When I moved to Oregon six years ago my “California bubble” burst. The West Coast got longer and places like Eugene, Portland, Bend, Seattle, Bellingham, and the San Juan Islands all came to mean something.
I bought my first rain jacket and experienced a familiar attitude but distinctly different culture. Life was full of outdoor adventures, beer, modern day hippies, and impromptu potlucks. You can’t wait for dry weather, if you did you’d miss out. I learned that everything dries, well, almost everything.
Stereotypes were neither fulfilled nor contradicted because in truth I had rarely, if ever thought about the culture of the Pacific Northwest. In my “California bubble” there was the San Francisco Bay Area, the rest of Northern California, Lake Tahoe, and SoCal. Even after visiting Oregon on family road trips only a nice forest green color came to mind when the state was mentioned.
Now, after four years in Eugene and three in Seattle my mind fills with colors, sensations, and so many marvelous memories made in Oregon, Washington, and elsewhere in the great Northwest. Here is the first “NW Moment” I want to share.
NW Moment #1: A Beer on a Boat
My friend Calla and I woke up early Saturday morning, maybe 6:00am. We refused to give up Friday night at the bars even though we volunteered to help at a college sailing regatta all weekend. Despite the previous night’s drinks we left Seattle on time in sensible base layers and puffy jackets. The February forecast called for clear, cold and windy conditions.
In college sailing, universities come together at various venues to compete in a series of races, called a regatta. Regattas often take place in the same venue year after year. However, organizers relocated this regatta from its traditional venue to Samish Island, where no college regatta had ever been held, an experiment.
Heading North on Interstate 5 the malls and suburbs of Seattle fell behind, the time came for coffee. I looked down at my phone and saw two red bubbles.
“There are a couple of coffee places at the next exit.”
Calla took the exit and turned right. We spotted a drive through coffee spot first and turned into the foggy parking lot. I dug around for my wallet.
Then Calla exclaimed, “OH! One of THOSE coffee shops. WOW…you look GREAT, you really do.”
I looked up.
Inside the small structure a very slim young woman dressed in a mismatched bikini prepared to take our order. Her exposed skin revealed several tattoos and surprisingly, no goose bumps. Despite the early hour she appeared wide awake with bold makeup and styled hair. One of THOSE coffee shops meant a bikini barista espresso stand.
“It must be very cold!” Calla observed. She looked at me, eyes wide; “Are we ready to order?”
As the “bareista” made our lattes Calla continued to chitchat about the weather, our plans for the day. The young woman had never been sailing but had been wakeboarding a couple of times and that was really fun. With our lattes in hand, I signed the receipt and we drove back to the main road. Before turning the corner we lost it.
“Oh my god, we just did that!” I squealed.
“Hahaha I had nooooo idea!” Calla’s shocked face finally relaxed.
“No wonder they make so much money,” I said as I put my wallet away again.
“Why do you say that?”
“I couldn’t help but tip her extra! She was in a bikini at 7am in February!”
Laughing Calla merged onto the freeway and we drove on.
Despite our shock, bikini baristas originated in Washington state. Whether a result of the coffee culture, booze-free strip clubs, or willingness to experiment; scantily clad purveyors of caffeine found a niche. Neither of us had been served by a “bareista” before. We admired her confidence, genuineness, and apparent invincibility to the temperature. She made a pretty good latte too.
Eighty miles north of Seattle and inland of the San Juan Islands lies Samish Island. It is shaped like a smoking gun, surrounded by two bays and connected to the mainland by a series of dikes. The regatta was held at the western end of the island (the barrel of the gun) and presented a wealth of challenges.
Running a regatta, even at a familiar location, is an intricate coordination of logistics and constant decision-making. It is also a refreshing free fall where no plan lasts too long and the overarching goal remains the same: sail as much as possible.
What makes running a regatta tricky?
First of all, nature takes precedence. The tides, wind, and changes in weather cannot be manipulated; they must be anticipated and accounted for in any plan.
The equipment is another part. College regattas involve anywhere from five to over fifty sailboats. Motor boats, anchors, and radios are the Race Committee’s primary tools. Buoys, plastic floats that vary in color and size but often look like a Hoppity Hop, are used to mark the course on the water. With all this equipment something may, and usually does, go wrong.
A regatta is not complete without all the people. Competitors, coaches, organizers, and volunteers work together to make each event a reality. Communication is challenging but essential. Differing opinions often arise and expectations must be managed.
The last piece to coordinate is the racing itself. A race course must be set up and adjusted for the changing elements, sometimes almost constantly. Rules and protocol must be upheld, scores recorded, and time used efficiently.
These are some of the challenges a usual regatta entails. This experimental event presented additional challenges, very unique ones. We volunteered to give back to the alumni that volunteered during our college careers, and for fun. We did not anticipate the extent of the experimental.
From the beginning, things were not set up to succeed. Calla and I accounted for two of the three volunteers. One of the motorboats intended to move buoys and ensure safety on the water more closely resembled a repurposed planter. Someone put an engine on it that morning. There were no radios and only a rocky beach for launching boats.
Calla and I bond over our desire to solve problems. In this case, we shook our heads at the humorous situation; then set out to accomplish what we could with the tools at hand. It might not be great, but it would happen. Identifying the problems we established the priorities, bundled up, and left the shore for the rest of the day.
The humor receded and we observed everything we could, safety was a priority. Using cell phones in each boat we assessed the conditions: the depth of the water, the direction of the wind, strong tides, and unknown factors. At a certain point we needed to drop a mark and wing it. Then the humorous situation became a full-fledged comedy.
At least five buoys, or marks, had to be anchored to create the race course. The anchor line (line being the nautical term for rope) was set up for a very deep lake elsewhere in Washington. Each anchor had 100 to 200 feet of line attached we weren’t allowed to cut shorter. The water here was only ten to twenty feet deep.
Feet upon feet of line lay everywhere needing to be untangled, coiled, and dealt with. The bottom of the planter boat was barely visible beneath the excess of rope. Despite our best efforts we could not avoid a mess. The wind remained unpredictable, so we stayed on the move. Shifting the marks with the wind and scoring boats as they finished.
We juggled all these challenges and others (no bathroom breaks?!) until the wind abandoned us at 4pm. Despite the hurdles competitors completed fourteen races by the end of the day. The sailboats headed to shore but the sun lingered and we finally paused long enough to take in a tricky but truly beautiful venue.
East towards shore white triangle sails stood out against the dark green forests on Samish Island. The land began to climb upwards from there until the trees gave way to the skies. Thick with stubborn clouds earlier, they parted in the afternoon and the majestic Mt. Baker peeked out.
Westward the sun looked warm even if the air was still crisp. A gold and orange sunset bent around the neighboring islands and the web of waterways continued beyond the horizon. Now the only boat on the water, the evergreens, beautiful bays, and mountains were all ours to appreciate.
The experiment still continued. In the motorboat lay a daunting pile of tangled white anchor line. Despite the long day, Calla and I focused on being prepared for Sunday, no matter what the conditions might bring.
We shut off the engine and picked a perch. I faced the evergreens and mountains while Calla bathed in the sunset and eastern islands. Breaking out two beers, we sipped and straightened out the massive mess. With the boats ashore we relaxed, laughingly bemoaning the day’s events. Humor returned and we celebrated our determination.
In our waterproof gear and life jackets with wild hair, we embodied the strong sailing women who inspire me. The scenery astounded me, I felt lucky to be there all because of sailing.
Our ties with these sailors and my respect for every volunteer reminded me of the community I found here. My friendship with Calla shone during that sunset because a daunting task had been fun together and no matter what we would leave with all the lines untangled.
I am delightfully overwhelmed when the epic and the simple converge: when a beer sipped during a tedious task is paired with breathtaking surroundings, when commiserating leads to laughter and silliness, when a helping hand reminds you of the intangible importance of community. All of these things happened that Saturday afternoon, it was a perfect Northwest moment.