30,000 Seabirds

At any given moment, there are as many as 30,000 seabirds roosting, nesting, flying and feeding at Cape Resurrection near Seward, Alaska. While kittiwakes and common murres are the two most abundant species, tufted and horned puffins, murrelets, guillemots, auklets, oyster catchers, cormorants, various gulls and other seabirds are also in the mix. Above and below: black-legged kittiwakes in the thousands take advantage of every available ledge.

The noise (and smell) generated by these colonies is as startling as the sheer number of birds. 

The cape also hosts large rafts of common murres containing dozens or even hundreds of birds.  

Horned puffins (above) and tufted puffins are also quite common. They use their thick, uniquely-hinged bills not only to fish, but to dig nesting burrows up to several feet deep. Once the nesting season is over, puffins spend the rest of the year at sea.

In flight, puffins look like large bumblebees, beating the air into submission with their stubby wings. In search of the small fish they feed on, puffins can dive up to 80 or more feet deep and are agile swimmers. 

On land, with their white bellies and dark backs, murres look a lot like penguins, and like penguins, they are very much at home in water. Murres have been recorded diving to depths of  600 feet. Their eggs are various shades of blue with brown speckles and are steeply pointed at one end to prevent them from rolling off the cliffs where they nest. 

Holster the Pistol, Take a Breath, Try it Again

To the uninitiated, this photo may appear to be unremarkable. It’s a boat, tied to a dock. But this photo represents accomplishment and progress in small but important details in our seamanship. (We’re awaiting arrival of the new name letters we’ve ordered for the stern.)

The first time we docked Bandon, we were assigned a generously long, open slip at the end of H Dock in Seward. Nonetheless, having never docked a sailboat on our own before, bringing it in was intimidating. The boat’s 35 feet seemed to morph into 350 feet, and although there probably weren’t more than a handful of onlookers, it felt like we were in the middle of the Super Dome on Super Bowl Sunday, hearts in our throats.

There’s an art to docking, and some boats are easier to maneuver than others. Features such as twin engines and bow thrusters, which our Island Packet does not have, make precision docking easier. Features such as a full keel – which renders it all but impossible to turn the stern when in reverse – make the job more challenging. And then there are the prevailing winds pushing on the bow during the docking procedure, and the inevitable audience that inexperience seems to draw.

But the last time we brought the boat in – after a three-day cruise around Resurrection Bay – we managed to line it up and back it in… if not perfectly, at least competently. It felt good to make obvious progress with yet another aspect of seamanship. And there’s a real pay-off to docking stern first in our assigned slip: the prevailing winds are such that in the evening when we’re relaxing in our cockpit, the dodger (the canvas and clear vinyl hood above the companionway) acts as a windshield when the bow’s pointing south.

Take a walk along most docks, and it soon becomes evident that there are any number of ways to secure a boat to a horn cleat. Some work better than others. You don’t want to create a knot that might jam, but you don’t want a knot that will slip, either. The first few times we tied off, we pretty much guessed at what we were doing – resulting in the beginner’s mistake of too many wraps, and too many hitches. Now we get it: a couple turns of the line across the horns finished with a single weather hitch is both tidy and secure.

As with many things in life, if you’ve never been shown how to do something – including how to begin the task, what the process looks and feels like, and how the end product should appear – even simple tasks can prove challenging. Is this what it’s supposed to look like? and Why is this so difficult? become frequent refrains. Often times manuals appear to be written and illustrated for people who already have some expertise or background in the subject and make little sense until after you’ve figured out how something works.

Barbra rebedding a chainplate for the second time – the first go at it having gone quite wrong. We still may not have gotten it right, and will give it another go till we seal up the rain leak we’ve been trying to chase down. 

There’s nothing like having access to a patient, knowledgable mentor to walk one through the steps of new tasks – and to do so as often as needed until the task is mastered. But most of the time, a combination of self-study, intuition, trial and error and a willingness to occasionally screw up and break things suffices instead. The first time we set the anchor, I wanted to pull out a pistol and shoot the whole system in the fashion of General George Patton shooting a jeep that wouldn’t start. The windlass repeatedly jammed, we had a heck of a time holding the boat in position and for the life of us, we could not figure out when the anchor was on the bottom as the chain, heavy and dense, hung straight down from the bow. We put the engine in reverse, backed up until the chain went taut and our movement stopped, and then spent a fitful night worrying that the anchor wasn’t set at all and we’d wake up to find our boat grounded.

But the anchor held, and the next morning it came up with chunks of clay and mud clinging to it, indicating it had dug in just as it should have. The next time we set the anchor, the process went smoothly… leaving us wondering how in the world it could have been so difficult the first time.

And so it goes. With a lot of what we do, the first attempt is chaotic, filled with uncertainty and error and no small amount of frustration. But we think and communicate and debrief, and subsequent attempts go more smoothly and fill us with satisfaction and, yes, pride.

Each new thing we learn is a new thing we’ve learned. This summer, our task has been to begin to master some of the most basic elements of sailing, seamanship and boat care. The learning curve, for us, is steep. But by taking things in small steps, it seems achievable. Looking into the future, it is apparent that in sailing, we have found a pass-time and a lifestyle in which there will be no end to additional skills to master, knowledge to acquire, and experiences to cherish. That’s what drew us to this in the first place.

Knots are essential to sailing, and the bowline (above) is a classic with multiple uses. After consecutively tying this knot dozens of times, either one of us could probably tie it in our sleep.

Seward Yacht Club – Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

Seward’s small boat harbor viewed from the second floor balcony of the William H. Seward Yacht Club.

For either one of us, if, back when we were in our teens or twenties and trying to figure out life, someone had told us we’d own a blue water capable sailboat and belong to a yacht club, we’d have thought to ourselves, “Sure. Can I have some of whatever you’re smoking?”

But the Seward Yacht Club fits. Upon becoming members, we were happy to set aside any preconceived notions about “yacht” owners and to simply fall in with a group of really great (generous, hard-working, helpful, welcoming) people who are bound together by a love of boats and water.

Bikes and the live-aboard lifestyle often go together – this one is parked at the Seward yacht club. It’s nice to belong to a club where the dandelions are left to grow.

In addition to camaraderie, the club provides its members and their guests with showers, a nice kitchen in which to cook a meal, and a fairly extensive library on things nautical.

The small boat harbor at Seward mirrors the yacht club. Boats of all sizes are docked here. A lot of them belong to working fisherman – both guides and commercial fishermen. A lot of the boats belong to people who just plain like water and boats and fishing and have worked hard and been careful with their money, anticipating the day when they could own a boat. It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, where you come from, what kind of boat you have, or what you do on it. People pass each other and most offer a friendly greeting. People take care of their own boats and keep an eye on their neighbors’. It’s a community. Reminds me of the best parts of the small town in western Pennsylvania where I grew up.

Wish there were more places like it.

The Sky Over Resurrection Bay and Thoughts from Thoreau

At the end of a warm day, the sun slips down behind the mountains overlooking Resurrection Bay, and even before we notice the light dimming, we can feel the warmth leaving our home in our sailboat on the bay.

Barbra took these photos a few nights ago as we were running home from an evening of fishing of Resurrection Bay, Alaska.

“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains.”  Henry Thoreau in Walden

“Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.” Henry Thoreau in Walden

Small House Living: Island Packet 350 Interior

Below and behind the cushions of this settee is tons of storage space. The settee itself can be reconfigured to make a comfortable twin-sized bed. Aft of the settee (to the right) is a U-shaped galley complete with double basin sink, two burner stove, a deep cooler, and more storage space.

An element of campers and boats that fascinates us is how they are put together inside. The miniature stoves and heaters, ingeniously built-in storage spaces, cabinet doors that cleverly fold out into full-sized tables, and settees that work like jigsaw puzzles to convert into beds are perfect marriages of ingenuity meeting practicality. More than that, in many instances boat and camper interiors are beautiful, replete with richly textured wood, stainless steel and brass, and finely crafted finishing touches.

Below, the salon looking forward, on the left with the table up, on the right with the table down. The table has a folding leaf which, when opened, allows the port (left) settee to be used as dining seating as well. (Click on photos for larger view.)

Before we got into boats and campers, we had been researching small-house design. In fact, our craftsman-style bungalow in California, built in 1908, in many ways seems to have anticipated the small-house movement. With just 1,200 square feet of living space and features such as a space-saving Jack-and-Jill bathroom and built-in custom-crafted cabinetry, the E Street house is right in step with the small-house philosophy.

Bandon’s head has a porthole and skylight for plenty of natural lighting, and there’s ample elbow room. Forward (to the left) is a shower head. Separate doors alow for access from both the forward stateroom and the main salon.

One benefit of living in a relatively small space is that they don’t require much energy to heat up, cool off, or light. For example, a rooftop solar panel provides almost all the electrical energy we need in our camper, and we anticipate that once we install solar panels onboard Bandon and change the incandescent lighting over to LED, we’ll be able to live off the grid in our boat.

Above: The forward cabin features a comfortable full-size bed, a hanging locker, three cupboards, and additional storage in holds beneath the bed. Below: The aft cabin features another double bed and similar storage.

Another happy consequence of downsizing is that it has prompted us to examine how much stuff we acquire, hold onto and end up having to store or dust. We’ve discovered that as we pare away material possessions, the things we do have tend to better fit our lives in terms of form and function; with limited amounts of shelves, closets, cupboards and drawers, we do our best to only bring things into our lives that are particularly useful, durable, interesting or beautiful, whether the item is a piece of art, a set of dishes, or a cheese grater.

Above: Bandon’s galley is a U-shape favored by many sailors, providing a tight configuration where the cook can wedge in a keep the crew fed in rolling seas. A 100-gallon water tank provides water by both an electric pump and a hand pump. The two-burner stove runs on propane. Aft (to the right) is a deep ice chest accessed through the countertop. Below right: Dinner plates and bowls stay secure in purpose-build slotted cupboards.

How much space is enough is, of course, a personal matter. Onboard Bandon, we don’t have large clothing wardrobes or a rack full of pots and pans, and when we finish reading a book, it’ll go to friends or be sold back to the bookstore. Bandon has no TV, we removed the microwave oven, and we do our laundry at the local laundromat. When we want to watch a TV show or movie, we download it onto our computer or pop in a disc; microwave ovens haven’t been part of our kitchen for many years now; and our local laundromat is a cheerful place in town where we can browse shops or catch up on reading while taking care of laundry.

We’ve been pleased to note how little fuel, electricity and water we’re consuming. Early experiments with our new pressure cooker indicate that we will be able to cut water and fuel use even further.

Let there be Fire

The first order of business before moving aboard Bandon was getting the heat going. That meant figuring out the boat’s Dickinson diesel heater – which proved to be no problem. Our Dickinson Newport uses fuel sparingly, burns clean, and provides plenty of warmth for our 35-foot boat. 

Although it’s warmed up a bit, last week nighttime temperatures were still dipping into the high 30’s and low 40’s. Cold. And although the cabin traps solar heat, as soon as the sun dips below the mountains surrounding Resurrection Bay, it gets pretty chilly.

We’d never used a diesel heater before, but Barbra jumped right in and had it figured out in short order. We soon discovered that in addition to warming up the cabin, the heater does a good job keeping it dry.

Cool sailing ship on the heater – no idea regarding the story behind it. 

It’s like having a miniature fireplace onboard – cozy and downright romantic. And there’s just enough room on top of the heater to, say, cook a couple of sweet potatoes or get a small kettle of water ready for tea.

In business since 1932, the Dickinson company is located in Surrey, British Columbia. Handmade, Dickinson products are respected for their reliability and ruggedness.

A Good Day Sailing

We took advantage of beautiful weather yesterday to do some sailing on Resurrection Bay. Dall porpoises showed up around our boat as usual and several times we saw salmon leaping. Maia got her first experience at the helm of a sailboat.

Air temperatures were in the low 60’s, so a light jacket was in order, but the sun felt great. 

It’s always good to look up and see the mainsail catching wind.

These are the good old days.

Livin’ in a Van down by the River

Seward Harbor, May 21: This is the view from the back widows of our pickup truck camper, our summer home while we work to get Bandon ready to live on and to sail. Mornings start early up here, the first sunlight slanting into the camper a little after 5:00 AM – and getting earlier each day. Warblers and other songbirds are the first to wake. Too early for us. By the time we roll out of bed, gulls are calling and scolding and the high chirps of eagles have taken over. The fishing season hasn’t come into full swing yet, though a few engines can be heard making ready for a morning or a day on the water. Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and strips of bacon on the side some days, fried eggs others, cold cereal when we’re really eager to get moving, but always with a ruby red grapefruit, a glass of orange juice and a big mug of coffee made from freshly ground beans. Then the walk to the end of the dock and a full day of work. In the photo above, as you look down the open water between the docks, Bandon is the last mast on the left.

We’ve submitted the paperwork to the coast guard in order to change the name of our Island Packet 350 from Tarsus to Bandon.

This is a sound vessel, and she surveyed well, but there is always work. The first of it has begun with giving every square inch of her interior – from her beautiful teak-wood sole to her overhead – a good cleaning. Meanwhile, there’s sorting through all the items previous owners left behind. From can openers to canvas, much of it is useful, and much of it is not. All of it requires a decision: toss out, donate to the  local thrift shop, or clean and restow.

Everything we touch, clean, move off or bring aboard makes this boat that much more ours. Bandon will be our home. In the near-term, that means about three months out of the year. And so we are outfitting it as such. This means furnishing it with good dinnerware (we went with Denby for our plates, bowls and pasta bowls), stemware (we found Schott Zweisel Tritan crystal wine glasses that look and feel luxurious but are exceptionally break resistant), and quality bourbon/Scotch glasses.

We anticipate that Bandon will be a full-on sailing vessel in every sense, but we recognize that even the most serious sailing vessels spend most of their days at anchor or in port. We want those days to be comfortable and inviting.

The Sailing Vessel Bandon

The t’s have been crossed and the final i dotted. All 37 feet and 12 tons of the sailing vessel Tarsus is ours.

What have we gotten into?

There’s a line from the film The Shipping News that seems to fit. “Course, you don’t know nothin’ about boats, but that’s entertaining, too.” 

Four years ago when we bought our C-Dory, Gillie, I’d never piloted a power boat longer than 12 feet – my dad’s aluminum car-topper with its 5 hp engine. Barbra had even less experience with boats. All we really knew was that we wanted a fishing boat. So we did our due diligence – read books, researched on the Internet, visited dealerships, checked out boats in marinas, talked to people and attended boat shows. In the end, we came to a familiar set of conclusions, the short of which go like this: There are a lot of boats for sale, and most of ‘em float. Out of all those boats, a few makes stand out. After that, everything is a compromise. The boat we really wanted was too big to readily trailer; thus it was not the boat we really wanted. We took the plunge, bought Gillie and a year later towed her all the way to Alaska, to the Port of Valdez, which is over 3,000 miles from Sacramento. We then launched her, ran 90 miles to the Port of Cordova, and spent the next eight days and nights fishing and camping aboard our boat in Prince William Sound.

Above: Jagged rocks and islands create a maze leading from Resurrection Bay out into the Gulf of Alaska. Top photo: Massive Blackstone Glacier towers above its namesake bay near Whittier, Alaska.

Time and tide kept me from sailing, but I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to sail. It’s always been there. Landlocked in western Pennsylvania, my family would take summer vacations to the coast – up to Cape Cod, down to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, west to Oregon – where we’d spend a week frenetically touring museums and historical sites, dining out in restaurants, perusing art galleries and shopping. For my part, I could have spent all day every day on those vacations doing nothing more elaborate than fishing the first tide of the day, combing the beaches, and walking the marina docks. The boats, particularly the sailboats, were magical. Mesmerizing. I’d see their owners emerging from below deck, or topside working on this or that, or just relaxing and looking off in the distance and I wanted to be those people. I had so many questions for them, but I never worked up the courage to break free from my family, approach one of them and ask. Questions like, How does it work? How do you steer it? Do you live on it? What does its name mean? Where have you been on it? Where will you go next?

Tarsus’ former owners were podiatrists. Although we haven’t completed a formal name change yet, on each piece of paper associated with the sale (for a boat this size, there’s nearly as much paperwork as in a home sale) we have penned in Bandon where the vessel’s name appears.

Sea otters are a common, always welcome sight along Alaska’s southeast and central coasts. 

There’s a small town on the southern Oregon coast where a river with runs of salmon, steelhead and striped bass joins the Pacific. Bandon. For a long time, Barbra and I looked at land on the Coquille River upstream from Bandon. In addition to the fish, the area has deer, turkeys, game birds and elk as well as good mushrooming and abundant wild berries. It’s a quiet part of the world, not overly far from wine country. We talked about a piece of land with trees, a spot for a garden, raising chickens there and cutting our own firewood for a wood burning stove in a cozy house where we would homestead.

Bandon is that. But it’s more. This time, it’s not the boat that represents the compromise. It’s the lifestyle. Choosing to become sailors means, at least for now, not becoming homesteaders. It means not driving our camper all over North America, or having a cabin on the shores of a lake full of walleyes, or collecting wine, or, in Barbra’s case, getting a pilot’s license.

Bandon will be docked in the Marina at Seward, pictured here in early July.

To borrow from Robert Frost, Bandon is the road we’ve taken. She’s got a sound hull, every amenity and comfort we need and then some, and sails to take us over any sea. It is dreams come true for us, and in some of those dreams there is a placid lake full of walleyes, and endless summer days touring North America in our camper, a herd of elk feeding on windfalls beneath our apple trees, a salmon fresh from our river for Thanksgiving dinner, a wood burning stove and a freshly made blackberry pie.

Resurrection Bay, where Seward is located, has one of the largest summertime concentrations of Coho salmon in North America. There is an abundant, varied and rich ecosystem in the bay, making it a premier locale for everything from watching sea birds and otters to seeing whales, dolphins and porpoises. The surrounding mountains are spectacular and help ensure for predictable winds, making Resurrection Bay a great place to sail. For more information about the sailing vessel Bandon, click on the word Tarsus.

A Boat to Sail the Ocean Blue

We fell in love with this 2002 Island Packet 350 last summer while visiting Seward. Here she is hauled out for survey on March 3.

Her tip-to-tip length is 37′ 10″, on deck she’s 35′, and at the waterline 29′ 4″. Her mast rises 48′ 3″ above the water. Rigged as a cutter, she’s also powered by a 38 hp Yanmar diesel engine. Displacement is eight tons. Gross tons: 12. 

Below deck there are two staterooms (sleeping berths), one fore and one aft. The two settees convert to beds to sleep a total of six people. Teak deck, 6′ 4″ of headroom in the main cabin, and lots of storage space. The head, complete with shower, is located just aft of the forward stateroom. The fuel tank holds 50 gallons of diesel and the freshwater tank holds 100 gallons. There’s a dedicated navigation table, a dinette table that folds into a bulkhead when not in use, a smartly designed galley and easy access to the engine.

The gimbled two-burner stove with oven is the centerpiece of the galley. The narrow space allows the cook to wedge in and brace when the boat is moving. The microwave will go. 

Here she is this past summer with a fresh coat of bottom paint. She sure put a song in our hearts! (Click photo for larger view.)