad reach and a beeline for the lee. The winds had diminished in the last hour and I began my crossing under full main and jib. In a short time, the Crow was carried beyond Point Wilson. From here, there was no turning back. Here, too, the wind came up in force again. The slight lull which had encouraged my departure was past. The reinvigorated and gusty air had shifted southward as it increased, causing me to be on a run. All the better, I believed, as on this point of sail, the relative wind is at its least, as is the boat’s angle of heel. Not fair winds, but following seas.
My Irish wool sweater was soaked right through, yet a powerful rush of adrenalin kept me warm. There was no time to think about my level of comfort and certainly no time to leave the tiller long enough to fetch foul weather gear from the cabin. Several oversights were becoming apparent at one time as the Crow plodded steadily through increasingly large swells. The Crow’s mast was raked too far aft, resulting in extreme weather helm. In the more mild conditions I had experienced so far, this had not been a problem, and I believed a little weather helm was a benefit. Now, however, I found myself white knuckling the tiller and pulling hard against the boat’s powerful pull to windward. A brief moment neglecting the tiller for another task would pull the bow around into the wind, causing the boat to heel dramatically along the way. Then the sails would flap as the bow passed through the eye of the wind and on to the other tack.
When it came time to reef the main, I attempted to lash the tiller in such a way as to hold true to course, but found that this technique bought me little time in these circumstances. “The prudent sailor reefs early.” This was no reference to smoking reefer. Hearing this phrase repeating in my mind, I realized that reefing now was already reefing late. With the tiller lashed off, I crawled up onto the deck with the screwdriver which substituted for the missing handle for the roller reefing mechanism on the gooseneck. Reefing with this improvised handle was a slow process during which I had to leap back to the helm several times to correct my course. The diminished sail area did make things noticeably easier.
Back at the helm, I focused on meeting each and every wave with my stern quarter. These were larger swells than I had seen and closer spaced. From in the troughs, I couldn’t see beyond the next swells towering above the decks. My fear heightened yet the Crow performed well, faithfully rising out of every trough and over the top of each swell that overtook us. Alongside my fear sat a strange confidence in my funky little craft and in my ability as her skipper. This feeling was allowed to exist due to my lack of true understanding of where I was, the limitations of my craft and the arrogance and naiveté of youth.
I suppose there is no getting through the transition from childhood to adulthood without pulling a few doozies just to find out what limitations there really are and which may perhaps just be fictions by which older generations unnecessarily limit themselves. I was in the midst of my biggest doozy ever, undertaken in the name of adventure and with the aim of pushing my own limitations in order to live more freely from the yoke of fear.
Looking over my shoulder as I had been advised to do, I counted waves passing below me and discovered a pattern. There seemed to be nine waves in a cycle, with the seventh being exceptionally large and the eighth and ninth also large, but not as threatening because their troughs were not as deep as that before the seventh.
As we came nearly abeam of Pt. Partridge, yet still a couple of miles offshore, the Crow rose over one such seventh wave to find that the next swell carried atop it a two-foot diameter log some twenty feet long. I quickly changed course to avoid this giant battering ram heaving in a wild sea and the new course resulted in an immediate, violent flying jibe. A powerful gust catching the backside of the mainsail swung the boom rapidly to the starboard side, ending when the boom met the sudden resistance of the three-eighths-inch manila mainsheet (another expression of rebellion against things modern such as strong, durable Dacron lines). The mast shuddered but did not splinter. The sail refilled on the new tack with a violent snap yet did not tear. Most miraculous of all, the mainsheet of highly inferior natural fibers did not part.
I took all this in in a split second. The Crow nearly grazed the lively, pitching log as we were blown over the next swell. We were in a whole field of logs, an area of converging currents several hundred yards across which contained not only a generous assortment of arboreal obstacles but also steep and chaotic standing waves. The wind-driven swell took on crazy, unpredictable forms, with the largest, the sevens, eights and nines, having their crests tumbled over frothing and white. As soon as I could, I left the helm to free the main halyard. Between runs aft to correct our radically swinging course, I clutched at the main, desperately pulling it downward, securing the sail to the boom with a few battons, not well, but as best I could. With the main furled, the Crow was pulled along by the jib alone and became easier to handle. Most important, the chance of another flying jibe was now eliminated altogether.
This was the rip which extended for miles off Point Partridge. I was later to learn that a number of ships, much larger and more seaworthy than the Crow and with more experienced pilots than I, lay underneath the mad seas in which I now dodged logs and danced within a sea state that was way out of my league.
It was here that the arrogance and accompanying confidence were blown away. I was exceeding a few reasonable limits and now recognized the degree of good fortune which would be necessary to see me through this one. The Crow continued to handle the wild water admirably, yet I was disturbed by a feeling of heaviness which was becoming more noticeable.
It seemed as if the stern was not rising as high as it had been earlier in the journey, yet the difference was still little enough that I was almost able to dismiss it as imagination Since leaving the dock at Fort Worden, each time the Crow had risen on a swell, then settled down again, a little surge of water had shot through the top of the centerboard slot, then appeared to drain back out the way it had come in. Sam had told me several times to plug this slot but, like a number of projects, I had not gotten to it. Prior to this day, the opening, which was less than a foot above the waterline, had not allowed water aboard. Now that it was, I couldn’t take the time to investigate or remedy the situation and had to just trust that this water really was draining back out. My hands were locked tightly to the tiller; this was no place to let the boat swing around wherever it will, nor to divert my eyes which scouted ahead for more deadheads.
I was seeing the consequences for a few minor oversights materialize at once. Foremost was my failure to mount the bilge pump affirmatively and within reach of the helm. This, coupled with my failure to seal the top of the centerboard slot, might just have been the small details that would prove to be my undoing.
I was now not far from a state of blind terror. I managed to hold myself together as there was no other viable option. It was here that I chastised myself: Why did I have to be Mr. Fucking Adventure? Why couldn’t I just be happy being normal, doing ordinary things? Even working for the rest of my life at a Pizza Hut back in Illinois, would be better than dying in this cold water. I was too young to die by any means; yet, caught within this raging expression of nature’s fierce power, aboard a craft which I now recognized as being clearly unfit for the occasion, I was forced to face my own possible end or transformation by way of a watery grave. I resolved to perform at my best, knowing that any less would not be enough.
Though it burned a potent and lasting impression on me, the Crow’s passage through this rip happened in mere minutes. She rose up on one last swell, then quite suddenly, we had left the rip with its mad standing waves and wild-card deadheads behind. The swell with its fetch clear to Seattle did not penetrate into the current we were now sailing. Neither did the gusty crest-toppling southeasterly wind cross this barrier. We had made the lee!
The Crow now bobbed heavily in a one-foot chop. A steadily diminishing breeze soon left her jib luffing. Looking ahead, I saw nothing like what we had been through. In the more mild-mannered conditions which now prevailed, I lost the adrenalin rush which had powered me through and kept me warm as well. Now I felt the cold which prevailed on this wet January day and I began shivering. I left the tiller to get a warm dry change of clothes from the cabin. What I found in the Crow’s small cabin brought me instantly again into a struggle to maintain myself against a growing panic.
The water, which had surged through the top of the centerboard slot, had not, as I had wanted to believe, left the boat the way it had come in. All that water could now be accounted for: its surface was above the height of the v-berth which served as a cabin sole. My spare clothes, sleeping bag, food and even my cassette tape collection were floating around in there. Even at first launching with the badly-leaking trunk, the Crow had never taken on this much water. I flashed on some comments heard only days before from another sailor in town. He had absent-mindedly started talking about buoyancy and how every boat has its own threshold of load under which it can keep afloat. He had mentioned that many boats will take on water and take on water without losing a noticeable amount of freeboard, then suddenly, cross their threshold and rapidly go under.
Staring over the side, I could see that the Crow had actually lost some freeboard. I had not been imagining that heavy feeling. A peek down the centerboard slot reveled that the water level was merely a few inches from the top. The Crow would surely not take on much more water before her destiny was sealed. I cast an eye toward Smile and contemplated the couple of miles row to shore in this chop. Abandoning the Crow for such a row in Smile was not what I wanted to do.
“A scared man with a bucket is the best bilge pump in the world.” This was more P.T. wisdom. I bailed with unbelievable fervor. While bailing, I speculated about the cause of the leak. I could still not believe all this water could have come from that innocent little surge through the centerboard slot. I questioned whether the swells had reopened one of the leaks that I had plugged at the bottom of the centerboard trunk. If that was the case, then I would be bailing all the rest of the way across the Strait.
Reaching into the cabin, I got as far as holding the microphone of the VHF in my hand. I wanted to tell the Coast Guard or somebody that I was where I was. Afloat, out of immediate danger and dealing, yet in trouble, nonetheless. Before I cued the mike, I looked up and off the stern to see a purse seiner passing close by. They responded to my standing on deck waving a life jacket at the end of each fully extended arm by turning their bow toward me. The Corregidor came alongside the Crow. I shouted up to a crewman, explaining my potential leak, lack of dry clothing and now that the wind had died off completely, my lack of a valid means of propulsion. They were headed for Anacortes and kindly agreed to give the Crow a tow.
The rest of the Strait crossing was relatively uneventful. I sat at the Crow’s helm, feeling a bit like a water-skier, the Crow planing across the now calm Strait behind the powerful seiner. They dropped me just outside of Skyline Marina south of Anacorrtes. As I skulled in to the sheltered basin behind the breakwater, the winter sun set somewhere behind a thick cloud layer. Here, I actually paid moorage for the night as it was the only way to get a key to the critical laundromat and showers. After drying out clothing and bedding, taking a long, hot shower and fixing some hot soup (the whisperlite had survived the deluge), I walked up to the payphones ashore.
“Hey, Sam, I’m alive in Anacortes,” I said, then went on to recount the day’s events. There was silence on Sam’s end of the line.
“Hey, Sam, are you still there?”
There was another momentary pause before his response. “God loves fools!”