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June 25th, 2008 Amy Mccullough | Special Section Stories
 

High Seas, Low Wages

How to teach yourself to sail without scuttling your savings—or dying.

     
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Jimmie Buchanan

In a little over a month, I’m quitting my job (as WW’s music editor) to spend a year sailing the Pacific coast. True story. And every time I tell it to someone, they say, “Man, I wish I could do that.” Well, there’s no reason they can’t. In fact, there’s no reason you can’t. Truth be told, there’s no special reason that I can: I am not wealthy. I am not an experienced sailor. What I am is a little crazy, a lot cheap and pretty damn determined.

It all started a little over a year ago when my boyfriend and I discovered a love of canoeing on Scappoose Bay, a beautiful little secret north of Portland off Highway 30. Paddling around one day, I thought, “I wonder if there’s a way we could do something like this full-time. A way we could quit our jobs and just float around together.” Then the harebrained idea to buy a sailboat consumed us, but committing to all the rest—actually quitting our jobs; what to do with our stuff, our dog; saving money; return plans; actually learning to sail—came a bit later. First, we needed a boat. And we needed it cheap.

Much to our surprise, a variety of decent-sized, ’70s-era fiberglass coastal cruisers—just what they sound like, boats suitable for sailing along coastlines—can be purchased for only a few thousand dollars if you’re patient and willing to let Craigslist rule your world. As I write this, a Portland Craigslist search for “sailboat” yields a dozen results, vessels rigged for varying numbers and types of sails and equipped with cabins and keels (the thing that keeps you from tipping over), at 10 grand or under—with eight going for around $6,000 or less.

Sure, that’s a lot of money, but after plenty of searching and investigating, we were able to purchase a 27-foot Newport sloop (that’s the kind with just one mast and two sails: a main and a jib) for just $4,400. Maybe we’re a little odd in that we don’t indulge in a few common luxuries—cable TV, fancy cars (or their payments), a mortgage—but that combo isn’t too hard to come by among Portland’s bike- and thriftiness-friendly younger generation. With a budget and a little wherewithal, it’s not that hard for two people to save five grand or so.

Of course, once you have the boat, there are some obstacles to overcome: lack of experience, for one; and being more of a tightwad than most hobby sailors, for two. The former landed us in a harrowing spot while “test-driving” our boat—which we bought from a chiropractor in Everett, Wash., and named “Cotton,” after a character in Glendon Swarthout’s novel Bless the Beasts and Children—on the infamously treacherous Strait of Juan de Fuca, which connects Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean.

Sailing is a natural, exhilarating way to travel. It gives you a new appreciation of birds, wind and all things al fresco. It can also be terrifying. Though we’d read quite a bit about sailing, picked up Sailing Fundamentals, the American Sailing Association’s kindergarten-level volume, and even watched a few instructional videos—one starring Flash Gordon!—we soon discovered that we didn’t really know what we were doing. We weren't really in much danger, but when Cotton started heeling, which feels like stepping on a muscle car's gas while making a tight turn, we freaked out. Grand plans to sail/motor our newfound boat down from Washington were quickly scrapped, and we ended up dropping a grand to ship it to Portland on a trailer. Lesson learned: Shop locally or be prepared for complications.

As for money, even the expensive process of shipping the boat was made more fruitful by our tightwaddery. See, we ended up doing all the preliminary work to have the mast “unstepped” (taken down and laid across the deck) ourselves—but we learned a lot about how our boat is put together in the process. Once in Portland, we moored our yacht at the cheapest marina we could find: Fred’s, conveniently located right where the Willamette River meets Multnomah Channel by Sauvie Island.

You sacrifice some for a less-expensive slip (a parking spot for a boat, usually priced by the foot; ours was about $127 a month). Namely, security—some marinas have gates and guards; ours has a sign saying, “No visitors past this point.” But having a boat that’s not all that fancy means it’s not a major target for theft, either. Then again, our first slip, in the muggy, insect-ridden “lagoon,” was too shallow for our boat. We found it grounded one lovely day last summer when we tried to take some friends out.

You also realize, as a poor sailor, that you’re just gonna have to survive without some luxuries. Mags like Pacific Yachting make it sound like you’ll just die without a roller furling, for instance. A roller furling, which can cost upward of $800, is a device that helps you bring in and store your headsail (the one at the front of the boat) in a neat li’l rolled bundle, all from the comfort and safety of the cockpit. The alternative is—horrors!—taking the sail down at the end of the day and storing it in a sailbag. Again, the experience of hanking on and removing sails only made me more familiar with my boat and its hardware. And on the safety tip, you can install something called a downhaul—a line (rope) that allows you to douse your headsail from the cockpit in case the shit hits the fan—for far less money: about $100 for a line, block and shackle.

You don’t have to have a wealthy relative pass away, a trust fund or a six-figure income to get into sailing. You just have to be willing to flex a muscle or two, get a little dirty, and embrace the educational and financial merits of do-it-yourselfery. All it really takes is a dream and a little initiative. After that, as any sailor will tell you, wind is free.

CORRECTION: It has come to WW's attention that Fred's Marina (12800 NW Marina Way, 286-5537) has more security than just a sign reading “No visitors past this point.” A 24-hour security guard apparently lives on the premises. WW regrets the error. Furthermore, the author has never had any issues with security at Fred's, has been very happy with her experience there, and found the staff to be friendly and accommodating when her boat grounded during a very hot and dry summer spell at low tide (they moved her into a larger, deeper slip the same day).


Advice From A Cheapo

What I've learned from over a year of sailing.

• Realize that not every boating item needs to be purchased at an expensive store like West Marine. If what you’re looking for is absolutely sailing-specific, try Craigslist or eBay first. If not, remember that Fred Meyer sells things like lanterns and dorky fish-covered placemats, too.

• Read books that emphasize how little you need to cruise, not how much. Try Don Casey and Lew Hackler’s Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach for tons of helpful, practical and cheap-minded advice. Or read Robin Lee Graham’s i]Dove[/i] (there’s a movie, too); Graham sailed alone around the world when he was 16, and his accounts are both humbling and inspiringly unassuming.

• Don’t fear raw materials. We bought one big slab of oak plywood from Home Depot and made a table, bookshelves and new cabin doors out of it. We’ve even got some left!

• Discover the joy of the used room at Sexton’s Chandlery (303 NE Tomahawk Island Drive, 289-9358). In the back, it’s got everything from portholes and safety harnesses to gimballed cup holders, often for half the price for new.

Take message-board advice (Sailnet’s a big’un) with a grain of salt. Yes, you can pay $1,000 to have your boat pulled out to change through-hull valves. Or, you can beach it at low tide or brave such tasks in the water with the help of “bungs” (wooden plugs). Added bonus: You get to purchase and use something called “bungs”!

• Take advantage of open boat viewing (Sunday from noon to 4 pm) at local used and new dealer The Sailing Life (260 NE Tomahawk Island Drive, 289-6306). Armed with a printout of boat sizes, types and prices, you’re allowed to get on and in their sailboats—it’s a great way to see how big a 26-footer actually is, check out the layout of a Catalina like the one you’ve been eyeing on Craigslist, or see how that other Newport set up its galley (kitchen). Mega-bonus: The no-hassle salespeople actually leave you alone unless you approach them.

• Be realistic: As Casey and Hackler say in Sensible Cruising, “The perfect boat is…the [one] that takes you cruising.”


Amy McCullough leaves Willamette Week and hits the high seas Aug. 2. See her off Wednesday, July 30, at the Towne Lounge for a going away show/party with Aqueduct and BOAT. 714 SE 20th Place. 9:30 pm. Cover. 21+.

 
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