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by By Dave Zeiger with Anke Wagner - Sitka, Alaska - USA

OR, Down to the Sea in Slips

When I was born - in '59 o' of the previous millennium - our family was stationed in Petersburg, Alaska. Dad was Chaplain of the ANNA JACKMAN - a Presbyterian mission boat serving island communities. The skipper shanghaied a cook. A supposed day outing stretched to a couple months for Mom, with me in tow. Diapers quickly ran short and I was under-canvassed for much of this time.


My first 'sea story': I was discovered AWOL from my cradle. A frantic search of the ship located me overboard; at a teenager's arms' length. He was holding me over the bow to watch the rushing waters. Both of us reportedly giddy with the pleasure of it all.

Dad later worked in Sitka, Alaska, as Chaplain and skippered Sheldon Jackson College's school boat.

During this time, I got a lot of exposure to the water, from which I could have benefited a slight more than I did. Endless chores and the smell of diesel put me well off large and/or motor vessels for good. Rather than hang on and learn sumpin' (e. g., navigation), after chores I disappeared into books. Let's say I preserved my innocence (i. e., ignorance) for a more teachable moment.

But (my brother and) I loved the water! We built dangerous rafts, and poled and paddled them 'longshore. Freeboard from a few inches positive, to positively negative. We rowed clunky aluminum skiffs with bare minimum oars until our hands bled. A friend loaned us a canoe, and we soon knew every nook and cranny of our hometown wharfs and harbors.

With a group of fellow teens, I made a voyage from Hoonah to Tenakee Springs and back via canoe and kayak; close to 100 miles each way, and crossing a considerable portage between inlets.

It was on this trip I had my first sail. One glorious day, we rafted our seven slim vessels together, erected a lattice of spruce boughs festooned with tarp and poncho, and sailed a sunny forty miles!

Sailing!! Oh, it was wondrous, lazing along without a stroke, pushed by the kindly flow of the world! I'd had zero exposure to real-life sailing craft, and had somehow acquired the misimpression that such were nowadays yachts- toys of the very rich, one and all. Now this experience planted a seed.

On to college. Strange financial terms meant that whatever I earned in summer came off my aid package. Summer overheads, in other words, translated directly to debt. What to do? Well. I hadn't seen much of the 'Lower 48'. go hitch-hikin'! Which I loved.

On the Road, I discovered the Tao - the watercourse way; and Drift, a pace that suits me. To me the phrase, "sails full and by the wind's whim", are heart and soul of the drifting, dreaming Tao.

I considered hitching on; but the glow of the '60s was fading, and the Road was becoming dark and strange. I considered a 'hippie' bus; but a motor vehicle is no improvement on a motor boat. How to be free and footloose in a world of pistons, cogs and oil?

Musing, I returned to Sitka and signed aboard a salmon troller for a couple of seasons and worked the shoreside fish plants.

And then. And then! Rummaging through a box of Library cast-offs I came across. Sailing the Farm! A Survival Guide to Homesteading on the Ocean!! Independence on Thirty Feet!!! Ken Neumeyer, I exalt your name!

My torch was finally well and truly lit.

But to build or to buy? That was the question! Didn't help that I soon fell head-over-heels with the Pardeys and SERRAFYN/Lyle Hess! Good people; good boats - but well out of present reach.

I more-or-less wasted a few years in research, dither and scheme.


Anke learned to swim before she could walk.

She grew up shoreside along the river Rhein in Duisburg, Germany; the world's largest inland port.

Shipping, boats and barges were a constant backdrop. Riverside parks stretch for miles along the banks, and bridges crisscross the river.

In Schleswig, on the Baltic coast, a family friend would sometimes take her along to join his children in working the nets.

But Europe is crowded. She was drawn to the wide wildernesses of boreal forest. She signed on for a cultural exchange, which took her to Sitka at the dawn of her adult life.

She soon found employment at Patterson Bay, a wilderness site where fish returns were studied. Lots of water-work, here, both fresh and salt, ashore and afloat.

And she loved cold water. There were rumors of mermaid sightings.


First 'Dates' aboard MERLIN

It was love at first sight.

I was watching a small (live-aboard) sailboat for a friend who'd urged me to take it out. To my concerns that I was a pre-beginner, he tut-tutted. "If anything breaks, you'll fix her, and we'll both be the better for it."

So Anke and I headed off, on the first adventure of our new life together. All book-larnin' and no experience.

We'd planned a trip to Goddard Hot Springs, about 14 miles due S of Sitka. But, resolving to use the (British Seagull) motor only in dire emergency, a mid-summer, drizzly dusk caught us half-way. We set a compass course toward an island harbor and ghosted on.

Eventually, our island loomed in the darkness, right where we expected it, and - congratulating ourselves on our seamanship - we nosed into harbor.

But wait! Anke, at the bow, reported surf ahead, only a couple hundred yards into a half mile harbor! No bights drawn along this shore. Did we go off course and miss our island among the many (rocky) alternatives? A check of the chart showed that all were deep water on all their N sides, so we hove-to till morning light.

The rising sun showed that our chart had seen fit to represent our bight as featureless coast, and we were merely on the wrong side of a small point that formed our harbor. Relief! And a good, early lesson on shoreline limitations of charts.

Exhausted from our adrenaline filled, sleepless, first time/first night's sail, we sailed in to drop the hook.

But wait! From nowhere - while we were still trying to decide how to drop our anchor - a fierce squall pounced upon us!! With ensuing years of experience, I'd say, oh, ten knots, gusting to twelve?

We lost our nerve, turned and ran toward home.

But Sitka Sound abounds with possibilities. We finally set our first anchor in a small cove; well sheltered and an easy entry. Unsure about the tides, and the walls closing in, we started up the engine and orbited the anchor. A tight squeak, but safe. With ensuing years of experience, I'd say that cove would fit. Oh, say, the entire Sitka fishing fleet?

We finally fell into one another's arms, and slept. Hooked for life.


A great, Seattle resource for sailing wannabees

Anke had to return to Germany from Chicago, as part of her exchange conditions. So we road-tripped.

South (umm. to Alaskans, the rest of the USA is 'South'), and rendez-voused in Seattle, WA to find ourselves a sailboat.

Anke pragmatically suggested that I wake from dreamboating and that we 'go small, go simple, go now.' Good advice!

Accordingly, we sought a 'kindergarten boat', wooden, with a few, manageable problems for an introduction to boat carpentry; gaff rig preferred (our pre-junk days) for robust economy and fail-safety; and, well, dirt cheap. We were basically broke.

BRAMBLE, Half Baked

We found just what we were looking for in BRAMBLE (formerly TERRAPIN), a 26ft lifeboat conversion. Bronze-fastened larch-on-oak. 26ft on deck by 8ft beam by about 2½ft draft (our first taste of shoal draft - serendipitous and portentous!).

The owner accepted rent-sized installments after an initial down-payment. I took a job flipping pizza, while Anke worked at a small winery. After eight months, we owned our own home, free and clear.

BRAMBLE in Magic Harbor

Our first home on the water - while working off our debt - was in the late, great live-aboard community at Eagle Harbor, Bainbridge Island, across from Seattle. It has since succumbed to the forces of gentrification, but at that time was truly Magic Harbor (follow the link to a series of vignettes/essays by erstwhile resident/author, Don Berry). There, many gracious friends patiently mentored us onto the water.

Me, assembling a Shipmate woodstove
Anke, earning Do-Re-Mi

On our way North, toward home, but that's another story.

Despite our (or at least my) slow and stuttering start, Anke and I have now lived aboard for a quarter century among the islands of SE Alaska's Alexander Archipelago. Since BRAMBLE, we've designed and built our own vessels (presently building our fourth and 'final' home). We sail on a shoe-string, engine-free, and are learning more about subsisting on local forage.

Please visit us at or If we're out sailing (or building) come on in, make yourself at home and take a look around.

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