I love tying up at the docks. Anchoring out is wonderful, but being able to meet new and unusual people is always welcome after weeks of challenge and solitude. One of my favourite marinas is Thomas Basin in Ketchikan, Alaska. It has an entry that is easy to miss, as it is tucked in behind a great sea wall and the cruise ship dock. This solid wall of cruise ships makes Skagway look like a sleepy fishing port in comparison…the crowds and noise are exciting for a few days, but only just a few. Soon you begin to listen for the bell that herds the cattle back on board the cruise ship and THEN you head for town. At night-time a forty-foot high wall of ship lights flickers shadowy daylight to the docks.
On our first moorage in Ketchikan we are fortunate to borrow a temporary berth from a fisherman who is out trying his luck with his fishing nets. The Harbour Master shows up minutes after we’ve docked, gives his nod of approval and welcomes us to Ketchikan. This is our first port of entry into the U.S. after heading north from Prince Rupert, B.C. Canada.
The Captain calls customs and asks how they would like us to proceed…the customs lady is very nice, she also welcomes us and states that she is glad that we have made port, they had been expecting us two days earlier and were concerned. We had reported to customs in Prince Rupert and given them a rough ETA for Ketchikan. The infamous Dixon Entrance gave us a run for our money and our lives, so we were a little late.
It is suggested that we walk up to the pink building that houses customs and sign in, we can see it from the stern. The Potlatch Bar is at the top of the ramp; it has a laundry attached to the side of it and definitely is the centre of all social activity on the docks. If you want to check the weather, the fishing conditions, find someone who knows how to deal with a 32 consta-volt system off of an antique boat, this is the place.
The top of the ramp features an assortment of bicycles, all coloured rust in different degrees. These bikes are a definite sign of “live-a-boards” on the docks, a dirty word in some places of imagined importance. Live-aboards are people who live aboard their boats, seafaring gypsies they are. Although sadly some of them end up as harbour Queens (boats that for one reason or another never leave the docks). I would like to say in defence of that, I believe anyway of living on the ocean is better than no way of living on the ocean.
Live-a-boards are some of the most interesting people that you’ll ever meet. There are plenty of questions about boats and living aboard that are never ending to a greenhorn. These are the people that may answer your questions. They need to be approached cautiously, never presume that they want talk to you, never mind answering your obviously childish questions. After direct attempts at establishing contact I’ve learned that reverse physiology seems to be the best non-approach. Swabbing the decks is always open to comment and the makings of new friends.
Audrey’s good looks and age attract the boating community and soon repair stories and preventative ideas spring upward and the conversation begins to grow skyward. There always needs to be an inspection of each other’s boats and this should now be discussed over coffee on board of course. It’s so much fun!!
A 32 volt system always opens dialogue…things like “Oh, yeah, I remember that, my grandpa had that on his fishing boat,” this from a fifty-year old. When you are looking for parts for this antiquated system that we use aboard the AUDREY ELEANOR, they are difficult to find, but the quest may lead you to people like Only.
His name is Only; he is a draft dodger that lives on an Island close to Ketchikan, that is populated with other draft dodgers from the 60’s. They have since received amnesty, but their ideals and lifestyle have developed into a self-sufficient, ‘there is nothing wrong with things as they are’, challenge any form of authority kind of idealism that we used to see in the Yukon, it kind of felt like the good old days in Dawson City. They believe in barter and bow before the god of ‘hordism’. (Throw nothing away, ever)
Thank goodness they throw nothing away, they have 32-volt system parts for all kinds of things. Only is our man, he replaces our consta-volt and we have to repay him with rum in the Potlatch Bar.
Only also shows up to work bringing us dinner. Fresh Red Snapper filets that one of the fisherman is giving away on the dock to locals. The fisherman setting deep nets for halibut are also pulling up Red Snappers, by regulation they are required to “process” them. It isn’t unusual to see huge red snappers floating around the dock with teaspoon-sized fillets scooped out of their sides. This minimum of work in ‘processing’ deems that the silly regulation requirement has been met.
The floating dentist and his wife Jennifer pulled into the berth across from us on our last night at Thomas Basin. Their boat is home made, called the “Jenny” is about 45’ in length; she is a big bottomed girl, with a great wide beam of 15’. Wide beams are lovely things in rough seas and I have a definite soft spot for the ride and security of them. The Jenny and her crew have been cruising the coast of Alaska for 25 years. They now winter in the Southern U.S., but spent numerous years living aboard in Alaska. They raised their two daughters aboard but moved south when the girls needed higher education.
Appointments are set up in the early spring for all small coastal communities the ‘Jenny’ then spends the summer stopping at all the ports and fixing teeth. You enter their boat from a walk through on the aft deck; plants and two small trees are growing in pots that frame the doorway. The first room you enter is the dental office, complete with all of the dental equipment that you never want to see.
There is a full sized dental chair that can be curtained off from the reception area; it is exactly what you would see in a dentist office located ashore, with a little wave motion thrown in. Those of you who come into marinas under power, thinking that the “no wake” signs are meant for somebody else remember this. There could be some poor bugger in that dentist chair about to get drilled.
Jennifer invites us into their very cosy galley and saloon for tea. Their saloon is heated with the smallest wood stove that I have ever seen. The firewood must have been cut with an electric knife. It is early spring so the nights on the water are cool; the wood fire looks and smells wonderful. (Can you imagine, they burn cedar wood down there!)? The Dentist proceeds to tell us stories of rogue waves and funnel winds that would rip the house off of your boat, currents that suck you into the depths of Davey Jones’s locker etc, etc. Why in the hell would he still be on the sea?
After he works himself into a frenzy of terror he leaves us and the boat to walk the dock in an attempt to calm down. His wife Jennifer is sitting in the saloon looking like a poster wife of the 1950’s, her hair coiffed, her nail polish matches her shoes and she has on one of those frilly little aprons that my grandma used to wear on special occasions. She exclaims “Oh my, isn’t he just such a snoopy dog!” “Would you like more tea?” We are sitting with our mouths hanging open, not sure about what happened or what she means by the ‘snoopy dog’ thing.
It turns out that they had extremely bad experiences with the seas in Southeast Alaska and this is a ritual for the Dentist. Before they left the docks at Ketchikan, he exorcised his demons by visualizing and verbalizing all of the worst possibilities before they set out for the summer. I hope this drama worked for him, it left me with nightmares.
P.S. September 01, is the cut off day in the U.S. for most of the insurers of recreational boats. This is one of the reasons for the mass exodus of boats to the south, they have to be below Queen Charlotte Sound for their insurance to be valid after Sept 01, besides the weather just gets miserable. Like the Captain says “Any fool can cruise the inside passage in the summer time, it takes a serious fool to do it in the winter.” We resemble that remark.