I went to the Seattle Boats Afloat Show last week, in the middle of a beautifully sunny Seattle September weekday. Banners were fluttering as the couples removed their shoes at the dock and padded aboard to admire the open space below decks, followed by the encouraging murmurs of brokers who opened clever cabinets and extolled the galley and saloon space.
I made a beeline for the sailboats and made the rounds quickly (still have the land job, after all), greeting my friends at the various venues, and going aboard whatever they had hauled through the Ballard locks and were (as I discovered) paying through the nose to exhibit.
Two days later, I went sailing.
This was a singlehanded journey on Selah, our Hunter 36, going where the wind and current would take me best, which in this case had me charting a course south, from Elliott Bay Marina to Quartermaster Harbor off Vashon and (technically) Maury Islands.
Now, like most sailor/owners, I’m in love with my boat. I could tell you why, but it would be like telling you why I love my wife (a/k/a The Admiral). That kind of love is personal, idiosyncratic, and universal, all at once. You would learn more about me than my wife, and whatever you learn is not likely to help you love your Significant Other.
Selah and I have been together for almost five years, and I’ve sailed her under a lot of different conditions. While the Admiral and I did not quite buy her at the dock, she was brand new. I didn’t notice her chief virtue until we did a shakedown sail with our broker. Unlike the C&Cs that we had chartered over the years by choice, the Glen Henderson designed Hunter 36 keeps her center of effort amidships. She shows a stubborn streak when she’s over powered. She doesn’t threaten to dump you in the drink, (or vice-versa) in a fit of pique. She leans, makes leeway and slows down. With the deep draft keel and the bulk of her sail plan right above it, Selah performs well in heavy air and building seas, and she’ll swiftly and patiently teach you what canvas and trim will keep her smartly tracking forward and making way. She’s also light, which means that you can take your non-sailor friends out for an evening in 5 knots and give them that “summer evening cruise” experience that they’ve all imagined. You know, the one where the water burbles under the transom, and the three-degree heel sets the ice a-tinkling in one’s vodka tonic, without spilling it. “Light” also means that when the Strait of Georgia decides to send you successive waves from three directions, Selah needs attention to stay on the desired course. All of that, I have decided, makes her the perfect cruising boat for me in these changeable waters. And although she’s what I used to call in my youth a “Tupperware boat,” that takes her out of the high-maintenance category, which suits me fine. The Admiral and I like spending time with Selah, but we prefer that it be sailing, as opposed to sanding, time.
Given all of that time together, I’ve come to know Selah‘s moods. A sailboat shows her personality under different conditions. I’m convinced that they come alive under the wind and in the seaway. If you think that’s over-romantic, the next time you raise sail and cut the motor, or just catch the wind as you leave the dock in your sailing dinghy, take a moment to feel the boat with your body. Think less about what you need to do to get her underway, and more about how she feels when she’s there.
That’s what I was doing, making southerly progress down the east side of Vashon in a 15kn northerly. Each gybe felt like a conversation, each tack a different topic. At one point, the 15kn wind petered down to 7knots. We slowed right down, on a starboard tack with a sweetly agreeable rhumb line. I pulled out more canvas, set the wind pilot on, and leaned against the side of the cockpit in the warmth of the afternoon sun, my cheeks burning as the sun winked diamonds at me across the water. We lost time in sweet silence, Selah and I.
On the next gybe, the wind built to 20 knots, and she started careening a bit. I looked over my shoulder and it seemed serious about staying that way, so I pulled her around into the wind, cajoled her into staying there for a bit, reefed her, and turned her back on course. We had an exciting discussion, between the wildly gyrating sheets there, and once we turned back down she picked up to hull speed. She may not be temperamental, but she’s not a boring boat.
I rounded the point. In our reefed state, we chuckled at the gusts that the southern bluffs shot at us, proceeded up the channel, and dropped anchor in Quartermaster with just enough wind to set the anchor. I then went below to prepare myself a few appetizers and the traditional beverage of Safe Passage Celebration.
The Admiral and I agree that below decks, we like a boat to let us know that she’s a boat. On Selah, there’s plenty of warm cherry wood, where the weather won’t wreak havoc with the finish. Underway, you won’t find yourself staggering from port to starboard before you find a handhold. That’s what greeted me, once I had cleaned up the lines and the fenders that I had thrown down there in my single-handed haste. We had a fine evening.
Just because one is singlehanding does not mean that one is alone. On my way back up Colvos Passage, I talked on the radio and crossed wakes with a few of the folk who have shared dock space and anchorages with Selah over the years. On the eastern side of Blake Island, the northerly was now NNE at 18knots, and my marina home was 30 degrees off of that to starboard. Canvas out with a small reef, and I was on my rhumb line. (It’s all roller and in-mast furling, so we go “out”, not “up”– I’m not going to comment except to say that we like being able to reef in a hurry, even if we’re doing it early.) A Beneteau fell in behind me, but Selah was in her favored port-tack upwind groove, and in no mood to play hopscotch with a Beneteau. In the middle of the Sound, the wind predictably built to 20, and our weather helm increased. A quick downwind adjustment of the traveler fixed that. Later, with the wind went down to 11kn and the Bennie (still in the 20kn of wind) starting to gain on us, I “shook out” my singlehander’s safety reef, and Selah brought us home in fine time, and with the full afternoon sun, in a fine mood.
The Admiral’s chief boat show joy is checking out the design assumptions of a display boat, above and below decks, and comparing them with the ones that helped create Selah. We’ve had some interesting discussions, over the years, about what we see, what we don’t like, and what we like. Her version of “three-foot-itis” is: “show me a 39ft boat that uses its three additional feet as wisely as Selah uses all of her 36 feet, and you’ll have my interest.” We came close last year, but it was an additional five feet and came with sailing trade-offs that we just could not accept. Most often, going to the boat show is an exercise in finding new ways to love our boat even more. Not a bad time investment, really.
A boat broker friend of mine is fond of saying that his boats’ competition is not boats from other boat builders, it’s the RV trade, the second condo in the mountains. You can almost see that philosophy at work in new sailboat design and presentation: Cockpits designed for cocktails, saloons designed for parties on flat water, and crystal vases to accessorize your sail-condo-on-the-lake. While I see my friend’s point and can only applaud his enthusiasm for boat evangelism, I know that we’ll never convert those folks with a nautically-themed social space. We need to get them aboard, off the dock, and on to the water. Once they have the experience and the joy of journeying not on, but with a boat, some of them will surely want to own that experience for themselves.
It’s not boats afloat, it’s boats a-sail.
And the journey of joy and companionship.