Category Archives: Ships

Afloat

Someone whose house is firmly aground doesn’t know the experience of living afloat unless at some point they’ve abandoned the shore and sailed across oceans, day after day, weeks between landfall. Living afloat has an intimacy and an immediacy missing ashore, a contradictory sense of shelter and exposure much like a mollusk inhabiting its shell in the turbulent tidal zone.

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A houseboat is alive in a way not possible for something fixed to concrete foundations. It dances in the rising wind and strains against its moorings in a storm. It feels the pull of the sun and moon and the centrifugal force of the turning earth. Life afloat is about life in motion—the isolated impact of the wake from a passing boat or the riotous force of a winter storm. A boat is a thing that moves even if it moves only in place. The floor of a houseboat may not be as lively as the pitching deck of a boat in a seaway but more than one resident has unexpectedly fallen ass over tea kettle because their assumption of immobility proved mistaken.

The certainty of the unmoving earth is something we take for granted since childhood. Every motion we make, every step we take is dependent upon the simple premise that ground won’t rise or fall beneath our feet. In those moments when our expectations are undone and the earth moves we find even the simple act of walking impossible.

A sailor—or the resident of a houseboat—surrenders that assumption of stability. The deck beneath their feet is continuously moving, whether a barely perceptible tremor or energetic enough to create a tempest in a coffee cup. The perception of motion is always present, asleep or awake, a kinetic awareness that orientates them in space. It’s the reason sailors stagger ashore after a long ocean passage, lurching down the street from one handhold to the next. Their bodies have learned to live in constant, unpredictable motion.

The experience of fluidity has ramifications like ripples radiating from a stone dropped in still water. I suspect it removes some of the certainty so characteristic of the middle class. Maybe houseboats attract a bohemian type or maybe it makes them. The truth is all of us are walking on water, we just don’t know it.

Houseboats are wonderfully eccentric, neither one thing nor another, wholly belonging neither to the sea or the shore. Like a foreign embassy, they are sovereign soil transposed on another country. They are the shore afloat, an impossible transposition of land and water. Heart and soul, they are anomaly harboring communities of eccentrics.

They are floating shells, exteriors weathered and roughened but the inside worn smooth by intimacy and the passage of life through chambered cells. Unlike houses anchored to the soil, houseboats can’t afford the luxury of space, the extravagant waste of empty rooms piled one on top another like packing crates. Every inch must be economized, every corner rounded, everything secured. Even a well found house ashore isn’t built to be buffeted by waves, corroded by salt water, or encrusted by barnacles.

Houseboats by preference and construction are ephemeral creations. There are houses hundreds of years old but no houseboats. Nor are they built with the stubborn sturdiness of a wooden boat intended to survive the casual violence of the open ocean, passage after passage. They are vulnerable to hazards both common and uncommon to houses ashore—fire and flood, foundering, parting their moorings, grounding, collision, tsunamis, disdain, envy and bigotry. They are marginal creations that inhabit the edge, a characteristic that is both their strength and weakness.

There were once over 2,000 houseboats on the Seattle waterfront, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Now there are less than 500 sequestered in waterfront ghettos on Lake Union. Their vulnerabilities are less relevant to the decline than the rancor of homeowners who look down upon the ramshackle communities from the Seattle hills and complain about property values, sewage, lawlessness, tax evasion, and moral turpitude. The floating communities have always attracted both derision and envy, the envy of the bourgeois for the bohemian. There’s nothing more rancorous than success.

The houseboat ghettos have created a sense of embattled community. Nothing defines a community more clearly than the struggle to survive against land developers, city commissioners, zoning authorities and citizen committees. The community is further defined by narrow docks that thread together individual homes and anchor them to shore. Walking the dock each day, passing within a few feet of your neighbors’ kitchen or bedroom windows, living in such close proximity doesn’t allow the anonymity of a middle class suburb. When you know your neighbors’ name and the visible details of their lives it’s harder to ignore their distress when their house begins listing or breaks free of its moorings and drifts across the bay.

The Economy of Sail

My wife isn’t keen on the idea of hauling freight under sail. When I begin talking about the inevitable decline in oil production and the relentless rise of energy costs, her eyes glaze and her attention strays to something more interesting like the annual yield of winter wheat in the Ukraine.



She’s not entirely convinced our future is an economy of scarcity.


 

And frankly, I’m her husband. Why should she believe me? It isn’t even my idea, hauling cargo under sail, but it’s an idea that resonates.

There already are people delivering produce to market across the Puget Sound from the organic farms of Sequim to the docks of Ballard. They pile their produce onto the deck of a Catalina 34. It’s not the most seaworthy arrangement. Any offshore sailor would cringe at the sight but there’s not a lot of cargo space on a fiberglass production boat. You use the tools at hand until better tools are available.

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The Soliton carrying produce to market across the Puget Sound. Photo credit: Ballard News-Tribune. A soliton a mysterious wave that can travel without dissipating energy through non-linear systems, behaving both like a particle and a wave.


A better tool might be a wooden schooner designed for the trade with wide beam, broad decks, large hatches and a cargo hold. A broad beam provides stability and cargo capacity on deck and below. (Schooners often carried deckloads of lumber or livestock—sheep or pigs or even cattle in temporary pens rigged on deck.) And wooden construction relies upon a renewable resource easily repaired and commonly available in the Pacific NW. As well, the harvesting and shaping of wood can be done with little dependence upon fossil fuels if you have none.

It would be lovely to see the Sound fill with working sail again, patched and threadbare sails but still serviceable, standing out to sea or working inshore at the end of day, the westering sun silhouetting their squat hulls and pedestrian rigs like a flock of sea birds settling on the water. Lovely, perhaps, but it begs the question—why?

A schooner leaves little wake or impact upon the earth by its passage. It’s remarkably self-contained, efficient, and cost effective if it isn’t competing against time. The conceit of time—time as money—unmade the age of sail and replaced it with the machine, the age of internal combustion. But the machine has proved a less human tool.



A schooner’s schedule isn’t a promise but a proposition, a negotiation with wind and weather and current.


 

There is a grace in shaping your course by wind and current, reaching your destination through skill and persistence, acknowledging the wider world rather than willfully disregarding it but the economy of sail can’t compete against cheap oil and a predictable schedule. As oil becomes increasingly expensive and then increasingly difficult to buy at whatever cost, sail becomes a more attractive method of transport. And, I’d argue, a more human method.

I think the question isn’t whether commercial sail will become viable again but when. My guess is sooner rather than later. So many significant factors—climate change, population density, peak oil production, the scarcity of arable land and clean water—are converging to create a perfect storm of change. That storm will overtake us unprepared. We’ll remain convinced of the certainty of our lives until they’re changed forever in an instant and only afterwards will it seem self-evident. Perhaps that’s by design.

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Photo credit: Gloucester Schooner Festival. 

The Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead

There are pathways deep in the sea, boundary layers between thermoclines and haloclines where bodies of water differ in temperature or salinity and sound propagates effortlessly, echoing between layers, traveling around the world again and again with little loss of energy. Supposedly sounds have been captured by deep water probes lowered into these channels and by SOSUS buoys, the network of microphones deployed in major oceans to capture the passage of ballistic subs, the boomers that stay hidden in deep water with their payload of ICBMs intended to deter a nuclear war, or start one. Some of these sounds are old.

The sonar technicians peering into their oscilloscopes, intent upon their headphones, may actually be listening to the sound of battles fought at sea during the Second World War.

We’ve gotten used to the concept that the night sky is full of ghosts, the light from stars that have been dead for a thousands years, but the thought of ghost sound is still disturbing.  It is unsettling to listen to the sound of ships breaking up under extreme pressure, bulk heads collapsing, hulls ripped by secondary explosions as the wreckage falls through miles of dark water, entombing the bodies of those who fought and died onboard, listening to the sound of their death as if they were occurring in the present and not a lifetime earlier. Uncanny.

The sea shall give up its dead
and the sound of their dying.

It may be only an urban legend. I’ve been able to find only one reference and that in Lyall Watson’s book The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects (perhaps not the most reputable source) but if it isn’t true, it should be. The world would be a more interesting place where such unsettling things still happen.

The Dying of the Dix

On November 18, 2006, an excursion vessel departed the Seattle waterfront before mid-day and steamed to a position off Duwamish Head where, at 12:00 pm precisely, a wreath was cast adrift on Puget Sound to mark the grave of a vessel that sank a hundred years earlier.

On that day in 1906, the passenger vessel Dix departed Colman Dock, Seattle, at 7:00 pm, bound for Port Blakely, a 40 minute passage to the far side of Puget Sound. She was steaming at 10.5 knots on a clear, calm night. At 7:42 pm the Dix was struck amidships by the steam schooner Jeanie and sank. The captain’s pocket watch stopped at the moment he was thrown clear of the deck into the Sound.

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