In the dog days of August, this little nuthatch came by to inspect the bamboo water fountain and madly blooming fuchsia outside The Nuthatch cabin.
Master builder, with freshly painted cart (soon to have wheels added). It’s a key cog in the Center Island transportation network.
LIVING ON OUR 176-ACRE ISLAND, our world has shrunk. No worries about gridlock. No horrible Seattle traffic. But we have our own transportation issues.
Center Island’s covenants prohibit use of privately owned internal-combustion vehicles on island roads, so most people scoot around on electric golf carts or something akin to that. One homeowner had a cool, funky old mini electric truck formerly used in a big warehouse somewhere, but it wasn’t designed to go up hills (we have one called “Cardiac Hill,” named by people who walk up it) so his tiny truck didn’t get him everywhere in quick fashion. It had a tendency to stall halfway up hills. (You might say it had cardiacs on Cardiac.)
Recently, our board of directors revisited the rules because more and more electric vehicles are coming into reality, and our narrow gravel lanes just aren’t suited to a Tesla or a Leaf. One thing we’ve learned on this island: “If you allow it, it will come.” (Big boats, big houses…what can I say, it’s the U.S.A.)
So to preserve our island’s character the board redefined what was allowed, in terms of size and horsepower, so full-size cars (other than our few community-owned pickups) won’t be zooming around here anytime soon. They also restated the island speed limit: 10 mph.
It’s not relevant to Barbara and me. So far we’ve resisted the golf-cart thing. We’ve never golfed, and we know walking is good for us on a small island where getting enough exercise can be a challenge. From The Nuthatch cabin to the community dock is .7 mile, just enough to stretch our legs.
But an exciting new item in our lives — and this shows you how living on a tiny island really changes your perspective on what’s exciting — is our dock cart.
There was an island-wide yard sale recently and we shelled out $10 for an old dock cart. The frame was pretty rusty and the plywood a bit rotting, but the wheels and axle were solid and heavy duty. It was just the thing to tote groceries or supplies across the island without having to bother with a pickup truck.
After a month I decided I’d spruce up our cart and brought home some fresh plywood and some Rustoleum paint. The problem was that as soon as I started disassembling the rusty frame I realized that, uh oh, the rust was all that was holding it together. The metal frame just fell apart.
I basically ended up building a whole new cart from spare lumber I had in our shed and a bunch of nuts and bolts my dad had collected over the decades. I knew I’d find a use for them someday! I reused the old cart’s handle and wheels.
Barbara convinced me the cart needed to be the same color as our 1957 runabout, so I got some turquoise spray paint and now it’s all done and looks spiffy.
One wag of a neighbor who occasionally sees me pushing my cart suggested I should paint flames on the side. I’m not sure. We only just got away from living life in the fast lane.
But if I find some orange paint, you never know.
When I was a kid in Alabama and my family took road trips to Florida, we stopped at a corny 1960s roadside attraction called Tommy Bartlett’s Deer Ranch. There were lots of tame deer that would eat out of your hand if you bought the little packet of Tommy Bartlett’s Deer Food. I was reminded of it this morning when Barbara and I looked out from our front window to see this doe and her spotted fawn cuddled among the long grass, salal and Nootka roses below our front deck at The Nuthatch. We kind of like having our own deer ranch.
As seen from our moorage at Cypress Island’s Eagle Harbor, the schooner Zodiac threads its way between the Cone Islands, in the foreground, and Vendovi Island. Mount Baker looms overhead.
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY? This “Jack” was done being a dull boy this week. All that boat tinkering paid off as Barbara and I took WeLike for a getaway night on a buoy at one of our favorite haunts, Cypress Island.
One nice advantage to ditching the office is that we can time our little vacations by the weather, and set out at the start of the week when everybody else is — snicker, snicker — going back to work.
So it was a beautiful sunny day with light winds and uncrowded seas as we cranked up the new Evinrude and buzzed along at 20 knots past Decatur, Frost and Blakely islands, threading through Peavine Pass — one of my favorite San Juan names — before crossing Rosario Strait to Cypress.
Rosario, one of the islands’ wider and wilder waterways, was determined to prove its reputation with a few WeLike-rocking whitecaps caused by a southerly wind countering an ebb tide. That slowed us to 10 knots, which felt glacial until we remembered that we had always been sailboat people, and what the heck did we have to complain about at this speed?
“If we were on the sailboat and going 10 knots, we’d be screaming!” I reminded my first (and only) mate.
Waters calmed as we made the turn inside Towhead Island and soon spied a couple of open mooring buoys at our favorite spot, Pelican Beach, a Department of Natural Resources site near the northeast end of Cypress.
We lassoed a buoy. But it took only five minutes for us to realize this wasn’t the same as being here on our sturdy full-keel sailboat, on which we’d spent many a blissful Pelican Beach night.
While lumbering, 10-ton Sogni d’Oro shrugs off anything but the biggest tidal swells or wakes from passing vessels, WeLike is a prancing, flat-bottomed runabout that reacts to every ripple.
“Well, this is a learning experience,” we soon acknowledged to each other as our wake-tossed little flivver waggled back and forth like a Rock-O-Plane gondola.
We cast off in search of a calmer refuge. We headed a few minutes south to another DNR site, Eagle Harbor, tucked behind a headland and considerably farther off the beaten track from boats navigating Bellingham Channel.
Eagle Harbor as seen from WeLike. About a dozen buoys are available to boaters here courtesy of the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which owns most of Cypress Island.
We had our pick of half a dozen open buoys here. I chose one a little ways out from the protective headland so we had a prime view of the scenic little Cone Islands and snowy Mount Baker. Adding to the tableau, mammoth ivory sails carried the historical Bellingham-based schooner Zodiac past distant Vendovi Island, the only place in the Northwest I know of that was named for a Fijian chief. Chief Vendovi came through these islands as a prisoner of America’s Wilkes Expedition after they arrested him in Fiji as the leader responsible for the 1833 cannibalism of a U.S. whaling vessel’s crew. In a rather, uh, delicious turnabout, by the time Wilkes arrived here the chief was a well-respected member of the expedition and got an island named for him. (For Vendovi, you might say it was just gravy.)
This moorage was more peaceful. After coffee and a cinnamon roll, we happily settled in for a lazy afternoon of reading books, sipping wine, admiring the scenery, solving crosswords and playing Scrabble. A CD player we’d stowed aboard months earlier let us enjoy Vivaldi and Celtic tunes, played low enough so as not to intrude on neighbors.
We settled into our mooring with coffee and a cinnamon roll from Lopez Island’s Holly B’s Bakery, served on the retro turquoise kitchenware we’ve collected for WeLike.
Months earlier we had also purchased an inflatable kayak to get us ashore from WeLike, but decided to try it out on the next expedition. This time we’d just hang out on the boat, enjoying enforced idleness, which I can highly recommend on occasion.
One of WeLike‘s enchantments is how she is outfitted for boat camping, thanks to her refurbishers of 10 years ago, Fran and Scott McDade of La Conner. In the covered cockpit, a collapsible countertop swings up to hold a Kenyon one-burner butane stove that stows in a cupboard when not in use. For dishwashing and personal ablutions, a tiny stainless-steel sink has a faucet with pressurized water from a 20-gallon tank. Toward the bow, a curtained cuddy cabin with a cozy double berth has twin reading lamps, an electric fan, charming old wooden built-in cupboards, latching drawers and a vintage Formica counter. Fold back a fiberglass dressing seat by a mirror to find a well-hidden porta-potty. All the mod cons.
Still, as our expedition progressed we made a list of things we’d add. Another shelf here, a towel rack there. More cup holders. It pleased us to be making this boat our own.
After dining on tasty Reuben sandwiches as the sunset turned Mount Baker progressively pinker, we climbed into bed shortly after darkness fell.
It was, to put it bluntly, a long night.
“I didn’t realize we’d be bobbing like a cork all night,” my groggy sweetheart mumbled as I prepared coffee in the morning.
While there were few boat wakes at night, we felt incoming swells and ripples from tidal changes and any breeze that arose in the wee hours. WeLike doesn’t like swells. Or ripples.
We had slept in fits and starts. In the future, we’ll seek the most protected buoy in any moorage “and take what views we get,” was the sleep-deprived consensus.
We rose to find pea-soup fog surrounding our harbor, not uncommon for so-called “Fog-ust” around the San Juans. We enjoyed breakfast of a sausage-and-veggie scramble and kicked back with our books to wait out the fog, which often doesn’t lift until noon on these waters. Happily, we had toasty warm feet thanks to a portable propane heater we had seen fit to add to WeLike‘s camping gear.
Morning fog hugs the base of the Cone Islands, as seen from our mooring at Eagle Harbor.
Sure enough, around noon the fog mostly lifted from our view. But no sooner had we cleared the Eagle Harbor headland than we spied a lingering dense river of gray and white, like enormous billows of Burma-Shave, still hugging Rosario Strait.
Just passing Pelican Beach, we again snagged a buoy and decided to have lunch, giving the warming sun a chance to burn away more of that fog bank.
Around 1 p.m., we made our crossing. Thinning fog persisted halfway across the strait, but WeLike‘s tiny Garmin chart plotter led us safely to the mouth of Peavine Pass, where the fog did its famous San Juan Islands disappearing act as if Harry Potter had waved a wand.
We zipped sunnily homeward to The Nuthatch to take good long naps — and make plans for our next boat campout.
Your loyal correspondent, left, and daughter pause to model our moonsuits as we roll fresh bottom paint on the ark-like hull of our dear old Westsail 32.
YOU’VE HEARD A LOT, DEAR READER, about WeLike, our restored 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser. But I’ve neglected to update you about my nautical first love, Sogni d’Oro, the Westsail 32 sailboat that’s been a big part of my family’s life — including, often, our home — for 30 years.
Yes, I’m a two-boat skipper — and painter, scrubber, polisher, oil-changer and general fix-it man. It’s probably one of the first tests for insanity.
Sogni d’Oro (the name is the Italian version of “sweet dreams”) is the full-keeled, ocean-steady cutter that we acquired in 1989, raised our daughter on, and took to Mexico and back in the mid-1990s. She was the vessel aboard which, every summer for 20 years, we obsessively explored the San Juan Islands, where we now make our home.
When we moved to the islands last year, our 27-year-old daughter, Lillian, moved back aboard the sailboat at Seattle’s Shilshole Marina and made it her cozy home again.
This past week, Lil and I bonded again in one of the more intense physical and psychological tests of boat stewardship: the boatyard haulout.
Lillian aboard Sogni d’Oro as we transited the Ballard Locks on the way to our haulout. For a few minutes, you and your boat get to be a tourist attraction.
For Sogni d’Oro, it’s been an every-three-years event, honed to a busy four days. After guiding the boat through the Ballard Locks and causing two bridges to rise with toots from my shiny brass cornet (“That’s awesome,” a passing skipper shouted, rather gratifyingly), we watched with hearts in our throat as the boat was hoisted out of the water on a Travelift, a square-framed contraption with heavy canvas slings in which our 10-ton ark gently swung like one of those pirate-ship rides at the Puyallup Fair. But the folks at Canal Boatyard once again took good care of us.
Then it was a marathon of power-washing, scraping barnacles, sanding, rolling on two new coats of marine bottom paint, and any other chores we could manage to cross off our wish list. As long as I’ve owned boats, I’ve done the work myself when possible. This was the first time Lillian has stepped in as chief helper. She was an eager and willing trouper.
Among our company on the Lake Washington Ship Canal this past week: the state ferry Elwha passes through the Ballard Bridge on the way to Lake Union for maintenance.
Lil gets special kudos for taking on one of those wish-list items, singlehandedly sanding and repainting the wide green stripe that runs the length of the boat just beneath the teak caprails. One tough decision we faced: the choice of a new paint, since the “medium green” Z-Spar enamel we’d used for years was no longer available. We settled on the forest green color from Bainbridge Island-based Marshall’s Cove Paints. The stripe now gleams with the color of the Northwest woods.
All freshly painted and polished, Sogni d’Oro rides the Travelift back toward the water on Monday.
Big thanks to my sister-in-law, Lillian’s Auntie Julie, who welcomed us sweaty, paint-flecked guests into her home when it came time to collapse (after a hot shower) at each day’s end.
Monday afternoon, Sogni d’Oro splashed back into the Lake Washington Ship Canal and we made our way back through the locks and tied up to her home slip on M Dock at Shilshole once again, with our sweet dream of a boat looking all clean and shiny once again.
I may be crazy, but I think that’s worth blowing my horn.
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing — about — in — boats… or with boats.”
— The Water Rat to the Mole, in Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”
Awaiting her new motor, WeLike sits at the West Sound Marina guest dock on Orcas Island as a Kenmore Air seaplane painted like an orca taxis in to pick up passengers headed for Seattle.
HALLELUJAH, we are islanders empowered.
In the past year, we’ve learned that a few needs are pretty basic when you live on a remote little island in the San Juans. Near the top of that list: a boat you can depend on.
We love (not just like) our restored 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser, WeLike, a handsome little runabout built in La Conner, where Barbara once worked as the town librarian.
WeLike has served us pretty well so far. But WeLike’s motor, a 90-horsepower Evinrude E-TEC outboard dating to 2007, has performed spottily, with enough hiccups and a continuing series of repairs that added up until we’ve finally thrown in the shop towel. Tuesday, we got a brand-new motor mounted on the boat at West Sound Marina on Orcas Island.
As is often the case when you live on a remote island, acquiring the new outboard was no small feat. It wasn’t at all like buying a new car, where the sales folks are masters at nabbing any warm body that wanders in to the showroom and sending them home with a stunned look on their face while driving a shiny new latest model.
No, this acquisition took weeks of palavering, a score of phone calls, dozens of emails and a rather large wire transfer.
In the slings of a giant Travelift, little WeLike resembles a spider-trapped-fly as she’s plucked from the water for repowering.
First I have to tell you that, despite accusations of insanity from some of my island friends, we replaced our motor with the same make and model, despite my occasional choice curses directed at Mr. Evinrude as I performed repairs in recent months and encountered inaccessible bolts, illogically engineered parts and other foibles.
My explanation: (A) This is the devil I know, and all outboard makers have their critics; (B) This time I can baby my new engine and give it proper maintenance from Day 1 instead of struggling with inherited problems; and (C) I like the fact that this motor still uses two-stroke technology, modernized to be more efficient and eco-friendly. Two-stroke engines have fewer moving parts than four-stroke engines, so they are less complicated, smaller and lighter. The latter makes a significant difference when you’re hanging an outboard on a little boat sized by 1950s standards, before the advent of Large Americans Who Drive Monster Pickups.
Making this long story shorter: Buying a new 2019 engine from the local Evinrude dealer on Orcas Island would have run well more than $10,000. But trolling the internet, I found a new 2018 model sitting on a showroom floor near San Diego priced more than $2,000 less. Even paying to truck it here, we saved plenty. That counts when you’re old retired people. And even with the 2018 model, we qualified for a spring special that gave us two extra years of warranty coverage and a $300 rebate.
West Sound Marina agreed to mount the new motor for us, even though we didn’t buy it there. But as carpetbaggers who had sent our cash to California, we had to wait a few weeks until after the Fourth of July boating rush, when they found time in their yard schedule.
My engine repairs held true enough that we zipped the 12 miles over to West Sound on Monday. We tied up to the marina’s guest dock with a lovely view of eagles and other bird life on rocky little Picnic Island, just off the Orcas Island shore. We spent the night aboard WeLike, our first time sleeping on her. The little cuddy cabin was cozy, with new turquoise curtains Barbara had installed. The one-burner butane stove cooked up a tasty dinner, and we were blessed with a flat-calm night and a sky full of dazzling stars.
Installation Day was long and tedious and need not be relived here. The bottom line: By shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday we were finally zooming homeward to Center Island, with our new motor purring behind us like a lion full of prime wildebeest.
The helpful yardman at West Sound Marina lowered the new motor into place.
Now we can wander these islands at will, boat camping when the spirit moves us this summer. We live in orca country, so we bear the responsibility of careful boating, gearing down whenever whales are sighted and keeping our distance per new restrictions. But now we can enjoy the Salish Sea with new confidence. Frankly, it’s a whale of a relief.
Barbara Marrett, right, and Barbara Cantwell push their bikes off the Sidney ferry on our way to Victoria, B.C.
IT MIGHT NOT SEEM KIND to compare my dear wife with the obstreperous Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful The Wind in the Willows, but she brought it on herself.
We’ve just returned from a two-night cycling trip, via the Sidney ferry, to Victoria, B.C., with our Friday Harbor friends Barbara Marrett and Bill Watson. They had made the trip three times before and are big fans of Vancouver Island’s Lochside Trail, which connects Swartz Bay (north of Sidney) with Victoria.
“My Barbara,” as I tend to call my wife when we’re with these friends, has challenges with her stamina, so we came up with a good solution, renting her an electric-assisted bike from Discovery Sea Kayaks in Friday Harbor (whom I highly recommend, if you have occasion to rent a bike or kayak in the islands; they didn’t know me from Adam yet gave us wonderful service, with the island’s best rates for a multi-day rental).
The electric bike was just what Barbara needed. She still had to turn the pedals, but could quickly shift the Bosch electric motor from the “eco” setting (light assistance) to “touring” to “sport” to — the big gun — turbo.
The rented Kona bike from Discovery Kayaks featured a Bosch electric motor that was good for 50 miles of cruising before recharging.
It was mostly flat trail, much of it following an old rail route past bucolic farmland and several scenic lakes on our 18-mile ride to Victoria. But at one point when we had ventured off the trail a few blocks to a beachfront lunch stop and had to climb a straight-up-the-cliff street to get back on our route, the rest of us laboriously pushed our pannier-laden bikes while my speed-demon wife shifted into turbo and zipped up past us, brazenly calling out “Poop, poop!” the way wild-driving Mr. Toad imitated the speeding automobiles of which he was dangerously fond.
Waiting at the top, Barbara tapped her toe nonchalantly as we puffed our way up the last few yards.
The two Barbaras and Bill Watson at our pleasant lunch stop, the Beach House Restaurant on Cordova Bay, about halfway between Sidney and Victoria.
We enjoyed the little inn our friends recommended, Swans Hotel, with its own brewpub. Located by the Johnson Street Bridge, it sits right at the end of the bike trail and within easy walking distance of all that downtown Victoria has to offer.
It was a couple days of good company, good food and fun sightseeing. A new discovery, based on a tip from another friend: the lovely (free) gardens surrounding Government House, the home of the Lieutenant Governor, British Columbia’s official representative of the British crown. (Don’t miss scones and tea in the little teahouse, served by very proper older ladies with distinctly Canadian good manners.)
Then, after a pleasant bike ride back to Sidney and the homeward ferry, my Barbara and I made our way home to Toad Hall — er, uh, I mean The Nuthatch cabin.
Poop, poop a doop, one might say. Tally frightfully ho, even.
A goldfinch pauses atop the bamboo fountain outside the front window of The Nuthatch cabin.
YOU MIGHT CALL IT “BIRDIE THEATER,” the tableau we’ve set up just outside the sliding-glass door off The Nuthatch cabin’s living room.
Besides spending $30 or $40 a month on birdseed to attract the feathered friends that help keep us old folks entertained day to day, we’ve set up a water feature, a large ceramic tub with a recirculating bamboo fountain. As part of our deck garden, it’s surrounded by draping branches of fuchsia whose hoop-skirt blossoms of crimson and lavender dip nearly into the water.
It’s a hit with the birds in our dry neck of the Northwest woods, ranging from goldfinches to towhees to hummingbirds. It provides a rare source of fresh water in which to dip their beaks or have a good, shake-all-over bath. And it provides us and our guests entertainment that has nothing to do with Netflix or Amazon.
On solstice day here at The Nuthatch (Latitude 48 degrees 48 minutes North), where one cathedral-ceilinged wall is all windows, I awakened when the sky started getting light at 3:45 a.m. The nice thing for us retired types: I could whisper to Barbara, “Good god, it’s getting light already,” and then turn over and go back to sleep for four more hours.
To my Northern Hemisphere readers: Enjoy your summer.
Its tiny wings a blur, flapping at up to 60 beats a second, a female rufous hummingbird pays a visit to the water feature on Center Island.
My father’s old tool chest, and the bent nail that keeps the latch closed. It was classic Joe Cantwell, though the man actually was a rocket scientist.
“I’M NOT JOE CANTWELL’S SON FOR NOTHIN’,” I often tell my dear wife, usually after I’ve effected some simple DIY repair, such as epoxying the broken door handle back on to the microwave. (Hey, it’s a discontinued General Electric part, you can’t order a replacement.)
What really made me Joe’s son was when I used the laser printer to create a tiny little sign with an upward pointing arrow and the word PULL, taped to the handle to encourage users to grab at the top where the repair is stronger.
There, I was totally channeling Dad, in the worst way.
And the best way.
On this Father’s Day, almost five years after my father’s 2014 death, I’m thinking about him. Joseph Robert Cantwell, father of four, of whom I was the baby. Joe Cantwell, forever the aerospace engineer. He could help design the rocket that put men on the moon. Or, much more in my consciousness as a queasy teen who hated for my friends to see these things, he could carve a wooden gizmo and secure it with string and epoxy to replace a broken latch on our Hoover vacuum. He kept that rotten Hoover till he died.
None of his children inherited much of his aptitude for science or engineering, and we had our share of growing-up tensions, sometimes inflamed by not-so-thinly veiled fatherly disappointment. But when we cleaned out his Ballard apartment in 2014, there were things I couldn’t part with, such as his old tool chest that was held closed with a bent nail.On the Washington coast in the late 1950s: Dad holds me, next to my brother Doug, at left, sister Marcia, and brother Tom.
His little fixes were forever functional. They didn’t consider aesthetics. Why should they? A child of the Great Depression, he used what was at hand. Watching the old movie “Apollo 13,” when engineers on the ground had to innovate ways for the astronauts to save their own lives with any humdrum supplies they had in their capsule, I always pictured my father in the fray. He’d have been a star at coming up with a carbon-dioxide scrubber fashioned from duct tape and spare Kleenex.
Recently I was struggling to repair my boat engine and didn’t have quite the right tool. In desperation, I went to Dad’s old metal tool chest, which was probably shiny and fire-engine red sometime before I was born. Now it’s dinged up and rusty and kind of mauve around the edges.
I pulled the bent nail out of the metal loop in the latch and let it dangle on its special Joe Cantwell retaining string.
Opening the lid, I rummaged about and soon came up with something I’d have least expected to find there and don’t remember having ever seen before: a long, thin stainless steel surgical clamp, just like Hawkeye Pierce might have used to stem a bleeder during meatball surgery on “M*A*S*H.”
It was the perfect thing to reach deep into a really narrow space and grab an important little screw I had dropped into the motor’s innards. I’d never have retrieved it otherwise. It was an odd, tiny size probably not to be found in a hardware store anywhere near here.
I felt close to my dad as I replaced the bent nail in its place. If he was still around today, I’d have been at his place making his favorite waffles, to be savored with peanut butter and syrup, with link sausage on the side. Together we’d have tackled the Sunday New York Times crossword, which his old eyes had a tough time reading. It was a routine we followed for many Sundays until he was gone at age 92.
Five years have passed and you’re on my mind, Dad. I might just go bend a nail in your honor.
On a tour of Ireland with Mom in their later years. With typical dry humor, Dad labeled this photo, “Local drunk, waiting for pub to open.”
ALSO: If you missed it, here’s a reminiscence about recent travels with my sweet daughter that appeared in The Seattle Times this Father’s Day.
June 14 is Flag Day in the U.S.A. At Nuthatch Cabin, we fly the colors from a weathered driftwood staff. (The stars-and-stripes we reserve for Memorial Day or Veterans Day, in honor of our parents who served in WWII.) A milestone Barbara and I always remember: We returned to San Diego Bay from our sailing cruise to Mexico 24 years ago today. In the foreground in this photo: After weeks of shivering in mild island temperatures and getting more obese day by day, a giant fuchsia bud (lower left) finally popped open in this week’s balmier weather.