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.]

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