Zaire, 1986

In the morning we got our first look at the pirogue Ted had commissioned. The barefoot, barrel-chested boatbuilder was still whacking out chips with his adze. The boat, a six-man canoe, measured some 33′ long, 3′ in the beam, and less than 20″ deep amidships. The sides at the sheer were 1” thick and thicker a bit closer to the bottom. There was no flare to the sides. The bow and stern each angled up from the flat bottom for 3′ or 4′ and tapered stylishly. Inside the hull were wedged three hardwood sticks used as thwarts. We christened the canoe ALICE MAY, after the derelict Yukon stern-wheeler used to thaw Sam McGee. Ted paid the builder with a shotgun forged near Bulape and shells for it. 

Roll on Columbia

The morning passed with steady rowing on a quiet river. Around noon, the sun came out, burned the fog away, and brought in the wind. It happened in a matter of minutes, and the world of gray was suddenly light blue. I stowed the oars, keeping them in the oarlocks and sliding the handles all the way to the stern where I strapped them to the quarter knees. I unfurled the bundled sail and spars, stepped the mast, and set the boom and sprit. A quick haul on the boom vang and the snotter to snug them up and cleat them, and in 60 seconds I had the sail flying. I settled into the stern, took the tiller and the sheet, and KIMCHI scooted along in the building breeze.

Downriver

Downstream from the city, the banks became heavily tree lined, and we made our way between small wooded islands and past the mouths of numerous back channels. A pair of bald eagles, perched high on a leafless tree, peered down on us. This was more like it, but what wasn’t more like it were the pleasure boats. It was Labor Day Sunday and they were out in force, enjoying the last weekend of summer. There were cruisers and houseboats, pontoon boats and jet skis, and even some I would call yachts. The one thing they had in common were motors and speed. Pulling with our oars at 3 mph, we felt we did not belong.

A Superior Circumnavigation

By 6 a.m. we were slipping across exceptionally glassy water, paddling in silence. The water felt frictionless. The shore was lined with cliffs, with homes perched on the ledges high above the water. At this hour, yards and decks were quiet, and there was no one to be seen. After an hour an intermittent breeze dragged dark patches across the silvery water. Soph and I were reluctant to break the silence, and kept to our routine of paddling fastest before taking our first snack break.

Missouri Breaks

NEWT would have made an odd sight—if there had been anyone to see—as I backed the trailer down the slippery ramp. My daughter and I had built the hull several years ago year, a Chester Yawl kit from Chesapeake Light Craft. In preparation for my Puget Sound trip, I had modified it with arched decks fore and aft, leaving space for a small cockpit in the middle. The decks are covered with high-efficiency solar cells that can generate 400 watts, enough electricity for a customized trolling motor to drive the boat indefinitely at about 5 mph on sunny days. Lithium phosphate batteries provide about 4 hours cruising in reserve for cloudy days and early mornings. A small tent covers the cockpit to provide a small but cozy sleeping area.

River People

Our re-creation of a historic shantyboat was similar to those that used to dot the banks in every river town on the continent through the early 20th century, the kind of houseboat built by workers and vagabonds who needed to live on the cheap. In that tradition, we built our shantyboat by hand, from the wooden skegs to the gable roof, using mostly reclaimed materials. Redwood from a 100-year-old chicken coop, corrugated tin from an old outhouse, and single-pane windows pulled out of old houses contribute to a houseboat that looks like it floated out of a history book.

Sea Trial

The 4-mile row to the north end of Calvert Island brought me to Hakai Pass, its waters rising and falling with the ocean swell as gently as the chest of someone still asleep. I made the crossing in about an hour and entered Ward Channel, a 1-1/2-mile-long alley just a few hundred yards wide. The swell diminished and the black water along the shore mirrored the band of gray rock beneath the trees; the closer to shore I rowed, the harder it was to distinguish the presence of water from emptiness. A raven flew by dozens of yards away; I could hear the faint crinoline rustle of its feathers.

Sea Trial

When I set out from Mukilteo, Washington, late in July of 1980, the wind was light, barely ruffling the silvery expanse of Possession Sound.  I set all sail—the sprit-rigged main, the jib and flying jib, topsail and jib-topsail—but wouldn’t think of GAMINE as a topsail cutter. She was just a 14’ dory skiff, the first wooden boat I had ever built. Aside from her broad plywood garboards, she was traditionally built with western red cedar planks on both sawn and steam-bent white oak frames. While I’d been day-sailing her for about a year and adding sails one by one until there was no room for more, I’d never done an overnight cruise with her or any small boat.  Now I was headed north to sail the Inside Passage with no particular destination in mind. There was no telling how far I’d get.

Fogbound

The east side of the Bustard Islands was all shoals and breakers, with a broad band of granite shelves and outcroppings stretching half a mile or more offshore. Typical for Georgian Bay, I knew, where the safest routes run well outside to avoid the rocks, or follow the well-buoyed passages of the charted small-craft route that traverses Georgian Bay’s eastern shoreline.

The Voyage of the MARY SAVAGE

Downstream from the city, the banks became heavily tree lined, and we made our way between small wooded islands and past the mouths of numerous back channels. A pair of bald eagles, perched high on a leafless tree, peered down on us. This was more like it, but what wasn’t more like it were the pleasure boats. It was Labor Day Sunday and they were out in force, enjoying the last weekend of summer. There were cruisers and houseboats, pontoon boats and jet skis, and even some I would call yachts. The one thing they had in common were motors and speed. Pulling with our oars at 3 mph, we felt we did not belong.

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