by Steve Shay
(Swans - October 5, 2009) Three and a half years ago I stuffed my 100-pound golden retriever into the remaining unoccupied thin slice of backseat in my Volkswagen. Alice wedged her furry fanny between an array of suits and ties I would never again wear and a cardboard box of Robert Crumb autographed memorabilia I would not be able to sell and we drove 2,100 miles west on I-90 to Washington State. The Pacific Northwest was a world away from my suburban Chicago home in Oak Park, noted for Hemingway's birthplace and Wright's prairie-style playground.
I made a right turn just outside Seattle and drove 65 miles north, shunpiking it the last 12 to La Conner, Washington, a little town of artisans, authors, alcoholics, and Alaska-bound fishermen. Those I would befriend were each a mixture of all four.
A group who countered the counter-culture lived across the town's iconic orange bridge that confidently stretched over the tricky current of the narrow Swinomish Channel in the Puget Sound. Their enclave was aptly named Shelter Bay, a development of mostly sturdy Germanic and Nordic silver-hairs who wore shiny red parkas, unblemished hiking boots, and carried binoculars, not cameras, around their necks. The men were mostly retired Boeing engineers. They lived in tidy houses and condos and worked on their fiberglass boats named The Money Pit, Our Kids Inheritance, and My Husband's Idea.
The two cultures clashed like oil and water, much like the belching liquid exhaust in my new digs, a wooden 1941 boat, clashed with the water on the channel upon which the narrow-beamed craft nervously perched.
Call it a whim or pre-midlife crisis, this "liveaboard life" as it is called was my destiny, and all because a photo of the boat spoke to me the moment it appeared on my computer screen via yachtworld.com. This tantalizing Web site features boats 60 feet long and 6 feet wide docked in Amsterdam, Chinese junks awaiting a buyer in Hong Kong, mega-yachts parked in the Bahamas that would make Aristotle Onassis roll in his grave, and humbler craft like the "Otter" awaiting me in La Conner.
At first site of the Otter, Alice was reluctant to embark. I took my emotional cues from her because, unlike mine, her instincts were trustworthy and based on logic and experience, not emotion. Eventually, with tails between our legs we both entered our new home, a sort of tubular Winnebago with a gentle rock.
The 34-footer was a "double-ender" like a big canoe, updated with a four-cylinder odorous Isuzu diesel engine that delivered 15 miles per gallon at 6 knots. The boat was built to transport lumber workers up and down lumber camps on nearby Vancouver Island. It came with no dinghy or raft, but instead was adorned with spare tires for safety when bumping the dock.
The smoke stack was ornamental but some of the fumes did inadvertently exit the soft metal tube. Some diesel odor soaked into my clothes which, when worn in town, was a tell-tail sign to local sniffers that I was "one of those liveaboard people." This was a badge worn with ruggedness, tinged with a bit of hobo desperation, but not shame.
The Otter resembled a tugboat although she could pull little more than her own weight. And in a world of macho hard-drinking third-generation callus-handed rural fishermen, the Otter, like its captain and fluffy first mate, could have been named "Old Softy." With her pilothouse's wrap-around windows and bowed wooden detail work she seemed to wear a grin. With a toot toot toot of her horn she solicited a smile from every shore-based tourist who caught her winking eye. Like my non-threatening tattoo, a bright two-inch smily-faced sun on my right shoulder, the Otter was christened "cute" by my mariner friends, male and female. I resemble a combination of Al Franken and Urkel, the uber geek on Family Matters. And Alice is no pit bull. Oh, I tried to understand the ethos of the "real man," but was always the spectator. I did try.
Diving into my macho makeover taught me more about the body parts of my boat. I was off to a good start. The propeller, 20-feet from the engine, required that I had a long shaft that needed constant lubrication. My belt was slipping so I tightened it so that my ball bearings stopped bobbling. The bathroom, or "head," needed a new screw.
While I learned to navigate the channel with the aid of tide charts and near-misses due to free-floating lumber and a marginally accurate low-budget digital depth finder, I was more confident than competent, albeit less sea-worthless than when I began.
My macho mariner pal just returned from his annual business trip, a fishing voyage to Petersburg, Alaska, an expansive fishing mecca south of Juneau and the source of many a Midwest salmon dinner. As he told it, his 60-foot trawler flipped upside down in a harbor up there for no obvious reason. Luckily he was able to fish out his deckhand who was his grown daughter with a desperate clutch of her arm, pulling her through a porthole as his boat swiftly filled with frigid arctic seawater.
Mariner machismo is not really about shafts, wrenches, menacing tattoos, cigarettes, or booze. It is an authentic culture of danger and beating the odds in the ocean one more season. And, like oil and water, this culture and I didn't mix.
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