Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2 Summer 1981

^ --< 'AIL HAD never been on a boat before, so no one could expect her to _ know better. She was a mountain girl, intimate with the ferny mulch that V J carpets cedar groves, streams that roared in frothy descent and goat- crowned escarpments looming in misty grandeur through the rain. Well, she was prepared for the rain, anyway. We’d wintered at’a commune in Cheney, out on the flatland scabrock south of Spokane, and while the wind moaned through the drafty farmhouse full of hippies, I sat around the woodstove with Donald and spun salty yarns. Donald and I had lived on Lake Union, at separate times, back in the halcyon days when each street end and waterway was home to at least a dozen misfits and malcontents. We were a rowdy crowd, motley and mildewed as our vessels: a seedy armada of converted wartime small craft, hogged fishing boats, ancient cruisers, waterlogged houseboats, cannibalized minesweepers and island ferries and a few windbroke tugs. The yarns we told of this era should have warned Gail off, for like all sea tales they told of discomfort, danger, disaster and near escape. We told them according to tradition, which dictates the narrator dwell with masochistic glee on each oversight, miscalculation and outright fuck-up leading to the particular precarious predicament, and admitting we were rescued, not by the triumph of resourceful seamanship and courage but by the benevolent intercession of Poseidon, out of divine affection for those foolish enough to play Comedy on Tragedy’s grandest stage. But we were newly in love and it clouded Gail’s usually sound reason. Donald went to Seattle in the spring and we followed in early autumn. September’s a great month to be Salty in Seattle. All through the summer denizens stumble about squinting, dazzled and disoriented by the unaccustomed presence of that blazing disc in the sky. The soft night air ululates with the screams of seared sunworshippers and the whimper of dying mildew. Sunday sailors swarm to sea, jostling and cursing their way through the lochs to the Sound, where they drink, carouse, snarl lines, capsize, get lost, fall overboard and collide in a frenzy of nautical joy. The residents of Lake Union patch leaky decks, get ripped on the high of their choice, and stay the hell in port out of the way. By September most of the really obnoxious weekenders are drunk, divorced or drowned. The calm of aftermath settles on the scene. The natives creep from hiding. NO ONE was watching as Donald dropped us in the marina parking lot at dawn and we hurried along the docks to our new boat. This was fortunate, for the previous owner of our 28-foot converted lifeboat was nearly a year in arrears on his moorage and the dock man would undoubtedly have chained our prize to the pilings if he’d noticed our escape. Besides, no one likes to be laughed at. I’d wrapped myself in my surplus peacoat and yanked a watchcap down over my ears our first morning on the coast and looked vaguely sailorly in my scraggly hippy bumhood, but Gail had no such nautical accoutrements. She The last morning fog burned away. Tiny wavelets danced and sparkled as we drifted silently downstream. clumped down the dock in a worn mountain parka and cowboy boots, incongruous as a unicorn, and beside her trudged our longsuffering oversize black dog, Alph. My enthusiasm for this venture may have gotten to Gail, but when we cheerily urged Alph to join us on board he reacted with the skepticism the situation deserved. He planted himself firmly on the dock, determined to resist this new human madness with all his canine will. “Come on, Alph. Get in.” Aloof, stoic, he sat like Buddha on the dock. “Alph.” I snapped my fingers, pointed, scowled with authority. He tried an idiot, tongue-lolling grin. “ Don’t ‘Gee, Boss.. . ’ me, you goddam flea bag, get in.” I leaned over the gunwale, grasped his collar and heaved. He countered with sit-in tactics and slumped, limp as Ghandi. “You miserable fucking cur, I’ll tie a line to your collar and tow you to Lake Union,” I bargained desperately, glaring at Gail who’d started to giggle. Finally, with Gail struggling to hold the boat snugly against the dock, I straddled the chasm between the two, risked drowning and hernia, lifted all 80 pounds of him over the side and dumped him unceremoniously in the cabin well. I cast off astern, Gail let go the bow line and scrambled aboard, cowboy boots slipping and clumping. The gentle current of the Duwamish carried us slowly away from the dock and downstream toward Elliott Bay. The last morning fog burned away. Tiny wavelets danced and sparkled as we drifted silently downstream. Behind the faded, peeling warehouses and empty Sunday office buildings, the Cascades glowed pink in the sunrise. To the south, Mt. Rainier shone like an apparition. It’s a good thing Seattle’s mostly overcast and rainy. On sunny days it nearly expires of sheer grandiosity. Alph rested his muzzle dejectedly on the caprail and stared mournfully toward shore. I gazed about, relishing the resilient buoyancy of the deck beneath my feet and grinning like a crazed hippy who just bought a boat. Gail sat cautiously on the stern seat, tentatively exploring the possiblity of enjoying herself. “Let’s fire her up and get moving,” I said with optimism and went forward to the cabin. As part of a proposed remodeling job by the neophyte from whom I’d purchased the boat, the cabin had been stripped to the hull. He casually gouged out the galley, demolished lockers and tables, and ripped out bulkheads and bunks intrepidly as a farmer clears a field, envisioning a nautical utopia of glowing teak, burnished brass, glittering chrome, binnacles, depth-finders, ship- to-shore radios, sumptuous naugahyde settees and a wet bar. Nothing on a boat, however, is built of straight lines, and shipboard carpentry frequently turns into topographical nightmare. The cabin stayed bare, furnished only with the naked engine squatting like a grey frog beside the aft companionway, and the helm, still perilously clinging to a survivingtiulkhead. The engine cranked, burped and came to life with a roar totally out of proportion to its diminutive size. From bow to stern the steel hull vibrated like a tambourine. The din was not unlike operating a jackhammer in a small stope, pulling green chain in a stud mill or attending a rock concert. Gail snatched I spent the first evening aboard teaching the parakeet to screech, “ Pieces of Eight." In the morning it was dead. Alph’s collar and prevented him from leaping over the side. I engaged the gears, hoping the drag of the churning propeller would dampen the noise, but the engine screamed unabated. The shaft log chimed in, squealing and shrieking with abandon in frequencies that did unsettling things to my bowels. Worst of all, we were barely making way. The following current kept pushing the stern broadside. Admittedly we were still operating at a high idle, but I’d expected a bit more push. Reluctantly I yanked the throttle wide. The engine bellowed and howled in a frenzy. Harmonic tremors sent shudders along the keel and up my spine. My eyeballs danced in their sockets. Froth began to gurgle from the bow and the wheel sluggishly and reluctantly began to respond. From the sedate passage of the shoreline I optimistically gauged our pace at five knots—and we were still headed downstream. Well, there was nothing for it. Our course was set. Not only economics barred our return to the marina. I suspected if we came about and headed back, we couldn’t buck the current. I looked aft from the wheel with what I hoped was a confident, intrepid smile. Perhaps she’d think all boats moved this slowly. She pointed aft. A girl in a skiff rowed along the opposite shore. I realized with dismay she was gaining on us. Inexorably she moved abeam, then forged ahead. I left the wheel, went aft and peered over the stern to see if the propeller’d fallen off. An adequate commotion boiled under the transom—nothing spectacular, but enough foam and bubbles to convince me the prop wasn’t lying on the bottom of the Duwamish. On my face was an appreciative breeze. We were under way. We were merely the slowest—and possibly the noisiest—vessel ever to slide between two shores. Twenty minutes later we edged up to the gas dock at a marina a mile downstream. I shut down the engine while the attendant put ten of our remaining twenty dollars in the fuel tank. The silence when I hit the starter button was louder than the previous noise. I got a jump start from the dock man and we pressed on, roaring like a hydroplane, at the speed of a paper cup. We passed under the Spokane St. Bridge and along the line of moored grain freighters into Elliott Bay. A stiff wind blew from the north and we began bobbing and pitching in the resultant pronounced chop. The scenery was spectacular: to the west the Olympics, freshly clad with snow; to the east the towering Cascades draped the urban skyline of Seattle. Northward, Magnolia Head thrust, lush with trees, into the Sound and across our path. The sun danced brightly from each wave top. There were a lot of wavetops between us and Lake Union. I began to fear debacle. As the shoreline fell away, what speed we had seemed to go with it. The engine labored mightily, but our progress was small. Half an hour out, we crossed the ferry lanes. Heat waves began rising from the engine. Onward we labored, an insignificant white dot inching its way north against a steadily rising wind. Gail removed her parka, made a cushion of it and sat on the back deck in the sun with Alph. 1relaxed a little. She seemed to be enjoying the experience. Later she told me she spent that time contemplating the chilling, lethal depths of the churning jade water, and wondered what it would be like to drown there. She thought of how absurdly dependent we were on such a fragile, tiny craft, how ultimately alone and vulnerable. Too late she realized the madness she’d unwittingly given her consent. Clinton St. Quarterly 43