When I was growing up 200 miles from the ocean, my strongest memory of the coast was a rainy spring break when we came down to the beach. I remember walking around the Ilwaco boatyard looking at the old trawlers and dreaming.
Out of the water, ships loom over you, paint maybe chipping and their brightwork weathered, but still they somehow promise adventure. The ragged bones of old ships are like kneeling giants above you. They seem full of stored kinetic energy, balanced as impossibly on wood blocks and spindly jack stands.
I remember dreaming of taking one of these old boats and making it into a home on the water. Such a vagabond life, roving the 70 percent of the earth covered with oceans, was a seductive dream to a small town boy with a river at his front door. My brother and I had dreams of living on Marine Drive houseboats and careers as airline pilots. A gypsy life in a big world.
Yet, a little taste of experience can snuff out the ambitions of ignorance in a 14 year old boy.
In college I went up to Alaska to earn money. Between herring and salmon, we were shut down and a group of us hounded the foreman for jobs to keep us working. Otherwise, we’d end up deep in debt to the company store by the time salmon season finally arrived.
The Naknek Country Club is what we called ourselves. We had occupied a vacant room in the dorm with wool-blanket carpet and blacked out windows. We mixed “punch” with ice from the freezer house walls in a plastic tote. We got a reputation for working hard at any job they would throw at us.
This included painting a boiler while it was still running -- the lead would run out of the paint before it could dry, and cleaning up a mountain of discarded boat batteries that leaked acid onto our raingear. Our biggest job, however, was cleaning up the 82 foot fishing tender Sable.
The Sable had gone down with both engines running and filled with a slime of diesel. Hauled up on a beach near the South Naknek cannery, it was our job to get her clean before she could be inspected by the Coast Guard and hopefully refloated. She was an World War II wood hull minesweeper - converted to a fish tender that took salmon from smaller boats on the fishing ground of Bristol Bay.
She was hauled up on the beach and completely out of the water with the low tide. Shipwrights were already working on the hole on the right side of her bow. Someone had taken a Sharpie and changed her name to Dis-Sable-D.
Clothed in an absorbent white bunny suit, we scraped the oil slime off the walls and floors, out of cabinets and every conceivable surface. It had worked its way all over down below. Finally, we drew straws for who would crawl into the bilge.
On the Sable, the bilge was a narrow trench on either side of the keel -- the lowest part of the ship where water is collected. The trench ran the length of the ship and was maybe 20 inches deep and two feet wide. Here the slime was thick and a little green, the diesel smell strong.
I drew the short straw.
I had to squeeze in on my chest, the space so tight that my shoulders couldn’t move. I used an empty cat food tin to scrape up the slime and dump it into a plastic cottage cheese container. When the container was full, they would pull me out by my ankles, my absorbent coveralls scraping the walls of the bilge clean like a human Q-tip.
Something about that job made me realize that these old boats probably had not only endless stories to tell, but an endless amount of work, as well.
Through our efforts, the Sable was refloated in time for salmon season.
A year later, however, it burned to the water line and sank in Bristol bay.
The Sable’s fiery death was at least more dignified than the derelict vessels that die of neglect and sink at their moorings in harbors and rivers along the coast.
Large boats and ships have a lifecycle - they are sold from owner to owner and as they age, the sale price drops because they become more expensive to keep afloat. Their cheap price means they often end their lives in the hands of people with not enough financial resources to fix their problems, which leads to abandonment. Coastal states have established derelict vessel removal programs, but these efforts struggle to keep up with hundreds of ageing, abandoned boats.
Since that time, I still like to drive by the boatyard if I have a few minutes. I’ve talked with people who have brought old boats back to life -- people with more stubbornness and money than I ever possessed. I admire their dedication and I am always gladdened to see an old workboat being restored to functional condition. Best of all is when I boat I’ve watched progressively restored finally disappears from the Boat Yard.
Back in the water, I think, where she belongs.
Yet when I come home, it is to my old house -- 101 years old and still standing strong and bone dry in the winter mist. For an old house is like a ship at anchor, and our ambitions and sweat equity have been converted into restoring this leaking weatherbeaten ship into a warm home that will stay afloat in any storm.
When we bought this house 25 years ago, the roof leaked and the windows were broken, the paint was peeling off the cedar shingles. We spent weekends and evenings scraping and painting, repairing and replacing. It is solid now, and I count myself lucky to have been anchored here for so long. This ship has allowed me to raise a family and know they are going to be safe and dry no matter how strong the winds, or how deep the waters.
On a sunny spring day, I drive by the Ilwaco Boatyard to admire the hope and enterprise of the boats blocked up on the dry land. The yard is a hive of activity, repairs are underway, somewhere a Skill saw is screaming. Fresh white paint makes the old boats shine in the sun.
Old boats live to float and will do so if given even half a chance.