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Windshifts: The Worst Day

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Though we’d dragged our 6,000-pound Balboa 26 over three mountain ranges and through seven passes, our pilgrimage from Colorado to Washington State had been relatively carefree. After that we’d spent three weeks in the Gulf Islands east of Vancouver, all without a serious mishap.

Then, as we were moored in Oak Harbor preparing for the final leg back to Seattle, everything changed.

It all began when the choke handle on the outboard split and broke the throttle spring. I was confident I could repair it and went to work while my wife, Jeanine, hiked to town for provisions. I pulled off the motor cowling, snatched eagerly at the carburetor and throttle spring, and watched in amazement as it flew over the side. Jeanine returned to find me meditating on our quandary.

“How’s it going?”

“Part of the carburetor flew into the bay.” “Flew?” “Well, sort of.” “You mean you dropped them.” “Yes.” “Can you get them back?” “No.”

“Maybe we could start the motor without them!”

“Women!” I thought, but then it occurred to me she might be onto something. “If you hold your palm over the carburetor and tweak what’s left of the throttle, maybe we can start this beast.”

She smiled, and knelt beside the motor, studying me warily as I hunched over her. I wound the flywheel and pulled hard. The motor coughed and sprang to life. Then she took away her hand, and it died again like an old lawnmower.

“You’re not expecting me to hold this thing all the way back to Seattle?”

“No, just until we clear the channel. Then we can hoist the sails.”     

Jeanine studied me again, looked south toward the city, and said nothing.

I cast off our lines, hopped aboard and hovered over her while she cupped the carburetor and tweaked the throttle remnant. The engine sprang to life, and I straddled Jeanine while we backed out of the slip and headed for the channel.   

“I can’t see a thing from down here. Where are we?”

“Buoy seven. Only six to go.”

We putted past an incoming boat. They stared at us.

“What are you doing?” “Waving.” “Oh, gawd, can they see me?” “Probably.”

Once we were out on Puget Sound, I hoisted the sails and a soft northerly pulled us south past Camano Island. It was such a lovely sail, I almost forgot about the motor, until we dropped into a windless hole near Possession Point as we prepared to enter Admiralty Inlet.

Jeanine popped topside and peered south. “Are we moving at all?”

“A little, I think. I saw a bubble go by, so I imagine we’re being carried by the tide. Either that or we’re going backward.”

“Are you sure? We’ve been looking at that same cottage for an hour. Either we’re moving south or it’s moving south.” 

I checked the GPS. “We’re moving south—at half a knot.”

“Thrilling! We’ll sail by moonlight!”

Fortunately, after we were south of Possession Point, we caught a 10-knot westerly which bolted Lady Jeanine out of the calm with a bone in her teeth. The water was soon filled with diamonds, as the wind piped up to 15 and then 20 knots.

It was grand, until Jeanine once again destroyed my reverie. “How shall we manage our grand entry? We can’t plow full tilt into the marina with all this wind.”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I lied. “What do you say we reduce sail outside the breakwater, roll in most of the jib, spin into the wind, and settle next to the dock?”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“You’ll step daintily ashore with a bow line and secure the boat. I’ll drop the sails.”

“Daintily? Why don’t you drop the sails somewhere behind the breakwater and jump over the side with a line in your teeth? I’ll steer while you swim?” She laughed.

As we headed toward the breakwater, a jumble of sailboats broke suddenly out of the marina and headed straight for us. A race! They ripped past on either side, hollering about give-way vessels and rules of the road as we plowed through them. It was like driving south on a northbound freeway.

Finally, we made the breakwater, where I sped toward our slip, turned hard and spun Lady into the wind alongside the dock, just as planned. Unfortunately, when Jeanine leaped over the rail she missed her footing and pitched into the deep. When she surfaced, she had the line, but she was mad as a wet hen as she swam to the dock. She hoisted herself up, secured the boat and then sat Buddha-like in a puddle, dripping wet. 

“How about the other cleat?”

“How about it yourself. This is the worst day of my life!” 

“Yeah, right!” I pondered our luck, the darn wind, Jeanine’s misstep, and the fact that we were tethered to the wrong dock. Then, I pondered the sun setting behind the Olympic Mountains and the fact that even the worst day on the water was better than a good day anywhere else. Jeanine patted my head and smiled. “By the way, have you thought about those three mountain ranges and seven passes?”


Illustration by Tom Payne

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