Sailing alone

Here’s a little vignette of coastal living, an encounter with a fellow who was sailing solo around the world, that was part of my ongoing conversation with readers of This Week. The “chowder” was a weekly gathering of waterfront veterans, launched in the early 1980s by Captain Charlie Currie. After his death in 1997 we carried it on for another seven or eight years. The chowder was exactly the sort of thing that Eric had gone out into the world hoping to find.

Just words passing between travellers

First published in This Week, September 20, 1998

Eric left here Monday night. The Yarra, under tow, rode in the wake of the Exporter and the Sabre. Sunlight evaporated behind the hills across the harbour.

“The colours are softer now,” Lonnie said, “more pastel. That’s a winter sunset.”

The couple standing beside us were from California. “How’s your film speed?” the woman said. “Would you like to use our tripod?”

“It’s 200 ASA,” I said. “I can push it.” I was really just watching the magnified boats through the viewfinder.

I wasn’t really in the mood to talk to them because I was thinking about Eric finally leaving. I only came to really know him in the past few months. We talked often about the sea, because he was one of the very few people I’ve met in my wandering from waterfront to waterfront who has read so widely about the sea. His English was much better now. It was well past the stage when an anonymous, but playful, towboater informed me, in an aside, that the only way to learn the language was to begin with profanity and work your way out.

I thought how fitting it was that Eric was slipping out of the harbour in the company of Sabre Marine, because he had become part of Sabre, and how fitting it was that he was going out on the sunset. His sails were furled, the wind was calm, and his friends were taking him to the north wind.

He wasn’t using the Inside Passage. He told me last week that he was worried about delaying too long in getting out into the open Pacific, because he would use up his fresh food too quickly. I thought he should go south to avoid Hecate Strait, but he wasn’t worried. He had been to Cape Horn.

Lonnie waved with her arms reached high, but I could see no evidence through the viewfinder that anyone on the boats had seen her.

If we had known that Eric was leaving today we would have gone to say goodbye again. But he’d been leaving, it seemed, for weeks, and we didn’t know that today would be the day the wind would finally tell him to go. When that damned southeasterly ended.

Lonnie talked to the couple from California. I let my camera down, for the three boats had merged into one as they passed Ocean Dock and slipped toward the harbour mouth. The man was talking about the waterfront park.

I asked if they were coming from Alaska. No, they came in on The Skeena, and were leaving by the ferry on their way to Alaska. Because I was still thinking about Eric I said that they were coming at the right time of the year, and they could see Alaska without too many tourists.

We left them, walking down the uneven boardwalk toward the water taxi, and talked about Eric. He has four years now on that little boat. From Switzerland he went down the Atlantic, a computer hardware builder who was tired of people and tired of how the world had become. He avoided places where tourists came, sought out places where he could discover pockets of unspoiled life. Places where living was slow. He must have liked it here, because after he had appeared suddenly from a winter cruise off Alaska, saying that winter was the only time one could still see the real Alaska, he stayed for months in Prince Rupert.

I have forgotten how many weeks he came up from the Yarra to join us for chowder each Friday. This Week did a story about him on February 1, and I see from it that he arrived here on November 14, 1997, so it must have been around then. He was friendly, but slow to know. Just the sort of person you would think would throw away his working life and set out ‘round the globe with only his luck, his skill, and a little sailboat.

He’s on his way to New Zealand now, with no landfalls and in as straight a line as wind and current will allow. Perhaps we will never see him again, and perhaps we will. The way that new friends and old friends come together almost makes you think that we’re all moving like the tide.

I asked Eric if he would come back to Prince Rupert. He shrugged, and said “maybe,” maybe in three, four years. I told him to stop by for chowder, and he said that he would.

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