A ship in the harbour is safe,
but that is not what ships are built for.
- William Shedd -
When I stepped tentatively into the skiff that would take me out to the Viking Fjord, I had little notion of the sea change my journey was about to undergo.
A traveller on land, however removed from civilization, never confronts as featureless a terrain as the sea. A wayfarer can cut a notch in a tree or build a stone cairn to mark his route, while a seafarer leaves no evidence of his passage. A ship’s wake quickly subsides into the vast indifference of the sea. There is, when you get right down to it, nothing so lost as lost at sea.
These were not the thoughts that preoccupied me, however, as we motored across the bay toward the Viking Fjord. Though I had assumed the 65-foot vessel would be quite large, she seemed smaller than I had expected, or perhaps the scale of the landscape diminished her. There was a self-containment in her trim lines, something almost chaste about her freshly painted white hull. Set against the still, dark water and backdrop of wild tree-lined shore, she was a welcoming sight.
I spotted movement on deck, the long-limbed form of Jan, my friend and shipmate-to-be, accompanied by Skyler, an aging springer spaniel. It was good to see Jan’s smiling face beaming over the rail as Jay secured the skiff and we climbed on board. We had the long evening before us to catch up on news and plan for the trip ahead, but first came a tour of the Viking Fjord.
Jan had sent me photos of the boat when they’d first bought it, but they didn’t do justice to the boat’s workmanlike elegance. Originally built in the 1960’s for a member of the Scripps family (of the Scripps Institute), the Viking Fjord was a cross between sturdy trawler and pleasure yacht, built for rough seas but boasting niceties such as wood paneled cabins and a large comfortable saloon. Jan and Jay occupied the main cabin amidships and were in the process of renovating the second cabin.
My berth was in the crew’s quarters, or foc’sle, in the prow of the ship down a small hatchway. There, a narrow corridor flanked by two compact berth compartments provided sleeping quarters for four. Sharing this space with three others no doubt would have induced claustrophobia, but as the sole occupant I found the foc’sle reassuringly snug. Soon my books and possessions were spread out over all four bunks.
A miniscule bathroom occupied the area most far forward. One of the first bits of instruction I received involved the working of the hand-pumped toilet. Later I receive instruction on another feature of the forward head. The area just behind the mirror and sink, it turned out, was the storage area for the anchor chain. As it was taken up, the chain would fall in unruly heaps unless someone tended it, shoving the chain from side to side to assure it would fit.
The anchor chain storage was but one of many compact practicalities of the boat, which was striking in its efficient and clever use of space. No square inch was wasted, with cunning cabinets, bins, racks, shelves, drawers, and fold-down tables set into every possible niche. Some cabinets were so tiny or peculiarly shaped that I wondered what they could possibly have been intended for. Each compartment fastened with a latch, and, indeed, there were few things on board which were not already secured or capable of being lashed down. The boat’s essential tidiness, I realized, had more to do with safety than with aesthetics.
The saloon and galley took up a good part of the main deck. A series of windows running down either side of the saloon and a large picture aft provided a light and a sense of space for those sitting ensconced in an armchair or on the large sofa. Unlike my previous trips on large, impersonal ferries, this was a nautical space I could relate to. I have a deeply ingrained love of compact, scaled-down things: small cars, efficiency apartments, cottages and cabins, and now, I found, boats.
But the most delightful area was the wheel house, reached by a hatchway set between the galley and saloon. This to me seemed by far the choicest spot on the boat, providing not only views of the surrounding waters but a sense of dominion over the vessel itself. In the wheelhouse, an impressive battery of levers, knobs, and navigational devices, whose purpose I could only surmise, was arrayed behind the ship’s wheel. Behind the wheelhouse was a winch for hoisting the skiff, which was stowed on the top deck along with a dingy and other larger equipment.
Jan and Jay conducted the tour with understandable pride. They’d spent the spring months preparing the Viking Fjord for their first season cruising the Inside Passage. While I was to spend only a week on board, this was to be their new home.
After a thorough introduction to the boat’s features, which, if nothing else, served to clue me that I was now part of the crew, Jan led me over to a locker and gave me a steady look before opening it.
"This is where we keep the survival suits," she said. "You need to know how they work."
And so the final thing I learned on my first day on board was how to don a day-glow orange survival suit. Both Jan and Jay are paramedics and have conducted rescues at sea, sometimes during the brutal winter storms characteristic of their home on San Juan Island. Immersion hypothermia is something they have first-hand experience with. The amount of time that a person can survive in frigid water varies with a person’s body type, behavior, and gear. However, a person can become confused and even delirious after a fairly brief time, becoming a danger to himself and his shipmates. It was essential, therefore, that I understood how the suit worked.
Strangely, I found this demonstration somewhat comforting. Jan’s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact demonstration boosted my confidence. "You’re part of the crew here," I thought. "You’re not a passenger." This was, to be truthful, the main appeal of the trip: to be a member of the crew, however temporary. To know where the survival suits, flashlights, and emergency flares are stored. And to have someone depend on my knowing that.
Before darkness fell in the oddly prolonged Northern evening, I said goodnight to my hosts – correction, shipmates – and settled into my small upper berth in the foc’sle. The ceiling of the compartment was only a few feet above my head. I reached up and touched it. I wondered, briefly, if I might wake in the dark, sit up, and hit my head, so I tested how far I could sit up without this happening. Not very far. "Remember where you are," I murmured drowsily to myself, as the almost imperceptible rocking of the boat soothed me to sleep.
(continued in Part 3...)