WHY I DIDN’T

I’m cheating on this blog. Most of it has already been written for months.

I am repeatedly asked why I’m on my own now instead of working in the shipyard. Apart from my penchant for doing jobs suitable for much younger men, I can assure you that wriggling around in bilges and lockers is not ideal for Rubenesque old bilge apes like me. I’ve got to get ‘Seafire’, my own prune barge, ready for the deep blue sea.

I guess that having a white muzzle has its advantages, like finally having the patience to endure finicky tasks, and having the same thing go wrong seventeen different ways and remembering even worse jobs in the past. Then your greasy glasses, which weren’t doing you much good anyway, drop into the bilge and you blow your old back out trying to retrieve them, and life clearly can’t go on and on like this.You know that nothing is forever, including yourself, and it’s time to savour the warmth of the fire before it becomes a heap of dying embers, then ash.

Some folks asked me why I kept on working in the yard. So now I don’t. The same people ask me why I’m not there any more! I used to call myself ‘Shipyard Fred’. Now I’m just a wharf rat…but one with still a dream or two, or ten. I’d prefer to finish life as a lump of shark shit instead of ending up sitting in a corner being spoon-fed and having my diapers changed. No one is going to stand around the edge of a

The 'U&I'
U&I

six-foot hole telling each other what a hard worker I was. Bugger that!

Bilge Ape
Bilge Ape

The following is something I wrote for the Fisher Poets Gathering in February of this year. People liked it. I hope you do.

Shipyard Summer Romance

It is hard to find the romance of the sea in anything, while working in a shipyard.

Most days I don’t have it as bad as the guys

Who purge dripping filth from hulls left too long unattended

They scrape the bearded muck then the caked bottom paint away

So they can replace it with fresh poison which fills the air and your brain with a putrid tang.

My wages aren’t quite as meagre as the rest of the crew’s

Because I have the lofty honour of working inside the hulls

Where the slurping black bilge muck defies you to reach on down for dropped tools

If you can wriggle your hand that far; and get it out again.

Each job may require painful contortions inside the bowels of a vessel,

Size of the boat has nothing to do with it, big ones have places just as tight

Every bolt rusted solid with no room to heave on a wrench

There’s a tangle of circuitry you’ll rip apart if you’re not careful.

Nothing to it
Nothing to it

Wiring, now there’s a joy!

You spend half the job trying to figure out what the hell the last man

Was thinking before you eventually rip out all the old stuff and start over again

Coming up with a bitter joke about the ‘Home-Prairie Frigger-Rigger Manual of Marine Wiring.’

You also curse the landlubber marine designers who, themselves, have clearly never been to sea,

Let alone ever turned a wrench.

Sewage jobs seem to show up on the hottest days of the year.

You battle with a clogged toilet pump tucked well beneath the sole plates

Surgical gloves ruptured, you don’t give a damn, you just want to get the job done

Gagging on the stench of someone else’s rancid DNA

While they implore with toe-tapping anxiety that they’d really like to make the next tide

As if you’re squirming there, with their organic discharges running down your arm, just to pass the time.

Of the few cash tips you make in the summer, none are ever from the crapper jobs.

There is work that comes back, no matter how careful you were the first time.

The boss looks at his watch and wordlessly makes it clear that you’re costing him revenue,

We’ll talk about the lost time later, just get it done, stay late if you have to, jobs are heaping up.

You emerge from a locker gulping for a breath of air, your body chaffed, bruised, scratched and

bleeding, massaging knots out of contorted muscles before going back down for more

Fibreglass slivers under broken, blackened fingernails, bloody knuckles

Only God understands what grows in pink fungal splendour in the locker where you struggle and gasp

Knowing you’ll probably only wriggle back out of this hell hole if you stay sweat-wet.

Engines and gearboxes, more bliss!

Bugga!
Bugga!

Outboard motors than will not run despite everything appearing perfect

The pull-start poltergeist turns out to be the customer’s son.

He put diesel in the two-stroke tank

Now four carburetors need to be removed, stripped, cleared, reassembled, reinstalled and tuned,

Magically in the next hour and a half.

An ancient stubborn diesel engine worn beyond reasonable hope

Hard to start, water in the oil, a crack in the block, stripped bolts,

Yet you spread its greasy guts across the bench after hearing the poor-broke-sailor lament

Sung ever better than your own version.

The only parts you could find are somewhere on their way from Scandinavia on a slow boat

Hopefully you can patch things up for this guy to make it through to season’s end

Meanwhile you fumble a transmission together with pieces from two other busted ones

It’s for a tired old working boat and Chum season is only a few days long, so you do the best you can.

A desperate power-boater comes through the door, as usual, two minutes ahead of closing time

He has to be in Vancouver for the morning and he’ll make it worth your while,

Yeah right; you’ve never heard that before!

Laying across the hot engine, bolt heads poking into your guts you wonder

How and why the hell he left the last dock with a pump leaking that badly.

You don’t have the correct parts of course

So you stay on another half-hour trying to persuade Mr. Yuppie-yachter that it’s alright

Run home on only one engine, that’s why it’s there, backup so you can make it to your meeting.”

Turns out he doesn’t really need to, afraid to try the crossing only one 400 hp engine. he’ll wait; Liar!

Another evening shot to hell now, you’ll order parts in on the morning floatplane.

On the blocks
On the blocks

You go back to your own boat, your home,

The reason you live like the transient scum dock-hermit whom certain folks think you are

No point trying to explain your dream to beach huggers.

Too weary to put in a couple of hours on your own long list of work to do

You open a beer and fry up some supper

A proper diet and your dreams pushed back another day

Smiling you recall a time when you longed for a life ashore.

You had hoped to sail your old prune barge south this fall, finish her refit down there somewhere

At the helm there’s a framed picture of a palm-fringed, azure green tropical anchorage

But you know you’re in for yet another long dark, wet, arthritic winter

You know that soon the e-mails will start coming in from friends already south of thirty-eight.

You fear you’ll never pay the bills as you crawl into the cold, lonely bunk for another weary night

Knowing that old Nelson was right, ‘Ships and men rot in port.’

Around the marina, dock-warriors on their plastic clone boats

Party into the night, music blaring, drunken laugher, giggling children maraud the docks

You toss and writhe, jealous of their apparent pleasure,

Angry at their obvious decadent leisure

Numbly you wonder if you know how to have fun anymore.

For a few minutes you fall into the dark bliss of sleep

Then there’s a tentative knocking on the hull

The boat shifts slightly under someone’s weight on the cap rail

Probably looking for a mechanic you think

You lay unmoving until finally they go away

Now you’re awake for hours embraced by your regrets and worries

Then it occurs to you that maybe the caller

Was that gorgeous woman on the boat two docks down wanting to borrow some sugar…

Yeah right! Well, even old bilge apes can indulge in fantasies, OK!

In the morning, pot-bellied men in flowered shirts mop the dew from their shining white decks

You trudge back up the dock, stepping around fresh poodle piles, to another day in the yard

Pausing for a moment to savour the perfect summer morning

Wondering why you don’t just untie your own boat and bugger off

No goodbyes, no final paycheque, just gone

But you know you don’t steer a steady course looking back at your wake

So you stay on to pay off the bills.

No cash, no splash
No cash, no splash

Your attention turns to the spectre of a gleaming bright phallus with huge propellers

The crew has brought it up on the ways during the night flood tide.

There was a noble time when this yard’s machinery sculpted wood here

At the hands of those who knew and loved the shape of boats

The air was filled with the staccato beat of caulking hammers,

The song of band saws, a tangy aroma of yellow cedar dust and pine tar

As dedicated men built boats right here to go to sea, and to war.

That was a long time ago

Hard to believe now in the choking muck of ground rust and fibreglass

Grating nasal scream of grinders and other machinery,

Now this!

Barbie the trophy wife stands up on her swim grind trying to give orders

Manoeuvring constantly so you have a view up her short skirt

You’re a sailor who’s certainly no prude but you keep your eyes averted

And wonder why on earth she blatantly flirts

With this grotty old bilge ape in tattered coveralls covered in dirt

Her cell phone buzzes and chirps all day

She reiterates that her old man is a very fussy fellow

While you think that ‘He can’t be if he’s hooked up with you lady.’

Barbie invites you to come aboard for beer later

But the chance to decline her invitation leaves you feeling better

Smiling thinly you get to work knowing there’ll be no pleasing anyone on this job,

So just get ‘er done and be gone

You tunelessly breathe an old shanty you know

About how every turn of the screw brings me closer to you.

It goes on through the year

Too rarely you get to work on a real boat that smells of fish

Or rust and grease and diesel and work

The summer spins by as dizzy as a barnacle on a propeller

The gods put you here, you’ll see it through

But it seems a long way from steering a course across the heaving belly of the open ocean

Where life actually makes sense.

You’ve always loved the sea and boats

You have a place in your heart for those who share this passion and understand why you hang on

They know how the summer wind is warm and steady and calls you to cut her loose and just sail away,

No further explanation needed about why you’re working in the yard

Those few know that it’s all about the romance of the sea.

Jame's boat
Jame’s boat

Things That Make You Say HUH?

Blog sites attract quite a bit of spam….. (And I’m so old that I remember when spam was something you ate.) It was disgusting stuff!

Anyway I regularly check and delete spam, sometimes pausing to read some of the gibberish. Now this one caught my attention and I’m trying to make sense of it.

“CAUTION: If you have a pet bird, it may be wise to avoid non-stick coatings.”

The first image that those words brought to mind was of a live canary stuck to a frying pan in a slather of congealed bacon fat. Then I considered an all-night blues bar called the ‘Sticky Parrot’. Now I wonder if it’s not a coded message from MI5 or perhaps CSIS warning about the perils of Asian funding in regard to the Fiscal Wall or perhaps…. perhaps it has something to do with the rising cost of spark plugs for military drone aircraft. Maybe it has to do with the bow to stern flotilla of ships that come to our coast and load up entire forests of raw logs. Is one thought anymore ludicrous than the next? Why would anyone send such a message?

You can drive yourself totally mad trying to make sense of the world around you and these little pimples of twisted wit that pop out at you. There’s no point, because there is no sense or rationality to human presence. If there is one organism on this planet which is clearly non-indigenous it has to be the fungus that calls itself the human race. We clearly don’t belong here! How’s that for polemic conjecture? I’m on the edge of a rant, it’s time to move on.

Old boats tell no lies
Old boats tell no lies

Sailing, now there is an endeavour that leaves millions mystified. Why would any sensible person want to do it? There are those who love to race their boats. That, to me, seems a fine art of practicing a vicious sort of seamanship where one tries to destroy every expensive component of a perfectly fine vessel while proving who has the tiniest willy. I’m clearly not a racer.  I’ve tried it and know that despite some vague camaraderie among those whose bible is a copy of racing rules, there’s just too much testosterone, male and female, for my sensibilities.  And yes, there IS a female testosterone, just go racing with the ladies, you’ll find out!

I spend too much of my life whirling around to acquire the means  to  take my boat and simply meander where the wind wills me to go. Maybe that’s why I know poverty so well, I’m just not competitive enough. Let’s just say I try to be a lover, not a fighter. I prefer to try and live in harmony with the elements instead defying them. Unless of course I stumble onto a lee shore or find myself at sea when the bearing of an approaching ship is not changing. Thank god for little diesel engines!

Some people just enjoy owning a boat, the simple bliss of maintaining the vessel and never straying far from the harbour. Perhaps these folks are the most blessed, they have mastered the art of simply being. They are also probably good gardeners.

There are also those tortured souls who are addicted to becoming, to growth and its inherent pain, to discovery and wandering. I am a wanderer, but let me point out that not all wanderers are lost. I understand that if you don’t know where you’re going, you will end up somewhere else and you know what? That’s just fine!

Buddies through the end
Buddies through the end

I cannot explain to someone, who does not love the ocean and boats and those who do as well, why anyone has an affinity for the ocean and being on it, sometimes out of sight of land, cold, wet and frightened, why that is what we sailors must do. I suppose the simple answer is that it’s for those few moments of purest bliss when we feel in harmony with the planet, and yes maybe even the universe with all its inhabitants. There is also the bright light of illusion when we feel completely in control. The purest radiance of all comes when we give up all control to the forces we know we cannot  defy. We resolve to relax and enjoy the storm while it lasts. It never does. That can be damned hard to remember when you’re in the middle of one when each minute of the ordeal is an eternity. A Taoist would say that to surrender control is to be in control.

Papa Polita: Surrendering control
Papa Polita: Surrendering control

When I was younger I read everything I could about sailing and the sea.  One of my heroes is still Jean Gau. He sailed alone around the world twice in a Tahiti ketch, a very traditional, and slow, 30′ wooden boat. He was infamous for running aground, usually due to fatigue, but I loved his determination and his pelagic passion. He was not a writer but he did pen this:

They did not understand the dream

That charmed the seas of his voyage

Since it was not the same lie

That was taught in their village.

……..Jean Gau

Sleeping in
Sleeping in

It has bucketed rain for the past few days. This evening is blessed with clearing skies and a golden sunset such as we have only here in Silva Bay. Anchored out and glowing brilliantly is the ‘Joshua.’ I do not know much about her because I cherish the mystery of her peregrinations. She is an iconic harbinger here of mid-spring and again of fall when Southbound. Her home port is displayed as Alameda, CA. The vessel is a full-scale wooden replica of Joshua Slocum’s famous ‘Spray.’

Joshua
Joshua

The builder/owner/skipper of this beauty, whom I do not know, is an older gentleman who sports a red beret and a braided beard. He rows ashore in a Gloucester Gull  dory and walks with a limp like all real old sailors . That is all I know about this little ship but it is always an affirmation of all that is right whenever she’s in port. Harrrrrrr!

Something real

IT MUST BE SPRING

 

They’re back! Victoria Day weekend has just passed and now we’re careening toward the first day of summer in another four weeks. First the swallows and Purple Martins reappear, then with the long weekend in May other weird birds show up. Now I know that when I use the term, weird, it means someone or some thing is beyond my comprehension. When the entire Status quo trends that way, I understand that I’m the one who’s weird. Or am I ?

My perception of what is correct in the nautical world is complex yet steeped in simple tradition. I value things being done ‘The old way’ and feel that self-sufficiency, independence, and simplicity are essential components in being a proficient mariner. Clearly, masses disagree.

I was evicted, for the weekend, from my spot on the dock by noon on Friday. The weekend warriors happily pay premium moorage fees.  (Those with the gold make the rules) A gleaming white Tupperware armada began to arrive. I retreated to anchor across the bay in a secluded spot. Long before nightfall all the marinas in the bay were bursting with gleaming plastic, pulsing light and noise. As darkness settled, the boats kept on coming. For once, no-one ended up aground on the reef at the harbour entrance.

The docks, choked with shouting boaters in folding chairs sitting at folding tables, were impassable. Caustic music of different flavours throbbed from various stereo systems around the bay. The din was constantly punctuated with the squeals and forced guffaws of drunken people trying to convince themselves they were having fun. There is a braying, frantic tone that betrays the desperate existence so many of these folks were trying to escape for a few hours. They only manage to bring it with them. There are four months ahead when we have to endure these vicarious wannabe Vikings stumbling into the bay and overrunning our generally peaceful existence. Here on the West coast I don’t know what ‘Going boating’ or ‘Boating season’ means. There are those of us who’s existence is intrinsic with being on and near the sea; all year long. It’s the way some of us live, all the time. Weird huh? I should mention here that I realize I am categorizing. There are plenty of competent and experienced mariners out there doing what they love and don’t give a damn for making impressions or joining herds. I also know that these kindred spirits tend to avoid the madness I describe.

This old cynic left the bay when the small anchorage I had chosen became littered with ever more boats anchored too close. It happened twice again during the weekend as I retreated to more secluded anchorages. As usual, there was yet another kayaker who thought that this boat at anchor was a captive venue for his demands for attention as he clung, shouting, to our cap rail. As I recall, key words I used were “Privacy, respect, solitude, and piss-off!”

Yeah I know I’m a grumpy old fart. ‘Hey you, get off of my cloud!”

The old prune barge herself
All dressed up with everywhere to go

I’ve previously promised to describe my boat ‘Seafire‘, the dream machine after which this blog is named. The design is called a Downeaster 41, entirely a misnomer in a couple of ways, all in the cause of marketing. Actually the hull is 38′ with the extra 3’ being added in the form of a bowsprit/platform. The designer, Henry Morschladt, drew several sizes of vessel for Downeaster Yachts of Santa Ana, California. Apparently, if you hang an Eastcoast handle on a boat, it is supposed to seem saltier. This line of sailboats is famous for being over-built and seakindly. Many have have successfully completed extensive offshore voyages. ‘Seafire’ is one of twelve 38′ hulls built and sold as 41′ motorsailers. Allegedly my hull was produced in 1981, near the end of the company’s history when so many businesses failed in that great recession. I wonder sometimes, if my hull wasn’t one of the last built. Some of the fibreglass work in out-of sight places is very, very rough and the plumbing and wiring were clearly installed by amateurs. The teak wood work is gorgeous.

Home of the blog, the meditation both, dining salon and board room. Galley, guest cabin, skippers quarters and stowage forward
Home of this blog, the meditation booth, dining salon and board room. Galley, guest cabin, skippers quarters and stowage forward

Those criticisms out of the way there is not one osmosis blister on the hull after 32 years of soaking in the briny deep. That’s a very good sign of her integrity. The engine is a trusty old 65 Hp Ford Lehman, recently rebuilt. (That is an American engine, not at all related to the British Leyland, an entirely different product. )The transmission is a ubiquitous Borg Warner velvet drive; it’s all good. There is an inside helm, massive water and fuel tankage, a huge forward berth and a separate private cabin with a comfortable double berth. The galley is better than some which I’ve known in tugboats and is located in the belly of the vessel, where it is easiest to produce a hot meal in heavy weather.

Sadly, the boat had apparently not know much of a life as other than a ‘Gin Palace’, one of those boats that is used to entertain and impress people and seldom leaves the dock. Her neglected state made her affordable to me, the effort to bring her up to my standard of seaworthy has financially shattered me. I knew better !

Pretty from all angles
Pretty from all angles

She is cutter-rigged with furlers on both headsails which makes her easy to handle and the old ‘Prune Barge’ sails pretty well for a motorsailor. She looks after herself and her crew just fine in nasty weather and I have grown quite fond of her. Now, I just have to finish enough of her refit to get her to La Paz Baha for Christmas. There have been plenty of recent setbacks so I know I’m doing the right thing although there are days when I nearly drown myself and those close to me in despair and doubt. If I drop this dream, my life becomes meaningless, my writing and everything else hinges on sailing and so I can’t give it up.

Exposed
The whole situation exposed

‘Seafire’ is the eighth sailboat I’ve bought and refitted. There was a power boat or two along the way as well. Six of the sailboats were all very capable offshore boats. If only I’d just buggered off in the first little sloop ‘Jenta’, what a different tale I’d have to tell. You cannot steer a steady course by looking back at your wake so there’s no point in regrets. The boat previous to ‘Seafire was ‘Pax’, an Australian-built IOR half-tonner which had been raced in the Southern Ocean for ten years before embarking on a fourteen-year East-about cruise around the world. One of her claims to fame was when she had been rolled 360 degrees by a rogue wave off the mouth of the Platte River in Uraguay. Even the mast stayed in place!  She is one tough little ship to have survived that well enough to sail on in to shore. I had ‘Pax’ fully refitted and ready to go again.

Pax
Pax

However, I wanted a boat which I could sail from inside and which had the capacity for enough tools for me to be totally self-sufficient and also earn some cash along the way. I also wanted some private quarters for a few guests. I want to be able to offer friends the chance to join the boat, wherever in the world she may be. This will help with the expenses and also provide folks the chance to affordably see a bit of the world away from home in a unique perspective.

Yes, you’re invited.

The open Pacific, Todos Santos, Baha
The open Pacific , Todos Santos, Baha
La Paz Baha
La Paz

 

 

PASSING CLOUD

‘Passing Cloud’ is a well-known British Columbiabuilt wooden schooner (You can Google up pictures by simply using her name) This piece is not about the vessel, but is inspired by a wee visit to her birthplace yesterday. In fact, I find the name an analogy about how things of beauty and substance can pass or vaporize before we realize what we are losing.

 By comparison here is a quote taken directly from the packaging of a usb hub I bought this weekend. “THE MAGNETISM OF THE BOTTOM CAN BE COMFORTABLY ABSORBED BY PAVING THE DESIGN IN ANY PROVINCES.”

REALLY! I guess now that China knows it owns North America it is not really concerned about getting the language right. I believe the linguist who wrote that was trying to explain that the gadget has a magnetic bottom. Remember that mutant translation next time you see an Air China Airbus passing overhead…..right then, back to the passing cloud theme.

Magic!
Magic!

Ted Knowles 1.PG Ted Knowles15 Thoreau 1The man who owns the property and the boathouse where ‘Passing Cloud’ was built has sold and is moving on. I met him through a friend and went to Victoria to pick up an old wooden mizzen mast Ted wanted to go to a good home. I need it for a project on a customer’s boat and so serendipity has led me to a wonderful experience. Ted is an older man with a youthful glow. He is soft-spoken yet clearly a whole person who exudes an aura of peaceful wisdom and experience and confidence. It is a feeling I often get when around people who ‘Mess’ with wooden boats. He is certainly well known within the community of local wooden boat folks.

I am writing this and publishing these photos, without his knowledge or permission,  as a tribute of gratitude. I share this blog with fellows of a similar ilk and so take this liberty.

Ted’s boathouse is a temple for characters like me and  I wanted to share the wonder of the place. Everywhere are heaps of treasure: tools, and home-made machinery, including a sawmill and massive planer, well-seasoned boat wood, small wooden boats, home-made tools, a forge and a plethora of nautical tools and items. It is organized choas. I had a sense that Ted probably knows where every nail is stored. All, of course, is covered in a thick strata of dust and a sense of history.

Ted has sold and is moving on. He is faced with the daunting task of clearing out the boat house before he leaves for the last time. The waterfront property will become the site for two luxury waterfront homes. Another piece of our heritage passes like a cloud. He quiety said with a sad smile that it is, “Progress.” He could find no-one who wanted to take over the little shipyard as it is.

I recall giving someone directions to a new restaurant in Vancouver. It is at the foot of Burrard Street on the now-concreted foreshore of Coal Harbour. I described it as being where Menchions Shipyard had been located and received a blank look in response. How quickly we forget. We smother everything in cement and asphalt, glass and metal and talk about ‘Thinking green’. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was honourable to make a little daylight in the swamp but we created a monster. Now it is not unreasonable to find that, as Joni Mitchell sang, they’ll charge a dollar to see the tree museum.

I suppose it is one of the reasons I am preparing ‘Seafire’ to go voyaging. At sea you can see the world almost as it has always been, ever-changing unchangeable curved open horizon; the bits of plastic debris bobbing along ignored. Sailboats are a way of getting to places where life is still lived much as it has been. Change occurs everywhere, but the notion of constancy and solid values are a great comfort to this writer who mourns the passing of things like the art of letter-writing and self-sufficiency. Now where’s my copy of ‘Blogging For Dummies’?