It was our first time sailing any distance in the dark. We were taking Renegade, our 37ft Hunter Legend, to Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle, Washington, in preparation for a race the following morning. Ahead of us there were two bridges and the Ballard Locks to get through. As we neared the Fremont Bridge we saw it was already being raised, yet we hadn’t sounded our horn. “Why is the bridge going up?” I asked. I didn’t see any other sailboats on either side of the bridge.
“I don’t know,” Mike said slowly, probably wondering the same thing.
Mike and I are fairly new sailors. He had taken a basic keelboat course six years before and had done some racing. I had taken my basic keelboat course just about a year ago. That was right around the time Mike acquired Renegade and found out about the Race Your House sailing regatta for liveaboards that is held every year on Puget Sound. At the time, it seemed so out of reach—we were still learning how to handle a sailboat of this size. But here we were, almost exactly one year later, on our way to our first official race aboard Renegade.
I walked up to the bow for a better vantage point. After 10 to 15 seconds of peering into the darkness, I started making out the shape of something … big. I stared harder. All I could see was a huge rectangular black shape skimming over the water. “Ah, it’s a barge!” It seemed massive in the dark and eerily quiet. We pulled over to the side to let it go by safely. Then we took our turn going through.
Mike handed me the wheel, as I needed more practice handling the boat. “OK, we have to keep an eye out for kayakers and rowers,” he said.
“Great,” I thought. It’s hard enough watching out for and maneuvering around kayakers in daylight. Now we had to look for them in the dark.
We slowly made our way to the Ballard Bridge, sounded our horn and passed through a few minutes later. As the Ballard Locks came into view, Mike said, “What’s that up there? I think I see some lights.”
I squeezed my eyes, trying to distinguish boat lights from background city lights reflecting on the water. Finally, I made out a few pea-sized glowing orbs gently gliding atop the water’s surface. “Oh, yeah, way up ahead there. Looks like rowers. Must be that group we saw as we were leaving the dock.”
They seemed to be spread out across the canal. It was difficult to figure out which direction they were rowing, so I throttled back the engine. We were on high alert. I guarded the starboard side, Mike the port. “It looks like they’re heading slightly left. I’m going to head right a bit,” I said.
“No, stay left.”
“I don’t want to get too close to these guys.”
Though there was plenty of room I worried about crowding the rowers’ space, so I hesitated to stray from my course. Again, Mike instructed me to steer left, and again I dismissed his direction. We had at least one more of these exchanges before Mike suddenly grabbed the wheel and abruptly turned it to the left, “Hey!” he yelled.
“Shit!” An unfamiliar woman’s voice grabbed my attention. My heart skipped a beat as I whipped my head to Mike’s side of the boat. I saw a couple in a rowboat right off our starboard side. Tucking in their oars with impressive agility they passed alongside us, within inches of our hull. After that they disappeared into the dark as quickly as they had come, as did three or four other rowboats.
We immediately got defensive and started complaining to one another that rowers were not paying attention to where they were going. I realized the seriousness of the situation. “How do they expect us to see them with their one tiny little light that’s barely visible? It’s nearly impossible to see them!” I said, shaken. Then we quieted down, reflecting on the situation. I wondered what we could have done differently. Maybe we could have blown our horn? As we continued toward the locks, I was reminded of how foreign and daunting everything seemed when I first began sailing.
When I met Mike in 2012, he kept a 14ft sailing dinghy on Lake Washington, and this was my first real experience sailing. We went out a handful of times a month when the wind wasn’t so strong that we’d have to combat the waves, but strong enough that we wouldn’t get stuck in the middle of the lake, as we had no motor. More often than not, we came close to getting stuck in the middle of the lake. To keep things interesting we sometimes practiced capsizing.
Mike soon outgrew the little dinghy and decided to fulfill his dream of living on a sailboat in the city. We spent many weekends looking at different sailboats and exploring marinas around Seattle. In September 2013, Mike settled on a well-maintained 1990 37ft Hunter Legend. It was almost heartbreaking pulling away from the dock on Bainbridge Island as the boat’s 85-year-old owner waved us off.
We spent the next few months getting the boat ready to live aboard. The most intensive project was replacing the holding tank and hoses. Thankfully, that went as well as it possibly could have, considering what we were dealing with. Moving around the boat was a feat in itself. We soon discovered there were about a thousand places to smack our heads and shins. With Mike’s 6ft stature and my clumsiness, we had to be conscious of every movement we made. It was like a robotic dance. Getting up from a crouched position in the aft cabin went something like this: “OK, slowly stand up half-way, keep arms in, shuffle feet backwards, stand up straight and turn! Now, pick up your feet and walk.”
After replacing a seacock handle or two, fixing some leaks, climbing the mast to replace the steaming light and about a dozen other little projects, Mike finally moved onto the sailboat on New Year’s Day last year.
The next order of business was taking the boat out–by ourselves. Up until then, Mike’s broker, a very experienced sailor, had accompanied us, and going from a sailing dinghy to a cruising sailboat felt like going from a bicycle to a motorcycle. (I don’t yet know how to ride a motorcycle, but I imagine this is what it would be like.)
Our early attempts at leaving and returning to Mike’s new slip were disastrous. Mike finally hired someone to come out and show us how to get in and out of our spot more easily, which ended up being one of the smartest things we did. Mike learned some new techniques, and I now knew how to assist him. Soon we felt more at ease handling and maneuvering the boat. It’s hard to believe that just a year ago taking the boat out was such a stressful ordeal. Now it feels normal, and we do it with purpose. We may not come in perfectly every time on our first attempt, but we can reset and try again with ease and control.
Later that night, soon after our near-collision with the rowers, we arrived at the Ballard Locks. We didn’t have to wait long to get the green light to enter. Three hours after leaving Fremont, we finally arrived at our slip at Shilshole Bay Marina. The following morning, we picked up the rest of our crew—seven friends we had rounded up with the promise of a good time. Only one had any sailing experience, and we quickly learned the others were entirely unfamiliar with sailor-speak. We remedied that by adding the word “nautical” to our descriptions of objects they needed to handle. For example, the main halyard, main sheet and jib sheets became known as the red-and-blue or red-and-green nautical rope, depending on their respective colors. The winch handle became the nautical handle. The head became the nautical toilet, and so on. We ended up placing fourth out of eight in our class and 15 out of 31 overall. Mike joked, “Our new motto is ‘Go mediocre, or go home!’”
We told one of our crew whose wife is a rower the story about what had happened with the rowboats the previous night. “Oh yeah, those guys run into things all the time!” he told us, laughing. I felt relieved that we weren’t the only ones to have had trouble with rowers. But what that night helped me realize as we continue our ventures out onto the water is that we will continue to be faced with new and challenging experiences. I surmise this is one of the attractions to sailing. I’m proud of all we’ve accomplished this past year, but I know we have much more to learn. After all, as I’ve been told, “If you haven’t run aground, you haven’t been around.”
Photos courtesy of Debora Schwartz