Our Second Day Onboard

By 6 p.m. we had covered approximately 50 miles. An early spring squall had moved in and the sky became dark and threatening. I decided this was an ideal time for a nap. I went below deck, crawled atop the V-birth and snuggled into the sleeping bag. I was warm and comfortable but the release of tension brought on by the stress of buying the boat, the looming responsibility of owning such a complicated vessel, and the unknown challenges of making this boat our home and what might lie ahead unleashed a torrent of tears I wasn’t expecting. I fell asleep emotionally and physically spent.

When I awoke and came back on deck I found Peter had dropped anchor in the shelter of a small inlet below Eagle Cliff. The high cliff on the north bank of the Columbia River rose vertically at least 100 feet. Ducked into the inlet we were out of the river’s current and sheltered from the wind.  The sun was once again out and a rainbow had formed across the southern horizon. I looked at the beauty of the evening sun glistening on the river, the rainbow in the background, the promise of green pastures on either side of the river and felt awestruck.

Sunday afternoon we arrived at our moorage at McCuddy’s Marina in Scappoose, Oregon. As we slowly maneuvered into our pre-assigned slip, Ed from a nearby boat came to the dock to give us a hand tying up. Soon, other neighbors from nearby boats and floating homes came around to introduce themselves. Knowing we had just arrived after a long journey, Kathy from Wishbone brought lentil soup and homemade bread. We lived on that dock for three years.

Prior to our move onboard Penelope, we lived in Bend, Oregon in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath, 2,000- square foot house on an acre with a 36- by 40-foot shop and a two-car garage. Having grown up in the Willamette Valley, Peter didn’t enjoy the snow and frigid cold of Central Oregon. We decided to move to Portland. Once we each landed a job and purchased Penelope we began to prepare for our move onboard. We proceeded to throw away, give away, sell or store almost everything we owned. We started our respective jobs in January of 2007 and moved from the house to our camper, parked in the parking lot of the marina in Scappoose. We lived in the camper until the ocean was calm enough to deliver Penelope from Anacortes.

I calculated our actual living space aboard the boat is approximately 330 square feet. Our home offers a sun porch, an entry hall, kitchen, dining area, office, bathroom, shower, and a master suite equipped with two clothes closets and numerous drawers. In marine jargon those areas would be referred to as the cockpit, the companionway, the galley, the settee, the navigation table, the head and the V-birth.

Adjusting to life aboard Penelope was a gradual process. While initially organizing the galley, I was thrilled with the number of cupboards and drawers I had available for pots, pans, dishes, utensils, spices, canned goods and other food items. As I continued to organize my galley, I spotted a promising cupboard door just below the kitchen sink. I unhooked the latch-designed to keep the door closed when the boat is healing from side to side-eagerly anticipating more storage, only to find a 66-horsepower diesel engine! There was an engine under the kitchen sink! It just seemed wrong.

I began to realize the room required to open the mail, make dinner, do the dishes, read a book, play on the computer or sleep in the bed is really pretty minimal. It is only the stuff you choose to surround yourself with while you do those things that takes up so much space. If you do not care about knick knacks, potted plants, framed pictures, coffee tables, and multiple everything, the space required to live is pretty small.

Soon everything had found a proper place and our space was in order. I found I have all that I need but usually only one of each. If I get a new cooking pan I throw away the old one. When I am finished with a book I give it to someone. My family no longer buys me Christmas or birthday presents because they know I don’t need anything. I have more than I need. I always have stuff to give away. People are thrilled. I go through our DVD collection and realize we are no longer interested in several. I give them to my friend when she stops by to visit. She is delighted to get something for free and I am thrilled to make room for a new DVD.

Over the years we have learned to improvise or compromise on everything we do and everything we have. I learned I could accept even the most bizarre living arrangements such as an engine below the kitchen sink or a handle used to pump the toilet dry.

We immediately got involved with a local sailing club, the Sauvie Island Yacht Club, and eagerly participated in their monthly meetings and weekend cruises. We learned from our friends and we learned other lessons as we spent numerous weekends that first summer exploring the Multnomah Channel and the Columbia River. I remember one lesson I will never forget.

We had left our moorage in Scappoose and were headed down river to Sand Island for the Memorial Day weekend, about an hour’s voyage. Down below in the galley, I had chicken baking in the oven. We arrived around 8:30 p.m. and already the dock was dark on approach. We pulled up on our port side glad to see several men, already moored, coming  forward to assist with our land fall. Peter and our dog, Dakota, jumped off the boat onto the dock and I threw the bow line to a waiting help mate. The proper way to moor a boat, of course, is to quickly wrap the line around a cleat. Not having done that, their attempts to pull our 13-ton vessel to the dock were in vain. The wind and the current overpowered their feeble attempts to secure the boat to the dock. The current took hold and she was headed away from the dock and back out to the river. I instructed the unknowing help mate to let go of the line. I ran forward and pulled the line out of the water so as not to allow it to float back near the prop. I yelled to Peter, “Hold on!  I’ll pull around and come in again.” As I took hold of the wheel and pushed the shift lever forward I felt no resistance in the mechanism. I pulled back to put the transmission in reverse-nothing. I again pushed forward to put the transmission in forward-nothing. I couldn’t believe what was happening. The engine was running but the boat was moving backward with the current and neutral was the only gear I appeared to have.

The adrenaline that filled my body was unlike anything I had ever felt before. My legs were weak and I wondered if they would hold me. I had an overwhelming sensation that I needed to go to the bathroom, and I nearly wet my pants. My first thought was to avoid the land on either side. I steered the boat into the middle of the channel and confirmed the land on either side of me was the maximum distance away. Once positioned in the center of the river I ran below to retrieve my cell phone from my purse and dialed 911.

I answered the questions of the initial dispatcher while watching the lights of St. Helen’s fade in the distance. The dispatcher eventually patched me through to the Coast Guard and he proceeded to ask me another round of questions. Silently I thought, “For God’s sake. I’ve got to be the only boat drifting backward down the Columbia River.” I patiently responded to the questions of the Coast Guard. Peter has always been there to rescue me from my mostly self-inflicted dilemmas, such as running out of gas at the grocery store, but I had little hope he would be able to rescue me from my current dilemma. Suddenly, I saw a white flash from the corner of my eye. Unbelievably, the flash I saw was my dog, Dakota, who had jumped on board followed by my husband. Peter had found a boater on Sand Island willing to fire up his dingy and bring him to my rescue. Peter tried the gear shift lever in vain and immediately moved to the bow of the boat where he dropped the anchor to the bottom of the river and we stopped dead in our tracks.

Dropping the anchor was not a thought that had crossed my mind in the time I had been adrift on the Columbia. I believe I would have drifted backward all the way to the Pacific Ocean before the idea to drop the anchor would have come to me. Peter took me in his arms saying, “its okay, honey, we’re safe now.” The Coast Guard arrived, along with SeaTow. Peter dealt with their questions and sent them on their way while I went below to finish cooking dinner. We spent the night anchored off Sand Island. In the morning Peter removed the gear shift housing, found a bolt that had worked its way loose, re-engaged the linkage and shifted easily into drive. Once securely tied to the dock, I practiced raising and lowering the anchor. That is one system I will already know when the time comes to head the bow toward the open ocean.

We continued to learn and make plans for our extended sailing adventure. Initially we thought, “No problem!” We’ll save our money and we should have tens of thousands of dollars saved in no time. Then we faced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and needed a new plan.

I got to thinking if we had our house in Bend paid off we would have continuous rental income.  I convinced Peter this was a sound approach and we got busy. We eliminated everything that wasn’t essential and began to make mortgage payments at almost four times the amortized rate. We went without. Peter used super glue to repair his flip flops.

Along the way, Peter has worked tirelessly to get the boat ready for our offshore adventure. He started with the ground tackle. He knew it was important to have a number of different anchors of different sizes and configurations guaranteed to keep us secure in any location. To that end we acquired a 45-lb CQR, three FX Fortresses, and a Danforth 12H.  Somehow he has managed to hide all these anchors in places I don’t see and haven’t had to step over.

The auto pilot was two years in design and development. Several evenings in a row I came home from work to find Peter lying across the bed in the aft stateroom staring into the belly of our boat. “Hi, honey? What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m visualizing how to mount the auto pilot.” He answered. “That’s nice, dear. What would you like for dinner?” After 20 years of marriage, I knew eventually a plan would unfold.

I’ll never forget the day I was lying on the settee reading Time magazine with Peter at the helm when suddenly I realized he was no longer at the helm but rather somewhere toward the bow of the boat. I jumped up and hollered, “Who’s driving this thing?” The newly installed auto pilot was hard at work.

Making our home aboard Penelope was easy. Leaving is going to be hard. I am afraid; not of the wind and the waves and night time on the ocean. I am afraid I will hate being at sea. I am accustomed to the structure of an eight-to-five job and a regular commute. What if I can’t create organization or rhythm to the cruising life and I stumble through my days? Currently, I am embraced by a network of friends who provide companionship, support and encouragement. What if I don’t find community among other cruisers and I am blanketed with isolation?

As this phase of getting ready winds down, the next phase-throwing off the mooring lines and leaving-is looming large.



About Susan M. Gierga

Everyone already knows everything there is to know about me. I wear my heart on my sleeve. To learn current details. Visit my blog, CruisingwithCaptainPeterandtheAdmiral.
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