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Chapter 1 – There’s a Collection of Old Men on the Dock

More Faster Backwards | Pacific Northwest Maritime | Memoir

IT WAS JUST OVER EIGHT YEARS since we first saw her. In fact it was eight years, nineteen days and a handful of hours since she became ours. Jeffrey stood in the doorway of the pilothouse. “Ready for the bowline,” he said with a grin.

My stomach was nervous with excitement and apprehension while I waited for Jeffrey to say those words. The David B, was heading back to Alaska for the first time since she was launched in 1929. Only this time we were taking her to Juneau to carry passengers.

I looked at the collection of old men who had been drawn to the David B while she waited to get underway. It was the sound of the boat’s antique engine that brought them here. It happens every time. “Ka-Pow!” The ancient engine starts. “Ching-ching-ching… Ching-ching-ching.” It begins its mechanical waltz, then a few smoke-rings rise from the stack, and poof — old men seem to spontaneously generate out of thin air. Most days when they come, they come armed with questions about cylinders, injectors, stroke and bore, gears, RPM and horsepower. More often when they come it’s to reminisce about their youth.

“How many cylinders ya got there?” one of the men asked Jeffrey as he walked up.

“Three cylinders, with a gear.” Jeffrey smiled from his perch in the pilothouse. The David B’s reverse gear is always a surprise to the old timers who grew up with engines that could not go into reverse without first shutting down.

Jeffrey continued to answer questions while Sean and I worked together to untie the lines holding the David B to the dock.

‘Excuse me,” I said to the man who had now parked himself in front of the boarding gate. He moved out of the way and continued to ask Jeffrey about the boat’s engine.

David B Cruises | More Faster Backwards | Bellingham | Boat Rebuild

Aaron, our engineer and business partner, was standing on the back deck with a fender. He looked up at the stack and noted the color of the smoke. He was nervous, but stood leaning suavely on his fender, looking good in his sunglasses, Bowling Green University Ski-Team sweatshirt, and slightly baggy shorts. His girlfriend, Havilah, was on board, and I think he wanted to make a good impression.

I’m not sure we’d have the boat today if it weren’t for Aaron. As a twenty-something, he’d sacrificed a lot for the boat, the least of which was living in our eight-hundred square foot house with us, married people in their mid-thirties.

Aaron had inherited some money from his grandfather, and with some encouragement from his parents, he’d invested it in the David B. In the year and a half he had been living with us, he had won our hearts with his humor, hard work, and sleep habits. We’d asked a lot of this 24-year old and he had always kept up with the pace. I watched him for a minute, jealous that his medium build could still metabolize a six-pack of beer and bag of Cheetos with no obvious effect.

I shifted my gaze from Aaron to Sean, who was on the foredeck gathering up the dock lines and putting them away. He had been working for us as a shipwright for the last six months to help get the David B ready for this trip, and now that the carpentry was done he was ready to help out as Mate. I turned around to close the gate and smiled at the man on the dock. He stepped back from the boat and stood still in place with his arms limp at his sides. He smiled back at me with a distant look in his eyes. I wondered what long-ago memories the sound of the David B’s engine sparked in him. When he was young the harbor would have been filled with the distinct sounds of engines from Washington Iron Works, Atlas-Imperial, Enterprise, and Fairbanks-Morse. I sighed to myself at the sight of the slightly overweight, flannel-clad man on the dock as he listened to the David B’s 3-cylinder Washington-Estep.

“Ka-snap” and a long “shhhhhhhhh” of compressed air came from the engine room as Jeffrey shifted the David B into reverse. Slowly we began to slide away from the dock.

Jeffrey spun the big wooden wheel and gently pushed the long handled brass shifter forward. Another rush of compressed air, “sushhhh.”

I looked back at Aaron and then to the row of fiberglass yachts behind us. The aft end of the David B’s big black wooden hull neared them. Aaron shifted his stance and readied his two-foot long rubber fender that seemed ridiculously too small to fend off our 135,000-pound boat from the shiny-white fiberglass yacht directly behind us.

More Faster Backwards | Captian Jeffrey SmithJeffrey worked to maneuver the David B out of her slip by shifting in and out of gear. I gathered the lines from the back deck, smiled nervously to Aaron, then went forward, stopping for a moment at the pilothouse door to watch Jeffrey as he cajoled the David B back and forth. Between each bump of power he let the boat coast just a bit, all the while taking in the feel of her momentum. Jeffrey worked the boat with the skill of a lover. Every movement she made, he watched carefully to see how she responded to his commands, the light breeze and the incoming tide.

The sun was shining into the pilothouse and onto Jeffrey’s tall thin runner’s body as he maneuvered the boat from our tight slip. I watched him pause, turn around and crouch down to look out the back windows. It was a beautiful dance to watch. He loved this boat and whatever he asked her to do, she loved him back with a predictable response that showed how much they already understood one another. We cleared the row of yachts behind us, and Jeffrey straightened up the David B. As we headed out of the harbor, people stood on their decks waving and cheering us on. A couple horns sounded in congratulations. Jeffrey sounded back. These people knew us, and they knew how long and how hard we had worked on the David B to get to this day. We rounded the breakwater and entered Bellingham Bay.

It was Sunday, a good day to start a journey. We had carefully planned to avoid leaving on a Friday since it is bad luck, and Sean, who’s well versed in the superstitions of sailors, was pleased with our decision. He helped increase our good luck for a safe journey the night before by rearranging the mugs hanging in the galley to make sure they were all facing the proper way, banishing bananas, and informing us that both whistling and cutting our fingernails into the water were strictly forbidden.

Although it was a warm June day, it felt good to stand in the galley next to the warmth of the crackling wood-fired cook-stove while I organized the pots and pans. On the bridge deck Jeffrey and Sean discussed the long list of projects that needed to be completed while we were underway. Aaron passed by me on his way down to the engine room. He needed to do his top-of-the-hour engine check. It had been roughly 30 years since the engine had been run regularly and we didn’t know any of its habits. With that in mind, Aaron’s plan was to check the engine’s temperatures every fifteen minutes, and then every other hour he would oil all 72 moving parts on the outside of the old Washington. He had been down there long enough for me to forget about him and we weren’t much further than Eliza Island, when he came up out of the engine room with his forehead creased.

“Dude,” Aaron interrupted the guys. “Something’s up with the thrust bearing. I don’t know what’s going on, but the temp’s going though the roof. It’s a hundred and eighty degrees. We need to shut down pronto.” Buy Now $19.95 in print or only $5.99 for an eBook

More Faster Backwards: Rebuilding David B | Christine Smith

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