Waterlines: Oh, the Perils of Spring Commissioning

Overnight, the dock is transformed from a windblown morgue into a cacophonous hive of cheerful, whistling geezers—their ruddy cheeks ablaze with spirits—wielding Santa’s latest power tools

 Paul VanDevelder

Nothing dispels winter’s gloom from the dyspeptic souls of Salish Sea cruising sailors like sunshine, blue skies and a juicy bit of gossip with your morning coffee. When the rite of spring commissioning comes around in the Pacific Northwest, we seem to have a surfeit of all three, and nothing brings hibernating sailors back to life faster than warm afternoons and tales of waterside mischief.

Depending on where you live, the spring commissioning carnival can begin any time in March, April or May. Moreover, it comes to any town, city or state with enough water to float a boat(s) owned by a skipper(s) who has been housebound with a First Mate(s) since Thanksgiving. After months of cold rain, it only takes a brief glimpse of the sun to send sailors into a frenzy of hull caulking, teak sanding and bottom painting. Boom boxes blare from every boat and/or corner of the yard. A walk down the dock on a sunny afternoon becomes a rolling serenade by Puccini, Lady Gaga, The Dead Kennedys and the Rolling Stones.  

At my marina, spring commissioning is officially announced by a faint fragrance of cannabis or a whiff of Jim Beam. Overnight, the dock is transformed from a windblown morgue into a cacophonous hive of cheerful, whistling geezers—their ruddy cheeks ablaze with spirits—wielding Santa’s latest power tools, refurbished crab pots and brand-new varnish brushes. I don’t know how much they get done, but whatever they’re up to they work dang hard at it.

“It’s days like this that make you feel younger than you ever were,” said our dockmaster, Arne Bentzen, as he gazed out on the bustling activity at Shipyard Cove one day this March past.

He should know. Arne is 78 going on 40, and he’s been doing this “spring commissioning” thing for half a century. Lately though, he’s noted that the “feel younger” aspect of this seaside ritual has its downside for many and has turned a springtime of celebration into a summer of trials and tribulations. Surprise! It turns out sailors are no more immune to the attractions of Sodom and Gomorrah than any other mortals.  

I call it The Flesh Effect, and according to my research, it is particularly pronounced in seaside communities where the steeples of Protestant churches soar above the tranquil harbors in calendar photographs that adorn the kitchen walls of the faithful who live there. From this point forward, the names of the vessels on those tranquil harbors, as well as the men and women who seek sanctuary aboard them, will be changed to protect the innocent—boats and sailors alike. This tale bristles not with righteous judgment or varnish brushes, but proffers a hint of caution mixed with a bit of licentious glee.

At my own marina, Shipyard Cove, licentious glee is always fodder for the agenda when the Liar’s Club meets in the clubhouse for morning coffee. One bright and sunny morning this past March I arrived just in time to hear the latest saga about a nice little green Baba 30 sloop, Happy Hour, out at the end of A Dock. It seemed this Bob Perry-designed pocket cruiser had spent the past couple of years bringing new meaning to the term “sea trials.” 

The improbable series of events got started when the wife of the island’s OBGYN, Dr. Rutledge, discovered a jade earring under Happy Hour’s settee cushion. It was an unusual adornment, one she had last seen hanging from the lobe of Dr. Jensen’s new dental hygienist when she visited her after her crown came loose. Doc Rutledge’s lawyer, Randy Brewster, took the boat in trade for services rendered when he handled the Rutledges’ subsequent divorce, and renamed her Ebb Tide. Brewster brought in a Native American shaman to smudge the cabin, but the medicine must not have taken. Three months later, Brewster’s Significant Other found an earring behind the head, this one decorated with gold balls and peacock feathers, belonging to the high school social studies teacher who ferried over from Bellingham every morning.

Next in line for the Baba’s affections was Louis LeMay, an architect and landlubber who had never set foot on a boat until he met a pharmacist’s assistant who led him down A Dock one beautiful summer night. When the little Baba next came available in the pharmacist’s assistant’s divorce/fire sale, the new owner, an auto parts tycoon from the mainland, brought the Native American shaman back with his smudge sticks and rechristened the sloop Never Learn.

So far the second dose of “big medicine” seems to be doing the trick. Spring commissioning has been undertaken with pride and attention to detail. The green canvas has been scrubbed, the teak coamings have been sanded and varnished, the brass cowl vents gleam brightly, and today, the proud and happy boat floats out at end of A Dock, right where she was captured by a calendar photographer, and chosen for this year’s month of April.

And not a steeple in sight.  

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