I recently had the honor of giving the Keynote address at the NW Maritime’s Spring Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington. I’m happy to report I fell in love with the place, people, and organization – a finer group of sailors could not be found. Most of all, I fell in love with the town itself. (The Mayor crashed my cocktail party, how cool is that?)
To say that it is boat-crazed is to make an understatement. I’ve never been in any place so head-over-heels in love with sailing vessels. The only explanation of how this came to be, which makes any sense to me is that after a century of wooden boat building, enough Cuprous Oxide (a marine wood preservative) leaked into the water system to derange them all.
Picture a town where all the hippies gulped down one-too-many jello shots of bilge water and you have the general idea.
The local shipwrights actually snort dry rot in the Pacific Nor’west! Copies of Wooden Boat magazine are kept with Maxim and Playboy – so they don’t get drooled on too much. Seedy guys in dirty foul weather jackets actually roam up and down the streets outside the shipyard, selling pilfered caulking irons, mast-hoops, and draw-spokes.
Even the local ladies get into it. Sailor girls in Port Townsend won’t sleep with guys who don’t know how to long-splice, worm-and-parcel, or tie a double-constrictor knot.
… even the S&M crowd in Port Townsend have ragged copies of Ashley’s.
Land logic just doesn’t apply in Port Townsend.
It is, of course, the home of the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival.
This is an entire week where the Woodies literally run-riot and terrorize any lubbers who don’t know their port from starboard.
This is the strange and twisted marine madness I innocently walked into – fresh from seven years of serenity upon the sea.
The actual attendees of the symposium were limited to 200. However, there were 25 presenters besides myself, including Bob Perry, Beth Leonard, Brian Toss, Steve D’Antonio, Barbara Marret, Ace Spragg, Mark Bunzel, Dan Stabbert, Matt Thompson, Carol Hasse, Dan Newland, Chuck Hawley, Brion Toss, etc.
My first seminar was on Cruising Cheaply. I started off briskly with this statement. “I have two messages for you. One, don’t waste your money frivolously, and, two, don’t listen to experts. And all of you have just spent 300 bucks to hear all kinds of experts … at least one of which is an uneducated penniless fool who can barely afford shoes … and who intends to lecture you sternly on your spending habits.”
“Does this make sense?” I asked, and then shouted, “NO!”
I quickly followed this up with, “Is it too late to get your money back? YES!”
Indeed, it is odd to be in a room full of people wearing watches, which cost more than the vessel you just circumnavigated on … while you’re wearing discarded clothes looted from the dumpster behind Good Will, and telling these stylishly-dressed people they should be handling their money differently.
But such is the cruising life when translated ashore.
The Keynote, of course, was key.
It started at 7:30 and was scheduled to go to 9pm.
I started off by saying I was going to sum up everything they’d learned thus far and would learn the following day—and them turned on a large fan in front of a giant pail of water. Next, I dropped a piece of Tupperware into the water, which immediately blew downwind.
“That’s it,” I said. “I know it seems simplistic, but that’s it. Sailing isn’t complicated; it is we modern sailors who are complicating it.”
Yeah, I thought it was a fairly lame opening too – but they didn’t. Having already sat through endless hours of highly technical monologues on serious marine subjects – it hit their funny bone perfectly.
I’m like a prize-fighter. Once I get you on the ropes, you never recover. I had people literally falling out of their seats with laughter. One woman told me later it was everything she could do “not to pee.”
I took that as high praise.
It was a magic evening during which I could do no wrong. For instance, I had the first few slides of my PowerPoint presentation intentionally goofed up – as a joke. I was going to pretend to be befuddled. But somehow it didn’t work … and slides started zipping back-and-forth at random, which completely befuddled me for real, which the audience found hysterical because of the set-up.
… so much for planning.
It is an amazing feeling to have a roomful of adults—a large group of otherwise sane, intelligent people—laughing uncontrollably at your every utterance.
I mean, sure, I intended to be funny but these folks where so in tune with my wacked sense of humor that they were laughing before the punch line!
I spoke for two solid hours and had them in the palm of my hand the entire time.
It was better than my wildest, most outrageous public-speaking fantasy. (I may be a crushing bore on my next outing but at least I had my moment.)
I’d promised the organizers that they’d have my full attention for the entire five days I was there – and they used me like a 24/7 word slave.
I attended every cocktail party, breakfast, etc., for the duration.
The institute is housed in a brand new building which is perfectly suited for the task. Even better, the administration is extremely efficient, laid-back, and friendly. They’re actually real people … wonderful people … sailors, even … and I grew to love them all within hours of our meeting.
It wasn’t as if I was working for them as much as we were part of a wonderful party of sailors spreading the joy of offshore sailing.
We laughed and laughed.
I valued their input. “… perhaps a few less dildo jokes,” the director cautiously requested and I immediately/graciously dropped about a dozen from my routine.
I never dined alone the entire time. I slept seldom, if at all.
One of my design/build heroes, Russ Brown, is part of the scene there – a young, up-and-coming yacht designer I knew as a wild-child in St. Augustine, Florida. (Yes, son of ‘Sea Runner’ Jim.)
The last time Russ and I met was in Bora Bora when he screeched by in his ultra fast proa with Steve Callahan.
Russ is now marketing boat-building kits, and his latest nesting dinghy is a (practical and strong) work of art.
Cap’n Ace Spragg was there. She’s a local sailing instructor, and was proud to show me her lovely Fraid Knot. And when things got weird in the Blue Moose (love those breakfast platters!), I was more than happy to hide behind her skirts.
Another confession: I’m smitten by Carol Hasse as well. I’ve always loved her sails. They are among the best-built rags on this planet and her loft crew completely wowed me with their passion for hand-worked perfection.
… it was the nicest sail loft I’ve ever had the pleasure to hang out at and hear the famous bell ring-out yet another sail … er, sale!
Of course, I was just one of thousands of admirers—as Carol is as much Town Promoter as Sailmaker.
But it is wonderful to lime in a sail loft where the passion for the craft is so palpable. Most American sail lofts aren’t really sail lofts anymore … not even close.
Of course, I respect Carol as a marine business woman and sailmaker tremendously but I mostly respect her as a human being, as member of my watery tribe, as a person I’m proud to share this planet with.
There is a little sign-up sheet about boys and girls in her loft, which almost brought tears to my eyes. Right then and there I decided to someday order a sail from her … if only to watch her lovely loft ladies smile.
Brion Toss was another local boater who impressed me. We had a great time cracking jokes (and, perhaps, conveying a bit of marine info) during the panel discussion (moderated skillfully by Chuck Hawley) on Sunday morning. Brion’s understanding of rigging is both encyclopedic and unique and the language he uses to convey his knowledge is as elegant as the man. (He changed me forever with the line, “… step into the rig!” his Zen-concept of being one-with-the-boat.)
In a way it was funny – I was hired to teach but spent most of my time learning.
Surely, this is the sign of a great educational experience.
I have always loved Mystic Seaport, of course. But its focus is primarily on the past. The Northwestern Maritime folks are in-the-moment, and a blast to be associated with on all levels.
My finest hour was actually two hours when, in a desperate move to earn even more money from my sweat, the NW Maritime brain trusted scheduled a special, “Meet Fatty” cocktail party (sponsored by the Three Sheets website) for folks who didn’t have the time or money to attend the full seminar. Tickets were just ten dollars, and 50 people came from as far away as Portland and Seattle.
I was deeply honored—especially to see folks with antifouling paint on their clothes and epoxy in their hair—spending their hard-earned dollars to … give me a warm hug. (That’s what it felt like to me, to be hugging old friends I’d never met.)
I’m not sure how Barbara, Carrie, and Jake manage to pull it off so smoothly and so gracefully but they have a salt-stained utopia for sailors out there in Port Townsend. I was extremely happy to be part of the mix.