A Visitor’s Perspective
It was a bit like a dream. Lucy, Swifty (two of my grown kids) and I were standing outside the Port Townsend Maritime Center which is a complex of a coffee shop, boat shop, and crew house in a little town in the far north end of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. It was mid-June. We found ourselves watching this group of citizen athletes put up the rowing shells after their morning practice. Ted, the coach and “row master” came into view and said “Lucy, what brings you down here”. Apparently earlier in the year, they had made acquaintance when Lucy had worked at the local watering hole –The Pourhouse. He had seen her as a possible recruit. She was feeling the importance of doing one thing at a time. She said, “I just wanted to show my dad and my brother the Port Townshend crew house”. Ted said, “But, we still want to get you to come on down and row with us. What are you up to, now?” Lucy said she had just graduating from her school program at the port Townshend school of Massage and she was going to be getting to work. Ted said “sounds like you have time for us now”. And he said, “Who are these big guys with you.” Lucy introduced Swifty and I. He could tell were all interested in this scene since we all had rowed in former lives in college. Swifty was now out of commission because he had recently nearly cut off a few of his fingers in a firewood accident.
But, Ted could see our enthusiasm and met ours with excitement of his own.
At this point, we were completely off track on the mission of getting coffee. But we were on no hurried schedule to get to the mountains either. He said, “Do you want to have a look in our boathouse?” We all said, “You bet.”
The Port Townsend crew house is a very sleek, new structure of glass, aluminum, and Scandinavian style blond wood paneling. It is all very organized with perfectly finished boats tended with care and love. There are two bays with 4 sets of racks holding the long crew shells and sculls that are filled with 6 boats racked up to the ceiling. The light streams in and shines off the beautiful finish of the old wooden boats. He said “see these boats? We love old the wooden boats. We love to restore, row, and breathe new life into them.” He asked me if I had ever heard of Pocock boats. I answered him that when I had started rowing in the mid-1970s, we were using boats made in the 1950s and early 1960s by the George Pocock company. We still had not gotten the fiberglass boats that would eventually take over as the must-have equipment of the sport. Those fiberglass boats would kill some of the aesthetic and mystique of the sport for a while. They were lighter though.
He asked me if I had read the “Boys in the Boat.” He was so excited about all of it– Like this was some kind of epicenter. I told him I had listened to it raptly in my travels. He couldn’t help himself. He next said “Let me introduce you to Steve, he is the genius who restores these things.” Then, we left the sleek crew house and headed through a weedy path in a boat yard passed barnacled blue hulks, barrels, piles of ropes, rusty chain, old trucks, empty yacht racks and tractors. We walked into a deep, old dark hanger workshop where there were many projects in different phases of completion. Front and center was an old wooden eight being restored. Steve not only had this boat, but he had original jigs which had laid up many of these boats and thick chunks of wood from which he would be cutting 3/16s” veneers to patch holes in the skin of the shell. And he had old tools for boat making, too. By one old saw, there was a picture of George Pocock himself standing by the saw that was in this workshop like a ghost. 8 fingers were in full display. He lost two making these boats–at this saw?! The same two fingers coincidentally that Swifty was nursing back to life on his left hand.
Steve described how he was working on some rotten ash ribs and once he was done with that, he would be refinishing the shell with coats of varnish applied just so. Then, he pointed out that this boat that he was working on was an octet, not an eight. That is a rowing shell that has eight rowers in it with 16 oars. Any oarsman will tell you that is a rare boat. I have never seen one of these things in many years with the sport. We just gaped and tried to take it in.
The excitement continued as our tour led us to a different part of the workshop where another project awaited.
Ted showed us this wooden single scull with a crushed bottom. He asked us what our best guess was about how the boat came to be damaged. I guessed that someone drove into a garage. “Nope.” “Someone dropped something on it.” “Nope.” And a few more guesses went by, when he offered that a bear had broken into the garage where the boat had been being stored, and he mauled it. Closer inspection, yep, there were the deep claw marks from a bear. It was unmistakable. That is one thing that happens when you mix the Pacific Northwest with rowing.
We got to experience another facet of mixing the Pacific Northwest and rowing more intimately, too.
By the time Ted had finished with our tour of the boat house, he knew we were into the whole scene. He judged correctly that we had had some experience with rowing and that we would like to go out on the water with the Rat Island Rowing Club. He said “Lucy, want to join us?” She said sure! He said, “Why don’t you bring your dad along, too. We will put you in a boat at 7 am tomorrow morning. Just show up.”
Again, this whole magic experience happened just because we had stopped at the Velocity coffee shop to get a little cup of coffee before going on this day’s adventure to the mountains. Instantly, we realized we had just been given a nice invitation.
In unison, we said “sure”.
We ordered some fine Washington style gourmet coffee and headed on our way up into the mountains fizzing from the excitement. The coffee didn’t hurt. This day would be one door opening into an infinite space, after another.
By the time we turned in, we were exhausted. But we had to get some good rest because Lucy and I were going rowing. We traveled through many of miles and sat upon numerous vistas looking inward as we were looking outward each of us carrying our own personal burdens.
The next day we woke up and excitedly put on our togs. At her house, Lucy offered me a bicycle and we rode 2 miles down to the boat house. Yesterday’s same group of folks greeted us. Even better, the water was flat calm.
Ted assigned Lucy and I position 2 and 3 seats in a quad. We were going to be rowing with a guy named Jim and a woman named Peggy. They asked if we had ever rowed and we both said we had, but we had not much sculling experience with 2 oars. Lucy and I had always rowed with sweep oars.
They decided to give us 30 seconds of instruction on the way our hands were supposed to be. And the next thing we knew, Lucy and I were carrying one of these antique wooden boats we had been staring at yesterday to the ocean for a put in. “Hands down, boat to waist. Hold the gunwale. Ready to turn it. Turn it. All four lower it.” …We lowered the boat in the water. There was no dock. Lucy and I adjusted our foot stretchers with our bare feet on the round rocks in the cold water. The carcass of a big fish waved lazily by our feet in what remained of a fisherman’s filleting waste. A big chinook salmon? It probably was. The tail was 8 or 9 inches across. It was a big fish.
We set the oars in and screwed the oarlocks tight. The oars rested flat on the water as a little wave came by off the stern of a passing sail boat motoring out to sea. All four of us were ready. Lucy and I got in and tied our feet in the foot stretchers. While we held our oars steady, the other two climbed in. Four other quads were going through the same routine and putting in for the morning row. Peggy, the stroke, said we will take a few light strokes and then get right into it, full slide, full power. Lucy and I thought this might be a kind of dubby experience with a lot of half slide rowing and with 2 pairs of oars on the water while the other two rowed. But this is not what they had in mind. We took the second half slide stroke and Jim, the man with the steering, and the coxswain duties, said, “full slide, full power, nice and easy, slow return, hit it, quick catch, drive it… Drive it.” …And then there was just the sounds of the rowing. He was quiet as we rowed. It was Lucy and I and these two strangers just lifting this boat forward, smoothly. The boat pried ahead with plenty of swing and run. The other boats we were out with had had quite a head start on us but we noticed we were moving as well as any of them. We all said “this is not a race.” But there was a little something that made us want to go fast and faster. Lucy, giggled. ”Dad, this feels amazing”. Peggy and Jim echoed the same thing. Peggy said “man, this thing is leaping forward.”
After rowing nonstop for about 25 minutes, we had passed the Port Townsend boat yard. With the clinking halyards of the big sailboats and the kachunk, kachunk, kachunk of Diesel engines starting up. We had gone by most of the town’s waterfront. Steve steered us in a wide arc out into the inner bay. He said “hard to starboard, light with the port oar.” In about 15 smooth strokes he said “way enough.” Those words mean, hold your oar and let it run. And the boat glided with the oars flying like wings over the water. The hull made almost no noise except a slight lapping of the water parting and the subtle creaking of our feet wiggling in the foot stretchers as our toes controlled the balance of the boat.
Finally, our oars dropped flat on the surface of the water and the boat glided for a few more yards and came to a stop. We looked up and waited for the other boats to gather up and the launch to corral us for the return trip. As we waited, the surroundings us held us in a spell. To our right was a pulp mill, the industrial heart of Port Townsend. It steamed, burped and hissed. There was even that smell that people in such a town accept as part of life.
Further off in the distance, loomed great mountains. There were the Olympics nearby and further on we could see the snowy volcanos, Mount Rainer, Mount Baker, and Mount Hood. Craning our necks around, we could see across Puget Sound and the mountains of British Columbia. Snow patches held tight to their sides. We could also see container ships passing out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Another minute or two passed and a porpoise rose off our stern and slid with a few rolling arcs. To our right, there was a harbor seal.
We took it all in and continued to be amazed with how this boat felt miraculously smooth.
Everyone gathered up now and readied for the return trip. We and our quad went back the same way we came, and in a similar style. Harder and smoother than any of us had expected.
Coming back into the beach, Lucy and I took inventory of our new blisters. And we realized loose, broken skin on our palms was a very small price for this experience we had just shared.
All of the quads were drawn into the beach, lifted up to the boat house and the old highly varnished cedar was lovingly wiped down outside and in. Everyone pitched in to make the work of putting the boats in the boathouse and up on the racks easy and jolly.
But what to do then? We were finished with our incredible row. Lucy suggested another trip the Velocity coffee shop. Oh yes, it is similarly sleek and modern. There was a definite wooden boating vernacular. And the chrome of the espresso machine set well against the natural wood. We ordered Lattes and a chocolate croissant. The cash register rang and it was the first money we had spent that morning with all of that.
Note to the Rat Island Boat club: Lucy is joining.
We sat with the rowing club members in the coffee shop and talked about the morning row. Conversation centered on the gratitude of this morning spiced with a tales of calamities and history. It was all a little infection (of excitement) that would not be going away.
Appropriately, the barista who made this fine cup of coffee, had carefully swept the foam with his brewing tools into a perfect heart.
As I drank this delicious cup, I tried not to disturb his artful work.
Did I really get to do this with my daughter?
I did. It was not a dream