Single handing

By Erik Dolson

Ferry servicer between Anacortes and Sidney B.C. was shutting down until late the first week in November. The boat needed to be in Friday Harbor around the beginning of the month. Weather looked good for a passage down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria. Time to go.

Engine checklist completed, I cranked over the engine. Oil pressure good. Temperature good. RPM smooth and good. Light gray smoke coming from the exhaust with the water.

Foxy’s a little over 13 feet wide. The slot between boats looked to be about 15 feet. I was pretty sure we could make it, but threading backwards required a little help, less than I was given, in fact.

“Don’t push! Don’t push!” I called out to the young man who thought he had to clear a boat by two feet when we only needed one. He leaped to the stern where the prop on my outboard hanging at the transom was about to dig a long groove in the side of his own boat. Damage averted.

In the harbor, I reminded myself of Roy’s advice: “Be deliberate.” I walked slowly to pull up and stow the fenders. I carefully wrapped mooring lines around the life lines. I walked slowly back, watching where I put each foot. I should have put Foxy in neutral, I realized. A stumble and fall overboard would have likely the same result here as out in the strait, unless I fell right in front of one of the little yellow water taxis buzzing about the harbor. The water is that cold.

Thoughts began to settle out in the straight, as did turmoil of last months. The unanswerable question: “How can you say you love me, and leave at the same time?” remained unanswered. I had no answer. But the volume receded even as I knew I had turned it up to ten, not Irish.

Oil pressure good. Engine temperature good. RPM good.

Life is not simple, for anyone. Sometimes I think there’s a dynamic balance between our capacity to organize versus the chaos we create just by living. Whether it’s the drunk  who struggles with the ATM machine, or me sitting silently in a patch of afternoon sun, or Irish, who referenced that “sinking feeling when you realize your life is a mess.”

The dinghy is secure. Hot coffee is in the pot up at the helm. Life jacket is at hand if I have to go forward. Fire Extinguisher. Tool kit. Oil pressure good. Engine temperature good. RPM good.

I gave her best care I could, so I thought. Physically. Spiritually. Financially. I knew it wasn’t enough, because I knew me. Of course I could see that in her eyes, too, though what I saw was pain because  I was unable to immerse myself in what we had, unwilling to change my priorities, to find a compromise that I didn’t believe in.

I told her I was toxic. She denied it but that made it worse because it said that I made this awful choice and could have chosen differently if I truly loved her.

There were no boats nearby. Large islands drifted slowly by. Tides were with me again, now twice in a row on a transit between the U.S. and Canada. The GPS showed nine knots, then over ten for a while as I rode the flood in from the Pacific Ocean.

I’ve not had Foxy out in the Pacific yet, and won’t consider myself a sailor until I do, with twenty foot waves or forty foot or even higher, hatches battened down, strapped by harness to jack lines, green water washing over the deck. Books and pans on the floor, maybe even having to heave to, sail opposite rudder, just to ride out the storm. That could well actually kill Irish, destroy her Parkinson’s weakened body, as if the boat and I had not come close enough already. May nausea of that shame mark me forever.

Recently I read that some choose to just tie everything down and go below during fierce storms, let them blow over, let the sea have her way, bob like a stick of wood if far enough out that a continent won’t get in the way. That’s something I should learn to do.

Flunking the test on fog, I untied from the mooring ball, everything looking good. I squirted across the channel to the dock where I wanted to tie up for a few weeks while some work is done. I heard no bellow from ferries in the fog, and kept a sharp eye out. Uneventful. Did good, I thought.

Ten minutes later I heard a ferry cross the track I’d just made. I heard it’s horn. I heard it’s engine. I damn near heard people talking on deck, but I couldn’t see its three story hulk 150 feet away, no further from me than it would have been had I been in its path without a radar reflector and the AIS for broadcasting my position sitting uninstalled on the desk below.

Hard to know what you don’t know.

But on the solo trip up the strait, I hadn’t had that experience yet. Then a long wake stretched out behind the boat, in a moment undisturbed by wind or wave, future or past. Oil pressure good. Engine temperature good. RPM good.

About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon
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