This article appeared in 48 North last month, so it’s a little bit out of order now – but I thought I’d share how those final weeks of preparation felt.
Like so many of life’s greatest adventures, this journey started with a harebrained idea. From that little seed, the idea grew and began to take the shape of a 1990 oceangoing racing sailboat called DogBark! and an ambitious timeline. Once the vessel and the date were settled, this harebrained idea – to renovate and outfit a boat to sail through the Northwest Passage the following spring – took on a life of its own.
It requires an enormous amount of work to prepare for any voyage, especially one that involves a sailboat, and even more especially one that involves sailing in arctic waters. DogBark!’s new owners – Graeme, Janna and their two audacious daughters, Talia (12) and Savai (9) – through their truly herculean effort and determination, completed these preparations in less than a year.
The boat needed invasive remodeling to transform it from a racing machine designed to carry a single person around the world in the southern oceans to an expedition platform and home for a family and their crew in the northern latitudes. Perhaps the most drastic alteration was in the cabin layout. Because DogBark! was designed for a single occupant, there was only one bed onboard. It was necessary to cut down the water ballast tanks (originally running 18’ down either side of the boat) to make room for two more cabins.
Over the winter, the family spent their time – between work and school and normal life – measuring, epoxying, constructing, purchasing, installing, and dreaming. The days felt long but the year sped by and suddenly, just 12 months into the life of that little harebrained idea and 8 months after it took the shape of DogBark!, we were hustling through the final two weeks of preparations.
It required all hands on deck those last two weeks to get through the final checklist. DogBark!, as expected, still had quite a few pending boat projects. The canvas specialist crafted a cockpit enclosure behind the hard dodger and put the finishing touches on a cover for the new mainsail, just bent on a few weeks before. The welder modified the rail to include a solid lifeline so we could mount the solar panels. John installed a new red dot heater to augment the diesel heater already installed in the cabin and built a mount on the rail for the 20hp outboard. Graeme bolted down the dock boxes to use as storage and seating in the cockpit, secured the additional custom fit fuel and water tanks, installed new clutches, replaced lines, and a thousand other things.
While John and I had already packed and left our home (in Panama), the rest of the crew had to move out of their house and onto the boat. Parents and neighbors arrived with strong backs and empty trucks and extra energy to help. Downsizing is physically exhausting, but it also takes a mental toll. You must pick up and make a decision concerning every single thing in the home. That box of paperclips – should you take them with you, or throw them away, or pack them up for storage? We took carload after carload to the boat, to the dump, to the marine consignment store, to Goodwill.
We also squeezed in Costco runs to provision the boat for a 3-4 month journey with 6 people on board. While there are grocery stores along the way, it is cheapest and easiest to fill up on nonperishables before leaving home. We set up assembly lines to divide, vacuum seal and label giant bags of rice, pasta, flour and sugar; we peeled the labels and marked 60 cans of beans; we carefully wrapped each of the 4 dozen bottles of wine and rum in bubble wrap, taped them shut and nestled them in the bilge. Storing all of these provisions onboard resembled a life size Tetris game.
In the evenings, we flopped down on the couch with glasses of wine and computers to order more wool socks, look at weather reports, and make our next Fisheries Supply list (thanks, Fisheries Supply, for the support and great service). We all had (and still have) a substantial amount of research and reading to do to learn about the unfamiliar and somewhat hostile environments we’d be visiting.
Everyone processes these dramatic life changes in different ways. Now that we are underway and settling into life on the move, I asked each crew member how they felt about that frenzied time of preparations. From each of their perspectives, I asked them to tell me about the most difficult and the most exciting moment or process.
For Graeme, it all came together as they motored out of Point Hudson Marina in Port Townsend and ran that engine only as long as it took to hoist the mainsail. In a gentle 5-10 knots from the northwest, DogBark! ghosted across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the San Juans, tenderly accommodating the comfort of his whole family – his wife, two daughters and both parents. It was an auspicious start to the journey, both because the conditions were ideal and because he could once again appreciate the power and performance of his chosen vessel. The crowning moment was the offhand comment from his mother, who has spent plenty of time on boats, that DogBark! was the stoutest and most comfortable boat she had ever been on.
Coming up with the most difficult moment was, in itself, a challenge for Graeme because, in his own words, “I jettison the pain, and don’t dwell on the hard stuff”. One of many traits I’d say that makes him such an accomplished sailor. But he did comment on the first week’s challenge of not being able to find anything on the boat. With so many people helping to load and stow, stuff surged on and off the boat in waves. He might be able to remember the last place he saw the voltmeter two days ago, but he couldn’t find it now.
Talia also felt the full effect of the journey as she waved goodbye to her friends on the docks of Port Townsend. That moment, she said, encompassed the excitement of a new beginning, as well as the end of all the arduous planning and preparations. It was hard, though, to leave behind a life she relished and friends she loved. That love and support was palpable, though, as they ran down the dock, following DogBark! out the breakwater, bouncing and shouting their goodbyes.
Janna reflected on the year of preparations with equal parts joy and anxiety. She was haunted by reservations about taking her family to the arctic, and struggled to balance the work and preparations with maintaining a somewhat normal schedule in the months leading up to the departure. But buttressing that struggle was her incredible community of friends and family that picked the kids up from gymnastics, lent trucks for dump runs, and provided a sounding board when decision fatigue set in and there were still a thousand decisions to make. It added to the excitement for Janna that in the last days, there was a series of serendipitous events that allowed her and the family to say goodbye – and thanks – to their community progressively and organically.
Savai agreed it was difficult to say goodbye to friends for such a long time. She also struggled with the transition from her room at home to a tiny bunk that she will share with her sister (while there is crew on board). It has been particularly challenging as the sisters, like the rest of the family, attempt to organize their belongings on board while adjusting to life at sea. But her most exciting moment was watching the transformation of her room from a nonexistent space (it was a water ballast tank) to a messy construction zone and finally to a cozy bedroom complete with unicorn photos on the walls. It was easy for her to get excited about the journey when she had a cozy place to sleep.
For both John and I, it was a challenge to jump into the fray with two weeks left to prepare. We wanted to be as valuable as possible, but it was difficult to feel useful and not underfoot of those that had been living it for months. Trip preparations soaked up our energy every day, leaving little time to visit with friends we hadn’t seen in a year. John’s excitement for the trip kicked in as we landed in Seattle and suddenly all of the virtual planning and email exchanges, late night facetime calls and online research became a reality.
I am savoring the excitement of being able to undertake a voyage so grand with some of my very favorite people. This family inspires me in so many ways; I am honored and thrilled to be invited onto this harebrained adventure.