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Alaska 2003
  • Places: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: May - August 2002
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Level of adventure: high to ridiculous
Copyright © 2003, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.

The Boat
My present boat, a Nordic Tug 37, is suitable for the Gulf of Alaska as long as I pay close attention to weather. It is not really an ocean boat and I have been caught in several rather dicey situations, more last year than this one, but as I gain experience I am learning how to stay out of trouble 99% of the time. I now know that the weather window for Gulf of Alaska operations in lightweight boats opens in early May and slams shut in mid-July.

I have a fair amount of sailing experience (I sailed solo around the world in a small sailboat 15 years ago, read about it here), but I am just learning about power boats — the Nordic Tug is my first power boat, only two years old.

"Teacup," Nordic Tug 37, Green Inlet, B.C.
My home cruising region (Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska) is famous for frustrating sailboat owners — the winds are often light and contrary. One sees many sailboats underway, but very few with sails flying. I know — until two years ago I operated a Crealock 37 sailboat in this area. As I traveled farther north, however, I realized my boat just wasn't suitable for the area — too cold, too wet, and I rarely used sail power. So I changed boats.

Some aspects of yachting never get better, like the chasm between boat descriptions and reality, and this particular problem is apparently unrelated to boat cost or prestige. An example — imagine buying a boat with a fancy, expensive boat heater, a heater that is plumbed into the diesel fuel system on the boat, only to discover later that the heater is not designed or intended to be run on diesel fuel. I know, I know, I could have read the instructions — but just this once I have the excuse that no manuals for the heater were provided with the boat.

The result? After about 100 hours of operation, the heater (an Espar) became so clogged with carbon that it simply stopped operating. I had to disassemble it while at anchor, clean it out and reassemble it. And it became obvious during this complex, messy repair that the last thing on the manufacturer's mind was the possibility that someone might have to take it apart and clean it.

New topic. I am realizing that many, if not most, people who own boats do not anchor if they can possibly avoid it. My evidence for this is rather compelling. First, most boats emerge from factories with rather silly anchors, rodes and winches, as though suitable ground tackle was a priority for neither the manufacturer nor the owner. Second, when you see how most people anchor, you realize they don't really know how to do it. Third, nothing is as instructive as listening to the chaos brought on by a sudden wind after dark in a crowded anchorage. And, in a great irony, if you are the only properly anchored boat, your risk becomes greater, not less, because many of the dragging boats will snag on your firmly set anchor's rode.

In my book "Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor," an account of my around-the-world sail, I tell many anchor stories, some hilarious, some depressing, starting with my own meandering education in effective anchoring. Suffice to say that, after four years circling the globe, I learned how to anchor the hard way.

I don't want to belabor this aspect of boating more than it has been already, but let me just say that, if one has not used his engine to test the holding of his anchor, has not applied at least as much force to the anchor as the wind is likely to apply to it later, then one is not anchored. Simply dropping the anchor into the water is not "anchoring" as that term is generally understood — yet that is the most common excuse for anchoring one sees.

As to my present boat, after brief experience with the factory equipment I ended up returning the boat to the manufacturer so the entire anchoring system — anchor, rode, and winch — could be replaced with something serious. Again, it's not really the manufacturer's fault — most people like to have an anchor on the bow of their boat, but more as a decoration than an essential piece of safety gear. And power boats respond to increased weight by slowing down, so manufacturers do all they can to reduce nonessential weight.

I recently saw a rather huge yacht with a comically small anchor and rode, so out of proportion that it was humorous to the practiced eye, but I was quickly informed that the owner never anchored, so it wasn't an issue. Not an issue, thought I privately, until the engine quits and the anchor is not adequate to keep the boat off the rocks some windy afternoon.

After a series of conversations in marinas this summer, I have come up with yet another litmus test for a "real sailor": Real sailors know it's safer to be anchored than to be tied to a marina slip. And it's true — in real terms, both for the boat and the owner, a well-chosen anchorage (and a well-chosen anchor) will assure the safety of the boat and its owner more surely than occupying a slip in a marina, surrounded by people who may not appreciate the risks posed by propane stoves (to name just one underappreciated risk), people whose dock lines are not sufficient for (name any wind velocity), people who cannot steer their boats in the confines of a marina, and who therefore bounce off your boat instead of maneuvering theirs.

An example of marina safety. In 1990 (before I arrived on the scene) my home port marina disintegrated completely when the wind blew from a direction and with a force everyone was sure wasn't possible. The wind blew from the northeast, very strong, this set up some nice tall wind-driven swells, a storm surge raised the water level further, then ... high tide arrived. The entire marina floated off the tops of its too-short support poles, then proceeded toward shore, destroying most of the boats in the process (Port Hadlock, WA, winter 1990).

Since that storm a concrete barrier has been put in place — not a breakwater, but better than nothing. One wonders how effective it will be when the next anomalous windstorm arrives.

But I digress. In both these stories (the heater, the anchor) it is as if the manufacturer was hoping the owner wouldn't use the equipment for its intended purpose. It's okay to have a kerosene heater plumbed to a diesel fuel system — as long as you don't turn it on. It's okay to have an inadequate anchor, rode and winch — as long as you don't try to anchor with it.

One comes to expect this sort of cynicism in a country seemingly ruled by the idea that appearance counts for everything and reality counts for nothing, but in my opinion, the anchor story goes too far. An anchor is not just a decoration — it might be required to save a boat in the event of an underway engine failure or while in an anchorage unexpectedly hit by strong winds.

Uh-oh, I feel a philosophical impulse coming on. A beautiful boat with an inadequate anchor is like a beautiful woman with an inadequate education. Hey, you know what — that is a perfect comparison, if I say so myself. Why? Well, first, if a woman doesn't have an adequate grip on anything, she will drift away (or you will). Just like a boat! Second, how many times do beautiful women get rejected because they don't possess any practical knowledge? Almost never. And how many times do the resulting relationships later go on the rocks because of something essential but absent? Almost always. As with women, so with boats. The difference is you have a better chance to come back after your heart breaks than your boat.

A digression. Why don't we ever read prose like the above in mainstream, printed sailing journals? That's easy to answer — the publishers won't take the risk of offending women. In fact, a careful reading of the above shows there's nothing offensive about it, but there is a superficial appearance of offensiveness, and appearances are all that count there.

I'm imagining an encounter with a boat magazine editor who has just read the paragraph above. He says, "This won't fly, it's gotta be rewritten." I say "What? Offended that I compare a woman to a boat?" He says, "No, I'm offended that you compare a boat to a woman."

Umm, don't jump to an unwarranted conclusion. Read it again. :)


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