Joining the Club

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As a suburban teenager, I listened religiously to the Alex Bennett Show on KITS in San Francisco. An uproarious stable of comedians regularly sat in at Bennett’s mike, making jokes and telling bawdy tales before a live audience.  The audience never seemed very large, and in my mind’s eye they were all sitting around a table with Alex and his guests, drinking coffee and eating bagels with cream cheese.

One day, my dad suggested that we drive to San Francisco and watch the show. We had to get on the road at 5:00am to make the show’s start at 6, but I was wide awake with anticipation at the prospect of joking around with Alex.  When we arrived at the studio, which was slightly larger than my tiny bedroom, we were directed to a row of metal folding seats crammed in a corner, as far from the mike as you could be and still be in the same room.  There were no bagels and the only coffee was in the hand of the slightly-past-middle-age, balding host, who didn’t even make eye contact, let alone talk with me on the radio. Disappointed, I eventually turned the dial elsewhere.

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James (left) and his pride and joy, Rowan, at Saddlebag Island.  Hey, watch the varnish!

He’s no radio star, but James McMullen is well known in Pacific Northwest wooden boat circles, especially among those who prefer sail and oar vessels.   I’d read his writing over the years on several Internet forums, and even in the venerable Woodenboat magazine.

When I first started researching designs for my current boat, Row Bird, everyone I asked for advice said I should really check in with James. So I made a cold call to him, unsure what to expect.

But on that first phone call, James treated me like an old friend, one he hoped would be joining his club. “Bruce, if you want to fish, camp, cruise, and be on the water a lot, a boat like this is going to do it for you,” he advised. Then, as if I needed further motivation, he added, “This is the best boat I’ve ever had. You’ll be out sailing while everyone else is still setting up at the dock.”

I was hooked on the boat – and on James.

The next year, I met James at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. But only briefly, and he still seemed like someone I’d heard of, rather than someone I knew.  So last spring, when I received his invitation to sail Row Bird at the Pacific Challenge, a teen-oriented longboat event he helps organize near Anacortes, Washington, I was excited.

My son Merry and I were definitely going, but a small part of me worried that we’d be outsiders, the way I was at the radio station, or worse, that we’d look like complete landlubbers.

The drive from Portland to Anacortes takes about five hours, and despite my best efforts to arrive by day, preparatory details bogged me down.  As night descended on Merry and me, we were still at least an hour away. I was beginning to wonder how my experience on-line with James and his crew would be different from the reality.  On a supply stop, I phoned James.  “Captain James, this is the crew of Row Bird. We’ll be arriving a little later than expected.”

“Don’t worry, some of us are out getting adult beverages,” James replied.  “I’ll find you first thing in the morning.” His cheerfulness set the tone for the trip.

James doing all the work while I clown around.
James doing all the work while I clown around.

True to his word, James arrived at dawn, alert and excited for the day ahead. He was accompanied by a teen sailor, clearly one of his fans, who was so eager to help us launch our boat with a sling that he practically knocked over James, Merry and me.

I soon saw why the kid liked James so much: he’s happy to offer advice when it’s wanted, but doesn’t lord over you if you’ve done something wrong.  During a moment where my mainsail started misbehaving, James’s simple shout of  “Downhaul!” brought me to my senses as I adjusted a line and kept the boat under control.

Soon, the Pacific Challenge’s odd fleet headed out of the harbor: five double-ended sail and oar boats, two chunky, traditional long boats, and one long, elegant wooden rowing boat.  I rowed as quickly as I could to avoid being the last boat, yet slowly enough not to appear over-eager.

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As the day wore on, clusters of boats gathered and separated, like a progressive party.  James and I cruised along, swapping stories and clowning around, striking ridiculous poses on our boats.

I discovered how James, who grew up in Colorado, ended up in Washington.  “As kid I loved the ocean and was ticked off when I discovered that during the Paleozoic period [400 million years ago], Colorado was part of a shallow sea.  So when I got old enough to move away, I had to do a lot of sailing to make up for the years I spent inland.”

Throughout the weekend, James circulated from boat to boat (with impressive speed, given some of the light winds), genuinely interested in what everyone was up to and how things were going.

The frequency and fervor of James’s online postings could create the impression that he’s a know-it-all. He certainly has a deep bag of tricks. But after spending some time with him, I feel his writing reflects his excitement about life on the water, rather than the desire to boast.  His dedication and support of other sailors over the weekend proved this to me.

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Hey, is that Andy Boat?

Unlike my experience at the Alex Bennett show all those years ago, everyone at the Pacific Challenge turned out to be impressively welcoming and friendly.  It didn’t matter whether I was the best sailor or the worst.  What mattered was that I was out on the water with like minded people who wanted to encourage the sailing lifestyle and enjoy each other’s company. Thanks, James!

PS:  Click here for the related article about the Pacific Challenge I wrote at Three Sheets NW.

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