Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Not as Easy as it Looks

I spent last weekend up in the San Juan Islands, learning how to operate a twin screw power boat. Last June, when I spent the day on a friend’s boat, a whole torrent of memories and reawakened emotions came flooding back (nice use of water metaphor, no?), and I realized that, disgraceful as I am coming to find the guzzling of fossil fuels in which our society participates, there’s something about power boating—the speed, and the challenge of operation, and the fact that you have a roof over your head and a gently rocking bed at night—that I can’t get out of my soul.

So I looked around online, and found this class out of Anacortes, where I’d go out on a boat for three days and two nights, and learn everything from navigation to basic engine checking to crewing to operation. Considering my background in the islands, I was pretty sure the entire class would be review, and a snap. I packed accordingly, bringing a novel, Harper’s, a 4-star Sudoku I was working on, my iPod, and a new knitting project, to take care of in my down time*.

Ahem. Well, I wasn’t wrong about the stuff that actually was review for me—I’ve used charts, I’ve spoken on the VHF radio, I’ve hooked up a docked boat to shore power in the appropriate manner (make sure the main circuit switch on board is OFF and all the individual circuits are OFF, and the circuit switch on the dock is OFF; then hook the cord into the boat, then into the dock, then flip the dock switch, then check to make sure the polarity sensor on the boat is green, then flip the boat master, then turn on the individual switches), I’ve been a good crew member, almost always making things easier for Captain Dad. I’ve even spent not an insignificant amount of time as captain through open water, following a course. I was rusty on these things Friday afternoon when we first boarded our boat, but they came back as quickly as I’d expected.

What I hadn’t done at all, or more than once or twice, was moor. And, really, what the entire trip comes down to is whether or not you can arrive in port safely.

There are an infinite number of factors affecting safe mooring, including wind (into or away from the dock?), current (into or away from the dock?), water depth, shape of dock (long or slips?), and who else is around. Also, my habit of jumping for the dock from the bow and quickly cleating . . . well that, it turns out, is allowing the skipper to cheat a little. The skipper should bring the boat in until it’s parallel to the dock, and no more than a foot away. The crew should only have to step off and tie up (and, I have to say, now that I’m 33 and my knees are going bad, I really appreciate this idea.). Anchoring or mooring to a buoy are a little easier, as far as people around you go, because if there’s any chance you’re going to hit someone as you set your anchor or grab your buoy, you definitely shouldn’t be where you are.

There were four of us on the boat (a 34-foot Bayliner called True Story): me; Cap’n Glenn, a 65-year-old retired career Coast Guardsman; D, a 61-year-old retired insurance man from Vegas; and S, a 43-year-old Microsofty. As expected, I was the only woman, although S was much younger than the 60-something of the other two. And as I also expected, even though I brought my sleeping bag and could easily have shared a cabin with one of the other students, I got my own (I also never once did the dishes, which was purely unintentional, but nice nonetheless, I will admit).

D, whose boating experience has been on lakes or on the Sound as a passenger, was a little outmatched by the entire weekend experience. S and I, however, seemed to be pretty well-matched in our ability to pick up the new docking skills. I won’t go into great detail—after all, I spent about 25 hours over the weekend learning these things and it would be tedious to recount them in greater detail than I already am (unless it’s already too late to avoid tedium). Suffice it to say that four levers—two shifters and two throttles—can become confused in your mind the sixth time in a row you come in to dock, and you might freeze up completely as your boat drifts forward, because you can’t remember which levers to push back (to reverse) and which levers to push forward (to do it quickly, or “Get ‘er done!” as Cap’n Glenn liked to say), and getting them wrong would be, frankly, an error of potentially thousands of dollars. Suffice it completely to say that someone standing next to your left ear (or rather, port ear) yelling “what are you doing? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?” doesn’t make it easier to figure out the levers. I think what I did in this situation was turn to glare at the person by my ear and entirely remove my hands from the levers at all. He took us back out, I brought us in flawlessly on my second try, and then I said, probably still glaring, “that’s it. I’m done for tonight.”

I mean, the thing about docking is this—if you get it right, you never do it again. It’s the most stressful part of boating (barring disaster, of course . . . but it can lead to that easily), your nerves are keyed to an almost inaudibly high pitch, and the body just isn’t made to withstand that much pressure for that long. The next morning, I practiced docking three times, did an excellent job, felt my nerves start to fray, and handed over the wheel to S. “But you’re doing so well!” said Cap’n Glenn. I gave him a look. “I know,” I said.

As much as I don’t like to be yelled at, things do have to happen in a split second on a boat. And it made a big difference to me that, soon after my near melt-down in slip 25, we went to the grittiest tavern in Friday Harbor and, over beers (I ordered an Arrogant Bastard Ale), Cap’n Glenn admitted that he’d had a long day, too, and was also tired.

The day had been exhausting, on a par with the intensive language courses I took in Portugal several years ago. I could feel my brain laboriously building new neural pathways, grinding through gears long abandoned in sea water. One thing about living the life of a dilettante is that you don’t actually have to work hard, extensively, very often. At all. And I was really out of practice.

But Sunday was great—I didn’t lose reverse at all, especially when I really needed it; I learned to anchor and un-anchor; I was the only one not hung over from the 3 pints of beer and half a bottle of wine from the night before (water, my friends. You must dilute.), we toured yet more of the San Juans, occasionally triggering sharp nostalgia.

“I once said to my dad ‘you know, it’s much easier to drive a boat than a car,’” I told the boys as we motored along Guemes Channel toward home port, “and he looked at me incredulously. ‘Are you kidding me?’ he asked.”

Cap’n Glenn laughed. “Sounds like he was a smart man, your dad,” he said.

I docked back in Anacortes to fuel up, a maneuver that involved a pivot in a narrow channel. Rashly confident in my new abilities as a yachter, I started filling the fuel tank, only to have it burp up at 10 gallons (miles to go before full), spilling probably no more than a pint of diesel into the water, but that small amount spread out fast. Suddenly we’re running up and down the dock in a panic, trying to mop up the mess with spill towels before it got out of reach—this is, naturally, a fineable offense. We did our best, and surreptitiously sprayed a little dish soap on the small remainder, which vanished magically (except from my hand and arm, which continue to smell a little like an auto shop).

Sigh. Boats afford endless opportunity for learning humility.

But they’re also really, really fun, and I can take you out on one now.

Seriously, I can, and I’m ready any time. So call me whenever! I mean it!

* Uh, yeah. I maybe placed 3 numbers per night in my Sudoku, before I collapsed into the sleep of the dead.

3 comments:

ACB said...

Ok, I take back my email comment about taking "dilettante" out of your title! This is so cool.

S said...

For those of you thinking about taking up Calin on her sea-worthy offer... you should take it. She's an excellent captain and knows the San Juans well.

Calin - GREAT to meet you and happy boating!

CMT said...

Thanks, S! Same goes for you, too, of course! If anyone out there knows S, call him up and set up a trip!