A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about boating


Working The Graveyard, Solitude, Takes on the Night

sunny 45 °F

I’m working the graveyard shift right now, from 7 pm to 7 am. I’ve never worked night shift before, and I was curious to see how I would function trying something completely different. So far, I’ve found that I can handle it quite well, and relatively easily. After my shift, I eat breakfast, take a shower and go to bed to hopefully sleep for 8 hours. Sleep is the name of the game. It’s important to get enough of it, because any shortage will make the early hours a challenge to stay awake. I’ve also done it without caffeine. Of course, I have my usual cup of coffee when I wake up, and I like a cup of hot tea about 2 am, but that’s it. I didn’t want to be a hopped up, caffeine dependent slave. I wanted to be alert, and functioning, adapting to the night instead of fighting it. My plan has worked, and I’ve enjoyed the darkest hours.

Embracing the night has its moments: I’ve found myself dying of laughter all by myself in the empty dining room, remembering a funny bit from a movie. I love leaning on the rail immersed in the deep inky darkness of the night. There is a ceiling of stars above me, along freight train flying by on the riverbank, and a fresh cool breeze whipping by my face. It’s so very beautiful and tranquil.

There’s a quality to the night that embraces you, enveloping you in the hidden knowledge of darkness. The night is a peaceful solitude. I like the idea that I’m the only person awake and the entire world is asleep. I like having the ship to myself. Living in such a small area as a boat makes it hard to find privacy.

There are nightly chores to finish every night, and a bridge watch to assist. Another deckhand and I, switch this job up hourly after making a security round to break up the chores we have to do. This also helps break up the monotony of staring into the darkness trying to stay awake. I like being on the watch late at night. Our second mate likes old classic country music, which he plays as soon as he gets on shift. He usually has the heat blasting, “I like to bring a little South Carolina wherever I go.” Old music warbles out the radio played by Bob Wills, Jon Conlee, Marty Robbins, and Tom T. Hall among many others. So I sit there, scanning the horizon for navigation lights, logs, boat traffic, and anything else, listening to old tunes in the hot cabin, and making light conversation about whatever comes to mind.

Fringe benefits of this job:

Watching the silver moonlight shimmer on the river. I can’t help but think of David Bromberg’s “Moonlight on the Water”. It’s so very beautiful, especially when view with binoculars.

We have very high-powered binoculars up on the bridge. The other night, I used them to scope out Venus, and I saw its three moons like tiny glimmering mosquitoes circling around an orb.

Midnight milkshakes. Enough said.

Seeing the Columbia River and Snake River from the water is a cool perspective. For those of you who are interested in amazing engineering projects, the nine locks that we pass through on our upstream voyage and downstream voyage are very impressive. As a deckhand, one of our jobs is to toss a loop of 2 inch line around a bollard, making it fast to secure the vessel to the side of the lock. This is a lot of fun. On my first throw, I was too keyed up and ready to throw that when my partner said, “Wait.” I threw the line into the water. I was about 15 feet away from the bollard, and didn’t know that we closed in before we had to throw. It was quite funny. I was able to reload and make the next toss with plenty of time to spare. I generally learn from bad experience, and when learning something completely new, I tend to make a mess of it. Ah well, no worries, I haven’t missed a lock toss since that very first throw.
Today I took part in perhaps the first ever banjo sale on the streets of Portland. I have been itching to get my hands on one, as I hadn’t played in quite some time. Using the all-powerful tool called the internet, I located one, contacted the owner, convinced her to drive to the dock, and met her on the street to see if it was worth purchasing. The meeting took place after I stayed awake all night working, and giving myself just under two hours of sleep before I had to get up for the meeting. I feel I was looking and feeling my best, bleary eyed, stumbling, mumbling, I somehow communicated my feelings through a mixture of spastic gestures and slow grunts that I wanted to buy it. I handed over a pile of uncounted cash, grabbed my new friend and made plans to dismantle it and rebuilding it to a workable piece.

On my way back from the banjo purchase, I noticed an old pair of work boots sitting along side of the dock. They didn’t have any laces, were worn and scuffed, and completely alone. I vowed to return later, to give them their proper respect, but I needed sleep more than I needed that picture. After catching some rejuvenating sleep, I returned with my camera, and took a satisfying picture of the boots.
I’ve been fortunate to find satisfying photographs on my limited time off the vessel. Granted, I’m open to my environment and usually can find a pleasing scene. Take the boots. I didn’t have a lot of time to go out for a shot, but I had an idea that they would make a cool shot. I found them, just as I had seen them earlier, and took five photos of them. Upon editing, I only kept one.

“Some say it’s darkest before the dawn. This thought keeps me, moving on. If we could heed these early warnings. The time is now, come early morning.” Pete Seeger

Author’s Note: I find this particular entry very disjointed. I wrote it over a period of several days during the week I was working nights. I’ve decided to keep it as is, because I think it’s a good example of how I was thinking during the long night shifts. In the night, ideas come and go, often abruptly, then come back in new forms.
You probably aren’t asking yourself, “What’s next for our fearless adventurer?” I’ll tell you anyway. A little day hike down to Palouse Falls.

Posted by Rhombus 22:43 Archived in USA Tagged night rivers boating photography Comments (2)

On the Ferry

Taking it slow on Alaska's Marine Highway System

overcast 45 °F

For me there is always a sense of excitement while waiting to board a ferry on the Alaskan Marine Highway system. I look forward to the novelty of taking a long ride on a sizeable vessel. It invokes the adventurous side in me, romantic visions of sailing the high seas. I’ve made three trips so far. All of them have been traveling between Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Sitka, Alaska. This particular trip usually takes about a day and a half on the ferries I’ve been on (the Taku and Matanuska). If you are fortunate enough to get on the “Fairweather,” the trip will take a lot less time. The Fairweather is a catamaran styled vessel and flies through the water. It’s cool to see this ferry at full speed traveling through the narrow straits of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Boarding my van involves a lot of patient waiting in organized lines being supervised by competent deckhand and cargo handlers of the shipping line. Just follow the hand signals and park, set your brake and you are done. I usually get a cabin. The cabin are bare bones accommodations; small, compact, but comfortable enough. They come with compact full bathroom, with shower, sink, and commode. In the roughly 8 by 8 foot room, there are two table chairs, two bunk beds and a small nook for your luggage. I don’t have a problem spending the money on a cabin. Between two people, spending two nights on the ferry it comes to about 30 dollars a day. Very reasonable in my mind.

I usually bring a lot of stuff onto the ferry, because I know I’m going to have a lot of slow time to enjoy. On the last trip, I brought: A laptop, mp3 player, 3 books, binoculars, sketch pad, journal, camera, GPS. This was just for entertainment purposes. Beyond that, I have clean clothes to change into. A good pair of comfortable sweats are important, as there is no reason to dress up on the boat, and you might as well be comfortable. Pajama days are common for me. I also have a windbreaker, chook, and gloves in case I want to go outside for longer periods of time. I like bringing a lot of my own food and drink on board. There is a full galley with breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I like my own options. The boat has 2 buckets of ice for 25 cents, so I can keep food cold in the bathroom sink.
After settling in my cabin, there isn’t much to do except start killing time. Fortunately, I like chilling out. It’s relaxing being on the boat, you know you don’t have any obligations for 2 days, so I take it real easy. My days go something like this. I get up when I wake up, no need for an alarm. I’ll go get a cup of coffee from the galley, I bring my own coffee cup aboard. I’ll wander to the stern of the ship and go outside, breathing the fresh, cold north Pacific air and sipping strong, hot sailor coffee. YEAH! I love that black liquid gold! I’ll head in to my cabin and have a light breakfast. Than I’ll settle in to the days activities.
The days activities include a lot of gazing out at the rugged coastline of Alaska and British Columbia. There are myriad islands around. Every piece of land you see between PR and Sitka is an island. The islands are thickly forested, usually with Sitka Spruce. Sometimes there are open grassy areas, and they usually have a small, rocky shoreline. I like using my binoculars to look for any sort of wildlife that might be living on the islands or in the ocean. I’ve seen Humpback whales, sea lions, porpoises, deer, birds of all kinds, sea otters, and one mountain man.
Along with landscape gazing my onboard activities revolve around all my distractions. I’m a voracious reader, so it’s easy get immersed into my literature. It’s a good time to catch up on my journal if I’m behind. When traveling, I like to keep a daily journal. I’m pretty good at keeping up with it, but sometimes I need to do a good session to catch up. A laptop is invaluable. Games, writing, movies, music, picture editing, are great ways to get through a long voyage, and I spend a lot of time doing all of them. I like going outside to get some fresh air. I take pictures if I like the conditions. It’s nice to take a nap or two. Snacking and meals are taken whenever the urge occurs.

I love Islands.

The ferry makes regular stops along the way at the small coastal towns located on the islands of the Inside Passage. The time at each port varies, most stops are about an hour. At bigger ports, like Ketchikan and Juneau, a stop of five to nine hours can happen. On the last trip, we stopped at Ketch for about 10 hours, so I got off the ferry to stretch my legs, check out the town and eat a good meal at a restaurant. It was a nice break.
Taking the ferry has a lot of slow time to it, but it’s good time as well. I like taking the ferry, and I’m looking forward to my next voyage.

Posted by Rhombus 21:53 Archived in USA Tagged boating Comments (2)

Earning Travel Time

Working to Live, Not Living to Work

We all need traveling money. I‘m very devoted to my free time and to my travels. In order to travel as extensively as I do, I made a decision some years ago that I would give up my pursuit of collecting stuff. I gave away all but my most sentimental objects. I decided that I would live simply in order to give myself the time I needed to explore. I got out of debt, and I vowed never to return. In short, I’ve created my life the way I want it to be. Gary Ferguson in The Sylvan Path puts it this way: “Only a fool would trade a free life for the chance to store up goods.”

Fortunately for me, I’ve found great jobs that allow a lot of travel time in the off season. I’ve taken full advantage of these jobs, first building up a bank roll and then using my time off to hit the open road. I want to tell you about my some of my jobs and how they support my free spirited lifestyle.

When I graduated from college I found myself a job in Duluth, MN. I was a land surveying technician for 7 years. This job gave me steady, decent paying work that allowed me to be outside. As an added bonus, every winter I would get let go, due to lack of work. Now, that sounds bad, but for me it was PERFECT. I could save up all summer, knowing I’d have 3 months off to travel with during winter. I also knew I would be rehired in the spring, so there never was any need to look for work. Eventually, though I LOVED having winters off, I got bored with surveying. My job consisted of mostly doing geometry and math which I’ve never liked. It got to the point where I reached my professional high point for the foreseeable future. My company was changing, it wasn’t a fun place to work anymore. Maybe I was jaded with doing the same work for so long, but it was time to try something new. I’m the kind of guy who likes to keep my mind going, I like learning new skills. After threatening to quit for years, I finally did. I have no regrets.
The next job I found was completely different. I became a deckhand for an Alaskan charter fishing lodge out of Sitka, Alaska. I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. I wanted to work on the ocean, to see if I could take what the ocean was dishing out. I was going to be doing something I was interested in, and so my mind would be learning new skills, and getting new experiences. I didn’t have any experience on the ocean, had no skills a deckhand needs other than a great attitude, willingness to learn, and hard working. I didn’t let the lack of skills get me down. I figured I could learn anything I needed to, and I was right.
In early April, my friend and I packed up the van and went on a 2 week road trip up to Prince Rupert, British Columbia where we would meet our ferry which would take us to Baranoff Island, and Sitka. I already liked this job. Two weeks of traveling just to get to the job, is a definite plus for me. We enjoyed the trip, taking our time through the Palouse region of SE Washington. Then we saw the Columbia River Gorge in full spring bloom. Finally, we worked our way up the coast through Olympic Nat’l park and to the border. After customs, we drove north 400 miles to Prince George via the Frasier River Gorge. Then west 400 miles to Prince Rupert where we would meet our ferry. We spent a day taking in the foggy, rain swept scenes of the Inside Passage. It was very dreary. Finally, we landed in Sitka at 4 am, and I had my first taste of the beauty Alaska had to offer.
The ocean is many things. It’s describable beautiful, It’s a great metaphor for life; the way it is always moving and flowing, rising and falling, always changing. It has it’s own movement and rhythm. It’s many different self sustaining eco-systems in one. It’s also a terrific backdrop for summer employment. I love the ocean. The romance of working on the sea, the gorgeous views, the fishing, all the wildlife, the movement all speaks to me. No, it YELLS at me! In my first weeks, I began learning the ropes, literally and figuratively. I found out I’m not prone to sea sickness, which was awesome. It took me half of the summer to get my “sea legs”. In the beginning of the summer, I was taking 10 extra steps just trying to stagger across the heaving deck of our 30 foot boats (picture a drunken Irish jig). Everyday was different. I’ve seen dead flat calm seas, with the hot baking sun down on us, all of us stripped down to tee shirts, and baking our pale skin. I remember fondly the day we found ourselves in 20 ft swells, that we rode like a bobbing bottle. It was so smooth you didn’t even know you were rising and falling unless you’d look out over the seascape. Nearby boats would disappear when we were both in the trough. Then you could see the unbroken chain of swells marching in to smash the island from the crest of the swell. Some days it would rain all day, the ocean was nasty and unsafe, so we had to fish in the inside passage. We were surrounded by ocean views of rolling ocean meeting jagged rocky, spruce covered cliffs and mountains of the islands we fished around.
The sea life we saw was spectacular. I saw humpback whales at least 3 times a week, surfacing and diving, blowing (the stench that comes out of a whales blow hole is terrible, a mix of rotten fish guts and bad farts), breaching (when they jump completely out of the water), fluke diving and pectoral slapping to stun fish. I saw harbor seals, sea lions, which would sometimes steal our salmon while our clients were reeling them in. I saw a pod of Orca whales, working in tandem to catch salmon. The birds were constantly around us, my favorite, the huge Albatross would swoop around us like B-1 bombers, inches from the water. I saw murres, gulls, tufted puffins, and dozens of others I didn’t know the names of. Bald Eagles were everywhere. Next to our lodge was a little bay, and eagles would dive down plucking herring from the water every 15 minutes or so. I had been wanting to see this my whole life, and in Sitka it happens all the time.
We caught many different kinds of fish, King, Coho, Chum, and Pink Salmon. We caught many different kinds of delicious Rock fish, Yellow eye rock fish, and Ling cod. We caught big Halibut, the biggest ones were 220, 165, 148 lbs. That was my favorite part of the job, landing the big halibut. The client would reel it up to the surface and my captain would stick a big 8” shark hook in its jaw, so it wouldn’t break the circle hook when we heaved it in. Then he would lift it’s head out of the water, and I would take the 18” wooden gaff and would hit it on the head as hard as I could. Then I would gaff it, and we would heave it over the side and beat it over the head some more, stunning it so it wouldn’t destroy our deck. It went smoothly at times, other times the bucking and heaving fish would pound away at the boat with it’s large, powerful tail. On the way back to the dock, I’d fillet that halibut in 4 nice fillets at full speed on the boat deck with a razor sharp fillet knife. Kind of keeps you on your toes more than a desk job would.

So I spent a summer working a job I loved. Not everyone can say that. I didn’t spend any money while I worked up there, I took meals and lodging at the lodge. I bought 2 souvenirs before leaving, and that was it. It was another perfect job. I had 2 great road trips, traveling to and from Sitka. I learned new skills and had a lot of fun working the job. I was on the ocean everyday, watching the beautiful Alaskan landscapes. I saved a lot of money, virtually everything I made. These funds will easily fund this year’s trips, and allow me to save 10% of my income for “retirement“. Rolf Potts in Vagabonding (which is a terrific, inspirational read) puts it best “…the best litmus test for measuring your vagabonding gumption is found not in travel but in the process of earning your freedom to travel.” Words to work by.

Posted by Rhombus 17:33 Archived in USA Tagged boating Comments (2)

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