I do some of my best writing on a boat. Luckily our friends own a Grand Banks Alaskan, and John and I just spent a week fishing with them in Canada. I don’t actually fish, but I love the tranquil, Internet-free days at anchor while my husband slays salmon, halibut and Dungeness crab.
Boat life is truly relaxing—the days marked by tides and meals. And happy hour is a religion.
The only problem is the segregation of chores. The guys catch the fish, clean the fish, check the crab traps and keep the engine running. On this particular trip, the task of engine fixing was especially taxing. The women do the traditionally female chores—the cooking, the cleaning, the presentation of appetizers and cocktails at 5 o’clock sharp. I’m not exactly okay with this. Fortunately, my friend Paula is a master chef, and she doesn’t really need me in the kitchen.
I like to get my hands dirty and I don’t mind the heavy lifting. But, since I don’t like to fish—it’s too slow and I don’t want to have to bash the fish’s head once I catch it—I’m stuck with playing the “girl.”
This year we went to Rivers Inlet up the BC coast to fish in the all-or-nothing waters at the head. Up there, you either catch a 50 pounder or you catch nothing.
The morning we are to motor north to the head of the inlet, Paula and I want to switch roles with the guys. We’ll run the boat—pulling up the anchor, attaching the dingy to the towrope, navigating to our new destination and docking the boat—if they make us lunch and dinner, and do the dishes.
They said we had a deal.
John briefs us on the specifics. He shows us how to turn on the radios, how to start the engines, how to pull up the anchor, and how to navigate with the charts. Paula and I look at the paper chart and run our fingers over the route. Turn right at Ruff’s Bluff, motor up the inlet, snake through Bickle Passage, avoiding the shallow reef on the right and dock at Dawson’s Landing.
No problem, I tell him. What are you making for dinner?
The anchor is trickier than I expected; the winch spins, unable to pull the heavy anchor up and over the wheel onto the bowsprit. I monkey with it while Paula’s husband Scott helicopters nearby. Finally, he jumps onto the bowsprit, straightens out the anchor, and I pull it up. I probably could have done that, I tell myself as we head back to the pilothouse.
Paula is at the helm, palming the controls and feathering the engines. As we get out into deeper water, I release the dinghy and attach it to the bridle used for towing. We are on our way.
I listen for the concordant hum when both diesel engines are at exactly the same rpms. My husband holds up his finger and says, “there!” But I don’t hear anything. It just sounds like motors running.
A few days earlier Paula and I had sat at the galley table playing Gin Rummy. The guys were overdue, and it was nearing dusk. We talked idly about what we’d do if they weren’t back soon. We called them again on the radio. No answer. That’s when it hit us. We don’t really know how to run this boat. Sure, we both know how to run it, in theory. But theory isn’t the same as reality. What if the anchor gets stuck? What if the engines don’t start and that red oil seeps out again into the pan below? What if we run aground?
Now as we make our way north, sea gulls screech along the bluffs and circle like stormy snowflakes over the glassy water. The setting is perfect serenity. We motor on into the inlet, fog filling in at the treetops like a layer of thick frosting, and I sense that some latent part of me is growing. Who knew there was a boat captain inside me just waiting to get out? My palms on the tips of the captain’s wheel, I steer the boat around floating logs, and past inlets and rocks. I glide beneath two bald eagles sharing a tree branch, and I watch them with the big binoculars that sit on the wheelhouse table.
A little later Scott brings us cups of coffee. Paula and I click our mugs together and smile. Skippers for the day.
That night, safe at the dock at Dawson’s Landing, the gentlemen perform a feat of culinary magic. We all raise our wine glasses and toast each other—to good friends, new roles, great food and NOT running aground.