30 August 2005

Just Sit Right Back and You'll hear a Tale, a Tale of a Fateful Trip,

I am going to deviate from the normal outrageously fallacious format of this blog, and tell a true story. I recently received an e-mail from a good friend of mine, who we shall refer to as "Flash". Flash wrote:

Had a really fun trip down from Martha's Vineyard over the weekend. The most fun was at 2am on Sunday morning when I, completely exhausted, sent Alex below to wake the other watch. A few seconds after he went below I hear Bill yell "Ohhh @%%@#%#$^#$!!!! We're SINKING!!!!". I won't go into the long detailed story but we came very close to ending up in the liferaft 50 miles off the coast of New Jersey at 2:30 am on a rough and windy night. That was really something to contemplate...

So, one of the lessons learned from the experience was the value of a bilge high water alarm. These things are quite cheap and worth every penny. Perhaps you should consider one for your boat too. It sounds much nicer to me to learn that there's a problem from an alarm going off instead of having the captain get up to go on watch and have his feet splash in the water. Then he goes and opens the door to the engine room to find the main engine halfway under in 6 feet of swirling black water. Bill said at that point it was on the tip of his tongue to tell me to take the ditch kit to the cockpit. It wouldn't have taken too much more water to get to the batteries and then we would have been in really deep you-know-what. As it was it took over two hours for the two high capacity bilge pumps plus us on the manual emergency pump to mostly dewater the boat...

Flash and I frequently visit a mutual friend of ours in Alaska. We shall refer to him as "Putz". (Putz owns a 28 foot twin screw diesel which we'll call it the "Minnow"). The three of us are pictured below on our last trip. I (“Soapy” for the duration of this narrative) am the good looking one in the blue jacket.

The three stooges and their first day's catch, before cleaning. The bottom feeders fed well that day.

In years past, we were not so skilled. Had we then encountered an emergency such as Flash’s, we would surely have had to ditch. Then we would have proceeded to sink the life raft in a manner that would sound highly amusing to those not in it at the time.

Call me Soapy. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. Luckily, I had friends to mooch from. Friends with more money than sense. Friends that recently bought a boat. Alcoholic friends, with excellent taste in liquor.

Gooooood friends.

We set forth from Aurora harbour with the left and right tanks empty, and the centre tank a quarter full. Shouldn’t we take on diesel? The decision was no. After all, the Master and Owner (Putz) proclaimed we had enough for eight hours cruising. Besides, we were just going around Douglas Island, and would troll back. An hour out, we were past Icy Point. There was a stiff onshore breeze and three foot swells. We set the downriggers, and settled down to a nice afternoon of salmon murdering.

Which ended fifteen minutes later. Apparently, the diesels proved thirstier than anticipated and we had half the fuel we had started with. Putz ordered the downriggers in and brought the Minnow about. That was when we noticed the eerie silence . Putz had killed the other diesel. We sat for a while enjoying the view of the rocks that we seemed to bet getting rather close to.

“DROP THE #@$%ING ANCHOR!” Putz screamed. We were used to Putz screaming, but we’ve never hear him scream like a three year old girl with a skinned knee. We dropped the anchor, fifty feet of chain, and a lot of cable.

“Soapy” Said Flash. “It occurs to me that Putz may not have made the bitter end fast. Would you be so kind as to go below and check?” Flash, whose exposure to Putz has been longer than mine, proved to be prophetic. I tied a panic knot, just as the anchor bit at the full length of the line. It seemed that we stopped inches from the rocks.

We would not have to hike across brown bear infested Douglas Island after all, thank God. My mind harkened back to the advice the crusty old-timers at the bar had given us.

“Don’t try to out run a brown bear” said Crusty Old-Timer number one. “You can’t, they can run a speeds up to 35 MPH.”

“We don’t have to out run the bear,” Said Flash and Putz simultaneously. “We just have to out run Soapy.” I ignored the smug bastards.

“Well, what should I do?” I asked.

“First of all” Replied Crusty old timer #2.”Never surprise a brown bear. Wear bells on your back pack, to let them know your whereabouts, and you can carry some pepper spray, if they should get too close. You should also know how to tell the difference between black and brown bear scat; in order to determine in what sort of bear’s territory you are in.”

“Okay, then, what’s the difference?”

“Well, the dung of the harmless black bear is about an inch in diameter, has twigs in it and smells musty.” He took a long pull on his beer.

“And that of the brown bear?” I prodded.

‘Two inches in diameter, has bells in it and smells peppery.”

To Hell with Douglas island, then. I decided that if we sank, I’d swim straight back to Juneau.

Death off Icy Point, the GPS log (click on image to enlarge).


Putz finally managed to fire up the engines. In his haste, he had forgotten to start in neutral.

“Bring up the anchor!” He yelled. Flash wound the cable about the winch and yelled back to start the winch. Nothing…. Flash hauled up all 200 feet of cable and chain plus anchor by hand, while I stowed it in the cable locker and Putz laughed at us. This sort of thing is how mutinies happen.

When we got back to the fueling dock, we managed to back over a stern line, fouling both props, stalling the engines and almost tearing the cleat from its mount.

We tried to free the line from the surface with no success. Someone was going to have to gear up and try from below. They both looked at me.

“Oh no…You’re not pinning this one on me! Both of you are divers too.”

“But Soapy, you’re a technical instructor and a great one at that!” Said Flash.

Oh that’s it. Appeal to my arrogance. They know me far too well. It would have worked immediately if I hadn’t overheard Putz muttering “He’s more buoyant to boot.”

Eventually, they wheedled me into the drink. I tucked my fins between the hull and shafts, grabbed the stern line and was promptly smacked in the face with a trim tab. My mask filled with icy salt water. I surfaced for murder, but was placated by a sheepish looking Putz.

“Sorry, I hopped on board to get a shot of Jameson’s 1780.”

I descended muttering. I freed the line, replaced the zincs and.. WHAM! caught another trim tab across my noggin. I surfaced to curse at Putz.

“I poured you a triple!” He declared triumphantly.

Well, he does have a good side, after all.

The years have passed, and now we are the grizzled experienced old timers.

We sit at the bar, and cadge drinks from wide eyed youngsters.

“Arrrgh…” We say as we knock the wattle from our pipes. “The brown bear is a nasty piece of work, but what ye really have to look out fer is the ocean–going wolverine.”


Me (blue jacket) with dog (no jacket). We brought the dog along to protect us from bears. Sadly, she proved more interested in rolling around on rotting salmon and chasing seagulls. Come to think of it, we were never attacked by seagulls or rotten salmon, so maybe she was not a total loss.


And that's the way I likes it.