9/11. A date that has become a proper noun for an unspeakable act. Like many others today, I feel compelled to reminisce memories of that surreal day 20 years ago, that seems like yesterday.
I was on my way back from the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend aboard Tango, my twenty foot wooden sailboat. The trip back from PT was always rather lonely after the hyperactive activity of the festival and sailing with crew, but good for doing a lot of thinking while sailing or motoring along for so many hours. It’s typically 2 long days either way in my boat.
Having left crew behind, I was sailing solo and made my way to Blake Island, a state park in the middle of Puget Sound. I picked up a mooring and spent the night at the south end of the island. I remember it as a pleasant evening.
Listening to the rhythmic throbbing hum of the Fauntleroy-Southworth ferry coming through the hull as it went by, I’d wait for the ferry’s wake to rock the boat a few minutes later. It came and went every thirty minutes, a reassuring pulse of life on the sound.
The ferries run until after midnight, then shut down and resume around 4:00 AM…so I awoke to the familiar thrumming and rocking from the wake. I stuck my head out of the hatch and it was a beautiful, late summer day, clear and calm except for the ferry wakes. I went about getting breakfast together and started brewing coffee on my small stove.
I was up early to catch a favorable tide and currents to help speed up my trip back home to the south. Along with the gulls and crows I heard the distinctive piercing call of a Bald Eagle from the trees nearby and spied him perched high on a snag. He sat calling for a while and then jumped off his perch and flew right over the boat, heading west.
– The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 in New York…5:46 west coast time. I’ll continue using Pacific Time as I experienced it. The second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later at 6:03.
At the time I was oblivious to all of this, listening to Jimmy Buffett CD’s on my stereo and sipping my freshly brewed coffee. I got a call on my cell from my friend Terri. She sounded frantic…saying that it looked like someone had declared war on us and was bombing New York. She tried to tell me what was being shown on the news and it all sounded incredulous to me on my little boat, all alone.
As we were talking, the 3rd plane crashed into the Pentagon at 6:37. The world had gone crazy and there was all kinds of wild speculation that there was a massive attack across the country.
At 6:42 my time, the FAA grounded all civilian aircraft within the continental U.S., and civilian aircraft already in flight were told to land immediately. All international civilian aircraft were either turned back or redirected to airports in Canada or Mexico, and were banned from landing on US territory for three days.
The attacks created widespread confusion among news organizations and air traffic controllers. Among the unconfirmed and often contradictory news reports aired throughout the day, one of the most prevalent said a car bomb had been detonated at the U.S. State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Another jet was suspected of having been hijacked, but the aircraft responded to controllers and landed safely in Cleveland, Ohio.
Everyone was wondering where the next crash or explosion would happen. Then a 4th plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania at 7:03, the passengers having led an uprising to overpower the hijackers.
At 7:59 the 1st tower collapsed and the descriptions of the mayhem caused my imagination to go crazy with no reference from television pictures.
All flights were shutdown. All ferry traffic was shut down. The normally busy sound was suddenly silent. No ship or ferry traffic…no planes coming and going from nearby SeaTac Airport. Contradictory news reports were all over the place.
All of this added to a huge sense of isolation and frustration to know just what the Hell was going on. Terri would call back with updates whenever something new would happen to let me know as best she could. I tried to find a radio station that had news, but without an FM antenna I couldn’t tune much in.
Adding to the surrealness, the only thing I found on the radio was the Howard Stern show. Being based in New York, he was at least broadcasting a play by play of what he was seeing and hearing in the city. The whole thing was insane with the wild reports coming in from his wacky non-professional sources.
I got everything ready for a speedy departure from Blake…tossed the dirty dishes in a trashbag , filled the fuel tank, checked the tide and slipped the mooring lines. As I motored south, I was the only one on the water…madly rushing to get home as fast as possible while everyone else was glued to their TV sets. I still had many miles and a whole day of motoring to get back to my marina in Olympia.
Trying to piece together what was going on from the chaotic Stern broadcast was maddening…his typical outlandishness was made even worse with the added frenzy of the plane crashes. I felt like a crazy character in Alice in Wonderland.
I was pushing the Honda 6HP outboard as hard as possible, but still only moving maybe 5 knots, much less when bucking the current. Motoring through Colvos Passage, out into the much wider Dalco Passage, was when I became hyper-aware of the lack of boat traffic and no planes in the sky. I still had to make it through the Tacoma Narrows before the tide switched or I would be pushed backwards. This of course added more stress to an already over the top situation.
Making it through the Narrows, I plugged away seemingly endlessly, hour after hour, listening to the insanity of Howard Stern for as long as he was on the air. The sense of frustration of being out on the water with so far to go when I wanted to see what was actually going on was overwhelming.
The reports of firemen and police rushing into the towers only to have them crumble down, human beings falling from the heights of the sky scrapers, clouds of smoke and dust from the vaporized buildings all created a sense of doom that was hard to comprehend.
After an entire day of motoring south, I finally rounded Boston Harbor and made it back home where I parked myself in front of the news to catch up on what I had missed. The TV stations were replaying the planes crashing and towers coming down with people covered in dust endlessly and would for days.
This memory is firmly embedded in my mind, at least for these past 20 years. I have visited Blake Island many times since, and every time I am there the feelings of that day so long ago always come flooding back.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, A tale of a fateful trip That started from this Northwest port Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a brand-new sailing man, The skipper brave and sure. One passenger set sail that day For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.
The weather started getting rough, The tiny ship was tossed, If not for the courage of the fearless crew The Tango would be lost, the Tango would be lost.
The first mate and his Skipper too, Will do their very best, To make the others comfortable, In their maritime distress.
No food, no phone, no PFD’s, Just a bottle of whiskey, Like Robinson Crusoe, It’s primitive as can be.
Now this is the tale of our castaways, They’re here for at least half a day, They’ll have to make the best of things, All for zero pay.
The first mate and his Skipper too, Will do their very best, To make the others comfortable, During this nautical mess.
It all started innocently enough…I just wanted to take my new to me boat out for a quick shakedown cruise. I had just bought a used 6 horse outboard and wanted to see how well it pushed the boat. A short trip out into Budd Bay, my back-yard body of water…motor out of the marina, sail up to the Oly shoal and back. Easy-peasy.
The little boat had been mostly spontaneous purchase. We had Diane’s wooden boat in the haul-out yard at West Bay doing some bottom work and painting when I noticed a salty looking little boat out in the marina with a “For Sale” sign on it. I’d glance over at it and soon started day dreaming about sailing a sloop rig while scraping barnacles and old paint off the boat’s bottom.
It wasn’t exactly like working on the old 1959 carvel-hulled 26-foot wooden folk boat wasn’t enough work already so that I needed a new project, but it was a modified into a junk rig, not a typical Marconi style sloop rig. Very different than western style sail rigs.
The Japanese-built folkboat had been very professionally modified by a fellow taking a boat building class with intentions of single-handing it around the world. He had torn the deck and cabin off and rebuilt it with a flush deck, solid fir mast and with acrylic bubble hatches to be able to see everything from safely below in a blow.
He was going for something similar to “Jester”, which was also a modified junk-rigged Folkboat sailed by Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, a single-handed sailor that wrote the modern bible on Junk rig sailing, “Practical Junk Rig”. I read this book from start to finish many times until I had a good understanding of everything junk-rig.
Junk rig sailing is a very different method of sailing, with a large sail with full wooden battens and different running rigging than that of sloop rigged sailboats.
I had enjoyed the junk rig and spent a lot of time tweaking the rig, building custom blocks, gear and rigging unique to junk rig sailing, but I still had a longing to sail a “normal” boat.
As the days passed working in the boatyard I kept stealing glances at the little boat, imagining having 2 sails to play with, just like everyone else. I was keen to develop my sailing skills beyond the junk rig, tacking back and forth, grinding on winches and learning the nuance of sailing a sloop.
The little boat kept calling my name and eventually I causally strolled out to take a closer look. It had a handwritten price of $800 scrawled on it with a phone number. I looked it over from behind the locked marina gate and it was a little rough around the edges.
It was obviously a home-built boat. Fiberglass and epoxy over marine plywood. But it looked pretty stout and I loved the traditional looking lines, with wooden toe rails, transom hung rudder, squared off cabin, large cockpit and salty looking bow spirit. A little pirate ship.
A few more days went by, with me still ruminating over sailing the sloop rig. I decided to call the number and find out more about the boat. I chatted with a woman on the other end of the line and it turns out she wanted to get rid of the boat because she thought it was dangerous. They apparently had taken it out once and scared themselves silly with it heeling over.
Her ex-husband had bought it off an older fellow that had built it from plans from Glen-L Designs. It was 18.5 feet long on deck, 20’ 4” overall with the bow spirit. You could buy the hardware kit, rigging, sails etc. all ready to install.
I told her I was interested and would like to check out what it was like inside. She agreed and I met her at the dock to take a closer look. I clambered down into the boat and it was actually very roomy for an 18-foot boat. I couldn’t stand up inside, but I couldn’t stand up in the folk boat either, so I was used to that.
I proceeded to point out any shortcoming I could, hoping to reduce the price a bit. I was doing freelance work at the time and every penny counted. I listened to her story, and apparently her ex had moved off to Colorado or somewhere, it had been his boat, and she just wanted to be rid of it. She didn’t want her kids to have anything to do with the “dangerous boat”.
This was all music to my ears. I ticked off my list of things wrong with the boat and told her I could maybe do $600. She didn’t bat an eye and said “sold”. I thought, crap, I should have gone lower, but I had a new boat.
I came to find out later that the original builder was an older fellow that as I recall, had a stroke and couldn’t get around well enough to finish the boat or do anything else with it so he sold it.
…but back to our three-hour tour:
I had this brand-new-to-me boat but no motor or anything else for that matter. I went to Tom’s Outboards and looked at a few motors available on consignment. There was an old green Johnson at a decent price and they fired it up in a 55-gallon drum full of water to show me it worked. It was a smelly old 2 stroke, but it seemed to be OK. Another $350.
So, outboard in hand and itching to get Tango out on the water, I asked my friends Rick and Diane if they wanted to go out on a test sail, just a quick trip to test the motor, hoist the sails and see how things went. Sure, sounds great they said.
It started off as a beautiful day, sunny and warm with blue skies and just a hint of wind. We hopped aboard, got the motor mounted and cranked it up. Everything looks great. We cast off the lines and pulled out of the marina and headed out on Budd Bay. The motor was performing well…a little smelly with the 2 stroke, but plenty of power to push the small boat at hull speed.
There was just enough wind to try sailing, so sails were hoisted up. Main and jib, it was exciting to have more than one sail to play with! We were all feeling really good about zipping around the bay on such a nice day.
Now, my buddy Rick doesn’t go anywhere without a flask of bourbon, so out it came for a celebratory toast to my new boat, christened Tango simply due to the fact that it was the name of the Glen-L design and printed on the sail. We tacked back and forth for a while having a good old time.
I had picked up a used Danforth anchor at a consignment shop in town and with the light winds I decided to pass the helm over to Rick and Diane and go below to splice an eye into an anchor line in case we wanted to throw the anchor over to take a break. It took a while to build the splice and melt the loose ends back into the rode.
I had noticed the boat had started wobbling back and forth all over the place, but figured this was just due to inexperienced crew at the helm. I was just about done with the splicing when the boat heeled way over, knocking everything, including me, over. I jumped up and stuck my head out of the companionway hatch to see a crazed look on Rick’s face and ink-black skies coming in rapidly from the west.
The wind had picked up considerably, so I came back up and decided to drop the sails and head back in. As I lowered the main, the halyard jammed at the masthead. This was not good, as the sail was just a big bag catching all the wind. I tried to get it loose, but to no avail.
I went back to get the motor started and motor back to the marina. The still warm motor started right up and I turned the boat towards home with the still wildly flapping mainsail. After 15-20 minutes of full power, the motor suddenly quit. Not good. The wind had increased to maybe 25-30 knots and the wind waves were building.
The main still had a lot of windage and was blowing us quickly towards the old oil dock on the east side of the bay. I spent some time pulling the cowling off the motor to see if I could fix whatever was wrong, but nothing I did made any difference when I tried to start the motor. Dead.
The blue sky was gone…above us was an almost black sky and the winds were howling. About this time Rick started singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song. “The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was lost…a three-hour tour…”.
Meanwhile, we were getting blasted towards the concrete bulkhead by the old oil dock. I’m leaning over the stern rail trying to work on the outboard with the boat kicking like a bucking bronco in the wind waves. My hands are covered in oil and grease and salt water, but nothing is working. Time to figure out Plan C.
Taking stock of the situation, there is no VHF radio. This is before everyone had a cell phone. There are no life jackets, fire extinguishers, flares or any of the required boating safety equipment on board…after all, it was just a short jaunt to see if the engine worked. The rain starts coming down and now we are cold and wet with no jackets or rain gear. We have no food, no water… just one bottle of whiskey. The wave bashed shore is getting closer. Things are looking grim.
I jumped back down below and grabbed the anchor and line and rushed back up to tie off the end of the line to the boat cleat and shackle the new eye spice to the anchor. Maybe 100 yards offshore, I toss the anchor windward as far as I can to get as much scope out as possible to let the anchor dig in. I let out all 100 feet of the anchor line and hoped it was enough to stop the boat as the wind continued blasting us towards the shore.
As we got about 50 yards from shore, the anchor snagged the bottom and jerked the bow of the boat into the wind. It was on the bottom, but still dragging and not set. We slowed down and then about 40 feet from the concrete wall the boat stopped. The anchor had finally hooked and set in the Budd Bay mud.
Looking towards shore, the dark waves were smashing high over the wall and nearby oil dock. The old creosote-piling dock was more or less abandoned, having been used to bring bulk oil for storage in the large tank on shore.
These days the oil tank and dock have been long removed and the dock is managed by DNR as a research station. But back then it was just a skeleton of black creosoted timber to our north and a concrete wall being beaten by the maelstrom to our east. Our luck held as the boat didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the shore.
We were cold, wet and getting dehydrated with no water to drink. So, we did the only thing we could…we sipped more whiskey. The boat was head into the wind at east, and still bucking up and down in the steep wind waves that had the entire fetch of the bay to build.
Rick looked at the deceptively close shore and said “I think I can make it”. I quickly killed that idea and said “we will at least wait until the storm calmed down”. The wall was getting pummeled by the big waves and I could just see Rick’s head getting split like a melon.
I continued to try and work on the motor, pulling and checking the spark plug, checking to see if there was water in the carb, etc., but with my head down over the rail I eventually got dizzy in the bucking seas.
So, we sat there in the gusting winds, telling jokes and stories, singing “a three hour tour”, and each offering possible solutions to our distress. The tide was going out, and I started worrying about how close to shore we would come as the water level went down, allowing us to be pushed closer to shore.
I gradually took in line as the tide went out. The tides can vary 15-20 feet here during the summer minus tides. Thankfully, the anchor was holding admirably…at least one thing was working right. Sitting on the boat with little else to do, I started making a mental list (there was no pencil and paper of course) of things that needed remediation before the next time the boat went out:
Get the motor fixed.
Take the main to a sailmaker to replace the bolt rope on the main with slides and have add tack, clew and reefing lines so I could reef the main.
Install oar locks and buy oars long enough to be able to row the boat.
Install a downhaul on the jib to pull the jib down much easier in bad weather.
Route running rigging to the cockpit to reduce going forward in bad weather.
Purchase a small electric trolling motor to use until the outboard was repaired and as a backup.
Purchase PFD’s, fire extinguisher, flares, signal devices etc., as required by Coast Guard and state regs.
Purchase and install a marine VHF radio and antenna.
Store water and snacks/emergency rations on board.
I was well aware of all of these safety requirements as I had been sailing for several years by then, but it was all too easy to not pay much attention to them on what seemed like a short sail on a nice calm day in my home waters.
We were marooned on the boat for around 6 or 7 hours, killing the bottle of whiskey to pass the time and becoming even more dehydrated. But eventually, the wind and waves calmed down and I was able to focus on the outboard again.
After sitting for several hours, it started right up, but I noticed there was no telltale stream of water coming from the impeller. The motor had simply overheated and quit. When I pulled the motor apart later, there was almost nothing left of the rubber impeller fins that pumped cool seawater through the motor.
With no wind wrapping the sail around the mast, I was able to work the sail up and down and eventually free the halyard. I determined it was best to sail back close to the marina and only fire up the motor to get us back into the marina slip…we should have a good 15 minutes before it overheated again.
Still singing the tune to Gilligan’s Island, we set the sails, retrieved the by now deeply-set anchor and then sailed back to the marina with no further issues. We would live to sail another day… with lessons that have served me well for almost 30 years.
I have had more than a few people ask why I seem to have a preoccupation with Pirates. The simple fact is, like many an actual pirate, I was shanghaied from a very young age into the life. The port of call I grew up in, West Carrollton, had the pirate as their mascot. So it was that I were a pirate from the first grade all through the receipt of my parchment.
12 years before the mast as a pirate, at such an impressionable young age, leaves a lasting black spot upon your soul. Alas, it would be many a king tide until I commandeered a vessel of me own, the noble Rogue.
The waxy seal of fate on my salty preoccupation though, may have been the first chance I had to earn my own chest of gold while still in school. Me closest swabs, Bald Rick and Nod-off Steve, had signed on to crew at Long John Silver’s, a shady pirate establishment known for vast platters of seafood, peg legs and planks.
They put in a good word to the captain of the Shoppe, although they may have told a crusty tale or two…and soon I was deep frying with the best of them. The crew uniform of the day was right out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which would not be filmed for another 6 years.
The look started with a stylish white polyester smock, big and baggy with a corrugated finish to better hold onto crusty batter and grease, and fitted with a horizontal striped dickey to give it a proper salty appearance. These were tossed at you still smelling of fish, grease, malt vinegar and the last unfortunate crewman that had walked the plank.
Black pants of your own supply were de rigueur of course, so that every speck of batter and dirt was highlighted admirably. This lovely haute couture was topped off with classic pirate haberdashery…the finest cardboard pirate hat money could buy. I am truly sorry to not have an image of us in our finery, but alas, iPhones were still decades away.
The vittles were grand…the Big Catch platter was more than an able bodied seaman could (or should) stomach in one sitting. It started with codfish fillets, with onion rings or fries, and crispy hushpuppies — all deep-fried, of course, with a garnish of coleslaw and topping out at 1,320 calories. Slather that with Long John’s own malt vinegar and you had yerself a proper salty meal…I’m not kidding, there was over 3,700 milligrams of sodium in it.
The competition for first mate was fierce…we had crew battles to see who could drop the most cod into the vats of whale oil the fastest, without damaging the batter. A right proper gun drill it were.
To do this right, you needed to have a thick coating of batter on your hands, so you could dip your fingers into the 350 degree oil and let each fillet slide in without splashing the batter off. Only the bravest and most daring swabs could pull off this feat without scorching the hide off their digits.
But we did it all for the pretty wenches and little swabs…it did our black hearts a world of good to see them shoveling all that deep fried deliciousness down their gullets and wait for them to ring the bell.
There were always long lines well out the door on Fridays and especially during Lent. We endeavored to give each passenger a meal fit for a King…or at least a King’s crew. We lived to hear the peal of the ships bell when each party disembarked, but cursed their black hearts when they did not ease our torment.
The quartermasters were the overseers of every watch…each one carefully trained at his majesty’s elite “Cod College” down in Lexington. There they learned their trade in cutting the cod just so, weighing each slab and slice, keeping the crew from mutiny and ensuring all the gold was carefully scribed in the ships log as to make the King of the Pirates rich beyond compare.
The special booty was kept track of very closely, lest the captain break out the cat o’ nine tails and commence flogging. These treasures included shrimp and the wee pecan pies. These delicacies seemed to vanish into thin air faster than a mug of grog on a Friday night.
You see, it was not unknown for a crewman to suddenly hear a siren’s call for an order of shrimp to be put down in the fryer, only to find a patron lacking to cover such an expense when piping hot and ready. We gladly ate them to keep them from going to waste and saved the Quartermaster the embarrassment of logging the transgression.
But all was not sweating and slaving away in the galley. When the last bell had rung and we locked the hatches down, we filled our Super-size grog cups up with the finest ale we had on tap, and merrily drank it through a straw lest the quartermaster find we were imbibing on watch.
This often caused more merriment, whence we would pull the cutlasses and pistols off the wall and begin sword fighting across the tops of the dining tables…much to the dining wenches dismay, as they had already scrubbed the planks down. But we were pirates with our pirate ways, and not to be denied the pleasures of the wicked after a long watch.
It was a glorious time and seemed to last forever, but our service with Long John’s was only a matter of a couple years, as Nod-off Steve and I were conscripted to serve in the Kings forces after schooling, and Bald Rick was off to fry the souls of the infirm with X-Rays.
But it wasn’t long before I once again heard the call of the pirate from Captain James Buffett…Bald Rick and I listened to his shanty’s and tropical sounds of the Caribbean and were lulled back to the brotherhood of piracy, our theme song became a Pirate Looks at Forty.
Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder I’m an over-forty victim of fate Arriving too late, arriving too late…
But not too late to go to sea! A score of years after schooling I tasted saltwater and felt the snap of sail in a fresh breeze and knew in my blood I was still a pirate…and have flown the Jolly Roger ever since, pillaging, plundering, and swashbuckling along the way…captaining ever more powerful vessels until I had enough gold to gain my flagship Rogue…I’ve salt in my veins, and it didn’t all come from those Captain’s Platters.