Capi’s 3rd Anniversary: Reflecting on pandemic boat life

“I bought Capi in January 2018?” I asked Andrew again.

“Did you?” he responded smiling.

It often feels like we speed away from momentous life events, anniversaries are one way to keep track. Now though, the distortion of time we’ve all experienced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic takes that a step further.

It feels like I’ve owned Capi for two whirlwind years and one long, strange year.

KEXP DJ Larry Mizell, Jr. reminded me one afternoon: We’d don’t always feel like celebrating so, when you do you’ve gotta celebrate!

Three years of boat ownership is like an in-between, not-so-monumental birthday. But, it’s something to celebrate! And perhaps a way to keep track of time. That frozen-in-time feeling from the early days of the stay home orders is gone. Life is continuing on, even though we’re home just as much.

I often used to be asked by friends and strangers alike, “what is it like living on a boat?” Now, I rarely meet new people so it’s friends asking: “What is it like on the boat in a pandemic?”

Well, it’s like before but more concentrated. Living aboard, pandemic or not, can be frustrating but also immensely fulfilling.

It’s also been very similar to what others have experienced through this seismic shift in our lives: a new emphasis on food, a lot more time with my partner, a tricky relationship with the news cycle, elevated anxiety and concern, missing my family, mourning a lifestyle we took for granted, heartache for the most vulnerable people in our world, and the daily act of trying to process everything going on around us.

Before March 2020, I had a pretty “classic Ballard liveaboard” lifestyle including access to numerous restaurants and bars, gatherings at friend’s homes, a storage unit, an office, a gym, a bag of quarters for when I had to shower at the marina and plans to travel throughout the year. Capi was home base and my orbit extended from there.

Now, my orbit has shrunk considerably, same as everyone else. However, my neighborhood is made up of docks, run by the Port of Seattle, adjacent to Seattle’s popular Golden Gardens beach and an access point to the waters and wildlife of Puget Sound.

And my home is a 34-foot sailboat I share with Andrew, who moved aboard in November 2019. As he got settled in, his observations and perspective reminded me about the novelties and differences of this lifestyle.

We estimate we have 220 square feet of living space which includes our V-shaped bed (equivalent of a queen-size), main living area, kitchen with two-burner propane stove and oven, head with marine toilet and sink and an aft cabin we use for storage. In fairer weather, the cockpit is our second living area, adding about another 50 square feet.

Life afloat

Living aboard makes you extra aware of the weather. You observe all the transitions it makes in a day, what the forecast gets right or wrong. You hear when the wind rises and falls, when the rain starts and ends. When you notice it’s sunny or calm, even if it’s cold, you jump on the chance and go outside for a walk or to run that errand.

Spending most of the past year in this smaller orbit, Andrew and I have also observed the birds migrating, the snow melt and return to the Olympic mountains and the sun shift south as it sets earlier and earlier. We’ve seen the king tides, watched playful seals and porpoises, glided among moon jellyfish in late summer and noticed the water quality change when there’s yet another sewage spill. Yuck.

We’ve walked the length of the marina and back again many times now. We look at the big yachts visiting and see other marina tenants out walking. We’ve seen the full spectrum of sunsets and a few spectacular sunrises as well.

I very rarely feel confined on Capi. Much more often, it’s the marina environment that makes me stir crazy or restless. Last summer, it reached a new peak with multiple construction projects, crowds flocking to Golden Gardens, dozens of people walking, all of us liveaboards staying close by, and the surge in recreational boating.

Independently, each of these things are good: people enjoying being outside, more active boat owners, new pavement and facilities. But the toxins of 2020 made it feel overwhelming and complaining about it became a hobby. When it felt like too much, we headed the opposite direction of the visitors and got away by land or water.

By winter, we welcomed the quieter days and watched the construction projects that we thought would never end wrap up one-by-one. The long-delayed, but eagerly anticipated, opening of the new marina facilities with significantly improved showers and laundry was a welcome step forward from the limbo of last year.

Continuing to liveaboard

There is a park on the bluff above Shilshole Bay Marina called Sunset Hill. It’s a grassy stretch, not that big but offers a good lookout and benches. I’d never been there until last year, part of my explorations into the the surrounding neighborhood.

Looking down we can see Capi, just barely, but Andrew’s banana yellow kayak makes her easier to spot. The docks, lettered A-X, create rows upon rows of boats branching out from shore.

I enjoy the view from Sunset Park and other nearby look outs. It’s become familiar to me: the ever-changing water; commercial ships and pleasure craft; West Point lighthouse to the south and Golden Gardens beach to the north; all kinds of clouds spreading out across the sky; the Olympic mountain range with the distinctive peaks of The Brothers; the land across the Puget Sound; plus, airplanes, helicopters and even sometimes a drone making that annoying buzz.

Looking out from up the hill, reminds me to not take these surroundings for granted. I guess I am also part of the view, living down there. Although small, Capi is my place. If I weren’t here, where else would I be? I have to say I can’t imagine.

The days are still pretty short, but I know they are getting longer. It’s my 10th winter in Seattle and 3rd on the boat. Winter weather keeps us looking at the forecast and wearing our rubber boots. The new diesel heater has been awesome!

I am often my most productive during winter, even before the pandemic. It’s never quite the period of hibernation I anticipate but it’s an opportunity to slow down, learn and grow. This year, I feel a renewed sense of focus and more conscience about the choices I make at every turn.

Living onboard during the pandemic has come with challenges, but nothing like the hardship others face. I have everything I need and more, though my routines may be unconventional or inconvenient.

Capi 201

Living on a boat is not convenient. It takes extra effort.

For example, I recently disconnected the propane tank for a refill. I walked the tank up the dock, drove over to the gas station and paid $7 for 1.8 gallons. I loaded it back into my car, used a cart to get it back down the dock, hooked it back up in its locker with a wrench. After that, Andrew was able to start cooking dinner.

That’s one of many routine tasks boat life requires but most of the time, I don’t mind them.

It doesn’t feels like we have been as productive as others with our extra time in 2020, but Andrew and I did move the needle on boat projects: we sealed some leaks (during the VP debate), dialed in the compact kitchen, converted our bulbs to fluorescents, had the diesel heater replaced, and worked with a mechanic to finally figure out how water got into the fuel tank, which was contaminating the diesel. Written out, that feels productive!

Parts of the boat we worked on this year

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the boat, the things we need to do, the things we could do — a dangerous category — I pull out my maintenance notebook and remind myself everything that both Andrew and I have learned over the past few years.

There is an infinite amount of boating knowledge out there waiting for us. For us, Capi is not a crash course but one of several learning platforms contributing to our education.

Andrew and I both have an ever-growing list of what we want to know about including the diesel inboard engine, splicing, the best way to sail a Catalina 34 downwind, new anchorages, battery efficiency and more.

Somehow, I’m able to reason myself from a frightened “there’s so much to know!” to an enthusiastic “there’s so much to learn!”

When I don’t have time to digest new knowledge, I don’t retain those lessons well or make important connections. I need to think about it or have it reinforced. It can be slow going but I’m building my knowledge for a passion I hope will last a lifetime.

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