F/V Charity, North to Alaska

29 04 2011

A mountain of unavoidable boat projects caused a few days’ delay, but I’m now reasonably certain that the good ship Charity will pull out of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal today. As certain as a deckhand ever can be, that is. If a profession rooted in taking life can offer Buddhist teachings, it’s this: Let go of expectations and attachment, as captains reserve – and continually exercise – the right to change plans.

(I have a ways to go yet on realizing this lesson.)

The Charity's last night in Seattle, until fall 2011.

Had some excitement this week. If you read Hooked’s last post, you know I was pretty casual about packing for this trip. Saved it for my last night at home, tossed everything into a couple bags. I don’t expect to be on the Charity for more than a month, and the process is pretty formulaic. Boots, raingear, toiletries, a lot of fish clothes, a little of town clothes. (“Town clothes”: A T-shirt and Carhartts that haven’t been worn while fishing. That’s pretty classy for our crowd.)

While Martin did the Costco run, I prepared to gel-coat the head floor. At lunch, he’d said we’d likely stop in Bute Dale, a mystical ghost town several days into Canada. Century-old skeletons of houses and a long-abandoned cannery slide into the bay under the supervision of a massive waterfall and one lone caretaker, Lou.

My thoughts wandered as I wiped the floor down with acetone. Haven’t stopped in Bute Dale since the last time I fished with Martin…what, 6 years ago? Wonder what’s left of it. Bute Dale… Canada…Customs…Passport – NO PASSPORT!

I called Joel in panic-stricken disbelief. We were planning to leave in the next day, and not only had I forgotten to pack my required documentation for transiting through Canada, I didn’t have a clue where I’d put it. A bad surprise for anyone; extra mortifying for the family member known as the responsible, organized one.

Cap’n J saved the day. He calmed me down, refusing to play my “What if you can’t find it!” game. When he didn’t find it in any of my usual safe-keeping spots, he drove down to the Nerka, checked the binder of required documents on our boat. No dice. I jumped when the phone buzzed several hours later, and felt my shoulders sag when he said, “Found it.”

With that, things took a turn for the better. Joel had already planned a trip through Seattle for the next day, so he made a special delivery detour through Fisherman’s Terminal. We had a bonus last lunch together, a few more hugs and kisses goodbye, and I’m now legal to travel through Canada.  Whew.

We got fuel yesterday. Over $3500 of diesel. That’ll get us to Alaska; we’ll have to fuel up again in Sitka before we can go fishing. We’ve still got a few tasks today – groceries, running new anchor line on the winch, checking the survival suits. If you’d like to keep an eye on our trip, visit here and here for marine weather updates.  We’ll be heading up the Inside Passage, Seattle to Sitka, and expect a 5 to 6 day trip, barring any weather-related delays.

June 2010: Looking back on Washington water, heading into a great forecast.

When you next hear from the F/V Charity, we should be safely tethered to Sitka’s Eliason Harbor. If we pass on the dock, you’ll know me by the halibut-sized grin on my face. I’ll have made the first walk up to the Backdoor, Romeos fairly skipping over the sidewalk to get to that homecoming slice of Bernadette’s close-your-eyes-and-whimper-it’s-so-good pie. (See? So much for letting go of expectations.)

Until then, sweet reader, may you enjoy clear skies and safe seas in your life, as you embrace your own seasonal transitions.


Living Seasonally: A Deckhand’s Preparation

26 04 2011

Living seasonally applies unique meaning to life.  Time doesn’t seem to pass particularly quickly, as we mosey through the “off”-season, balancing necessary boat maintenance and improvements with the luxuries of being self-employed. Plenty of opportunities to indulge in hobbies, re-connect with friends and family, and putter around the house. After six months of squeezing ourselves into the confines of 43 feet, we bliss out on the decadence of an 1800 square foot existence.

I keep an eye on the calendar and warn non-fishing friends that any goodbye get-togethers need to happen now, or they won’t happen at all.  I take note of the red flowering currant unfurling in our greenbelt, say goodbye to the varied thrush and start waiting for the evening grosbeak to appear at our feeders.  Even with that cognizance, even as a lifetime veteran of this process, I still feel awe at the annual demarcation of exchanging one lifestyle for another. The change is total – geographic, professional, cultural, social, from living environment to daily routine.  No matter how gently you handle them, closing one door to open another conveys abruptness.

For the past two weeks, I’ve lived by lists, surrounded by scraps of Do-Before-Leaving itineraries.  Car insurance on hold, thrift store for hoodies, cancel netflix. After several months’ lapse, there was a sudden, desperate urgency to going back to the gym, and Joel got used to watching me drop to the floor mid-conversation for impromptu push-ups and sit-ups.

With all of this experience, you’d think I’d spend my last night ashore curled up on the red couch with Cap’n J. We’d reflect on our winter together and talk about our hopes for the coming season, Bear the Boat Cat spilling across our combined laps. A very mindful, intentional way to embrace transition, honoring what’s been and welcoming what’s to come.  Instead, I spent Sunday night in the midst of this:

Bear the Boat Cat, seasoned crewmember, knows this drill.

Our living room piled high with boots, gloves and raingear (several seasons’ broken in and smelling like it, plus a new pair as back-up), I demonstrate a brand-name allegiance that you’d expect from an affluent high schooler: Carhartt, Grundens, Romeos, Xtra-Tufs. The Ziploc bag of toiletries bulges with Extra-Strength Advil, Tiger Balm, and Biofreeze deep heating gel.  A sleeping bag and pillow, mirrored with a small mountain of socks – there’s no luxury on a boat to equal a fresh, dry pair.  And to shore-up my dock cred, a collection of Ray Troll T-shirts and hoodies. Less typical of your average halibut deckhand: the separate backpack bulging with  notebooks, journals, writing manuals, and netbook.

Watching the backpacks and black plastic garbage bags stack up by the front door, I have a moment of gratitude for my vertically-challenged frame. “Personal space” on a boat is generally limited to one space only, and at 5’2″, I can cram plenty into the foot and head of my bunk and still have a welcoming nest.

Cap’n J drove us through a miserable deluge yesterday to deliver me to Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal.  For the next month, I’ve signed off from the Nerka, working with captain and partner Joel, to return to the good ship Charity, crewing for captain and “brother,” Martin.  The halibut are calling, so we’re in the mad scramble of tidying the Charity’s remaining loose ends.  I hope to have another opportunity to share our progress with you, sweet reader, before our Thursday send-off.  Meanwhile, Captain Marlin has appeared at the coffee house and the work day is ready to start – best fishes, friends, until next time.

How Nerka Got Her Sea Legs Back, Part 2

23 04 2011

[Part 1 of “How Nerka Got Her Sea Legs Back” can be viewed here.]

“Uh-oh,” Joel said. “Hang on!”

We surged into a sea of whitecaps, as clearly delineated from the calm water behind as if a line was drawn between the two. I braced myself and grabbed the depth sounder. Not anticipating any weather, we hadn’t secured it in place. With every lurch, the heavy, expensive piece of equipment tried to waltz across the console.

Joel twisted the wooden wheel. “It’s always harder to steer in a following sea. Damn, we’re so light!” With no fish and little fuel, the waves tossed us around like a tetherball.

Another deep shudder echoed through the boat, vibrations pulsing through our feet. My face tightened. The dreaded unidentified noise at sea: Fisherman’s Botox.

An all-too-common expression on boats. 2007

“Here – you drive, I’ve got to go take a look.”

I took the wheel as he opened the hatch in our floor, grabbed his headphones, and dropped down to the engine room.  The Jimmy’s roar flooded the cabin as I struggled to maintain our course. Turn one degree too far port, and we swung wildly to the left; crank it hard to bring her back, and we veered straight for Fidalgo Island on our starboard. A bipolar blend of muttered curses and autopilot nostalgia snuck by my grimacing lips.

Joel hoisted himself up from the engine room. “I don’t know, dude. I looked at everything, greased everything, and I can’t see anything that would be causing that vibration.”

On cue, the Nerka shivered.

“Could we have gotten something in the prop?” He voiced the fear we’d been sitting on.

“I haven’t seen any crab pots, no crap in the water.”

“Okay… You go back to watch, and I’ll try reversing, see if anything comes loose.”

As I made my way back to the cockpit, indigo waves stretched up alongside us, smacking each other in aquatic applause. I peered over the stern rail as Joel gunned us back. Prop wash kicked up, but no errant shots of line emerged.

There was nothing to do but keep going. Still over three hours out from Bellingham Bay, I wondered how badly we were damaging some integral element – the shaft, the alignment, the main engine. Too tense to read, we stared out the front windows. A pair of marbled murrelets popped up alongside our port bow, paddling merrily for a moment before registering the featherless behemoth (to a small diving bird, that is) bearing down on them. Oh, to be able to dive away from scary stuff and surface in the clear, I thought, as they plunged back down.

Murrelets, humpbacks... Another universe beneath us. 2007

“At least we’re almost out of the rip.” The clear demarcation that had greeted us signified our approaching exit.

Joel wasn’t convinced. “It’s looked like we’re getting closer for a while now.”

“No, really – we’re just four swells away. Three…Two…” I counted as we pitched and heaved our way to the flat water. “Whew. Well, that sucked.”

The rolling had stopped, but with the tide running against us, we’d hit a wall. “Oh my god, are you serious?” Joel stared at the speed. “We’re going 2.4 knots!”  At that rate, we’d be lucky to trudge into Bellingham by bedtime.

Joel called Joe, our electrician, who diagnosed our autopilot issue over the phone: Wired into a breaker too small to support it.  Hopeful, Joel handed the wheel over and disappeared into the fo’c’sle to switch it to a spare 15 amp spot. When he came up and pushed the power button, we held our breath.  It clicked on… and stayed on.

“Woo-hoo!” We traded high-fives, relieved to be free of hand-steering’s drudgery.

The fist of anxiety began to loosen.  The shuddering seemed to have resolved itself, no appearances for the next few hours.  The tide backed off and we made a more respectable 6.6 knots. Nerka chugged forth, following the curve of Chuckanut Drive as Bellingham Bay came into sight.

After squeezing free of Port Townsend’s tights stalls 7 hours earlier, Squalicum Harbor’s vast commercial berths sprawled before us.  “Yep – no wind, nice day, a port tie in a wide-open stall… Conditions are perfect for a classic Joel docking disaster,” Joel joked.

Not so. Cap’n J executed a perfect maneuver, sliding the Nerka right alongside the finger as if he’d never left the helm this winter. When I jumped off and secured the bow line, a white-haired gentleman leaning on a walker appeared, a beaming woman behind him. Joel’s parents had been enjoying a walk along the harbor when they’d seen us pulling in. They’d rushed to greet their old boat – part of their family history that predated even their children.

Nestled among her bigger dockmates, 2010

The next day, Matt of Northwest Diesel came down to check out our main engine. “Did you know one of the bolts in your engine mount is loose?” he asked. Suddenly, the correlation between our shuddering and the choppy weather was clear.

In the past several days, our maiden voyage anxiety has become less insistent in our remembrances, as all bad boat experiences seem to do. Fishermen have supreme selective memory: We can endure a season full of fruitless searches for fish, steady Southeasterlies and boat malfunctions, yet months later, will only remember the awesome sunsets, whale shows, and the big ones that didn’t get away.  Perhaps that’s the gift of having a life you love.

How Nerka Got Her Sea Legs Back (Part 1)

20 04 2011

Creatures removed from their natural habitat are a sad sight, and I feel the same way about boats out of water. Perched on spindly prosthetic legs of steel tripods and wooden blocks, they loom gangly and uncertain, vulnerable bellies exposed and dusty where they should be damp. A boat out of water never fails to tug at my heart, so it was distressing to realize that the Nerka has spent far more time out of water than in, over recent years.

Prime real estate: Parked outside Steelhead Marine

Our girl has become a regular in the Port Townsend Boat Yard, her tired, neglected bits tended by expert craftsmen Tim Hoffmann, Tim Quandt, and Joe Smith.  Joel and I have spent the past 3 years disputing the myth of the fisherman’s “off”-season, filling our winters with an endless, expensive litany of boat projects. We sleep well, knowing we’re doing our part to support our teams’ families in tough economic times.

This winter was an ambitious one. Among other things: Rip out over 200 pounds of ancient, fear-inducing wiring, and re-do the entire electrical system.  Take down her crooked, worn-thin trolling poles and replace with new aluminum poles, stiff-legs, and rigging. Replace the steering lines. Strip more than a decade’s worth of mildew from the focsle. Replace the 5 leaky cabin windows that gushed with every wave we took last September. (We’d finished the season with paper towels stuffed in the frames.)

Straits of Georgia, September 2010.

After seven months on land, she was ready to splash, and we were more than ready to trade the 2-hour-and-a-ferry commute for a 15 minute drive from home to harbor. We studied the forecast and determined there could be no more delays: On Tuesday, we would bring the Nerka back to Bellingham.

In the slings, ready to splash.

When our alarm went off at 6:00, we rose from the (mildew-free) foc’s’le and anxiously peered out the cabin windows.  “Look at that, the flags are totally limp!” Joel cheered.  By 6:15, we were untied and pulling out of our stall, slicing through the still harbor with a glorious pumpkin of a full moon supervising from the starboard.

Joel steered us past the ferry embarking on its first morning run, while I sat at the table, ears cocked for the slightest variance in engine pitch.  After months of monkeying with every major system on board, we felt more anxiety about this little jaunt through Rosario Strait than we do about fishing forty miles offshore every July.

(Perhaps it didn’t help my nerves that I’d stayed up late the night before, reading the story of a ship lost on the Bering Sea.)

There’s always a mental adjustment to traveling by water, after months of driving over pavement.  Port Townsend is less than two hours from Bellingham by car, but we were looking at a trip of over 7 hours.

Within moments, our voyage became more interesting. When we clicked on the autopilot, it popped its breaker. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” growled Cap’n J. “I don’t believe this – looks like we’ll be hand steering.”

Our hopes for a glassy crossing washed away with an increasing choppiness, the kind of ocean that always make me think of galloping horses, spray kicked up like manes in the wind. Books and cups slid across the table, and an intermittent shudder began reverberating up through the floor.  As we traded ideas on what could cause such a deep vibration, we saw a solid line of whitecaps forming ahead, froth gleaming cheerfully in the sun.

August 2010

“I hope that’s a whole mess of dolphins up there,” I said.

Joel peered out the solidly-sealed windows. “Maybe it’s just a tide rip. They don’t look like surly waves – just festive.”

I grabbed the kettle off the stove and stashed it in the sink, where it couldn’t slide around. Quickly identifying and securing items that would fly when we hit the waves ahead, I mumbled assurances under my breath. “Festive, they’re just festive.”

“Uh-oh,” Joel said.  “Hang on!”

[In 22 seasons fishing, I’ve learned that nothing good ever comes from “Hang on!”  Please visit “Hooked” again in the next couple days for the conclusion to How Nerka Got Her Sea Legs Back.]

The View From Sitka: Totem Raising, Part 2

13 04 2011

On October 14, 2006, the stars lined up just right (in the alignment of bad ocean conditions) that we were tied to the dock on the day of a totem raising. The newspaper explained this “Wellbriety” totem pole, going up at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Mt. Edgecumbe campus, was honoring a process to heal the total person – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being.

Just one year removed from tending to Seattle’s homeless youth, I was still seeing “my kids” nightly in my dreams. The concept of Wellbriety deeply resonated. Before I could over-think it, I’d hopped off the boat and started the 3 mile walk from the harbor to the clinic. Anxious excitement curled in my belly, I was almost running by the end.

More than 300 people had turned out for the event. A steady drizzle of Sitka sunshine fell on children, elders, families. We stood in respectful quiet – not silence, not with all those kids running around – as the ceremony began. Tlingit elders from the Raven and Eagle clans named the pole: Yei eek kwa neix. You are going to get well.

Thick rope guidelines stretched out from the 4000-pound pole. When we took our places, it was clear that the left guideline had many young men, while the one on the right largely consisted of women. An older woman in front of me called, “Can we get some more guys over here?”

I heard a little girl’s voice pipe up from somewhere unseen: “Girls can be strong, too!”  Someone’s raising that kid right, I thought.

Our hands clenched, as if braced for a tug-of-war. But totem poles are stories and stories must be handled with reverence, not the teeth-gritted strain of competition.  In unison, under master carver Wayne Price’s instruction, we began a slow march back.

Master carver Wayne Price. Photo Courtesy of SEARHC

Watching intently, an eagle perched on a nearby telephone pole, and a raven on the clinic roof.  As the pole ascended, the outstretched wings of Raven, carved at the top, caught air for their first time. The eagle began keening, welcoming Raven to the sky.

Seeing Yei eek kwa neix in its entirety, I saw all of my kids’ struggles and my hopes for them. A medicine woman stood at the base, a basket of healing herbs in her hands. Above, a shaman and wolf spirit helper prepared to plunge into the darkness, retrieving those lost in addiction, torment and grief. Then, in a sprawling run free of design, the freedom to reflect and heal in the journey from darkness to light. And there at the top hovered Raven, a gleaming brass disc of the sun held in his beak, guiding us to another way.

You are going to get well.

With the pole solidly in place, people broke apart into celebratory groups. I began a slow walk back to the harbor, footsteps heavy with reflection. I thought about the gratitude and honor I felt to participate in a cultural legacy not my own, the pride of sharing a community where Native culture is not held hostage in a museum, a dusty-shelved shrine to the past, but is a living, breathing, singing, dancing present and future.

I’ve sometimes felt that “Southeastern Alaskan” is its own cultural identity. An evolution of shared connectivity that crosses racial and ethnic lines, forges bonds built of skunk cabbage springs and crowded cruise ship summers, autumns where seasonal folk sweep out as winter winds whoosh in.  And I’ve second-guessed that presumption, scoffing that it’s all too easy for someone of dominant culture to imagine connection when we don’t carry the ancestral scars.

A new friend has gently corrected me. “Your culture includes the Tlingit because you are a Southeastern Alaskan. It includes living among an indigenous peoples, interacting every day. There is value in that.”

I think now about the grace in her statement, and recall the initial explanation of the pole. Roberta Kitka, Chairwoman of the sponsoring Kooteeyaa Project, said, “Wellbriety Kooteeyaa means healing, hope, unity and forgiveness for Tlingit people and anyone who is working on the healing of mind, body and spirit.”

We are going to get well.

Does this ring true for you, sweet reader? Are there places in your life where you’ve questioned your role, wondered if your presence was beneficial or baggage? What does wellness mean for you in your own life, and how do you create it?

Me, I think I’ll keep asking questions, and look to ravens for guidance.

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

[As with all totems, the Wellbriety pole is far more complex than a blog post could ever do justice to, particularly when written by someone engaged in such a brief sliver of the journey. A detailed description of the project, pole, and carver is here. You can also read a powerful essay about this day in Heather Lende’s book, “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friendships and Faith in Small-Town Alaska.”  My gratitude to Michael Jenkins of SEARHC for granting permission for photo usage.]

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