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Redford Needed Some Training at Bob's Boating Camp (BLOG)

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One of the new movies has a grizzled 76-year-old Robert Redford playing a fool’s role on a 39-foot sailboat. His character is sailing single-handed on the Indian Ocean in the film named “All is Lost”. People have sailed the oceans alone and will continue to do so and I think they all are goofy risk-takers.

The lonely sailor is awakened by seas washing into the sailboat’s cabin. I’ve seen the trailer and know the boat struck a container and sustained serious damage.

The Redford character says little in the film as he struggles to fill a puncture hole in the hull with something applied with a paintbrush and climbs the mast to repair a radar for which there seemed be no DC power. The few words I heard in the trailer were the name of the boat and “SOS.” In four decades of boating I’ve heard a fair number of boaters call for help. None ever uttered “SOS.”


Other reviewers suggest the message in Redford’s flick is metaphoric and that I shouldn’t nitpick (and I have more nits in mind), but I will because it emphasizes my point: Single-handed cruising on distant waters is not a good thing to do.

I am single, but I don’t boat single-handed beyond my neighboring San Juan Islands. I doubt I’ll ever strike a container in distant waters, but should it happen one of the crew would get the dinghy and abandon ship bag overboard and ready for use while the other pushed the red button on the VHF radio to send out a distress signal—something other than SOS.

For longer trips I seek crew members capable of working the boat, can stand watch, who know something about cooking and cleaning and providing first aid in case of illness or accident – and are good company. And that lets me introduce what a good friend describes as “Bob’s Boating Camp.”

Five guys have survived volunteer crewing on my 42-foot Grand Banks on major cruises that ranged north of Vancouver Island and into the Pacific—but never out of sight of land. We were still speaking at the end of each trip and I regularly see several long after the cruises ended.

Some hints, if you’re in need of deck hands:

You can’t recruit a crew by standing up and shouting “welcome aboard – first come, first selected.” You’ve got to be careful and discrete. Volunteers responding to a billboard appeal might include some persons a skipper definitely would not want to spend three weeks with anywhere, anytime. And how do you tell them that?

The dangers are evident. Personalities may clash or a volunteer’s initial enthusiasm may wane in three-foot seas or upon learning about the need for navy showers. Well away from my home dock I learned one volunteer would not/could not cook. But he made up that flaw by cleaning up after me. Most of the time.

There are agencies that specialize in finding crew, but mostly for ocean-going vessels bound for warm and romantic destinations. I need someone good for a couple of weeks of cruising in the cool weather of the Northwest coast. It’s a splendid area, but you need sweaters and a raincoat.

Joe, my first camper, needed time at sea to qualify for a Coast Guard ticket and I gave him 10 days on the water. He eventually got the papers he needed, quit his job as an event planner in Seattle and last I heard he and his wife were volunteer crew on a large sailboat in Turkey.

I found Joe through a discrete query to Linda, a friend and former university-level teacher who became a skilled boater (along with her husband, Dave) and now teaches navigation and small boat handling. She recommended Joe, a student, and he was 4.0. He came aboard as a sailor, but he maneuvered a twin-engine motor boat with exquisite skill. (Yes, we met before departure day and had time to assess one another.)

We took Quadra across a bumpy Georgia Strait one morning, tacking to seek some comfort from rolling beam seas. He didn’t say it directly, but I believe Joe thought I delayed turning onto the last tack a bit too long.
Dave, who succeeded Joe in my guest stateroom, volunteered to be a camper after joining a quiet conversation about cruising plans at the yacht club. An experienced Southern California sailor, he and his wife had moved to the Northwest and had just bought their first power boat. He heard I was searching and decided his first look at Inside Passage cruising would be with someone who knew the route.

We crossed an arm of the Pacific north of Vancouver Island, timed a safe passage through one of the most boisterous rapids in the world, and spent a week exploring inland passages ignored by most boaters. We saw one other yacht and a prawn boat and were sort of dismayed one evening when the fishermen anchored within about 300 yards of us. Dave’s California sailing experience served him well, except in connecting a shore tie to an abandoned logging dump on a low tide.

 Dave, an ex-Californian, overwhelmed by a hidden anchorage.

Dave, an ex-Californian, overwhelmed by a hidden anchorage.

Dave and his wife, Joanne, spent nearly three months cruising up the coast in their power boat the following summer. Another quality graduate.

He was succeeded by Bill, an experienced sailor on Long Island Sound before moving west for his retirement years. He had heard through my hushed yacht club grapevine that I was searching for crew and stepped up. He helped take the boat home and we overnighted at the best marinas in lower British Columbia.

At Ganges on Saltspring Island he exhibited the agility and strength of a teen in getting a mooring line around the bull rail before the wind blew us away. We celebrated that soft landing by hiking to the pub at the head of the dock where the barkeep recommended the best dark beer (“made by a guy down the road”) I have ever sipped in Canada. Bill got home, fell in love and I doubt he’ll be buying a boat. Too bad, he knows what it’s all about.

Another Bill, a retired airline pilot, one-time sports car driver/owner and a super chef, helped me take Quadra north last summer. He and his wife had just bought their first powerboat and he wanted to check out B.C. waters with me before they ventured out on their own.

Beyond his fabled cooking skills – everything was made from scratch – he handled the boat well, navigated with his I Pad and solved an electrical problem that stalled the anchor windlass on a dark morning. He also had a lifetime of good stories to tell.

We hiked from Grace Harbor to a small lake with a sailing couple from Alberta. We surveyed fresh bear tracks in muddy sections of the trail, but kept going. The woman from the sailboat blew a whistle occasionally without warning. Her first whistles scared me more than the bears we didn’t see. The Canadians were good company and she cheered us later with a pan of muffins warm from the oven.

Someone told us there was a nude beach in the harbor. I couldn’t imagine anyone putting bare skin down on the rocky shore, but we unloaded kayaks and went looking. Sure enough. No nudes.
Bill got home and he and his wife soon were cruising on their new boat.

Succeeding Bill was Kent, my last camper of the 2013 season. A former Army special forces medic and some kind of federal agent (think CIA), now retired, he was the quiet one. Unlike all my other campers, Kent had little to say about his career or life before moving west. I think I know why.

After I skinned several layers of skin from a finger he told me the wound would heal faster without the bandage I found in the first aid kit. He was right.

Kent moved from the East Coast to a Seattle suburb determined to become a boater. He was a student in Linda’s classes and came highly recommended. He also signed up for Coast Guard Auxiliary training. But he had zero time on a boat at sea.

He used a personal iPad to navigate, plotted each day’s courses and loaded them into the ship’s navigation computer and took the helm for hours. He knew the techniques for docking and picking up a mooring, but had to learn that slow and easy can be better than a roaring-engine approach. He planned to take additional classes in boat handling later in the summer to qualify him to charter a yacht. Hus ultimate goal was to a buy a boat; I thought he was on a smart learning curve.

 Tides hereabouts can be quite a challenge.

Tides hereabouts can be quite a challenge.

Together we explored Mound Island and wondered if the row of rectangular depressions in the forest really had been the site of prehistoric lodgings inhabited long before Europeans arrived aboard square rigged sailing vessels late in the 18th Century. A huge shell midden on the beach was proof that First Nations people had been there many, many years.

Unlike Joe, Kent knew nothing about tacking. He learned during another crossing of Georgia Strait that seas on the bow are much better than seas on the beam.

Kent also is the guy who didn’t cook. Our last night out we dined extremely well at Vinny’s, a mighty fine restaurant up the hill in Friday Harbor. I was so pleased not to cook that I picked up the tab.
One newspaper reviewer compared Redford’s “All is Lost” to the space epic titled “Gravity.” The writer missed the basic fact that Sandra Bullock survived because it was not a single-handed adventure and that George Clooney gave his life to assure her survival. None of my campers would be asked to make that sacrifice.
Had any of my guys been aboard Redford’s sailboat he would have been on watch (as required by law) and saved the actor’s bacon and forced a new title for the film. More likely, there would have been no story, metaphoric or not.

That might have been good. SOS indeed.

PassageMaker magazine contributor Bob Lane's blog is published monthly.