By Dianne O’Connell

March 2015 

Newly widowed, I had moved to the Puget Sound area – the delightful community of Edmonds, to be specific – in order to be closer to my children and grandchildren. The move was also designed as a self-reinvention project. No possibility would be dismissed without some consideration. However, I surprised even myself when someone asked, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” and I promptly responded, with no consideration at all,

“Learn to sail.”

This was an overstatement, but I did say it. And I backed up the brave words with action.  I imported a Boat Captain from “back East” (or the Midwest, to be more accurate) to help me look at boats. He met me in Seattle that summer and we poked around a dozen or so marinas, boatyards, boat shows, and backyards – looking for boats, with me trying to remember the difference between a sloop, a ketch, a schooner … or maybe a yawl. The Captain returned home and sent me an e-mail with an advertisement for the “perfect boat” in my price range -- a 1981 30’ Sabre sailboat named Chinook owned by an Edmonds couple.  I called the owner up and arranged to meet Chinook.  One mast, I noted, a “sloop.” By the end of the day, Chinook was mine.

By bedtime, I remembered that I truly knew nothing about sailing.  Had been on a sailboat once many years previously in Hawaii, but that was the sum total of my experience.  I needed that Boat Captain.  A call was placed and he agreed to return.  It was the beginning of a three-year, ever eventful, experience.

I had visions of cruising from port to port much like Cleopatra, with the Captain in charge of the barge.  The Captain, however, was bent on teaching ME to sail – and he did try valiantly during his tenure to “show me the ropes.”  My weakness was a really bad left hip joint and an astonishing lack of natural talent for both the physical requirements of sailing and the underlying math and geometry of the sailing enterprise. 

Plus, the Captain’s heart was really into racing. “The best way to learn to sail, is to race,” he said. But to race Chinook, the Captain needed a crew -- two, better yet three, accomplished (or at least able-bodied) sailors to help maneuver this thirty-plus-year-old craft in and around much sleeker, younger vessels.

After signing up with a local sailing club, we did finally meet a few brave souls who agreed to sail with this craggy, cranky newcomer.  We picked up a couple volunteers on the docks.  And, we tried to conscript a couple of resistant family members and friends. Every race saw a different crew configuration.  Sometimes, I rode along as “cargo,” taking pictures. Other times, I stayed ashore. That evening or the next day, the handicaps would be calculated and the race returns would be posted.  We never came in “first”, but we often “placed” and felt appropriately proud.  And each time we turned out, we placed ahead of those boats that did not show.  A basic life principle.

I would like to impress you with a long litany of sea-terms learned, descriptions and effects of changing winds, changing tides, or other stuff of which finer stories are crafted. But frankly what comes to mind at the moment is just how expensive a boat is to operate and maintain.  Chinook’s modest purchase price was only the down payment toward the overall cost of the venture.

First there was the Harken Cruising Jib Furler (a ”must-have” for a crippled boat owner), the addition of chrome handle bars to make it easier for me to hoist myself from dock to deck, barnacle removal and bottom painting, and a host of other upgrades and on-going maintenance and repair items. But those are fading memories. The fun today is in the story-telling, beginning with getting the boat from Shilshole to Edmonds.

When purchased, Chinook was moored at Shilshole Bay.  When a temporary slip became available in February at the Edmonds Marina, I had but a short window in which to make the move. The day came.  Never mind the cold, the freezing rain, or the fact that neither the Captain nor I had ever sailed a boat on Puget Sound. Confidently we boarded Chinook and motored out to sea. 

“Which way is Edmonds?”  the Old Salt inquired.

I inhaled while contemplating a response.

 “Turn right,” I said.

“To starboard,” he corrected.  “The tide’s going out,” he further observed, “fast.”

“Should cut our time. What are we looking for?”

“Edmonds,” I answered.  He frowned. “Should be a buoy or a marker.”

“I looked at an Edmonds condo at a place called Point Edwards,” I offered.  “Here is a point called Edwards on the map, ah, chart.”

The wind came up and Chinook whooshed and creaked but seemed to know what she was doing.  We headed toward the first of several “points” only to again see another one farther on.

“This is a pretty fierce tide,” the Captain remarked once again.  “With the wind and the tide we’re going nine knots.” 

“Can you see Point Edwards yet? “

 “I think we just passed it,” I answered, looking back at a strip of dark grey against a lighter grey sky.

“Wait. Look at that!”  

The fog had lifted and starboard was shining brightly a huge sign simply stating “Port of Edmonds.”

We turned right and sailed in.

Later that same month we needed to take Chinook in for some additional “adjustments” – this time through the Ballard Locks and on to Coastal Marine where the work would be done. When it was time to return, I learned something about a boat’s right-of-way.  Chinook, for instance, is a 30’ sailboat.   The Ballard Bridge is a 2,854’ long section of a major thoroughfare in downtown Seattle and is one of a succession of bridges spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which connects Lake Washington to Puget Sound.  Who yields to whom in the face of competing interests?

Here’s the problem. Built in 1917, the old drawbridge had a minimum clearance of 40’ above water. The Chinook’s mast reached 41’ to 42’ – too tall by a foot or so to sail under the bridge.

“What problem?” asks the Captain, rummaging around and coming up with a rusty tin horn.  Puffing up his cheeks, he blew three times and a little tinny sound hovered in the air.  After a couple of minutes, he blew the horn again – 15th Avenue traffic came to a halt and the ancient bridge began to open and soon stood perpendicular to the water.  Chinook wiggled her transom and proudly motored under the bridge to emerge on the other side.  The old bridge slowly closed and traffic resumed.

              “City sailing is different from Sound sailing,” I remarked to no one in particular.

A less benign adventure occurred during the annual two-day Mad Dash Race from Edmonds to Port Ludlow on the Olympic Peninsula.  The race is held in June.  We signed up.  When the day came, we loaded up Chinook, dragged out the charts, and headed for Point No Point.

Winds were light but by the time we reached No Point, the skies had darkened and the wind began to rise.  Great.  Wind is great for sailboat racing.  But the skies grew even darker and the winds began to roar down the Hood Canal seemingly straight for Chinook.  We hit seven knots, according to the ship’s log (aka Facebook notes), and were seriously heeling to starboard.  I was uncertain whether or not I should be concerned until I heard the Captain yell,

"Ease the jib, EASE THE FRIGGIN' JIB!"

I’m hearing impaired and have a poor memory. Which and what was the “jib” again?

"LET IT GO!' the Captain yelled, gesturing wildly toward the winch and the jib sheet. “I don’t plan to die out here.”

Now sensing the seriousness of the situation, I remembered the “jib” was that front sail attached to the sheet (which anyone else would call a line, if not a damned rope), and the jib sheet was wrapped around that winch.

Hanging on to whatever I could, I made my way OVER (which in this wind was now DOWN) to the self-tailing winch, disengaged the top coil of the sheet from the jaws....and LET ‘ER GO.

The jib flapped and squawked and wound itself up (that new Harken Cruising Jib Furler was worth every penny). We slowed right down, the wind became manageable, and we, of course, sailed into port -- happy, alive, and last.

The following year, we signed up again. This “mad dash” to Ludlow was considerably less “life-threatening” than our first year in that we spend a great deal of “quiet time”, waiting for a hint of a breeze. It was the second day of the “race” that triggers the best memories.

Chinook and her crew were up early and ready to head for home.  As we motored Chinook out of Ludlow Bay, we were headed off by Coast Guardsmen in a patrol boat with a machine gun pointed in our direction.  Pulling alongside Chinook, the gentleman with the gun politely ordered us back into the bay with additional orders to “stay put” until told differently.  We obliged.

Our position provided an ideal spot from which to watch several small boats emerge from Hood Canal, followed by two large United States Navy ships. Between the ships was a long, black monster riding low in the water. It looked like a giant whale’s back, only really big.  A submarine.  Possibly a Trident nuclear submarine, no doubt coming from the U.S. Naval Base Kitsap on the Hood Canal.  If it was what we suspected, the submarine would have been 560 feet long (almost the length of two football fields, a few feet longer than the Washington Monument). The escort and submarine silently passed in front of us and headed out toward the Pacific.  Awestruck, we motored out of the bay, turned right, and headed for Edmonds.

Three years had passed and the Captain’s time in Puget Sound was coming to a close. He was ready to return to his friends and to the Great Lakes.  Both he and Chinook had performed their duty – the goal being to shake me out of the doldrums and get me sailing in a new direction.  Chinook raced one last February Frostbite series under a different captain, but in the spring, I put her up for sale. 

I never became a sailor.   It doesn’t matter.  It was a priceless adventure that certainly tested my physical as well as psychological limitations and took me places I would not have been otherwise. An extensive photographic collection preserves brilliant sunsets transforming the Sound into a sea of reds and purples, and breath-catching moonrises documenting this translucent ball lifting up over Richmond Beach and slowly floating towards the Edmonds marina. Finally the iridescent ball hovers over the city where its image reflects not just in the water, but in shop windows and wet streets.

Add to this the portraits of fishing boats, sailboats, tankers, barges, cruise ships, the Victoria Clipper, and the ever present Kingston Ferry, not to mention folks hand-gliding and kayaking, and well, seals, and eagles, whales and of course, that submarine.  The sights and sounds and adrenaline rushes of Puget Sound are now a part of me. I can still hear the blare of the Kingston Ferry’s horn when Chinook  sailed too close, and feel the excitement when   we “tacked” and it actually worked or when I steered to “that point over there” and the boat actually went in that direction.

I live in a home today with a view of Puget Sound.  As I stand by the window, I feel a primal connection to the water. Memories of sea-faring ancestors are awakened in the sound of silence – as when Chinook’s motor quieted and the boat moved with the wind alone.  The Captain particularly enjoyed going out on the Sound with nightfall approaching.

“Magical,” was his word.

Magical, yes. Moonrises and the sounds of gentle waves are, indeed, magical. So are the stars that appear as the sun slips, often with a great light show of its own, behind the mountains. And then signs of human civilization begin to glimmer in clumps along the horizon, first faintly, and then growing brighter and brighter – signs of people, boats moored for the night, living in community.

Did I re-invent myself during those three years?  Well, I did experience a variety of changing personae, but I’ve lived with the various aspects of me for a long time. I’ve not become a different person, but I do have a deeper understanding of my personal strengths and triggers as well as those pesky limitations.  If you ask me today, absolutely, the decision to step aboard Chinook was a good one.  The decision to let ‘er go, was also wise.

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