We had been talking about Sitka for months. It was our first major milestone, the end of the beginning of the journey. As we started north through the inside passage, our focus was on getting to Sitka in time for prescheduled flights and haul outs. And then, suddenly, 21 days and 1200 miles after leaving Seattle, we arrived. We had made our first milestone, and it felt great. We sipped champagne in the cockpit and recalled our highlights of the first leg. Then it occurred to us that while we had been so focused on reaching Sitka, none of us had worked out what would happen once we pulled in.
Until Sitka, Graeme’s parents, Jon and Vickie, sailed on DogBark! with them while John and I captained Hula Girl with Shelli. After Sitka, Jon and Vickie would fly home to enjoy daily hot showers and their full-sized queen bed, Hula Girl would be released from the exhausting duty of keeping pace with DogBark! to enjoy a slow relaxing cruise south, and John and I would burrow into our little cabin on DogBark! for the first time. If that wasn’t enough of a shuffle, also in Sitka, Janna would disembark with Talia and Savai to attend some beloved summer camps down south for a few weeks and Eli, a college friend of Graeme’s and racing teammate on Kotuku, would join us as our fourth crew member for the next leg (Sitka to Dutch Harbor).
It was human Tetris. John and I, accustomed to lounging in our spacious private cabin on Hula Girl, were promptly displaced by Shelli’s friend, Pat, joining Shelli on her southern journey. Jon and Vickie didn’t fly out for several more days, so we hunkered down on the couch of Hula Girl. Over on DogBark!, Graeme was the only one not packing to get off the boat. On the second day of the shuffle, Jon and Vickie graciously booked a hotel room to ease the transition. They moved off the boat as John and I moved on; we literally passed duffel bags in both directions over the deck. That same afternoon, the girls vacated and cleaned their room for Eli, who flew in that evening. There were bags everywhere. It was frantic and silly and, in the end, everyone found a bed.
The Sitka Shuffle was most exciting, I think, for John and me. While we loved our time aboard Hula Girl, DogBark! is the reason we are on this crazy journey. We were eager to embed with the crew and ready to do some sailing. Now we are aboard, and slowly (very slowly) learning where the wrenches are and when to reef the mainsail and what it means when the autopilot beeps angrily at you and how it sounds when we’re sailing upwind in 20 knots of breeze.
We’re learning (reaffirming, really) that DogBark! is a great boat. She was built in 1990 specifically for the BOC Challenge, which was a singlehanded race around the world in the southern oceans (from the US, below Africa, past Australia, below South America and back). Before Graeme bought her, DogBark! belonged to Al, arguably one of the best sailors in the pacific northwest and a close friend to all of us. Al raced her singlehanded to Hawaii twice and was the first boat to cross the finish line, taking home the trophy both times. She certainly has some ocean-going clout.
When Graeme bought the boat a year ago, the integrity rooted in her strong hull, fast design and impeccable record was intact. She was built on a grid system of I-beams that offers a sturdy robust hull without a lot of extra weight. There are impressively voluminous lockers in the bow and stern for gear and sail storage. There are also four crash bulkheads, which are strong watertight walls that divide the boat width-wise and can isolate a hull breach (one section can fill with water without sinking the boat). She had proven herself on the racecourse as a fast and sturdy boat.
But she had a long way to go to offer the amenities and comforts required to carry a family of 4 (and some rogue crew) through the arctic. There was only one bed, for instance, and no door on the bathroom. Water ballast tanks, used to balance the boat in heavy weather when racing, dominated the interior space in the back third of the boat. The cockpit, while spacious, had standing room only; there was no seating and no shelter from the elements.
But that was a year ago. Now there are two more cabins that can each sleep two (but “stand” only one), curtains for privacy and a door to the bathroom. The nav table seat doubles as a top-loading refrigerator, the newly fashioned salon table folds out to seat eight (or eleven, occasionally) and folds up to get out of the way. The cockpit now boasts two long storage boxes-slash-seats and a cleverly designed canvas enclosure that maintains great visibility while keeping us warm and dry. Perhaps my favorite addition is the red dot heater, which pumps hot air generated off the engine through 2.5” pipes around the boat and right into that comfy cockpit enclosure. Standing watch has never been so cozy (provided we’re motoring).
Before it sounds too much like a luxurious vacation, though, it’s still an old sailboat with plenty of quirks and glitches. Like Halcyon, fresh water is our most precious resource. The shower is a one-gallon hand pumped garden sprayer – one that you might use to spread weed killer in your front yard – with water heated in the tea kettle. At the sink, instead of a faucet there are two foot pumps – one for salt water and one for fresh. We use salt water as much as possible, giving dishes only a quick fresh water rinse at the end. Since we have not sailed the boat long, there are still untested and clumsy systems, like the best way to rig the whisker pole (used to help stabilize the jib when sailing downwind in swell) or to mount the dinghy motor on the rail. Sometimes Wilma, our primary autopilot, gets confused and sends us 40 degrees off course. Wilbert, Wilma’s grandfather and our backup autopilot, rolled over and just gave up somewhere off the coast of Alaska. There’s an engine belt that whines loudly on startup unless allowed plenty of time to warm up and stretch out before getting to work. In other words, she’s a boat.
And for now, she’s home. We’ve trundled our belongings across the Sitka Harbor, and tucked and jammed and shoved and rearranged until everything fit into our cozy little cabin. We wave a warm and loving farewell to the ones that shuffled off of DogBark! as we pull out of the marina and once again point the bow north. We have many more miles to go.