By Doug Edelsein

In Port Townsend, when you buy your first boat, you get a lot of advice – almost all of it good.

“Don’t buy a boat,” advised one Boat Haven mechanic, too late. “There’s two days of joy when you own a boat,” said another. “The day you buy it, and the day you sell it.”

“Might as well throw your money in the water, or just burn it,” said an ancient mariner who was scraping the bottom of a long, majestic wooden sail boat on the yard. He was a philosopher, you could tell – one of the many Zen boaters in the Boat Haven. The space he had scraped on the hull so far was tiny, and the keel was huge. He scraped in precise miniscule circular motions. He might get done in 15 years, and he seemed fine with that. Finishing is not the point. It is the journey.

In this town, there is arguably more boating expertise than anywhere in the country. Somebody aptly called it a boating university. There are people so skilled in Port Townsend they actually build their own boats here, sail them around the world a few times and write books about it.

So when you try to launch your first boat at the Boat Haven launch ramp, and your boat is hopelessly jammed crooked on its trailer, you can count on lots of good advice from folks just walking by.

“I think you forgot to take off the stern straps,” said one salt, observing from the fuel dock. “You’re gonna need to get them off.”

Yep. For the 11 people in Port Townsend who don’t know what stern straps are, they are the uber-strong web straps that bind the boat to the trailer at the rear end. But now the straps were piano-wire taut, barely keeping the boat from sliding off. I had tried to look fancy when I launched. I’d tried a trick I’d seen on a YouTube video, where you back the boat into the water, then gun the trailer forward. The boat is supposed to slip right off the rear end and bob happily in the water. I was trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

Now my new used boat was wedged tight, straining downhill against the straps in the back, and worse, it had also sprung off the center line of the trailer and the prow was hopelessly jammed at a dangerous angle.

I realized quickly this was not like things had gone in the video. Now there was urgency. Two more rigs were waiting to launch in my spot.

I already get stage fright, like clammy palms, whenever we launch, because everybody else seems so expert and they do it in such a breeze. Now I got panic sweats. The waiting boat owners looked at each other in disgust and turned off their truck engines. This could be a while.

Let me back up. I am not a seasoned life-long boater. I have never owned or driven a boat before this one. My partner Roberta and I bought this boat when we retired from teaching school, because we had this idea we would love to cruise the San Juans. We pictured idyllic excursions to Friday Harbor, Deer Harbor, Sucia Island. Porpoises and orcas would swim playfully alongside. Flocks of snowy gulls would keep us company. The water would be glassy flat. Maybe we would get good enough we would have adventures — the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Canadian islands.

So we did it the right way. We took the boat on a sea trial shakedown with the previous owner. We learned some of the many surprises of boating – there is no brake pedal, for one thing. We took a navigation course. Roberta and I both passed the online boating safety class.  We bought PFDs, fire extinguishers, air horns. We studied charts, channel markers, rights of way, lights, safety equipment, rules of the sea. We were ready.

Then came the launch at Boat Haven. The Roberto is a 22-foot C-Dory. It’s a cheerful, even merry-looking boat, charming in every way. However, jammed up like this, it looked unhappy.

Knowing nothing else to do, I hauled it out just as it was, and let the other rigs launch. Inspection of the Roberto brought all bad news. No way to release the winch cable, no way to release the stern straps – except perhaps to cut them, and that risked the boat sliding off the rear end of the trailer.

If you live in PT, you already know what I should have done here. Many of you have worked your way out of a hundred worse situations on boats, usually alone, at night, with no tools, a thousand miles from port, in a Category Five hurricane, pursued by pirates.

Not me, not us. We now depended on the kindness of strangers. Port Townsend’s university of boating must teach an ethic of helping. All the seagoing expertise here could easily mean the pros might be arrogant about swabbie mistakes. Just the opposite is true. The experts in PT are a uniquely good-humored lot. Lucky for us, one of these stalwarts was walking by. He stopped and looked.

“Oh wow,” he said calmly. “Let’s float this thing again.”

We did that. When the ramp was clear, I backed the boat down the ramp. He waved me way, way, way back.

I had a flash from that “Boat Ramp Fail” video. What if he saw the same video and thinks it would be funny for me to back my truck clear into the Boat Basin? That’s the scene where the submerged truck gets hauled out, water and fish pouring out the windows.

I should not have doubted. When the boat and trailer were both floating, he and Roberta hurried out onto the closest dock and hauled with all their might on a line attached to the rear cleat. The boat inched back. That allowed me, standing in the water, to shoulder the prow back onto the center runner of the trailer. I cranked it up with the winch and we were righted.

Our rescuer refused reward and only urged us to pass it on. Boaters help each other here. saying. He continued on wherever he was going, possibly not even thinking how remarkable it was that he had spent a half hour rescuing us newbies from disaster. His thinking seemed that any of the PT community of boaters would have done the same thing. No big deal.

Roberto, sitting pretty on her trailer! (Doug Edelstein photo)

That is very cool. This is a beautiful town.

Meanwhile we’re learning a lot fast. We’ve learned about fuel-water separators — make sure yours doesn’t fall off. We’ve discovered what happens when your steering cable breaks in the middle of the crowded harbor.  We’ve learned the water in Port Townsend Bay is not always glassy flat, Dungeness crabs are not evenly distributed, and electric downriggers can be machines of Hell.  By making mistakes we have learned about the wealth of resources and expertise in the Port Townsend boating community, and their willingness to help each other.

 illustration by Howard TJ is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


  1. So fun to read, From a past boater in Puget Sound and having a disastrous day at the Ballard locks, I can appreciate your dismay. Gave me a real laugh with you not at you.

    • Marge, thanks so much. There’s been bliss, but not the pure kind. Seems we gotta learn something new every time out. But we persevere, always relying on the local experts who are glad to help.

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