Inside the Inside Passage                   True stories from the Land of the Spirit Bear  by  Captain Joseph Bettis

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Chapter 4

If the Boat's Not Sinking, It Isn't a Crisis

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.

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 avoided.

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 Sundown.


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 strangely quiet.

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 Alaska.

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.

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