Fred Leaves The Dock

My Wake Soutbound from Point Roberts after clearing US customs
My Wake
Southbound from Point Roberts after clearing US customs
Into the night. it was one of those evenings when the sky and the light begged photographing everywhere
Into the night.
it was one of those evenings when the sky and the light begged photographing everything everywhere
Shining mountain, Shining ship A loaded tanker at the Cherry Point WA refinery dock, Mount Baker in the background
Shining mountain, Shining ship
A loaded tanker at the Cherry Point WA refinery dock, Mount Baker in the background
Flight When all fails, look up then fly away
When all fails, look up then fly away

I’m starting to write this aboard ‘Seafire’ while moored at the Victoria Harbour Commission Wharf Street dock. Victoria was a very old queen and it is the Victoria Day holiday long weekend when we celebrate that long-lived monarch. There are also a few more old queens here in Victoria, English or not. (It’s up to you how you take that) So one excuse is as good as another to have a celebration. It’s a sunny Sunday with a lovely westerly breeze. Folks are out having a good time. Food concessions are booming, the squares are full of live music while vendors in white kiosks tempt the crowds with wonderful treasures. There is a happy din of buskers, marching bands and general mayhem. I’m sitting in the boat watching and hearing it all, feeling weary and waiting for guests.

Thalia Bee My neighbour at the dock on the Victoria waterfront
Thalia Bee
My neighbour at the dock on the Victoria waterfront

I’ve been up since one o’clock this morning when I weighed anchor in Port Townsend. It seems that whenever I need to make this wonderful crossing, the best ebb tide to ride back home to Canada is in the wee hours. There wasn’t much wind, thankfully. When a Westerly blows against the tide in the Strait of Juan De Fuca a small boat is left bashing and swirling like a bug in a toilet. On the tugs we called it the Strait of “Wanna Puke Ya”. The strait is like an inland sea. It is huge. It drains the entire massive Strait of Georgia and all its tributaries, as well as Puget Sound and its mountain tributaries. Mixing with the infinity of the vast North Pacific, the tides swell back and forth twice a day.

Dawn on Juan De Fuca Strait
Dawn on Juan De Fuca Strait

The Southern side of the Strait is guarded by the imposing Olympic Mountains so-named, allegedly, by Juan De Fuca, a Greek pilot with the earliest Spanish Explorers. I’ve no way of knowing if the story is true but it always come to mind when I’m out there dodging freighters, nuclear submarines, fishing boats, tugboats, and miscellaneous other vessels from anywhere around the world. If rough seas and marine traffic don’t keep you awake, there are copious logs and other flotsam to go bump in the night. I try to imagine being in this cold, remorseless piece of ocean, with not one light ashore, where only the towering timber crowded down to the shore. Neither were there any lights to mark the reefs and banks and points waiting to snag the luckless or unwary. Was this possibly the fabled Northwest Passage, the express lane back to the other side of the planet? Was it the edge of the world? Imagine the imaginings while standing aboard a small wooden ship that was slowly being eaten by ship worms as you sailed into the unknown. You had no engine, no charts, no electronics. Only your intuitive seamanship kept you alive as you sailed into this uncharted realm. Eventually, amazingly, you found your way all the way back home to Europe again.

Under the D, a weary sailor tries to catch a little sleep
Under the D,
a weary sailor tries to catch a little sleep

Last night I Listened to an Asian accent on my VHF radio calling repeatedly for Tofino Traffic Control on the frequency for Victoria Traffic. He insisted despite being advised several times of the correct radio channel to use. A small matter about a twenty-thousand ton or more freighter confused about places a hundred miles apart in the ‘Graveyard Of The Pacific’. (Perhaps the terror about foreign tankers invading our coastal inlets to export our crude oil is justified.) When I pulled into my berth here, the wharfinger expressed amazement at my ability to dock my boat alone. I, in turn, am amazed at his wonder. Is basic seamanship becoming worthy of mention? Mind you, the fabulous million-dollar Ocean Alexander power yacht tied ahead of me is registered to Bend, Oregon! Huh? That’s a very long way from the sea, nearly half-way to Kansas in fact. “Dorothy? Hello Dorothy!’ “Is that you Roger? Roger!”

Beamliner, a nautical yuppy
Beamliner, a nautical yuppy!

Have you ever noticed how Bureaucrats love to move their, excuse me, our facilities and offices around. One of the great Canadian games has become trying to find a post office. No don’t go to the old post office building, it’s something else now. Victoria is a great example. It is quite unreasonable to expect a government office to be in the same place two years running. The new address is seldom in the newest phone book. On my way into the harbour I noticed a new dock in front of the Coast Hotel Marina. There was no legible sign saying CANADA CUSTOMS, only little grey signboards and a tiny phone box on a post in the middle of the dock. It looked suspiciously official so I swung the boat in for a closer look at the little signs. Sure enough!

I made fast and went to the phone box with ship’s documents and passport. I lifted the receiver. A recorded voice explained in French that if I wanted service in English to please press button one. There were no buttons! I imagined a burly Amurican son in the same situation. “Dang, these Canajians sure do parlé the old Espanol kinda funny!” Eventually a live Anglophone voice began asking who I was and where I was calling from. I explained in puzzlement that I was using the official telephone on the Canada Customs dock in front of the Coast Hotel. Eventually it occurred to me to add “In Victoria….BC…. Canada”. There was a pregnant pause, I assume while this person, in Ottawa or New Brunswick (Or Washington DC) in an underground office, confirmed there was such a place. I was promptly given a clearance number after a few more cursory questions. “Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Hit Me! Somebody went boink on the center-line
Hit Me!
Somebody went boink on the center-line

I’m not complaining about the cavalier treatment. After all the searches and surly interrogations I’ve endured from both Canadian and US Customs and Immigration officials this was too easy. I at least expected a quiz about illegal bananas or swarthy terrorists lurking in my bilge. Nada. Nothing. Rien. Eh bien! I expect we’ll be having our taxes raised yet again.

By another stroke of luck I actually found fifty feet of empty dock space into which I could tie my forty-four feet of boat (Including her guns and appurtenances). So I did. After the wharfinger made it clear whom he felt was boss (The Victoria Harbour Commission has always made it clear ‘Zat you VILL occomodate Zem’ …. this despite being the first live folks you talk to in the biggest tourist town in Canada) but then went on to compliment me on my boat handling. I’ll forgive him his officiousness….this time. I suppose it IS normal to see boats crashing into other boats with a plenitude of shaking fists, waving boat hooks and high drama. My flat response is that I read about how to do it in a magazine. There’s no point in trying to explain about a lifetime at sea.

The old customs house in Victoria Harbour
The old customs house
in Victoria Harbour

Do people compliment a flight crew on a successful landing? There are some things you’re expected to do right. Aren’t there?

Victoria was throbbing with the various activities of a long weekend as well as the wind-up for the Swiftsure race next weekend. This is a famous non-stop sailing race from Victoria out to Swiftsure Bank and back to the harbour. The race leaves one day, runs through the night and ends sometime the next day depending on wind and current, and the management thereof.

S.A.L.T.S, vessels Pacific Swift and Pacific Grace...NOT Swiftsure racers!
S.A.L.T.S, vessels Pacific Swift and Pacific Grace…NOT Swiftsure racers!

It has evolved into a huge international event and the preparlibations require a week’s head start. I had a great visit with my good friend Tony Gibb who with his partner Connie are visiting their old home port. Their boat is currently stored in Phuket for the monsoon season. Their adventures and photos are documented on their blog “Sage On Sail.” (There’s a direct link in the side bar of this blog)They have both been a tremendous inspiration to me and their blog provided the impetus for this one. Tony and I visited on the same dock where I last saw him and Connie. They threw a huge party with the carefully traditional ceremony of officially renaming their sailboat ‘Sage.’ That was three years ago. Already. I also had a lovely visit with my daughter and her friends and felt ready to deal with life for a few more days, especially after the flu ordeal. I’m almost feeling whole again.

There's 50 ways to leave this town
There’s 50 ways to leave this town
Take the third Otter on the left
Take the third Otter on the left
Don't laugh it's almost paid for ...A liveaboard boat in Victoria Harbour, 70 feet of waterfront unreal estate
Don’t laugh it’s almost paid for!
…A liveaboard boat in Victoria Harbour,
70 feet of waterfront unreal estate


Downtown Victoria, my kind of high-rise
Downtown Victoria, my kind of high-rise

This morning I’m lolling about in Montague Harbour, half-way home to Silva Bay from Victoria. I’m in no rush, I have to wait out a substantial ebb tide. There’s no point in trying to fight a tide when a bit of waiting will put you at the same place at the same time without burning a large amount of fuel. Sailing, in part, is about dealing with what you are handed. My work will be still be there when I get back. I’m listening to a wonderful radio station based on nearby Saltspring Island. It’s called CFSI Green FM and is one of the best music mixes I’ve heard. It is a commercial station, but even the ads are nicely done. And… it has no news broadcasts! Dead luvly! You can find it online by taping in Green and I’m happy to make this plug.

Trial Island Light, Port bow. note the sails have been scrubbed.
Trial Island Light, Port bow.
note the sails have been scrubbed.

By the way, what does the term” Sustaining member” bring to mind? This raunchy old salt immediately conjured up some very bawdy images. Yeah baby! It is actually what I heard NPR radio calling folks who donate funds. Sponsor, donor, patron are words now supplanted by “Sustaining member.” God bless the politically correct. Or as Billy Connolly says, “Bloody Beigeists!”

The light was on, but nobody was home! A solar panel at the Trial Island Light Station, now unmanned
The light was on, but nobody was home!
A solar panel at the Trial Island Light Station, now unmanned.

Speaking of politically correct, I conversed this past weekend with a brassy American woman who told me she hated Mexico because it was “Full of Mexicans.” I replied that I understood the US had the same problem. “ Huh?” she ruminated. “Well,” I said, “It’s full of Mexicans too. They do your dirty work!” Nope, no phone number from that one.

Arbutus Trees in full bloom, achoo!
Arbutus Trees in full bloom, achoo!

I’m now finishing this blog back in Silva Bay. The flu symptoms cling on but it’s time to go back to grubbing for some income. The weather is fine with a threat of rain and the latest spring flowers are putting on their show. The Arbutus trees are in full bloom and the air has a cloying tang as if someone got carried away with the bathroom air freshener. My sinus passages are quivering. I hope it does rain and scrub the air.

Yep he's home again! More damned flowers
Yep he’s home again! More damned flowers
The Broom is already going to seed. Achoo again1
The Broom is already going to seed. Achoo again!
Arbutus root burl
Arbutus root burl

Old Lord Nelson once said that ships and men rot in port. After five days away from the dock I’ve been reacquainted with the reality of what this old boat is really about. That was long overdue. It’s meant to go places. She does that very well. The old prune barge is fast, stable, comfortable and easy to run and she’s paid for. She draws compliments from all who see her, even other seasoned mariners and land lubbers too. I’ve left her lines singled so we can cut loose again. Soon.

Forest Mystery
Forest Mystery

Inner Weight

A ship heels in wind and sails well because it has inner weight.

With inner weight, we yield to the way of things and move just-so in the winds of the world.

When inner weight has been found, trust its deep and constant balance.

From this centre that no one can explain, the difficult is made easy and adversity is mastered. But no one knows how.”

… Ray Grigg, ‘The Tao Of Sailing’



Walking and Thinking

I’m on the ferry again. It’s May 7th already, two days past Cinco de Mayo, or Independance Day in Mexico. Apparently there are signs of the coming rainy season as it becomes unbearably humid and hot. It’s time to head inland to the higher altitudes of the mountains. The locals stay where they are and survive as best they can. Next year I’ll be able to do that, go to the mountains that is. I’ll have my trailer. I’m on my way to pick it up today. I’m excited that another piece of the plan is falling into place although I’m a bit subdued with a bout of flu. Don’t worry, I’ve washed my hands and I’ll turn my head to cough.

Camas Flower, The natives used the bulbs of these as a food source.
Camas Flower,
The natives used the bulbs of these as a food source.

It is a lovely time of year to become infected with some ugly bug. I suspect it has something to do with the nasty, mouldy old sanding dust that sneaks under my mask while working on the vintage Cheoy Lee. I’ll soon have the interior finished and as our rainy season finally eases I’ll start ripping up and rebuilding the decks. Hopefully I’ll have the antibodies for whatever lurks within that spongy mess. This project has become what feels like a career. It goes on and on. I intend that this be the last boat project I ever take on. I find it frustrating that everything takes so long to accomplish, due in part to the simple fact that I no longer possess a younger man’s zeal and energy. The boat’s owner is happy with my work and certainly observers (Yes, with spring comes the return of the ubiquitous dock inspectors) all offer favourable reports. This is a job that requires an older man’s patience but the ability to wiggle and contort into awkward places is getting much harder. I’m definitely no longer the willowy kid whose clothes I once wore.

While I work I often listen to CBC radio. Usually it’s Radio 2 where the odd gem of music is heard within the manure pile of repeated cliché cacophonies. I understand the need for Canadian content but surely there are more than the same ten tunes. Sometime for a break in monotonies I listen to Radio 1 which, quite often, is an endless diatribe of interviews about meaningless issues. Occasionally someone actually has something to say worth listening to. Recently, a professor from an obscure Midwestern university offered a very interesting conjecture on the relationship between physical activity and creative thinking. He offered several examples of writers and composers whose daily artistic regimen includes walks of several hours. Thoreau is an easy example. Then there was Forest Gump.

Where the giants fell, second growth forest, now a nature preserve on Gabriola Island
Where the giants fell,
second growth forest, now a nature preserve on Gabriola Island

This academic extrapolation explained that the human brain is a computer which is maximized by the electro-chemical stimulus produced by prolonged moderate physical activity. It is the way we are biologically engineered. We need to get up to operating temperature for full function. Walking, jogging, bicycling, rowing and swimming in their many forms, or any other ambulant activity, are fundamental to clear creative thinking and problem-solving. This now rather Rubenesque writer can recall all the years of mornings that began with a long swim in the nearest pool. Even when travelling on business, if at all possible, my first event of the day was that swim. I joked about going to the “Think tank”. Often, while doing my lengths, I’d be able to think out a business problem or some other conundrum. I wrote two novels and many stories sifting through the many plot challenges and character developments, in part, while swimming.

Surrealscape, Jack, tidal pool inspector at Gabriola Pass on a low tide
Jack, tidal pool inspector at Gabriola Pass on a low tide

I know, I know, I live on a boat, what’s my excuse now? There is no swimming pool available on Gabriola Island. Somehow the romance of wriggling into a still-damp and cold wet suit to leap off the dock into murky ice-cold water and plunking around the bay eludes my personal discipline. I suppose rowing is the next logical routine and I offer no excuse other than the many nasty weather days. Certainly, in places like Mexico, each day begins for me with a long swim out to sea. Breakfast is taken nearer to noon, one meal of the day is eliminated and life is good. At home my dog Jack demands his daily constitutions and apart from the ambling we do, all that shouting for him to come back is good for the lungs.

Jack on point, dawn patrol
Jack on point, dawn patrol

While on the subject of higher creativity I should thank all those who take the time to send positive comments and questions about the photos in this blog and on my Flickr photostream. And actually no, there have been no negative remarks. Really! You’re all so kind. One person has even asked for longer blogs!

I don’t want to write any photography manuals in response to the questions about how I take succesful photographs but I will try to respond succinctly. There is no subsitute for practice. I began taking photographs when I was was seven or eight years old. I found someone’s discarded Kodak Brownie camera. It used 120 roll film available, I believe, in eight and twelve frame rolls. I remember having to seal the camera case with adhesive tape to block light leaks and saving pennies and nickles to get the film. There was a mail service that provided a fresh roll of film with each set of prints. The cost was probably about two dollars. Every frame was a carefully considered captial expense.

Even then I was more interested in composing an artistic image rather than accumulating contrived mug shots like everyone else. Yeah I was always weird. Having a talent for sketching I slowly evolved to painting with watercolours. Then I began photographing scenes so the light remained constant for my paintings. I eventually discovered the darkroom and became a madman locked away in a tiny compartment, hot and fumey, as I learned the art of photographic printing in black and white, colour and cibachrome. Over decades I’ve catalogued thousands of stock images. It doesn’t seem so long ago that when submitting a magazine article, one was required to provide slides with the manuscript. No one was geared up yet for digital images.

Now digital photography is standard technolgy and film manufacturers like the giant Kodak are gone. There’s a generation now which doesn’t at all understand the Simon and Garfunkle song about Kodachrome. The great thing about digital images is that people can freely treat photography as any blend of science and art they chose. Some old arguments can be put to rest. The one that used to inflame me was that the photographer didn’t take the picture, the camera did. My retort was to ask if it were the brush or the artist who painted a picture.

Manipulated Image
Manipulated Image

With the photo programs now available anyone can manipulate their images to suite needs and whims. It is easy now to prove that photos can indeed lie. There is no more chemical trickery required to process film and prints in carcenogenic darkrooms and there is no concern about cost each time you release the shutter. One other joy of digital photography is the immediacy it provides. The shot I’m posting of the swallows, taken through a blurry plexiglass window, was a digital file number ready to share with the world within two minutes of taking the shot. It’s a technically weak image because of the plexiglass, but it was available in seconds. Nevertheless, the basic principles remain, no matter how easy it is to collect images. The first is that light travels at a constant speed. The second is that no camera can ever determine composition, envison what your creative imagination can see nor determine what lighting will best produce the desired final image.

Birds on a wire, two Purple Martins outside a window on 'Seafire'
Birds on a wire,
two Purple Martins outside a window on ‘Seafire’

Good photographs cannot be attributed to what sort of equipment you use. For the past few months I’ve tried to limit my photography to one simple pocket camera. I’ve used an Olympus T-2 which is a pretty basic camera. It is frustratingly slow some times and is not able to handle certain light conditions well but it can produce some great photos and takes me back to working the basics. There is no hope with this little camera of machine-gunning an image and hoping to find the best shot later. Even mobile phones can produce great photos if the photographer understands lighting and how the camera lense works.

It is simple. Because the speed of light is a uncompressible constant, a correct exposure requires that only a specific amount of light can be used to make a proper image. So if an aperture is opened to a value of f4 for an exposure time of, let’s say, 1/60th of a second, the same exposure value can be made at f8 for 1/30th of a second, or half the light for twice as long. An advantage of a slower speed and smaller aperture is greater depth of field in the image. The slower shutter speed however means that the chance of blurring the image due to camera movement is greater. Faster shutter speeds offer shallower depths of field but also facilitate sharply freezing a moving subject.

If I’m trying to be technical I should explain briefly about f-stops. They are simply a way of expressing a ratio of the diameter of a lense aperture to the focal length of that lense. If a lense is 100mm long, an f-stop of 4 means the aperture is open at a diameter of 25mm. F8 would be a diameter of 12.5mm. We need to be able to control that opening in order to control depth of field and to control the speed, or amount of time the lense is open, to shot moving objects. Some older cameras were considered fast if they had a shutter speed of of 1/500th of a second. Now cameras can freeze action at speeds measured in several thousandths of a second. Digital cameras can provide shutter speeds so incredibly fast that we can see the progress of things in freeze-frame like the progress of a bullet piecing the skin of a balloon.

Another explanation is to regard a camera as a crude copy of an eyeball. The shutter is a copy of the pupil opening and closing in response to the amount of available light. A great way of understanding this is to check out ‘F Numbers’ on Wikipedia. They provide diagrams and math equations. Most photographers simply keep their cameras in auto and let the camera do the thinking but until you understand the unholy trinity of aperture, focal length and shutter speed, you own’t be in total control of your photography.

Some photography classes required students begin by using disposable film cameras until it was understood that the photographer makes the photo, not the camera.  That is why I never display technical information about any photograph. Shutter speeds, f-stops, lenses, filters, ISO and any other techno-gibberish are irrelevant, even perhaps detracting, to appreciating an image; in my opinion.

Expensive high quality cameras, and the myriad of available lenses only reduce the effort required in achieving a specific image. Most modern cameras are so loaded with optional functions that the process of taking good photographs can be quite bewildering. Don’t worry about all those sales features, just stick to the basics.

A poor photographer might have difficulty making good images with an expensive Hassleblad and a good photographer can take winners using any camera.

Seize the moment, see the moment
Seize the moment, see the moment

Photography is the art of seeing, it is as simple as that. I’m always happy to answer questions on this subject but first open your eyes to really see what’s there. Take plenty of photos until you began to understand the process for yourself. This takes us back to walking and thinking.

This winner was taken by a friend in Mexico. How many people passed this amazing frame without ever seeing it?
This winner was taken by a friend in Mexico. How many people passed this amazing frame without ever seeing it?

For me, the process of walking and thinking while taking photographs can be very cathartic and uplifting. To be able to break down the world around me into single, simple moments of focused observation and clear interesting images helps me re-establish my tiny place in the universe. When I come home without any images I know I’m having a bad day. Of course taking a dog along almost guarantees some good pictures.

The most indelible images are the ones which you never manage to get into a camera. For example I was whizzing along a highway in Mexico, with heavy trucks behind trying to push me even faster. There was no daring to stopping. Then, in the gathering night, I saw an amazing sight in one fleeting moment. A brickmaker had fired up his kiln and the golden glow of that inferno will be forever imbedded on the hard drive in the back of my skull. The fire-tinged outline of each brick, the sillouette of the workers, the reflected light on a huge stack of waiting firewood and some children’s faces, it’s all there, a full stop. Whatever works for you, take some time to stay in touch with the planet that sustains you. It’s a wonderful place. Class dismissed!

The trailer!
The trailer!

The trailer! It’s mine now, bought and paid for. Yep, more damned stuff! Two weeks ago it all seemed impossible. I’m cashless for the moment but I’ve got a huge component in the progress of my dream. I’m posting some grab shots taken of it on the way home. For now I’m scheming the best way to arrange versatile accomodations inside to suit my needs. Then I’ll be hitting the road. Meanwhile ‘Seafire’ needs plenty of attention. I can see a very busy summer ahead.

Jack approves
Jack approves
The rest of the story
The rest of the story

By the way, a final note on the art of seeing. Remember that washed-out photo of tiny birds sitting on a lifeline after a morning rain? I forgot to mention the most wonderfully obvious thing of all. The purple martins are back!