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.

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