"Tahiti, The Hard Way"

by Roy Jackson

It occurred to me about 2 a.m., drawing deep steady breaths of 70 degree air, that if I survived the night without contributing to the already polluted Carribean, I might enjoy a steady diet of this kind of travel.

Last Monday afternoon, John Tipp had stuck his head into my office and asked if I would like to help crew his boat back from Nassau to Fort Lauderdale. "Hell, yes" was my reaction. "You have to pay your own airfare and expenses." "Of course." "We're leaving Thursday night after work. Street Remley's navigator and Rick Herman's the other crew." "Count me in." "You serious? Don't you have to check with Dee?" "No, she'll understand."

I mused over this exchange, leaning back against the main mast of Tipp's Dutch-built yawl, as we reached the top of a lazy 12-foot swell. The horizon, which I had lost sight of when I last went into the galley to mix another round of drinks in the dark, was like an abrupt termination of an inverted black bowl of stars. I had never before been so aware of living on a spheroid.

The queasies finally left about dawn. Breakfast being my thing and wanting to redeem myself with my more stalwart crew members, I returned to the scene of the crime and proceeded to fry sausages and eggs for all. With an inch of hot grease surrounding a dozen bangers on a nongimbled stove, I was doing the galley two-step when the boat rang out with a dull gong-like sound. "What was that?" I yelled, as Rick jumped down from the cockpit. "Get up there, Jackson, and see what's going on!" He took the pan of scalding sausages and I popped my head out the hatch and looked to port into the eyes of an airborne, smiling dolphin. "Hi! Glad to see ya," he seemed to say in a Phil Silvers, aquatic way. A small pod of them were amusing themselves by diving into our bow wave and occasionally bumping the steel hull. I was hopelessly hooked. "Jesus Christ, this is living."

Saturday night we passed a cruise ship - our sails full of moonlight. The music from her dance band overpowered the sea sound as she flashed her illuminated name - Bermuda Star - three times, a salute to our presence off her starboard. We must have been a pretty sight! I watched her pass. The fox trot faded out and we reentered the quiet whoosh of phosphorescent waves and that gaudy star stuff overhead.

Early Sunday morning, my turn at the helm, 0200 hours, I saw a man out for a walk. He was about 10' off our starboard bow. We must have been 50 miles from Fort Lauderdale. What was he doing out walking this far, at this time of night? And was he going to say hello? No, he was just going to walk by! I watched. As we passed, I turned, he did not. I thought, who the hell walks on water? "Rick, wake up. I just saw a guy walk by the boat!" Rick responded by opening his eyes and smiling slightly askew and proceeded to confide in me that he also had had some unnerving experiences. Just an hour before, while I was sleeping on his watch, a Volkswagen had driven across our bow. We were both hallucinating from lack of sleep, having been awake since Thursday morning. We had partied in Miami that night and flew to Nassau Friday morning. Had trouble with the auxiliary, so we didn't get underway till 2300 hours. The four of us stayed awake the rest of that night and most of Saturday. By Sunday morning we were having some weird reactions, one of which got us in trouble with our navigator. Around 0400 we were sure the lights on the horizon were Fort Lauderdale. However, they were 15 off our starboard bow. Streeter's navigation was a bit off. Ricker and I decided to change course and head right for old Fort Lauderdale. About 0600, sleep refreshed, Remley climbed out onto the cockpit to assess the situation. To say he wasn't pleased is an understatement. The Gulf Stream's 2 mph movement northward that he had so carefully factored in hadn't occurred to us two landlubbers. Our estimated arrival at 0900 occurred around noon, after beating back South to our destination. This faux pas, however, didn't temper our salty swagger into the wash room at the marina. After all, hadn't we just crossed an ocean? I didn't realize at the time that those 49 hours would affect the rest of my life.

On the flight back to Detroit I did a lot of thinking. I'd been around boats most of my life. Lots of friends owned them. Mostly racing boats. After two days in a fin keel, I knew I wanted a long traditional keel. As a child I'd seen a number of gaff rigged boats and thought fondly of them. A matter of aesthetics, having no real experience with them. How to get a boat and go cruising without having boat payments or mortgages was now something I thought worth concentrating on. So for the next five or six years my interest increased. A subscription to National Fisherman added more fuel to the flame. There were numerous articles on boat building. Ferrocement was enjoying popularity. It seemed that if one had a vacant lot next door, hundreds of miles of rebar, and enough chicken wire to satisfy Colonel Sanders, one could gather half a dozen friends, a few six packs, and whip out a sixty-foot brigantine faster than you could say putty putty. The quest into this medium got me into the hold (hull) of a 65-foot Sampson Marine C-Witch floating in Lake union. This all came about on a business trip. Dee was with me, and we sat with the gracious owners looking at the great grey vastness of the unfinished hull feeling as if we were inside some freeform septic tank. We also saw a delightful catboat that Jay Benford had done - a very small boat for ferro. Our return to Detroit was accompanied by the decision that concrete was not our thing. Besides, I've never liked panic parties, which cementing a forty footer all in one day would be. Our trip to Seattle did reveal one thing: Seattle would be a neat place to build a boat.

In 1972 Roger Taylor started a series in National Fisherman on good cruising boats. He was resurrecting and reprinting long forgotten plans. One of these early articles was on Murray Peterson Coasters. At last here was a boat of the kind I had remembered from childhood. I read and reread the article. We went to the main library in Detroit and checked out early thirties yachting magazines to study Peterson's work first hand. Finally, I took the plunge and wrote to Mr. Peterson. He sent me study prints for Coaster II and Coaster III along with a dozen or so old black and white snapshots of his boats. There followed more letters and some telephone calls and I decided on Coaster II. "Who's going to build her?" Murray asked. "We're going to build her ourselves." This was followed by a long pause. "Well, if it's a do-it-yourself project, I'll knock 10% off the price." I'm sure he thought "This damn fool never will build this boat" knowing as he did that the Coasters are about as hard a boat as one could pick to build. As a first boat it was a folly. Sheer folly. I sent my check for $900 and in a few weeks a mailing tube was delivered to 1100 St. Aubin, a downtown townhouse. No vacant lot next door. No barn. No room whatsoever. So I set about to build a hull out of strips of balsa, 3/4" to the foot. My kids and their friends would snigger at me. Was I going to take it into the bath? The quest was on to find a place to move to.

One afternoon, sitting in my office (remember John Tipp?) talking on the phone to Guy Morrison, a photographer I hired frequently, he interrupted himself almost in midsentence, "Hey, have you ever been to Seattle?" "Yeah, why?" "Did you like it?" "Yeah sure, what's not to like?" "Well, my stepson - you remember Michael - is out there at McCann-Erickson, and they're looking for an art director with bank experience." This seemed too good to be true. Guy gave me the name of the man to call and I did. He was ready to hire someone but he would take a look at my book. I sent him twenty 35mm slides of my stuff and that week walking to and from work with Dee, we both said, "Don't think about it. It's too good, it's not going to happen." But it did. Not only did it happen, but after hiring me, he suggested that we might like to live on Bainbridge Island.

So a year after buying Coaster plans, we owned an acre on Bainbridge with a small beach and moorage rights. No house, no boatshop, but, oh, the space. That same year two other things happened. Murray Peterson died and WoodenBoat Magazine started. Their very first issue, Volume 1, #1, had a eulogy to Peterson and my to-be boat, Coaster II, was on the cover. Things seemed to be falling into place. Dee and I, with the help of my mother, who'd moved with us, plus our son and two of his friends, and our daughter, got to work on the house. I designed the house, something I'd always wanted to do. By February '75 we were inside and out of the VW bus and the 10'x10' tent we were living in. Good practice for life aboard a boat, I thought. We'll never camp again. It would be two years before we got the boat shop up. The friends we were meeting during that time included Van Hope and Patty Langly who were building Pacific Trader, a Falmouth cutter, and Jack and Irene Day. Jack was nearing completion of a forty-foot Alden, Chapelle, Garden, Day combination Schooner Blue Jacket. These people proved invaluable.

Having no previous knowledge of boat building, I had not laid aside copious quantities of wood to air dry. So, rather than start with green stock, I checked out a company in south Seattle called Atlas Building Wreckers. They had acres of timbers stacked up outside. These had come out of pier 42 and 43 when they were razed to build the container dock. I borrowed an old flatbed and, like a kid in a candy store, I jumped about from pile to pile putting my initials on as much clear stock as I could find. It is great fir - with one exception, the keel. In my ignorance, I got a piece with the heart in it. 8"x16"x34'. We cut it down with a Swedish mill, adz and worm drive skill saw, hand sawing out the remaining inch in the center. 1"x34' twice, port and starboard. Dee then cut the rabbet. Both sides. It was beautiful. But after a few weeks it corkscrewed. I was told by some that I could twist it out, build the boat, and it would be fine. I decided to scrap it. This almost cost me Dee's help forever. Back to Atlas for a piece devoid of any heart. This time in my '51 Ford, which I'd fitted out with a rack that gave me support at the front, middle, and back. The pickup was 16' long. The timber 32' long. 8' overhang at both ends. I didn't pass any police and as luck would have it the ferry people were more amused than upset. Dee, bless her heart, forgave me and redid the rabbet. Even better this time. Practice makes...

Preceding this operation redo, of course, had been the lofting. A table 13'x48' painted flat white. It was great fun, lofting. I was comfortable with the medium. It was the largest drawing I had ever done. Fairly easy, actually. Station molds were also not too challenging. In retrospect, the areas I lacked information on were how best to assemble dead wood and large knees. Dee and I laminated the knee that sat on the aft of the keel. This was 5" thick and measured 9'6"x5'x6'. This was glued up in half-inch boards. That knee and the transom, which was a combination lamination strip-planked piece were labor intensive and something I wouldn't do again. In fact in hindsight I would have hired a pro like I have now for one day a week or once a month consultation an contruction techniques. Be that as it may, after finishing these laminations we eventually got the backbone set up. That was so rewarding. For about two years preceding this day, people would look around the cavernous shop and its stack of upside down station molds, the keel, gripe, stem and assorted deadwood stacked up on each other, the 86 5-gallon buckets of tire weights, gathered over three years, 3 and 4 buckets at a time, and say, "I thought you were building a boat in here?". Well, now you could see the boat.
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