“That boat’s too primitive.”
I’d been at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival for barely an hour when I overheard my neighbor make that comment about my boat. The man was sitting atop his 45-foot motor cruiser, Great Escape, looking down at the other dozen sail and oar boats lining the east end of the dock. Truth be told, he could have been referring to any of us.
He was an older gentleman, though doubtless not old enough to be Donald Holm, who in 1974 wrote Cruising the Northwest: A Practical Guide for the Pacific Coast Boater. I read it a few months ago, hoping to get a feel for the good old days in Puget Sound. The book turned out to be less a cruising guide than a crotchety memoir of the construction of Holm’s dream ship.
What really surprised me about Holm was his verdict on boats like my friends’ and mine: “I really do not have much empathy with those tortured souls who must go primitive for reasons of aesthetics or ego, and eschew the use of engines or electronic aids. As far as I am concerned, such people belong back in the eighteenth century and have no place in modern small-boat voyaging. Philosophically, when you start to go primitive, where do you draw the line?”
In the past, I’d experienced the Festival as a place where all boaters were welcomed on their own terms, respected for the effort they put into their craft and travels. With that in mind, I determined to befriend or, at the very least, gain the respect of Bob by the end of the weekend.
I started by introducing myself and asking him more questions than I wanted to know the answers to. Bob was polite, but reserved. Yes, he loved his cruiser. He supported his boating habit by working as a real estate broker. No, the cruiser had never had any major problems. Case closed. There was nothing more Bob cared to say.
The next morning he saw me striding down the dock and tentatively raised a questioning finger. I was tickled: Bob wanted to continue our conversation.
“Did you actually sleep on that thing last night?” he asked incredulously.
I bit my lip and nodded in the affirmative. That “thing” was my prized Row Bird, a seaworthy, fun boat that I treat as almost a living creature – much as he probably treats the Great Escape.
Conversation was getting me nowhere with Bob, so I tried to set an example of good seamanship instead. I kept my eighteen-foot craft as ship shape as possible; I stowed my gear thoughtfully in the fore and aft flotation tanks; I rolled my cockpit tent up diligently each morning and stowed my sleeping bag before leaving Row Bird. I even hid the ugly, but functional, bailing bucket behind my centerboard trunk. Still, Bob persisted in giving me the hairy eyeball.
As visitors came and went, more and more people crowded the dock that separated the big boats from the small. We were messy and lived in. There was sand wedged between the strakes of our hulls. Boots and well used charts littered our decks, and despite our best efforts to keep things neat, each morning it looked as though our boats had regurgitated all our gear. I was surprised – and maybe Bob was, too – but people seemed more fascinated by the open, honest style of the sail and oar crew than by the bigger boats nearby. Bob observed from a distance, although I couldn’t tell whether he was intrigued or dismissive.
By the third day, Bob hadn’t visibly warmed much, but when I asked him if he was able to charge my phone aboard his cruiser, he gladly obliged. Hours later, when he returned it, there was a twinkle in his eye. Bob’s electrical capability had momentarily put Great Escape in the lead for best boat. We both smiled.
“Bob,” I said, “both our boats are perfect for what we want to do.” This time he nodded in agreement. But in our hearts we each knew that ours was the best boat, no matter what.