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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

12 January 2011

A DANISH STORY ON ORCAS ✪ ✪ ✪ by West Sounder John Gorton


Danish fishing boat from Bornholm to West Sound, WA.
Photo by author/photographer/mariner John Gorton.
One afternoon back in the '90s, I was down at my dock pottering about my boats - "pottering" is an English boating expression signifying a deep, soul satisfying peacefulness that comes over certain people when left alone with a boat that doesn't need anything done to it but requires a very careful perusal to be absolutely sure. Pottering is best done on a Sunday afternoon when there is no wind, although a little light rain is acceptable.
       This particular afternoon was an entirely pleasant afternoon for pottering because it was warm and still and not raining. I had spent some time examining the mooring lines of my dinghy. My wife was away for the day and so I felt quite relaxed about checking the stern rope for wear one more time.   Actually I was kneeling down in ROSIE with my head poked down in her stern checking the brass ring to which the stern line was fastened. I am giving you these details because I want you to understand that I was quite absorbed in what I was doing and really quite oblivious to what was happening - if anything - on the greater waters around me (known to Navigators of the World as West Sound).
       When it came it was as though somebody had suddenly ripped a blanket from over my head. I mean it was a terrific splash followed immediately by the clanking of heavy chain running down a hawse pipe - almost next to me! I poked my head up above the gun'll and felt my eyes widening in absolute amazement. Not fifty yards away, was a genuine Danish fishing boat! Here in West Sound - ten thousand miles from, I mean the other side of the world from Denmark! Incredible as it was, it even had a Danish fishing boat registration painted on its bow. I hadn't seen such a boat for maybe ten years.
       I realized it must have cut its engine some way out and just coasted in close to my dock to contact what probably appeared to be the only living person down at the waterfront that afternoon. Pulling my self together I quickly untied ROSIE grabbed the oars and headed out across the short gap between us. A normal West Sounder might not have done that, but you see, I spent a fair part of my adult life in Denmark, have a Danish wife, many Danish friends and used to cruise amongst the many Danish Island faerylands.
       "Hello on board!"  I shouted as I came alongside. A face appeared above me - a young boy's face, in his twenties, but well weathered.
       "Hi" he said. "Do you want to come on board?" The Danish accent so familiar to me - but it seemed natural on the deck of this boat, all cluttered with boat gear, chain and coils of rope, crab pots etc. We shook hands as he told me his name, I think I recall it was Eigil Petersen. Then a girl appeared from somewhere near the bridge and he introduced me to her as his friend from Seattle.
         "Well, I know Bornholm quite well." I said. "In fact I lived there for a while about thirty five years ago."   "That was before I was born," he observed. "What were you doing on Bornholm?" So then I explained how Bornholm was the only piece of real estate that NATO owned that was behind the Iron Curtain. He knew about NATO and what it was because the Berlin Wall had fallen in '89 while he was still in Denmark and he remembered all the newspaper and TV publicity. Did you have something to do with all those strange antennas in the forest at the center of the island?" he asked. I told him how those installations had been the prototype for a line of huge radars that extended from Eastern Turkey, three thousand miles across Western Europe, to the top of Arctic Norway and how we had been able to watch the Soviets flying across eastern Europe during the Cold War.
       I recall the three of us sat on his boat talking about Bornholm for most of the afternoon. As I got up to leave, he suddenly asked,  "do you have any photos of Bornholm? I would like to show my girl friend where I come from."
       Well of course, being a bit of an amateur photographer, yes, I had quite a few pictures of that idyllic island!   And so we all piled into our dinghys for the short row back to my dock and the scramble up the hill to my house. I used to take lots of 35 mm slides in my travelling days so here I am reaching deep into the storage cupboard marked "Archives" and bringing out all sorts of old slide boxes. Eventually I find one with a rather faded label marked "Bornholm", pop them into one of those ancient rotating slide carousels and fire up the old slide projector - this is a steam driven device that takes an alcohol "spirit' burner to heat the little boiler (that is, it was very old and hence used "metaphorical" steam!) And, in a few minutes - well half an hour - the boiler begins to steam, the mechanism starts turning and pretty soon, a few flashes and a whistle sounding and the screen lights up with a photo of the steamer that used to take visitors from Copenhagen to Bornholm.
       We study the photo of the steamer and my Danish friend tells us about his first trip to Copenhagen. I sound the whistle, pull the clutch on the projector and push down on the (metaphorical of course) steam switch. The projector clanks round to the next slide and poof! in flash there is a beautiful picture of Rønne harbor - the epicenter of life on Bornholm! And so we while away the afternoon while Eigil extolls the beauty of "The Pearl of the Baltic" as Bornholm was known in those days - maybe it still is!
       Suddenly, with a strange look on his face, Eigil asks me to go back to the last shot, that close-up of the quay in the harbor. I wrestle with the (metaphoric) clutch and eventually get the projector into reverse. The Dane leans forward and stares intently at the picture on the screen. I see a lot of identical looking fishing boats and not much else. Eigel lets out an exclamation that sounds like sort of "Wa-how" and stabs his finger on the front of one boat that somehow made it into the foreground. "That's my boat, that's the boat we just came from!" I glance at the photo but can't see any difference between this boat and all the other dozen or so boats at the quay.
       "How do you know?" I say.
       "Look, look at the top of the stem he says stabbing his finger on the front of the boat. See that length of new wood let into the stem? My father put that in after he had hit the edge of the quay in a storm one night. This is a miracle! You have got a picture of my boat here on Orcas Island.
       I went over to the window of my studio, took up my binoculars and focussed them on the fishing boat at anchor below our house. "Holy (metaphorical) smoke, your right!" I said. Yes, yes. I can see it from here - just like there on the photograph." I turned to the screen. "But that means I photographed your boat many years before you were born - and on the other side of the world - and now its here - at my dock! What an incredible coincidence."
       We drank several more beers that afternoon before they finally left - with a print I made for them from the slide.
        I never saw them or the boat again, although over the years I have met at least two people on separate occasions from Seattle who knew who I was talking about when I told them the story - but neither of them knew where he had gone or what happened to the boat. Just another one of life's "stranger than fiction" happenings that one collects as one gets older.

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