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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