We are hauled out, on the hard, up on boat stands with our keel settled on a line of cross set wood blocks and the hull propped with two rows of steel jacks. It is a weird, unnatural feeling to be on a boat, 10 feet in the air, the natural rhythm and sway we are so used to gone, making us sometimes stumble for our balance as we move through the cabin. Our neighbors are a large, steel fishing vessel in the throes of foreclosure, and a wooden fishing boat having her bottom paint redone.
Halibut Point boatyard is a mix of boat yard, storage for shipping containers and home to the only deep water dock in Sitka for cruise ships. Although several miles out of town, with no services in the area, some 30 cruise ships docked here this year. When there are no cruise ships the yard is dead except for the occasional fork lift maneuvering a shipping container, or the hum of compressors on a handful of refrigerated containers. The yard is self service, they haul you out, get you on stands and then fade away. The crew here is friendly, helpful if you need something and the facility is pretty well ordered with a large new building to handling tours for folks coming off the ships, but this isn’t a typical boat yard with rows of boats wrapped in plastic with the hum of activity. In the spring this yard is supposed to be hopping with fishermen getting their boats ready for a new year. With fishing season in full swing, the fleet is out on the water.
We’ve been in Sitka a month now. We arrived with our nephew Sawyer and plans to see him to the airport and then head south along the west coast of Baranof and Prince of Wales Island. Meandering the outside passage through August, heading for Port Townsend. We had some troubling grinding sounds and heavy vibrations coming from somewhere in the drive train and needed to resolve that before heading out but thought it would be a few days of tinkering and repairs. We’ve since gone through having a diver do an inspection of the shaft and propeller, working with a local mechanic who suggested we pull the transmission for inspection - which we did, an epic undertaking- lots of research, phone calls with the kind and patient folks at CSR in Seattle who we’ve worked with over the past couple of years, until finally all that was left was hauling out the boat for a closer inspection of the propeller and shaft. Once out of the water it was apparent the problem was the propeller. We have a Maxprop, a feathering propeller that works on an elegant set of gears to “feather” the blades to reduce drag when under sail. The blades and the coupler to the prop shaft were all loose and easily wiggled. After a long and enlightening conversation with the owner of Maxprop it was pretty clear that all the problems we have been having were in line with his experience of similarly worn propellers. So off went the propeller for servicing. We shipped it out on Thursday and hope to have it back sometime in the coming week.
Arriving in Sitka, with our plans for heading south, we had an eye on the calendar. Moving out of August into September the weather shifts toward more rain, heavier winds, and longer storms. We had hoped to be further south by this point to get ahead of unpleasant weather and there has been some anxiety around not keeping to our plans. But we’ve made an unintended trade, we’ve really enjoyed out time in Sitka. It’s a pleasant town and the people have been wonderful. In particular our neighbors at Thompson marina.
We were docked next to a couple who live on a salmon troller and fish the waters around Southeast Alaska. Carl grew up in Sitka and spent his career in northern Alaska as a school administrator before coming back to fish in “semi-retirement”, Mary Ann is a “semi-retired” former ER nurse. From the beginning of our time in the marina there was a constant stream of visitors to their boat, I joked that we docked next to the mayor, and realized later that was probably closer to the truth than I thought. Over the few weeks we were neighbors they adopted us, sharing fish, baked treats, stories, advice and sympathy for our project.
I spent two days on the water with them, shooting video while they fished. The rains let up and for two days we had perfect summer conditions. Calm seas, open blue skies, lazy puffs of clouds. We’d drift along at one and a half knots, drogues out to keep us slow. Carl would set out the hooks for trolling while Mary Ann took the helm, then back to the cabin for a couple of hours to let the gear “soak”, listening to the banter of the other fishermen, enjoying Mary Ann’s cooking - blueberry muffins one day, chocolate cake another (who can make a light, decadent chocolate cake, while at sea, fishing? Effortlessly?). Once the lines were vibrating from caught salmon he’d bring up the gear with the help of a winch, put the salmon on ice, and then reset for another round.
The waters to the west of Sitka were packed with trollers, seiners and gill netters. All waltzing around each other at one and a half knots. It was mesmerizing, boats drifting slowly past, giving a wave or a shout if they knew one another. The VHF radio had the occasional squabble over one boat coming too close to another or crowding them into shallow waters. Carl and Mary Ann kept an eye on the commotion and boats around them, smiling at the bad language and behavior over the radio.
Many of the people out fishing were single handed. A fisherman would set a course with the auto pilot, stroll to the stern of the boat and set out gear, giving the occasional glance around, then head back up to pilot the boat. Not much room for error, and I’m guessing some of the tempers flaring were due to boats wandering. Many of these folks have been doing this work for decades, and make it look easy, but I can’t imagine it’s a field for the faint of heart or inexperienced. One boat holding its course too long could force another boat into a shallow area, dragging their gear and wrecking havoc with their equipment.
But Carl and Mary Ann bring a great deal of joy to fishing, living on the sea, enjoying each other’s company and that of their friends. People stopped by at the dock to share coffee, catch up on the news, discuss fish politics, discuss where the fishing might be best. They offered us the use of their truck. Told us about life in Sitka, and made us feel welcomed and part of the community. There has been a running joke that we won’t get our repairs sorted out in time and will spend the winter here. Carl sees it as a foregone conclusion, and that if we play our cards right we’ll end up with Alaskan citizenship and be able to share in the state tax distribution. I can’t imagine two better ambassadors for the state.
With these experiences, it’s been hard to look at our problems with our propeller as a complete negative. If we had just dropped Sawyer off at the airport and headed south we would have missed out on meeting Carl and Mary Ann, and getting to know Sitka. We would have missed the experience of pulling the transmission and going over the entire drive train and getting a better education on our engine. Better to experience as part of a shake down cruise here in Alaska and not somewhere in the South Pacific.