After my first trip to Alaska, I knew I had
to go back. And I knew that in order to return I had to have a
bigger boat. In boating, one thing follows another. The only way I
could afford a bigger boat was to sell the house. That meant living
aboard. That meant a much bigger boat. So the search began.
With Sundown, It was love at first sight--at least for me. My wife
had reservations: Very big boat. Very big dirty boat. (Why is every
boat we buy dirty and broken while every boat we sell is clean and
works?) Very needy big dirty boat: Needs paint. Needs electrical
work. Furnace doesn't work. Refrigerator doesn't work. Kitchen
stove--aka galley range--doesn’t work. Water coming out of the taps
looks funny and tastes worse. Auto pilot doesn't work.
These, however, are minor blips on the radar (doesn't work) when
true love is afoot. Walt Masland, the proud and capable skipper of
Pelican, who taught me more than I can ever properly thank him for,
said, "In boats, function follows form. If she's not graceful she
won't sail properly." Sundown was graceful.
Built in 1924 at the famous Menchion's Yard near Vancouver, B.C.,
Sundown was intended as a packer for Nel-Bro, the large Canadian
fishery company. She was to haul fish from the fleet on the west
side of Vancouver Island to processing plants on the mainland. Three
years later she was rebuilt at Benson's shipyard and sold to Mac and
Mac Hardware Company, which owned a large hardware store in
Victoria. The store, now Victoria Iron and Steel, is still there in
Victoria, just up the street from the Empress, and still selling old
boating junk in the basement.
Mac and Mac loaded her up with hardware and catalogs and sent her
around Vancouver Island, peddling their wares. Capt. Bowles
skippered her for thirty years, and part of her mission was to take
managers from remote logging and fishing operations out for a
cruise, salmon fishing, food and drink. Then, large orders for
hardware were sometimes discussed. It is only speculation that the
size of the order depended on the size of the catch and the depth of
the bottle. But that's another story.
I was in love with Sundown. We could barely afford her if we sold
the house. She was big enough to live aboard. There was even a full
size bathtub. That the hot water heater didn't work was just another
of those minor irritations.
A more serious irritation was the fact that I hadn't a clue about
what I was doing. It didn't matter that the radar didn't work
because I didn't know how to use it anyway. Although I managed to
effectively suppress my wife's reservations, as well as my own,
anxiety remained and increased as I faced the complexity of things.
The engine room was a maze of wires, pipes, hoses, and mysterious
mechanical objects. There were no clues about which of them worked
and which didn't and what they did if they did. The engine seemed to
be about the size of a locomotive, with a significant number of
unidentifiable accessories. My community college course in diesel
mechanics was obviously inadequate. This was graduate school, and I
had a steep learning curve ahead. Up on top--the "boat deck" I was
instructed--there were winches, davits, pulleys (blocks), a dubious
looking skiff with an ancient outboard, outriggers for large
triangular things called paravanes--whatever that meant. The ground
tackle consisted of threes: a three-hundred pound navy anchor, three
hundred feet of 9/16 steel cable and an anchor winch with a drum
about three feet in diameter. The winch was operated by the main
engine through a series of roller chains and jack shafts, just like
my old Schwin bike. Well, almost.
Nevertheless, we proceeded to survey. On land, Sundown looked twice
the size. The expanse of red bottom paint seemed about the size of a
basket-ball court. I got a crick in my neck looking up. But the
magic of love continued and grew as I watched the skill of the
shipwright as he replaced 2x6x16 planks, and caulked their seams.
The magic only slightly dimmed when I learned the rule of thumb: "It
takes one shipwright and one assistant one day to replace one plank
and costs one thousand dollars." Later I would learn to substitute
"boat unit" for "one thousand dollars." It's shorter, and hides some
of the misery.
The survey also exposed some additional minor irritations. Since I
didn't fully understand what it meant that the ends of several
planks showed signs of dry-rot, it didn't really sink in.
The moment of decision arrived. Sundown had been surveyed. To say
she "passed survey" would be spin. We had the financing. We could
make the payments if, my wife inconveniently reminded me, we sold
the house. We had survived the sea trials. My wife was, to put it
mildly, not ecstatic, but at least resigned. The decision was mine.
This was not only buying a dirty and largely broken tangle of
machinery and wood called a "boat", it was committing to a radically
new lifestyle: living aboard. Fish or cut bait. The moment had
arrived and the life-changing decision could no longer be delayed or
It was the evening after the survey. We were in the saloon and I was
sweating out the decision, the pros and cons--would my wife jump
ship, stuff like that. One of the bright spots in this sad tale of
unrequited love at first sight was the surveyor. Lee Ehrheart was
one of the very best in the Northwest. Lee was sitting in the wicker
chair doing something strange with a sack of what looked like the
remains of dreadlocks in a barber shop. He explained that it was
oakum, a mixture of tar and jute, used to caulk the seams. Not
normally sold at West Marine, nor of much use in fiberglass boats.
He was preparing it for the next day's work of plugging the leaks in
The tension of the love affair was growing. On the one side was my
heart, on the other, all these "minor" irritations. My wife was
Finally, Lee looked up. "Joseph," he said, "Remember, if the boat's
not sinking it isn't a crisis." And my fate was sealed. Sundown was
bought, the seams were caulked, the house sold, and we were off to
I suppose you could say my love affair was consummated. At least you
could say that for the next ten years, Sundown occupied most of my
energy, time, and affection. If Sundown ever had a competitor for my
affection, it was not another boat. It was the journey--The Inside
Passage. (My wife had jumped ship.)
It was Fred C. Clark, who cruised Northwest waters for many years
aboard Kay II, who introduced me to a few of the arcane and useless
rituals of "yachting," and who had said, "After you've been to
Alaska, you walk tall." And there is some truth there. It is an
accomplishment. But traveling the Inside Passage is not about
Alaska. It is not a destination cruise. It is not like going to the
moon, I assume, where the passage is merely an inconvenient
necessity of reaching the objective. The Inside Passage is the
objective. This is not about "boating" or "yachting" or a rendezvous
of old dock buddies. It is about the legendary Northwest and the
magic of the Inside Passage.
It is about freedom. Edward Abbey got it right:
"Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am--a reluctant enthusiast--a
part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of
yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not
enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy
it. While you can. While it's still there. So get out there and
hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder
and explore the forests, encounter the grizzly, climb the mountains,
bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and
lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious
stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space.
"Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly
attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you
this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies,
over those desk-bound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box
and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this:
you will outlive the bastards."
And remember: If the boat's not sinking, it isn't a crisis. I have
never regretted the decision.