Landlocked and Listless

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There is nothing like the deadly dull, soulless west coast winter to get you thinking about boats. Most die-hard sailors make it through these tough months by absorbing themselves in boating magazines, sitting in an easy chair tieing knots or attending boat shows.

Well, they’ve cancelled the annual Vancouver Boat Show this year because of a minor distraction called the Winter Olympics. It’s a helluva trade off, is you ask me.

I’ve already written on this blog about the lure of being at sea and I’m going to do it again. It helps reconnect me with the water, and I’m not talking about the stuff which is relentlessly falling from the sky.

Much more after the more.

Desolation Bound

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In September of 1998 someone actually paid me to go sailing. This, I was all but certain, was the apex of my broadcasting career. I was already in the enviable position of choosing my own stories and crafting my own approach, but no one had ever given me the chance to have this much fun for money.

Of course the television station needed the content. It was coming up short on its licence obligations, and I was one person who could produce an hour special with minimal muss and fuss—not to mention expense.

So, I boldly suggested they let me take my 27 foot sailboat up to Desolation Sound for ten days. We’d poke into the harbours and communities along the way and see what we could find. This approach had served me well by land in the past, and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t work at sea.

And that’s exactly what we did. Cameraman Mark Filmer (how perfect is that name?), with whom I’d already produced three other documentaries, would be on board to capture the trip on videotape. We’d have to cheat it a bit because, given the prevailing winds, there was no way we could actually sail that far and back in just ten days in anything less than an America’s Cup yacht—plus take the time to stop and scope out suitable feature subjects. We’d be motoring for much of it, but since the top speed of the sailboat with an outboard was only about six knots, it was going to be a leisurely cruise no matter how you cut it.

The summer crush of boating was already over by the time we chugged out of Eagle Harbour in West Vancouver, and that meant we would have no trouble finding lots of room at marinas and anchorages. If the weather held it could be a very sweet passage.

And it was. There were lovely warm days and cool clear nights. Despite the pressures of trying to gather enough material for a television special, it was as memorable a time sailing as I’d had in my life, and I’d had a few.

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I think I can safely say that most of my best moments in life have been on boats. I know I should probably be referencing the day I was married or the birth of my two sons, but I’m afraid, if I’m honest, the nautical benchmarks win out. Time afloat simply connects me. If one is able to feel contentment at a cellular level, I do. The boating bug is a disease and volumes have been written about what happens to those so afflicted. But if you’re going to go broke dumping your money into a blind passion, you can do a lot worse than spending it all out on the water.

I had been in rowboats and canoes since I was about six, and experienced a lot of trips through the gorgeous scenery of Georgian Bay. Much of the time it felt like I was paddling through a Group of Seven painting. I’d had a sailboat on Lake Huron for many years, and by the time we moved the family to the West Coast, it didn’t take too long before I took the plunge again.  This was, after all, Canada’s boating Mecca.

I did not jump back into boating lightly. Saltwater sailing is a different ballgame. There isn’t much to run into on the lower Great Lakes—besides other boats or the occasional sandbar. But ocean sailing meant I had to learn about tides and reefs and a much higher degree of marine maintenance.

Boaters know that their dearly beloved never looks better than when you see her all buffed up and gleaming at the boat show. Once you drop that thing into the water though, it basically begins to dissolve. How fast it disintegrates depends upon a lot of factors, not the least of which is your own level of custodial devotion.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”false” link=”term=vancouver+boats&iid=104026″ src=”0100/e41a00c4-58c9-4957-a462-a49fac9a3707.jpg?adImageId=9214557&imageId=104026″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]There are millions of dollars worth of boats tied up to Vancouver’s docks, most of which never move. They sit there gathering muck and mould and bird guano day after day, even in the most glorious stretches of a Pacific summer. Their once proud owners have become disenchanted with the dream. There’s too much scrubbing and painting and fussing about for many would-be sailors.

And then there’s the simple arithmetic. If you did an honest analysis of what a boat costs and how much it’s used, no sane individual would buy into it. You can’t escape the numbers. It makes no economic sense.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”false” link=”term=boat+show&iid=7316303″ src=”d/7/8/9/Boat_show_in_94da.JPG?adImageId=9214315&imageId=7316303″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]  But nobody tells you that when you wander into a boat show. I’ve probably covered almost two-dozen of these things as a reporter in both Toronto and Vancouver, and the big boat show in Seattle can make the Canadian versions look like garage sales.

There’s a commonality to the look of people at a boat show, a detached sense of reality. You may be walking around gawking at all those gleaming hulls, but—trust me—a substantial part of your brain is conjuring sun-soaked images of a lazy August afternoon, swinging at an idyllic moorage, beautiful bronzed bodies askew on the deck, with the scent of coconut oil, the sophisticated tinkle of ice cubes and carefree laughter all hanging in the sultry summer air.

It’s not the yachting industry that hooks you. You hook yourself.

They even have bankers sitting in booths at the boat show more than happy to get you in over your head. I often thought that, right next to the lawyers, should be a kiosk with a couple of good divorce attorneys. That way you could cover all the contingencies in a one-stop shop. Over the years I have met plenty of ravenous sailors who would rather lose a marriage partner than their boat. The boat is the last thing they want to give up. The most honest name I ever saw on the back of a vessel was ‘The Other Woman’. It truly can be.

It’s a costly, problem-plagued recreational choice that can bleed you dry. But boat lovers know it’s never been about cost effectiveness. It’s all about countless little moments that occur once you’re aboard, and they are just as likely to happen in the middle of a force-five gale as on a cloudless, picture-perfect day. These are small, indefinable, gut-level satisfactions that simply reinforce the love of being out on the water. And don’t even try to explain it to landlubbers

God knows it’s not a question of glamour. There’s precious little enchantment involved in hanging upside down for hours with your head stuck in some rotten, oil-laden bilge.

But—and this is the key—boat nuts love the mucking around part. They might whine a bit, but at the core they love all of that scraping and sanding and painting and polishing. They are smitten with the constant tinkering and attention to detail. They revel in the language and the history and the great salty tales. It’s one big, all-consuming package, and you’re very often in it alone. Not many of your Sunday afternoon guests stick around the dock once the last beer is drained.

I have a friend who was boating long before I was born. He’s ninety-eight at the time of this writing, and I know that he’s likely down on his boat right now. He keeps the boat going, and, there’s little doubt that the boat keeps him going, too. Working on the boat is not a chore. It has to be a big reward in and of itself.

So Mark Filmer and I were off to Desolation Sound. We had the camera gear, several jerry cans of gasoline, rudimentary groceries, sleeping bags and the charts that should see us safely up the coast.

My boat, Tahnoo II, was a twenty-five year-old production line, fibreglass sloop built in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. She was as roomy as most thirty footers with a good turn of speed.

The Tahnoo II at anchor

As we worked our way north, we gathered most of the production footage that would link all of the stories together. That meant either stranding Mark on some distant point of land, and then sailing the boat by him or sticking him out in the dinghy for some dramatically closer passes.

We also tried to devise a way of shackling the camera to the main halyard and hauling it to the masthead. I didn’t have a boson’s chair, otherwise I could have strapped Mark in and winched him up there myself. But we had a $60,000 piece of camera equipment, and if we damaged it there was no way effect a repair. The mission would be at an end. If we, God forbid, dropped the camera to the deck or let it tumble into the ocean, we might as well just keep sailing, because there probably wouldn’t be any jobs waiting for us when we returned.

We did manage to pad the camera with a couple of tea towels and hank it a good five metres up the mast, but the resulting footage was swinging all over the place. I think I salvaged just a few seconds for the final show by throwing some of that tape—just a few relevant frames—into ultra slow motion.

The scenery, under clear September skies, was spectacular. I particularly remember the colours being super-saturated. One of the tracking shots of Tahnoo II, on a beam reach that Mark shot from a distant spit of land, looked like it might have been taken anywhere in the Caribbean. Only some snow on a distant Vancouver Island peak gave the northern climate away.

Bit by bit, nautical mile by nautical mile, we began to meet the people we needed to flesh out the show.

We tied up at the dock in Secret Cove and interviewed a couple that had been living aboard their sailboat for years. At Halfmoon Bay, we did a colourful segment on some craftsmen who had a big workshop for building all kinds of kites. In Pender Harbour, we flew in Bill Thompson’s old yellow bi-plane. By the time we arrived at the public dock in Powell River, the town’s annual Fall Fair was underway. We got a great hometown story of pumpkins and scarecrows and home made, prize-winning preserves out of that.      Eventually only Desolation Sound itself lay before us. And on that morning, when we finally sailed past the entry cliffs of Gorge Harbour on Cortes Island, we were confident we could finish up in style.

I had done enough features on folks living throughout B.C.’s Gulf and Washington State’s San Juan Islands to know that they were a distinct breed. Islanders have their own sense of time. The rhythms of their lives are often governed by the schedule of the local ferry service. Many of these people have escaped metropolitan living for something far more elemental, and a good portion of them have become self-sufficient. Many grow their own food. They raise their own livestock. Over the years I had met with people who were into everything from crafting world-class violin bows to concocting their own Japanese miso.

I knew that any trip to any island was loaded with possibilities. Islanders invariably march to the beat of a different drummer, and as if by a metaphorical toss of the dice, our first discovery on Cortes would, in fact, be a man who made his own drums.

His name was Yendor, just the single handle, like Cher, I guess. I didn’t really care what he called himself. At first glance I knew he was pretty much perfect. It was as if I’d called up Central Casting and asked them to send over a cross between comedian Gary Muledeer and artist Bob Ross, someone with a latent funkadelic vibe that exuded a hippie artisan cool.

Yendor had a big afro of fuzzy, white hair—plus beard—and came decked out in a tie-dyed, orange/green t-shirt and sandals. His toe nails were painted with sparkly blue polish. If you’re a television producer this is the kind of value-added you simply can’t fake.

He was an educated, well-spoken man, who had found a lifelong passion in drumming, and his favourite drum was the goblet-shaped instrument, the African djembe.

“I was the guy whose mother was always saying, ‘Will you stop tapping on the top of the table. It’s driving me crazy!’”, he told me.

Yendor had a partner in Africa through whom he was able to import a variety of drums, along with a fascinating selection of primitive drum-making tools. He used those tools himself to craft his own line, and the progression from raw log to basic drum, though primitive, made for great television.

Yendor took us to a dark, fetid bog deep in the forest near his workshop on the south side of Cortes. Submerged in the bog were big rounds of red cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir. You could keep the raw wood under water, he said, and it would help dissolve out the sugars and soluble parts of the sap.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=african+drums&iid=5276739″ src=”f/a/d/0/Djembe_71d0.jpg?adImageId=9216529&imageId=5276739″ width=”234″ height=”389″ /] Once a round was dried out, he got down to business with some pretty basic tools. There were long-shanked chisels and rounded scrapers, with which he really wailed away on the wood. He’d been building drums for almost thirty years. His first ones were crafted from old soy sauce barrels topped with mule hide. These days he could rough out a djembe in no time. He knew by the size of each drum what kind of sound it would produce. “The bigger they are the deeper the tones.” He knew that by varying the thickness of the wood, he could generate a sweeter, higher note from the edge than the middle. You can’t make drums for thirty years and not bring a lot of intuition to the process.

We had a great sun-soaked afternoon at Yendor’s, and ended the segment with the two of us jamming in his studio. He was a great character, a perfect find for our first day on Cortes.

A postscript: Yendor Hurst (he did, I discovered much later, have a last name) died in an accident while cutting down tree limbs on his property in the Fall of 2005. He was much admired by the island community and there was a lot more to his personae than bushy white hair and sparkle blue toenails. His memorial service was full of laughter and love—and, of course, lots of drumming.

The next place we dropped anchor on Cortes was at the harbour in Whaletown. Whaletown has a lovely unpretentious ambiance. It plays host to the inter-island ferry traffic, and there’s a small library and post office. We dropped anchor and rowed the dinghy over to the Whaletown wharf to investigate the sixty-one foot sloop, Daemon. We weren’t the only people looking in on the Daemon that day. In fact, there was a steady stream.

When you live on an island, you don’t take professional care for granted. Thus, the presence of this yacht in Whaletown was a signal that a competent root canal was as close and convenient as the neighbourhood dock. Dr. Dale Anderson ran a floating dental clinic aboard the boat. He had been a landlocked professional with a good practice in BC’s Okanagan Valley for twenty-five years, but the sailing bug would not leave him alone, so he moved everything aboard the Daemon: the dental chair, the instruments, his hygienist—even an x-ray setup.

This was as far from the sterilized, impersonal confines of a normal dental office as you can imagine. The waiting room…well, there was no waiting room. If you needed to kill some time you could always sit up on deck and watch the boats go by. This was far more relaxing than thumbing through an old magazine or staring into an aquarium.

Below deck everything was bathed in the warmth glow of teak and mahogany and brass. There was a big skylight above the chair, allowing a patient to stare up into blue while the work was done.

Dr. Anderson was trying to have his cake and eat it to. “After being at sea for a couple of years”, he said, “A person finds it hard to break that freedom and go into a regular office.” Now he did just enough dentistry to get him back out on the water. “I just earn enough in the winter to let me sail in the summer. It’s still dentistry, but it’s definitely more fun.”

When he does take the Daemon on an extended cruise, say somewhere in the South Pacific, he’s able to trade his professional skills for manual labour. You fix a man’s teeth, someone who couldn’t possibly afford to pay cash, and you can barter a deal to have him scrape or paint the bottom of the boat.

This seemed like one sweet setup. Of course, it’s not the life for everyone. People who live-aboard, whether they be dentists or not, have learned to pare down the trappings of success. They aren’t concerned with a big car, a big lawn, a big anything.

The boat is the thing. Every extra minute spent sailing means you’re ahead of the game. For folks like Dr. Anderson, a profession like dentistry is merely a living. The real living happens far from shore.

Our last stop on the island was at the government dock in Cortes Bay. I had heard about a crusty harbour manager there, and he sounded like appropriate grist for our mill. We took a big risk of trying to enter Cortes Bay at night. It was a dumb move. I had miscalculated this last leg to the other side of the island, and by the time we were ready to enter the bay darkness had already fallen. I knew by the charts that, despite the numerous rocks and reefs, I should be able to pilot the sloop safely through the passage by lining up the light on the end of the dock with another light on a channel marker buoy.

We brought the lights into alignment, cut the boat speed to a dead crawl, and crept forward through a narrow gap. I had Mark stand at the bow pulpit of the boat armed with a powerful camera light just to keep an eye on the water ahead.

At one point we passed a homemade sign on shore that simply said ‘Dammit! Please Slow Down’. I didn’t know it at the time, but the harbour manager was watching us work our way into the bay and probably muttering about the ‘damn fools in the dark’.

The next morning, Bill Brown—the 77 year-old, no-nonsense, cigar-chomping keeper of the Cortes government wharf—walked down the ramp. It was definitely his turf. The bay was basically Bill’s front yard, and he didn’t take a lot of guff from people who tied up at his dock.

“If anybody’s bellyaching, I say, ‘Well evidently you don’t like this place’, and I start untying’ the lines. They don’t get rowdy with me.”

I liked him instantly, again, because he was comfortable in his own skin and not afraid to shoot from the lip, Bill reminded me of a more weathered version of American actor James Whitmore. We hooked him up with a microphone and just chewed the fat for awhile.

Bill had been a realtor and a rancher, and now the harbour master at Cortes Bay for about thirteen years. He had a reputation for being firm but fair and he knew it. “I’m known as that S.O.B. at Cortes Bay, and they don’t mean ‘Sweet Old Bill’.” He was certainly spry, which he credited to going up and down that ramp several times a day, plus he got a bit of a workout while prawn fishing. That sounded like a cue to me so we loaded the camera gear into his boat and headed out of the harbour to check his prawn traps.

I asked about the cigars; didn’t the doctor ever tell him to cut out the cigars? “He only did that once”, Bill smiled. “I told him I’m 77 years old, and I’m gonna do as I damn well please!”

Once we got out into deeper water, we discovered one of the prawn traps was gone, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Bill just shrugged his shoulders and said it was the fourth trap he’d had stolen that year. There wasn’t very much he could do about it.

He sure looked comfortable at the helm of that little boat. “This is my last move,” he said. “They’ll put my ashes out with my neighbours. I’ve scattered a couple of them already.”

The best of times

We had the show. There comes a point in the field production when you just know you’ve got enough to piece the hour together. I remember a clarifying moment the morning we left Cortes Island to begin our trip back to Vancouver. I had picked up the cell-phone and called a senior producer back at the television station to give her a progress report. She had apparently fought a lot of traffic to get into work that morning and was now sitting at her desk buried under a mound of paper. I, on the other hand, was having a leisurely cup of coffee while the boat made its way over the glassy surface of the sea. The cameraman was taking in the scenery by lounging on a folded sail in the bow. It was just a sweet moment in time and I thought to myself that life really couldn’t get much better than this.

And I was right.

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3 Responses to “Landlocked and Listless”

  1. Thank you Dave for another great read. I’m humming the score as I read it.

  2. Dave, no disrespect to your lovely wife, but I think, no, I’m SURE, that I have a crush on you!! Do you have a single brother that’s just like you….around 40 yrs. old??
    Don’t laugh!! A good crush is hard to come by these days.

    Hopefully you won’t be scared off by this raw, honest admission…

    Carry on!

  3. P.S…..Loved your sailing story…

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