Was recently in email conversation about islands off-shore accessible from Trat in Thailand. As the thread bounced around between 7 addees, talk got on boats… here are my thoughts.
People who like boats are among your best. Spendthrifty and wrong-headed, yea some of that, but basically they have a sense of the outdoors, adventure, fun and are almost always a likeable lot.
Experiences on boats make a difference in living an ordinary life or living life large. That may be true of people who own small planes, I don't know, but people who own boats get after life in a way others sit home and think about it.
Me, I spent time in the late 80s up in the Pacific NW where we bought a 22 footer, ”April Breeze,” and kept it moored at Friday Harbor… and at least once a month did what the locals called “gungkholed” the San Juan island archipelago, and then every once in a while drove that beauty up to Victoria, British Colombia. Docked at the Imperial Hotel to do crumpets and tea.
“April Breeze” had two strong Ford marine engines that allowed me to dock and anchor in pretty tight quarters – a sometimes testy proposition what with prevailing winds and shifting tides. One of my greatest pleasures was getting to some quiet cove late afternoon and setting two anchors so as to ride out the night, and then sit on the back to watch others come in for shelter.
Some were good pilots, good seamen. Some were not.
Boats tied up side by side – out there in beautiful, pristine NW coastal waters amid sea animals in the light of the setting sun, smell of steaks cooking on out-door grills on neighboring boats, a sundowner drink beginning to do its magic in calming life down… you'd say something, "I may have died and gone to heaven. What situation can be better than this?"
I was still a youngster in my 40s. Brenda could still turned heads walking into a joint. Sure were good times then. Mostly it was just her and me out there on the boat. When we would come into port somewhere I’d be on the fly bridge and she’d be my crew. She’d have to scamper down forward to throw a mooring line to someone on dock, or to jump off and tie the boat up. Me of course, sitting like a Buddha, up there behind the wheel, supervising. Always as we approached some new place – I’d tell her, she had a chair beside my Captain’s chair – “OK, mate, down and at ‘um. Make the Captain look good.” She’d always smile, but in leaving say something like “You dick.”
Once we were coming back into our slip at Friday Harbor… there was no one on the dock, so Brenda had to jump over the side to the dock to secure the mooring line, only she slipped and fell into the ocean. She was there one moment, as I was alternating the power and direction of the two motors, turning this way and that to fight the tide, trying to edge on in… and then she was gone.
No Brenda. In the water beside the boat, hell I couldn’t see her.
Heard her though… “Jiiiiiimmmmmmm…” down over the side.
What the hell was I supposed to do? Leave the steering wheel and let the boat be battered to bits against the pier pillars, or go save my wife?
Fortunately, just like so often has been the case in my enchanted life, something good just happened. A guy came along, pulled Brenda out of the drink by the seat of her pants, grabbed the line she was still holding on to, and tied the “April Breeze” up… and then he had the good graces to leave before I could get down to him. By the time I got to the pier, there was just my clumsy dripping-wet crew, still gasping for breath.
Brenda still remembers this story of the mystery man fondly. Like she’s got her very own protector out there lurking, to keep her safe.
One other story she doesn’t remember so kindly.
We were out gunkholing (which means in Pacific NW parlance to slowly cruise along a shoreline, taking in all of nature there at the water line) near Lopez Island when we came around the northern end with all intentions of cutting across the inlet there to Roche’s Harbor on the west end of the San Juan island… when all of sudden, a gale storm began to blow… and I mean good reader, our whole front went from a peaceful inter-island scene to something created by an angry God…. waves went from calm to roaring wild killers in a matter of minutes. Wind was in our face blowing 80 or 90 miles an hour. Waves got up to ten- fifteen feet high. We would fight our way through one of those massive water walls, to face another and then another. The sky was dark. Black. Rain was hitting us so hard it hurt.
It happened just like that.
Brenda moved from her seat down below deck to hold on near the ladder to the fly bridge. April Breeze was not large, but now, it felt smaller, like we were on a speck of polyurethane and teak, being toss around some wild water hell.
I knew that I had to keep the boat facing into the wind… to try and turn and head back to Lopez, we would have been over turned for absolute sure. So my job was straight forward. Keep the boating going straight ahead.
The next day the local papers said 8 people were killed – drown or lost at sea – during that sudden gale.
Number very easily could have been 10 if there had been even a slight change in our inlet crossing from hell.
When we finally got near the San Juan Island and got some protection from the winds and raging waves, and finally pulled into Roche Harbor, we were spent. Some guy on the dock helped us tie up, and said, “What the hell were you doing out there?”
I didn’t know.
Brenda was white. Ask her about it sometime.
Nothing that scary happened again —- oh wait a minute, we were coming from Seattle and took the Deception Pass route up to the San Juans, at a decidedly unpropitious time, and ended up on our side in a whirlpool right beneath the bridge. People there gave us a cheer when we finally spun out luckily heading in the right direction.
Don’t ask Brenda about that. She told me not to do Deception Pass. She told me and told me… but no… I had to go.
“April Breeze.” We sold that good boat for about what we paid for it. Three years nearly of good stuff.
Caused me to day dream about boats for a long time thereafter. One day-dream that caught my fancy in a big and dangerous way was getting a boat and doing the inland waterway from say Wilmington, NC all the way up to the Eire Canal in New York state, down to the Great Lakes, through inlets around Chicago to the Mississippi down to New Orleans and then around Alabama to Florida, through the Keys and back up to Wilmington, NC.
It’s called the big loop or something. People have done it… not necessarily start/ending at Wilmington, but along the way. Doing a little bit every summer, making it all the way around in three or four years. Just goin’ until it gets too cool, or you have to go back to work, and you dock, winterize your boat at some public mooring place, and take off back to the real world. Next spring or whenever, you’re back, taking off the winter coat from your boat and hitting the inland waterway again.
Some just did it all in one fell swoop, though you didn’t hear that many stories about the big loop in one jaunt.
But I thought about it.
I mean I’d be going down town for some bread or milk and I’d start day dreaming about the boat. Brenda had more or less signed on, so what was stopping us from making this happen?
Well for one thing you got to have a boat.
So I read books and magazines and took time out here and there to prowl marinas.
There are a lot of boats out there. Problem wasn’t availability of something to do the inland waterways, it was getting the right thing.
The “April Breeze” experience had been good enough and long enough that we had our own ideas about what we wanted in our next boat. Well I did. Brenda would catch me gazing off in space there in the 90s, and say – “I’m not going in a piece of crap, you know.”
I was retired then, and the more I looked – the more particular I became in what I was looking for – and the more expensive this thing became.
I think I had paid about $18 thousand for the “April Breeze” and sold it for about $16 thousand.
But now something that’s good for a long haul, that’s not “a piece of crap” with all the amenities I had come to want, well, now, it was up to a million dollars.
I was thinking the project like a sumbitch, though. Going to get the bread often I’d miss my turn thinking about what type of radios we really needed, and was an extra berth necessary. And the wrench that hauled the anchor, I mean I wanted something that could keelhaul the boat if necessary, you know what I mean? And “boat” or “houseboat” or “trawler?” What type boat we talking about anyway? Everything from kayaks to ocean goin yachts had done the loop.
And where am I anyway? What am I doing downtown? Bread? Milk?
Then 9/11 events overtook my thinking and I was back in Washington, DC working… initially most week-ends, too. But then eventually I had the week-ends free… and you know how many marinas there are in the Washington, DC area? A bunch. I knew them all.
Either on a Saturday or a Sunday during the spring and summer for a couple of years, I prowled the docks in Washington and Baltimore and Atlantic City. Looking for the perfect boat to do the “Loop” of the inland waterway.
Found a bunch. Those that were “not a piece of crap” ranged around $200 thousand. Big jump from an “April Breeze” like $18 K.
Then one day, a Sunday afternoon I remember… probably late 2003. I was laying on my bed in a North Virginia apartment with my McKay’s used book booty from the day before laid out around me.
McKay’s… Well there you go… another country heard from in this boat story.
I think there are a couple of McKay brothers that started up used book stores in the states. The northern Virginia McKay had a couple of stores, then he consolidated into one big former grocery store size shop in Manassas, Va
Thousands and thousands of books. Thousands and Thousands of bargains. In my post 9/11 time in the Washington, DC area, once a month I would go to this McKay’s in Manassas and roam the isles for hours. I’d usually start with one of those baskets for small item shoppers and end up with two or three or sometimes four baskets full.
Great, Great, Great books for a dollar. Meandered along mostly the non-fiction shelves, reading covers and selected parts inside of five books for every one I put in my basket. Sometimes I’d just lean up against the shelves reading book excerpts. Three or four hours of shopping.
So anyway this Sunday afternoon I had my monthly selection of books from McKay spread around me, reading parts of this one and then that one, then back to the first one … when I came upon a magazine selling used boats that I had picked up somewhere. Maybe when I visited some marina somewhere the day before.
And there towards the back was the picture below.
The boat was for sale for $30 K - as is – in Ensenada, Mexico.
And since this was a boat sale, and if they were asking $30K, they’d take $20K.
Had two large berths inside, a good size galley, a steering station down and one on the fly bridge. Roomy main saloon. A single durable diesel engine without many hours on it.
A 44 footer that needed some hefty repairs before it took to sea.
But hey their asking price was down in the “April Breeze” type money. I could afford this fixer-upper. But the core boat of my dreams was there.
The location of Ensenada worked too. Brenda and I had just moved to Las Vegas, and you go to any map and Baja Mexico is just down the road. It was, I don’t know, you could get there in less than a day’s drive. Fix it up with cheap Mexican labor, take it through the Panama Canal and then over to Florida… and it’s Loop time.
“OK you go down and look at this thing and make sure it’s the right one,” she said. “Don’t buy a boat by just looking at a picture. And calm down, Jim. Really.”
So I drove down the next time I was home from work in Washington.
Found that you shouldn’t get to the San Diego/Baja border crossing late in the afternoon… because a whole work force was heading home to Tijuana from work in San Diego. First time it took me an hour to get through US and then Mexican customs.
Got to Ensenada around 9 pm, despite the fact there was a toll road that ran from Tijuana along the coast straight down. You could clip along at 60 miles an hour.
Spent the night in a local hotel. Next morning I’m up and looking at the boat. It’s docked at a fishing boat pier so it was accessible. Couldn’t get inside the cabin, but looking through the windows and door ports, things looked in good order, with a lot of teak.
This was my boat.
Back home in Vegas, I got in contact with the owners and offered $20 thousand. Which they couldn’t have been happier with.
Went back down the next week with a cashier check for $20K and the boat – I forgot what they had named it – was mine.
Renamed it “Rage”… as in “Do not go gently into that good night, Rage, Rage, Rage against the fading of the light.” This boat was between me and my final stop. Rage, Rage, Rage.
The renovation process was made easier when I met Graham Duncan, a Brit who had lived around the world, most recently on a boat he had bought in Florida and cruised through the Carribean, through the Panama Canal, and up the west edge of Central America to Ensenada.
He was part of the expat community in Baja and knew most everybody… and everything there was to do with boats… He lived on his boat just down from mine.
And he took me in. I said, let’s fix “Rage” up. And he said OK.
And I started sending him money. And coming down with money, and on, and on, and on.
Y’all have heard the stories before about boats being a big hole in the water where you throw in money. Well with the Rage, there's that, but you know I'd come down once a month, having spent $15K through Graham the previous month, and yea you could see something for your money.
I have no idea how much I spent in fixing up that good wooden boat. $80,000 probably. We hired one guy who would work 40 hours a week on the boat. We put it in Mexican dry dock and had the wooden boat bottom re-screwed, to find that there were a "few" planks on the bottom that were rotten and had to replaced... and I don't know where they got the lumber but it was hardwood, maybe teak, and cost big bucks. Plus the wood had to be cut exactly to fit and each plank had to be made water tight, which takes a pro carpenter.
And we also took a long look at the power train out the back to the propeller and the rudder. They had to be cleaned and with the prop, made absolutely straight.
And the more I looked at the rudder and the prop, the more I wondered about this being the perfect boat to make the loop, 'cause look at the small size of that rudder, how is that goin' to change the direction of that 44 footer? Well if you got the whole Pacific Ocean to work in, it'll probably get you turned around 180 degrees, but not in an enclosed docking area. And only one prop? Up in the Pacific NW I had two props and could turn my little 22 footer on a dime. But with one prop and a smaller rudder, and shifting tides and wind, how was I goin'; dock? Like Bobbie Gentry used to sing, "I can do anything as long if I got the right tools." I was thinking this new part of my life was under-designed, you know what I mean?
But I was committed... and we had so much money in the renovation, that I had to go forward... it wasn't saleable as it was.
We added good radar, upgraded other electronics. Put in a used swim platform off the back. Bought a new dingy and fixed up the hoist. And we worked that good diesel and worked that good diesel. Seemed I was spending my week-ends down at the boat working bent over in the engine room more than I was standing up.
I started not knowing anything about diesel engines and the power line out to the prop. Ended up talking with other boat owners down there like I knew what I was talking about. And you go to these ol' costal towns in Baja where things center around the marina, and the captains do their plentiful drinking up at cantinas that overlook the boats... you know what they talk about? Boats. Well often about people who own those boats, and people who fish off those boats, and just your salty ol' boat stories.
There was a bar in Ensenada where Graham and I often visited, that one night when we came in was just all atwitter, over the casting off of this sail boat for Australia. Seems this guy and his posse of home boys came down from California to do some finishing work on their sloop for a sail across the Pacific. While the boat was in the dry dock - where my boat had been - the California surfer guy and his buddies lived at an American expat's house on the edge of town... and for the most part used the expat's car to drive back and forth to the docks. Well they got their boat fixed, got all their food and stuff on board and stached away, and this afternoon the expat and his wife and a few other people went down the marine to wish them off, and as they untied the mooring line, the expat's wife jumped on board the ship and sailed away with the Californians. The husband just stood there with his mouth open as the wife waved good bye.
At was a good time for me. 4 or 5 days a month down at the Mexican fishing marina in Baja, fixing up the boat. Good Mexican seafood diners every night. Cold Mexican beer. Graham had a thousand stories, as did most every one in the different cantinas we visited at night.
I enjoyed the work. Fixing up a boat, seeing it come back to something seaworthy. Something Brenda wouldn’t call a piece of crap.
We got the railing around the ouside
She came down with me a couple or three times, but mostly it was me taking the drive, doing the work with local labor. Graham was always around during the day, giving advice. And it was good getting cleaned up at night, then sitting on the back deck of his much bigger boat sipping a Mexican beer, or drinking a pitcher of martinis. Or go out to any of the many good Mexican restaurants in town where we would be serenaded by strolling Mariachi bands.
Only when we could see the light at the end of the renovation… did we start taking her out for shake out cruises…
And I found, like I suspected, the single screw didn’t give me much control in maneuvering in port or in inlets down the Baja peninsula.
But whatever… it came time finally to take the “Rage” on a long trip…
I decided to go up the coast north to San Francisco. Under the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. Graham said the boat was ready. I was ready. Can’t get lost, you know. Keep the coast on your right and eventually you’ll get to San Francisco. Right? Easy.
So I gathered my crew. Jerry Falls, my old CIA buddy, Joe, my son and his best friend, a Special Forces E-7, Ron Lunsford.
We loaded up with diesel and pushed off early one morning. In crossing the Mexican/US border we were tracked by a US submarine… or we assume it was US. Maybe some homeland security rig. Or some US Navy boat doing anti-drug work. Anyway it was pretty special getting a U-boat escort coming back into the states.
We cleared customs at San Diego, and then took off heading north early the next day submarineless.
We passed LA and then rather than come in and dock somewhere we decided to keep cruising all that second night… so we set up shifts and, driving from the fly bridge, we puttered along.
The sun came up and we still chugged along. Drinking coffee like real sailors.
We were about 5 miles out in the Pacific as we came around, I forgot the name of the point, but it’s right above Santa Barbara. It was midafternoon and holy god, the waves picked up, and this little cruise suddenly took on wild new proportions.
Waves were breaking over our bow, then breaking over the fly bridge and we had to reposition down to the lower inside station…. Which was drier, but suddenly it was like we had traded places with that submarine and we seemed to be more under water than above water…
When Jerry made the great comment – maybe taken from the movie “Jaws” - “Ah, you know, I think we need to go back and get more boat.”
It wasn’t as bad as that gale in the San Juan, but it was pretty scary.
Plus with all the slamming and jarring we were taking, some cable came off its pulley in the engine room… and we went from chugging along, to verrry slowly submarining our way, barely making way.
So I turned and we made it back around the point and down to Santa Barbara and – though we had found the problem – “Rage” stopped.
Fortunately in calm waters. So we called and got a pull into Santa Monica for repairs.
And that’s pretty much the story of our trip north to San Francisco…
It took too long to get back to running condition… I had lost all confidence in a one engine boat… Lundsford had to get back to work. And getting another crew together was goin’ to be problematic… Brenda couldn’t handle this boat by herself. It was just too large. Plus, like I was saying, a one engine boat doesn’t leave room for problems, and you lose considerable maneuverability.
I forgot what we were paying to moor the boat in Santa Monica, but it was a lot – and we were in temp slip, with no permanent space available at any price… so we headed back to Ensenada where docking was available (like Santa Monica, there were no known slips available in San Diego).
Then I don’t know, the drives down to Ensenada were just taking too long. Brenda just didn’t want to go, and alone it was less and less fun. And I was diagnoses with Type 2 diabetes, so there went the pitchers of martinis, and belly full of Mexican beer.
Plus I got stopped and shaken down by Mexican police for driving-alone-while-American five times… and then there came a spate of murders in Baja, with dead bodies pitched along the super highway out of Tijuana. I never saw any, but it wasn’t a pleasant drive anymore… sort of like driving through the killing fields.
And then they raised the mooring price in Ensenada because all marinas there were full up and they could charge what they wanted.
So Graham put the boat on the market for $150,000 and we eventually sold it for considerably less.
And that’s my story. 3 years maybe to rebuild “Rage.” Not that we ever went anywhere on it. Getting it ready to go – fixing it up – that was fun. Made me proud. And the anticipation of the sea trips. And hanging with expats in Baja. Drinking with Graham. Learning how to work a diesel engine – sort of like McQueen in Sand Pebbles, you know.
I can go gently into that good night now. I have fixed up a 44 ft trawler. When it comes time for the great maker to add my life up, that’s got to be a plus. Well I don’t know. It’s something. Yea, a plus. Sure an expensive fucker.