I could see the towering ice, imagine the unrelenting cold and felt in awe of the Arctic. Yet, the whole time I was sitting at my corner desk, tucked beneath the window and looking out on some of Seattle’s darkest and rainiest days.
Although it was tricky to track some of these adventurous souls down, I am very grateful to Dario Schwöerer, Harry Stern, Mark Schrader, Michael Johnson and Guirec Soudée took for the time to speak with me. What does this group of various ages, experience-level and nationalities have in common? Crewing aboard one of the 193 vessels to have ever transited the Northwest Passage.
Thank you also to Victor Wejer, recent recipient of the OCC Award of Merit, who helped provide such up-to-date transit data (how many vessels have completed the Northwest Passage, how many were sailboats, which way they transited, etc.) that to my knowledge, it has not been published anywhere else.
So, take a break from this latitude and head north, very far north, in my latest contribution to 48° North on page 30 of the February issue.
While I have sailed across the Pacific, I can’t imagine racing across it; let alone in a 55-foot high-performance custom race boat like Crossfire. Last month, I interviewed navigator Bruce Hedrick and boat manager Nigel Barron about Crossfire‘s 2016 Vic-Maui race and subsequent retirement.
The skills, logistics, and dedication required of both boat and crew to participate in a race such as Vic-Maui are impressive. By all accounts the resulting experience is one-of-a-kind and well worth the effort.
Bruce and Nigel’s extensive experience, natural comradery, and well-honed storytelling skills made this a great interview. Although I found their technical knowledge daunting, the core of this story is about good seamanship, teamwork, and instincts gained from years of sailing. I was also encouraged because, like many other sailors they agree, “there’s always more to learn.”
Last month, I had the opportunity to visit the Portland Yacht Club with 48° North Editor Joe Cline and interview the world’s youngest solo circumnavigator. Most sailors reaction: “Woah, cool.” Most non-sailors reaction: “What does that mean?”
It means the quiet and thoughtful 21-year old woman having lunch across the table from me traveled 36,000 nautical miles, approximately one and half times around the world, on a 4o-foot sailboat by herself. Oh, and she did most of it between the ages of 14 and 16.
From misunderstanding peers to lawsuits, boat refits to breakdowns, fierce storms to great loneliness, Laura Dekker experienced more in her first sixteen years than many do in a lifetime. Age is an abstract concept when speaking with Laura. I can imagine many describe her as an “old soul.” Knowing what I was like at ages 14, 16, and even 21 makes what she has accomplished even more impressive and thought-provoking.
Regardless of the age of her soul, Laura is an incredibly unique person with a broad horizon of possibilities ahead of her. As she continues to travel, sail and occasionally speak, she shares her unconventional upbringing aboard boats, experiences exploring the world, and perhaps most importantly, her time spent alone with the ocean.
I completed my first long-distance sailing trip last year across the Pacific Ocean (Laura has sailed across twice!) and some days, as I go about my life here in Seattle it’s hard to imagine I did that and experienced such a different way of life. Laura remembers her trip with vivid detail but she is selective in the interviews and presentations she gives because it is her trip, her experience, and only the beginning of an adventurous life.
I sincerely appreciate Laura taking the time to have lunch and a long conversation with myself and Joe. It was entertaining, enlightening, and she’s a damn good sailor. Read my Q&A with Laura Dekker in the November issue of 48° North here, page 22.
For sailors and non-sailors alike check out Maidentrip, a documentary that follows Laura’s journey during her record-breaking solo circumnavigation.
The new year didn’t truly set in for me until mid-January. I’m a little behind, I guess!
At the beginning of January my latest profile for 48° North, Dan Hopkins: The Wiring Whisperer, appeared in the January issue of the print magazine. A retired electrician and experienced liveaboard, Dan is a “guiding light” in his community helping new liveaboards safely update their electrical systems and install heat this winter.
It was such a pleasure speaking with Dan, his wife Irene, and the appreciative neighbors he has helped. I learned so much about marine electrical, boat ownership, and the camaraderie of the boating community.
Mid-January was an especially exciting time; I began a new job! My big present this holiday season was being offered, and enthusiastically accepting, the position of Marketing and Advertising Coordinator with GeekWire, an online tech and business publication based in Seattle.
My transition kept me on my toes. I left my previous job one Friday and reported for duty at my new job the next Monday, the time has been flying ever since! In addition to working with members, assisting with events, coordinating advertising and more, I curate two weekly posts, GeekWire Calendar Picks and GeekWork Picks.
Lastly, this new year has brought an exciting new phase for a publication I’ve worked closely with for several years now. 48° North launched a new website with even more great content for the NW sailing community. Congratulations to the team at 48° North!
I returned from French Polynesia just over two months ago and it feels more than an ocean away. Days at sea, meals at an angle, and delicious Tahitian fruit are no longer the norm. However, I do now enjoy regular showers, excellent coffee, and my own bed.
Kids at summer camp say it, adults with full time jobs think about it:”I want to sail around the world!” Even within the racing community, the dream of sailing into the sunset ignites a spark in the eye of novices, racers, and cruisers alike. It’s a crazy, life changing idea. What’s even crazier is that people do it, hundreds every year! This year I met some of these people and experienced a small but stirring part of that dream.
I feel lucky to share my experience through this 48 North article, it is always a pleasure to work with them and they put out a great publication for the sailing community. I also feel lucky to be reminded about my trip, especially as I settle back into life in Seattle. When I’m heading to work, bundling up for the rain, or grabbing a coffee I will remind myself, “Yeah, I did that!”
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.
Seattle is home to a thriving and very social sailing community. Among college age, competitive, or casual sailors it is not uncommon to meet “sailing couples” who spend time together both on and off the water.
As most sailors know the dynamics on a sailboat can range from inspiring teamwork to laid back silliness, or tense confrontations. On a fourteen, or forty foot sailboat the space, elements, and nature of sailing challenge strangers, friends, and significant others alike.
This piqued my curiosity about how “sailing couples” make it work. What if they raced competitively together? Do maintenance projects on the boat together? And what about those that live aboard their sailboat?
Four Seattle couples graciously allowed me interview them about their relationship both on and off the water. I explored these questions and more as each couple revealed the unique way they make their relationship with each other and sailing work. The result, “PNW Sailor Couple Profiles” is a Valentine’s Special Report in the February Issue of 48 North available at marine businesses throughout the Northwest and online here.