The Sacred and the Propane

13 May 2012
12 October 2005 | Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, BC

The Haulout

13 May 2012
The Haulout

A Reflection by

Alex Morton

Had she been human, I’d have said my venerable twenty-seven foot Ericson was suffering from separation anxiety, but for a sailboat I’d just have to term it corny old deferred maintenance. She sure as hell didn’t want to leave her slip. The morning I set out to haul her, the Haiku decided that there was too much of a garden hanging off her belly to allow reverse to do anything other than make noise. A bit embarrassed, I pushed her out of the slip and readied myself to jump aboard in time to grab the helm and maneuver her out into Horseshoe Bay.

Although my eighty-five year old father was onboard, he didn’t know enough about boats to be of any help with the helm in tight quarters. A true city boy, I always teased him that he’d never gotten the soles of his shoes dirty. But, he loved to go out in the boat, and whenever my folks visited from the East coast, I’d try to take him for a cruise.

Onboard, also, was my Border Collie, Rosie, who’d taken up her usual leaving-port post on the bow. As I tried to leap over the lifelines with something approaching her grace and only barely managed to avoid doing a header into the cockpit, she gave me a discernibly condescending grin. Life with a dog whose IQ is high enough to give her a sense of irony isn’t always easy on the ego.

My father was much more discrete in his response. Normally a gregarious man, he approached the world with a broad sense of humor. When you were with him, you always waited for the punchline. Regardless of the situation, he’d generally find something outrageously funny to say. But now he kept his gaze far out to sea, and looked past my antics, as if something were happening out there that demanded all his attention.

Very slowly, we chugged out into the Queen Charlotte channel, while whole species of marine life decided whether to remain clinging to the hull, or seek a slightly more stationery home. It wouldn’t have taken much. When we were passed by a young teenager listlessly rowing a punt with one oar, it was enough to send Rosie below out of shame. But there was little I could do other than try to enjoy the scenery, and ignore her whining for a banana.

It was my own fault. For the past few years, my wife and I had spent most of our time working and traveling, and it had been tough on the old Haiku. She’d sat in her slip with not much more to do than grow a beard, and wait to get old. Even though we faithfully hauled her every year, the few sailing days we managed each season left plenty of time for entire civilizations to develop on her hull.

My father had been patient, too, as we flew in all directions except his most of the time. He and my mother faithfully phoned, and visited when they could, but they were reaching the age where a flight across the country was becoming increasingly difficult. Since their arrival this trip, they’d been hinting that it might me their last. For the first time it had even been difficult to convince my father to come for a ride in the boat, even though it was just a short trip.

But dragging all that growth along to the lift at Race Rocks turned what should have been a little hop into a mini-voyage. Just after we rounded Cliff Point, we spotted a small whale fishing back and forth along a stretch of the coast. At the Haiku’s leisurely pace, there was plenty of time to admire the Gray’s fishing technique, and marvel at his being so far up the channel.

Rosie came back up from the cabin and sat beside my father, and the two watched the whale as if a movie were unfolding. When the Gray dove under the bow and came up the other side, their heads bobbed together as they followed the whale’s progress. Neither commented. I kept waiting for my father to say something funny, but it didn’t come.

I fed Rosie a chunk of banana, my father a cup of coffee, and we settled in for an idyllic little cruise. There was no breeze, so it was pointless to raise any sails, but the old Atomic four engine kept the Haiku and it’s attendant ecosystem moving along, although at somewhat less than the speed of anything else on the water.

When we finally turned into Race Rocks, I tied up to the gas dock, so that my father and Rosie could hop off while I negotiated the lift. Well, my father didn’t exactly hop, it was more of a creak and groan affair, as he stepped off at the dock. Even then, the expected one-liner didn’t come.

Pop and Rosie watched from the shore as I maneuvered the Haiku into the slings, cut the engine, and was hoisted up until the bow was level with the shore and I could climb over the pulpit and onto land. The Travelift drew the Haiku up another couple of meters and then moved forward with my boat swaying on the big canvas straps, until it was in position for power washing. From the looks of what was hanging off the bottom, it would need to be a superpower washing. Life on the hull was embarrassingly lush. Long strings of mussels hung from a green, furry coating of algae that covered whatever wasn’t barnacled. It resembled nothing more than an upside down island.

I stood beside my father while the crustaceans and mollusks were knocked off and the bottom was power washed. Something about the way Pop was standing let me know that he seemed to have made some sort of accommodation with whatever was bothering him.

When Chris, who owns Race Rocks Marine Services, came up for a chat, my father asked him about what was being done to my boat.

“Cleaning it off so it will go faster,” he said. “There’s so much clinging to it, now, it can barely move, but when we get it all power-washed it will be like new.”

“No kidding”, my father said, with that pretend-innocent look on his face that I’d learned from childhood always meant a punchline was coming, “When you finish with the boat, you mind doing me next?”

The Christmas Survival Suit

10 May 2012

The Christmas Survival Suit
a tale

When I picked him up off the southeast tip of Bowen Island, the old man was half-drowned. Even though he was mostly submerged, I could tell that he was big, and I knew it would be tough to get him out of the frigid December water of the Strait of Georgia. I started up the engine, unpacked the lifesling, threw the yoke overboard, and motored around in tight circles until I was near enough for him to maneuver himself into it.

He was a big one all right, probably three hundred pounds or more, and winching his weight up to the Haiku and getting him aboard was no picnic. He landed on deck, and lay dripping water like a beached whale. I wondered how quickly I could get him to a hospital.

My worst fears about his physical state evaporated when I knelt down to try mouth to mouth respiration, he laughed up at me and said, “You don’t have to kiss me, sir. A simple ‘welcome aboard’ would do.”

But the old man sure was a mess. His beard looked as if it were made of seaweed, and the odd-looking, red, survival suit he wore was covered with slime that probably came from an oil slick. Around the sleeves and collar there was some kind of matted material that might have been white but it was covered with so much gunk I couldn’t tell. My first guess, by the look of the old gent’s tangled beard, and wild white eyebrows, was that he was what we used to call a bum, before they came up with all the fancy euphemisms. I offered to get him a blanket and something else to change into.

“I’m fine as I am,” he said. “I had this outfit specially made, and it’s still dry inside. Maybe something warm to drink, though. If you had some coffee?”
Unlike the odd-looking, survival suit, his blue eyes hadn’t lost any of their color from exposure to the cold Pacific water. They sparkled when he added, “ Would you have a little Christmas spirit you could put into it?”

“I don’t know about Christmas spirit,” I said, echoing my dark mood, “but there’s some brandy down below.”

“That would be wonderful,” he replied, with a chuckle.

I went below, filled a mug from the coffee thermos, and added a good dollop from the nearly-empty bottle of good Greek brandy. By the time I got back on deck, he was sitting up, and seemed a lot stronger. He reached for the coffee mug with a grateful nod, took a sip, rubbed his nose, sighed, and said, “If I’m not mistaken, the brandy is Metaxa, isn’t it? The Seven Star stuff?”

“You’re right,” I told him, amazed that he’d recognized it, then realized he’d probably just looked down through the companionway and seen me pouring from the bottle.

“I have some of this every year when I’m in Greece,” he added with a chuckle.

“Every year?” I decided to humor him, and play along with whatever story he concocted.

“Yes, I travel quite a lot in the winter.”

“So, how’d you …”

“Wind up here, floating around like a dead salmon?”

“I was worrying about something … whether I could get to see all my friends this year … and I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. We hit a rough patch, and I fell out of my vessel, and there I was.” He stopped and looked carefully at me. “Speaking of which, you’ve saved my life. And I’m remiss in not having yet thanked you. I’ll be eternally grateful.”

A little embarrassed by his grand thank you, I quickly changed the topic. “Do you live in Vancouver?’ I asked.

“No, I’m from up north.” He smiled, as if thinking of home.

“Yellowknife?” It was as far in that direction as I’d ever been.

“A bit further,” he said. “I’m just here for some early Christmas visits.” He looked closely at me. “Something bothering you?” he asked. “You look worried, and earlier you alluded to not having much in the way of Christmas spirit this year.”

Though I had reason for feeling glum, I wasn’t about to discuss my problems with a stranger. “Just concerned whether you’re okay.”

He hoisted the cup up as if toasting me. “Not to worry, I’m starting to feel like myself again. I’m a pretty strong old creature. You wouldn’t believe my age if I told you.”

Although I was curious, it seemed impolite to ask anything that personal, so instead I offered him more coffee.

“Thanks, anyway,” he replied, “But we should probably be getting underway. Weren’t you headed somewhere before you fished me out?” There was something in his look that made me feel that the old bum knew more about me than he should have, and I began to wonder whether there was any truth to the old saw that some kind of psychic bond is formed between the rescuer and the rescued. I hoped not. The last thing I needed was a Hastings Street bum reading my thoughts.

I decided not to ask him about the “vessel” he’d fallen from, and whether he’d been onboard alone. My guess was he’d stowed away on a barge, and had somehow fallen overboard. But there was no time to ponder it, because I had to get busy with my own boat. The weather was beginning to close in and what had started out to be a rare sunny day in December was now turning grey with ominous dark clouds piling up on the horizon.

I put my new shipmate at the helm and ducked below to fill a mug of coffee for myself, lacing it with the last of the Metaxa. While I was there, I grabbed the camera, pointed it up through the companionway, and snapped a quick picture of the old man to add to my gallery of everyone who’s been at the wheel of the Haiku. Although several of the others had proven themselves to be lazy buggers, he’d be the first genuine bum.

When I got back up to the cockpit, I could see that the old bum was having a good time. He’d stuck his big, smiling face right into the storm, and was taking it full on, enjoying every moment. His attitude was in sharp contrast to the funk I’d been in since learning that my wife was stranded in a snowstorm at a friend’s farm in Nova Scotia, and might not make it home in time for Christmas.

“She’ll be okay,” the old man said, as if reading my thoughts. It was spooky until he added, “The Haiku’s built to take this kind of stuff, isn’t she?” I was making far too much of this psychic bond nonsense.

“We’ll be fine,” I called over the combined noise of the engine and the storm. “I’ll have us in the slip in half an hour.”

While I might be skeptical about psychic bonds and similar magic, I’m superstitious enough to know that I should have kept my mouth shut. Sure enough, the old Atomic Four began to sputter and suddenly the only sound was that of the storm. There was no choice but to get some sails up.
I’d already hauled in and coiled the jib sheets, and now had to set them up through the blocks again. Just as I started, we were slammed on the beam with a wave that nearly threw me overboard. I managed to grab a lifeline but let loose of the jib sheets in the process, and they flew overboard.

Luckily, I had an extra set. They didn’t have clips but I could use bowlines, which work just as well. I hadn’t tied one in a while, so I took a minute to practice, while the old man looked on with interest. As I refamiliarized my fingers with the knot, I explained to him how a bowline is constructed, demonstrating the rabbit coming out of the hole, behind the tree and back into the hole, in the manner most sailors have learned. He tried one and caught on immediately. I dragged the storm jib up to the bow and set the sails and this time the old man kept us on a fairly steady course.

Back in the cockpit, as I adjusted the sails, the old bum began a chuckle that turned into a deep, rolling laugh that caught me in its grip and lifted me up to his level of enjoyment. The wind and spray had washed some of the gunk out of his beard, and I could now see that it was full and white, and his big cheeks and full lips were locked in a smile. He might have been a lubber, but he was the first to realize that we were SAILING! For the first time in two days, I quit worrying and just enjoyed myself. The Haiku roared along under reefed main and storm jib and what had started out as a day of near-disaster became one of great sailing.

When we pulled into the slip in Horseshoe Bay, it was awkward saying goodbye to him.

“Will you be okay?” I asked. “Do you need a ride anywhere, or did you fall overboard with no money? I’ll be glad to …”

“No need,” he laughed. “I’m well set up, but you could do one thing for me.”

“What’s that?”

“Is there any more of that coffee left?”

“There is, but I’m afraid there’s no more brandy.”

“The coffee would be just fine.”

As I went below to fill a mug, I heard some Christmas bells from a nearby boat, and the old man chuckling. When I got back on deck, to my disappointment, he was gone. The Haiku’s slip is one of the more distant ones, and it takes several minutes to walk to shore, but the old man was nowhere to be seen. I realized that we had never exchanged names, but maybe he’d wanted it that way. At least there was a photo to remember him by in the camera.

I packed up a few things, and headed back to an empty house. In the middle of the night, I heard some noise downstairs, and hoped it would be my wife, but when I went to look, there was no one around. I stood in the living room for a minute, listening to Christmas bells that must have been coming from some unseen carolers, one of whom called out, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas”, in a voice as deep as that of the bum I’d pulled out of the Strait.

I turned off the lights of the Christmas tree, without even bothering to look at it. With no word yet from my wife, it was a lonely Christmas Eve, and I was anxious just to get back to bed and sleep through the rest of it.

Early the next morning, I heard the front door open, and my wife rushed in, talking about a plow that somehow showed up at the farm to clear the driveway, and a road that was clear all the way to the airport.

“It was the strangest thing,” she said, hugging me. “Nobody else was plowed out, and we were the only car on the road. Made the airport just in time to catch the first flight out.”

We sat in the living room drinking coffee, while I thought about my own adventures. I was hesitant to say anything because I knew it would all sound strange in the telling. When I turned on the camera to check the picture I’d shot of the old gent at the helm, it turned out to be blank. I began to wonder whether any of it had really happened.

I’d just decided not to say anything, when my wife pointed to a strange object that was hanging from the tree.

“What’s that?” she asked. “Is it a present for me?”

“No. Yours are on the other side of the tree. Maybe it’s something Santa Claus left?” I teased.

“No,” she insisted. “Really, did you put that there?”

“I have no idea what it is,” I said, “Let’s take a look.” We moved closer to the tree until I could finally see what it was.

Somehow I wasn’t completely surprised. Tied by a bowline to a strong limb was a bottle of Metaxa Brandy. The Seven Star stuff.

I began to tell my wife the story.

The Sacred and the Propane

12 October 2005 | Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, BC
Alex Morton
The Sacred and the Propane
(Published in Pacific Yachting)
By Alex Morton

Its dinner time and I'm about to set my boat on fire again. Before you call my insurance company to report me, you need to understand that I have a pressure kerosene stove on my 1976 Erickson 27 sloop, Haiku. Setting at least a portion of the boat on fire is just part of the process of lighting a pressure kerosene stove.
I've been using this stove since I bought the boat ten years ago. I've often thought of making the move to propane, but have resisted ostensibly because a propane leak can be deadly, whereas kerosene is just mostly annoying. But the real reason I haven't made the move is one of aesthetics and values. Somehow, I believe that the old kerosene stove is just more authentic and, well, cooler.
Sometimes the stove works well. I can pump it up, not set the boat on fire and even boil water within a few minutes. But just as often, the act of boiling water can be a trial of patience, requiring repeated attempts at pumping up the pressure enough to maintain a good, strong blue flame. Failing to keep up the pressure can result in a sudden flame out with a puff of smoke and the stink of kerosene filling the cabin.
For those who've gone through life never having to contend with one of these old demons, let me explain it's care and feeding. For a start, running a kerosene pressure stove means dealing with smelly kerosene and slopping it around the galley on a regular basis. That's partly because the only way to tell when you've filled the tank with enough kerosene is to let it overflow. You may not plan it this way, but take it from a veteran of the kerosene stove wars, its an inevitability. Of course, once you've filled it to overflowing, you'll be at the second part of the process; pumping up the pressure. In order to get the pressure up to the appropriate level, you need to have the tank at least empty. So, now that you've got the tank full to the brim, you'll have to find a way to empty of it. I've always meant to keep one of those turkey basters that look like a giant eyedropper on board for this purpose, but that's way down on the list, somewhere between new telltales and re-fastening the radar reflector. So I generally use paper towelling as a wick to draw out the excess kerosene. This ensures that the trash bag will always be filled with wads of kerosene-soaked paper towels and that my nostrils will never be free of its odor.
Now . about that pressure pumping. First, take a deep breath, preferably up on the deck so you won't be breathing in kerosene. Next, take the little plunger in hand and begin to pump. When its working properly, it will make the sound of someone jumping up and down on an old spring mattress. But, you won't be hearing this sound very often, since the pump will rarely work properly. How can you tell that its malfunctioning? It will feel like you're just moving the pump around in space. What you need to feel is some kind of resistance when you pump.
Mostly, I've found, it's a matter of pushing the pump handle slightly to one side as you move it up and down. If the sound you achieve is like that of a donkey calling for it's dinner, you're probably pushing it too hard to one side. Strive for the mattress jumping sound. How will you know when you've pumped it up sufficiently? Well .. this is like asking how faith healing works. You just have to believe that the subject is spontaneously going to function properly.
Finally, you get to the good part. Starting a fire in the galley. The reason you need to do this is that the valve of a pressure kerosene stove has to be heated before you light the stove. If you fail to do this, all of your pumping will only have resulted in a spurt of kerosene pouring out of the burner, accompanied by a puff of white smoke and, you guessed it, the smell of kerosene. In order to heat up the valve, you need to pour alcohol into the cup that surrounds each burner and set it on fire! If you happen to have slopped a bit of alcohol over the edge of the cup, this fire can be even scarier. For the record, you will always slop alcohol over the edge of the cup. Now, you get to drop a match into the pool of alcohol in the cup and it's adjacent parts. With a whoosh, the galley will suddenly be on fire. Well, perhaps not the entire galley, but at least most of the stove.
While waiting for either the valve to heat up sufficiently to allow you to light the stove, or the fire to spread to the rest of the boat, you'll have time to ponder the big questions of the universe, like when was the last time the fire extinguisher was recharged.
Eventually, the flames will die down and all that's left to do is gingerly turn the valve control and light it. With a little luck, a nice little blue fire will hiss out from the burner and you'll be able to settle down to cooking a meal, with only occasional frantic pumping to keep up the pressure.
This was the state of affairs on my boat for many years. The addition of a charcoal broiler to the stern rail made the situation tolerable, despite the fact that there were times when the kerosene pressure stove absolutely refused to function properly. This forced me to devise a way to boil water for the morning coffee over a charcoal fire, but it was a desperate measure. Whenever the situation became intolerable, I'd haul the stove into a local marine store that had a resident expert in this kind of arcane technology. He'd keep the stove in quarantine for a week and then return it with the assurance that it was "fixed". This, by the way, is also the term they use when they're cutting off dog's ability to procreate and I am pleased to say that my stove never did reproduce itself. On the other hand, it never really worked well, either.
At the beginning of this year's sailing season, the stove absolutely refused to stay lit. When I took it to my local marine store, they told me that they no longer repair kerosene pressure stoves. Although in fact they never really did manage to actually repair the beast, they had in the past applied splints and bandages that improved its behavior to the point where it was workable. Now, I was in real trouble. Phone calls to every marine and every possible marine service shop failed to turn up even one lead on where to get my nemesis repaired.
Since I don't relish the idea of starting a charcoal fire every time we need coffee onboard, it was obvious that something had to be done. Reluctant to believe that I wouldn't eventually turn up someone who could bring the demon back to life again, I decided to buy a camp stove to use in the galley while I continued to send out SOS's, rather than take the plunge and invest in a new system. For $30 I bought a two burner propane stove as a quick solution.
It is a strange beast. It doesn't smell, requires no pumping and starts up as soon as I turn the knob and light the burner. Every time. And I don't have to set the galley on fire to do it. It boils water in half the time as the kerosene-driven antique and it does it every time. Now I can restrict the use of the charcoal barbecue to burning chicken and know with security that I can stick to the rule.
Despite my initial distrust of propane, I haven't blown up the boat yet. Heck, I no longer even set it on fire. The truth is that my new, little propane stove is absolutely wonderful, except that it feels unnatural. Its all just too damn easy. I wonder if this is what it feels like to make the switch from sail to power?
One mixed blessing that I hadn't counted on is that without the all-pervading odor of kerosene I can now smell the true aroma of the Haiku; mildew.

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