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Fall 2006 Issue
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By Alana Sagin, Ben Gore and Brook Brouwer

 

"In his novel Sea Runners, Ivan Doig writes that memory is something that “we hold up and gaze into as proof of ourselves.” Three years ago I had the privilege of attending a NOLS sailing course in Baja. While I remember cinnamon rolls and snorkeling in idyllic waters, I felt most alive clutching the helm of our sailboat Mischief, easing her into the aggressive surge of progressively bigger swells. Wind-whipped water slapped our faces to attention and I felt my senses wrap into the curve of the sails and the heel of the boat. It is such moments as these that burn hard into our memories and bring us around to gratefulness for the warmth of driftwood coals cooking bread."
—From the journal of Brook Brouwer,
Tern crewmember

Becca putting a frame together in the Lopez shop.
Photo: Alana Sagin

Benjamin Patrick Brouwer thinks big. During his freshman year of college, just off a NOLS Spring Semester in the Rockies, he led a campaign to ban sport utility vehicles from campus parking. Then, still in an anti-car mood, he made his first trip home to Lopez Island, in the San Juan archipelago of northern Washington, alone by bicycle from Vermont. In the year after he graduated from college, Ben was living in Providence, Rhode Island and contemplating running away to sea. Upon deciding to explore the territory of his home and sail the Inside Passage to Alaska, he envisioned it as a group endeavor, with six crewmembers, sails, oars, and no engine. The only problem was there was no boat.

Steven Brouwer, Ben and Brook’s father and a wooden boat builder by trade, suggested that the crew build their own craft. He even offered to oversee the project and lend his shop in exchange for a much-needed hand in the heavy labor of their family’s sheep farm on Lopez Island. The boat crew, mostly recent graduates from Middlebury College, would live in teepees, hay bale forts and tents on the family’s land while they cooked and worked communally in a small apartment in the farm’s hay barn. The loft of the barn was filled with rough-sawn yellow cedar boards, which would eventually become the skeleton of their boat.

The summer of 2005 was filled with fresh vegetables, local seafood, untold quantities of sawdust and endless hours of laboring in the fields. In October, though, as the rain settled in, crewmembers began drifting towards their respective winter quarters across the globe. A few stayed put, however, to build, fuss over planks, sew sails, organize food and arrange sponsorships. Through the dark months of the winter of 2005, a boat came together, matched in grandeur only by the expedition on which it was meant to embark.

On June 5, 2006, almost an entire year after the first pattern was drawn, the final details of the craft were finished. On the afternoon of June 6, after just two test runs, we set off for the north end of Lopez. And on the morning of June 7, our crew gathered for a formal send-off from Flat Point, which included traditional cedar smudges and prayers of well-wishing. A sprig of hemlock was tied to the bow as a request for fair seas, and a lock of our hair was given to the ocean in supplication. Finally, Tern, a gold-shining gaff-rigged ketch, set a course northwards, severing our ties to the landlocked world.

June 11, 2006 - Mink Island, BC

"The wind today was the strongest we have seen yet and I had to push and pull against the tiller with all my might just to keep us going in a straight line. The rigging creaked with the strain and the masts were bending noticeably. We reefed the sails to spill wind, but the boat still heeled far over and we had to sit on the windward rail to keep from tipping.

Cedar, my crewmate, looked at me. “Do you think the tiller is sound?” he asked.
“What?”
“Will it break?” he clarified.
“Oh.”
The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. Once I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure.

It held, and in the afternoon the wind died down some. We had a swift and gentle ride the rest of the way to Mink Island. We came through the two small islands guarding the entrance to Desolation Sound like Sphinxes and found ourselves in a very desolate place indeed."
—From the journals of Alana Sagin,
Tern crewmember

The teepees we lived in on Lopez Island while building our boat and planning our expedition.
Photo: Alana Sagin

There are many lessons to learn at first: getting used to the feel of the boat, knowing without thinking which direction the wind was coming from, and having sailing terms like aft, thwart, fetch, fall-off, tender and plumb-line fall more quickly off our tongues. Looking at the waterways on the chart and the bathymetry lines showing the depth of the water was at first like trying to read the spaces between the letters of a book.

The Inside Passage is a loose term for the protected waterway that extends from the Puget Sound in western Washington, north along the coast of British Columbia, into the southeastern panhandle of Alaska and the ice-choked waters of Glacier Bay. The cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett have a unique grit to them, and that grit is the silt of glacial rivers flowing down from Alaska.

We were by no means the first to travel this pathway. To the contrary, one of the great joys of the voyage was being submerged in the history of this rich country. The Salish, Kwakwakiwak, Heitsuk, Haida, Tlingit and many other Native American nations have lived on the waterways of the Inside Passage nearly as long as humans have lived on the North American continent. They developed great water-faring civilizations and became masterful workers in wood, building enormous, infinitely intricate totem poles, Big Houses and oceangoing canoes.

The First Nations left white beaches of crushed clamshells, fields of berries and the remains of Big Houses and totem poles. The white fishermen and loggers that followed left behind innumerable piers, scraps of machinery and cabins. To move through this landscape is to marvel at the flux of human endeavor and the resilience of the non-human world.

July 8, 2006. Monkton Inlet, Pitt Island, BC

"We weighed anchor at Campañia Island with a mixture of reluctance and frenzy. The hills above us and a storm blasting from the sea were enticing projects. We chose to move and move quickly because our little VHF radio was predicting winds rising to gale and then storm force, in excess of forty-five knots, sometime during the day.

We set full sails, the arcs of canvas curving towards the gray sky. The incessant breeze scooted us up the Outside Passage, a small barrier island with a tortuous, tenuously charted coastline but away from the fearful Strait of Hecate. The wild Queen Charlotte Islands lie beyond, and then only gray seas, gray skies and Asia…

The wind rose almost imperceptibly. The seas became confused (or was it we who lost our bearings?) on a short open crossing, and before we knew it the helmsman was struggling with all his might to keep the boat pointed downwind. We turned out of the main channel at a place called Monkton Inlet and pulled for two miles between the ever-narrowing walls of the fjord. For a half hour, we passed through a ghostly smack of innumerable lion’s mane jellyfish, pulsing in the tide.

The entrance to our sanctuary was thirty feet wide, and the inlet itself was surrounded on all sides by high hills... That night the storm hit all at once in the deep darkness, the wind plowing uproariously through the trees. The rain fell in a wall. I dreamed chaotic dreams.

In the morning, it was no longer raining hard, but the little radio, our only source of information about the open ocean just a few miles away, said that winds were still gusting over fifty knots and the seas reaching well over fifteen feet in height. We rested and fished and cooked and wandered our separate ways eating blueberries, enjoying our solitude, waiting for our chance to move northwards."
—From the journals of Ben Gore,
Tern crewmember

Taking a break from sailing for a hard-earned lunch stop.
Photo: Alana Sagin

Much of the land bordering the passage is a jagged world of sharp mountains, tangled forests and violent weather where few people carve out their homes. It is, by many standards, “wilderness.” But though the land is harsh, the sea is bounteous. Even with greatly reduced runs of salmon, a wealth of food still flows from the ocean, and the water serves an important human purpose in this impassable country: transportation. On July 16, Tern reached her northern destination of Ketchikan, Alaska. There, three new crewmembers took spots aboard and began the voyage south, unraveling once again the maze of the Inside Passage with its layers of humanity and wildness.

August 14, 2006 - Lewis Cove, BC

"Cedar raised his dinner bowl in a humble toast, “To Life.”
“To Life,” we all agreed, gathering around the evening meal and a flickering fire. A pile of coals glowed on the lid of our blackened Dutch oven. Countless meals came to revolve around the slow rotation of cast iron. That evening we tore off thick chunks of fresh bread. Smoke tickled our eyes as we pulled up close to the flames, and reflected on the wind that carried us to Lewis Cove.

A Rhinoceros Auklet struggled off the water and flapped a short distance before a wave swept him out of the air. An instant later, the resilient bird exploded sideways out of the foam and beat doggedly into the wind. A firm northwesterly had been building since morning. We reefed our sails and finally dropped our main. As the wind drove us south, Tern rode the edge of curling waves, a flock of sea birds rearranged in our path, feeding on a ‘herring ball’ that seethed at the surface. Ben thought about radio protocol. I thought about writing letters."
—From the journals of Brook Brouwer,
Tern crewmember

On September 7, three months after leaving Flat Point, Tern made her homecoming to Lopez Island. But instead of stopping to soak in all the comforts of home, we soon left again to show off our craft to fellow seafarers at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Although not quite so shiny as when she left, and a bit shabby around the oar-pads and thoal-pins, Tern had held up remarkably well. The crewmembers were changed as well, each in our own way. Perhaps the completion of our project and expedition, with all its beauty and boldness, made us see the world a bit more like those who build their houses on islands, as a place where dreams and real life can merge, and where a jaunt with a boat and a fair wind is better than a day on the beach.

Alana Sagin is a 1999 NOLS Baja Sea Kayaking grad and a 2000 NOLS Wind River Rock Climbing grad. She is now in her first year of medical school at Jefferson University in Philadelphia (alana.sagin@jefferson.edu). Ben Gore is a novelist based in Washington, DC (thebravecowboy@juno.com). Brook Brouwer is a 2003 NOLS Baja Coastal Sailing grad and is currently a junior at Colorado College where he studies biology (b_brouwer@coloradocollege.edu). Brook’s brother, Ben Brouwer, is a 2000 NOLS Rocky Mountain Semester grad. For more information about the entire crew and their boat-building and sailing expedition, visit The Hunter Bay Boat Project at www.boatproject.org.

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