Here in the state of Washington, our governor declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of the COVID-19 disease and imposed a Stay Home—Stay Healthy order. There are four “essential activities” for which we may leave the safety and isolation of home, and the last of them is: “Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used.” Rowing has long been one of my normal forms of exercise and it’s certainly a very effective method of achieving the social distancing we’re all now called upon to practice. When I decided to take a break from sitting at my desk working on this issue’s deadline, I rowed my 14′ New York Whitehall along the shore of Puget Sound.
The ramp I use on the north end of Seattle is adjacent to a popular city beach; the park has been open, but its parking lot has been closed because of the governor’s order. Beachgoers have been parking in the lot by the ramp, a lot reserved for cars with boat trailers. When I arrived with my boat in tow, the place was crowded with trailerless cars; there was just one parking space left. I quickly got the Whitehall into the water, secured it to the dock, and backed the trailer into the open spot. As required, I paid my $12 launch fee at the automated kiosk and placed the permit on my dash. I’m sure it was the only permit in the whole parking lot.
There was a southerly blowing at 21 knots, as measured by the weather station at West Point, a peninsula with its western extremity 2 miles to the southwest of the ramp. I could see a line of whitecaps parading north along the shipping lanes and a lot of chop closer to shore, so I rowed south inside the breakwater of the Shilshole Marina. A glaucous-winged seagull flew over the ridge of pale-gray broken rock, came to a full stop in midair, and with wings outstretched and immobile, rode the wind straight down to a landing, as if lowered by a crane. On a rock farther along on the breakwater, a pair of gulls were already settled and nestled right next to one another, their beaks pressed into their sugar-white breasts. Then a memento mori, a rusted steel sculpture of a human skeleton with its back to the wind, hands resting on a sword planted in the crest of the breakwater. This familiar piece of public art struck me now as more sobering than camp.
I had protection from the waves for the 2/3-mile length of the marina but the breakwater funneled the wind parallel to it and made the rowing hard work. When the Whitehall nosed out beyond the end of the breakwater into open water, I had the waves to contend with too, as well as an ebb-strengthened current flowing out of the ship canal. It was slow going and I watched marks on shore to make sure I was still making headway.
I had worked up a sweat by the time I slipped into the lee of West Point’s tall, steep north side. The air and water there were not completely still as I’d hoped; there was enough wind hooking around the point to dishevel the water and push the Whitehall upstream against the current that was bending the fronds of seaweed to the west. I rowed along the shore and dropped the anchor in a fathom of water between two 10′-tall glacial erratic boulders that were then showing little more than their turtle-back tops. As I settled into the boat, I got chilled by the wind cutting through my damp pile jacket. I pulled on my cagoule and quickly warmed up.
For a late-morning snack I’d brought some johnnycake batter I’d mixed up at home. Small Boats contributor Evelyn Ansel, who works for the Herreshoff Marine Museum, had mentioned johnnycakes in a recent email to me about the museum’s Code Flag Lima Project. It’s a blog that offers people some interesting resources while the museum is locked down, and includes recipes for johnnycake, a lifelong favorite of the Herreshoff brothers. During our Stay Home—Stay Healthy isolation, Rachel has been spending more time at home and using the opportunity to try new recipes and inspired me to do the same. Johnnycakes, as simple as they are, seemed like a good experiment in onboard cuisine.
During the lockdown, Rachel has also been reading a lot of books, a good way to pass the time, so I for my stint in the boat brought my bookabout my favorite artist, Andrea del Sarto. She has also been connecting to her old friends. This inspired me, as I sat anchored, to call Dale, one of my oldest and closest friends, who now lives in New York City. The city, he said, is eerily quiet and he and his circle of friends, all staying in their apartments as much as possible and following the current medical advice, are still in good health in a city hit hard by the coronavirus.
I stayed a bit too long at anchor. I’d been reading when I heard and felt the Whitehall knock against a rock. When I looked over the side, the boat was floating in less than a foot of water and the two erratics were fully exposed and part of the beach. I double-poled with the oars to deeper water, retrieved the anchor, and set to rowing.
Out of the lee, I had the wind and current both in my favor and quickly reached the entrance to the marina. Behind the breakwater there was plenty of wind, so I sat in the stern with an oar for steering and let the wind catch the bow and pull me back to the ramp at about 2 knots.
For now, the launch ramp is still open and I can use it to go rowing for my exercise as long as I get a place to park the trailer. During the Stay Home order, I can’t in good conscience take my larger boats out under power or sail; they can be rowed but I can’t argue that I’d do that for exercise. The fishing season has been suspended and the fisherfolk, almost all of them powerboaters, are abiding by the closure. That has eliminated crowds of cars with boats and trailers at the parking lot, but the space has been completely filled up by beachgoers, so I suspect that the ramp and the lot may soon be closed in the best interests of us all. If that happens, I’ll anchor myself in the lee of my home’s four walls and ride out the storm calling friends, reading books, and cooking johnnycakes.