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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.

03 January 2011

DAWN ROW .... by John Gorton, West Sound, Orcas Is.


John in his Walker Bay 10 in West Sound Marina.

 John Gorton with his planked 15-ft  Wisp, KATE ELEY, which he built in his shop in S. California. Kate was his first "Dawn Row Boat" imported to Orcas in 1989.
During the summer months I go rowing more or less every morning, a little after dawn. Down to the dock. All very still and the water like molten nickel as it softly laps at the rocks; silence all around except for the occasional cry of a distant sea bird. Off to the left, silhouetted against the dawn mist, a lone blue heron stands motionless on a big stone, its head tilted down as it watches for its prey. 


I go into the bridge house of my little motor boat, collect my soft seat, a dry rag, and some lubricant for the oars. Drop my bits and pieces by the dinghy and cast off the bow line, then bring the stern line in and step down into the boat. The seat is covered with glistening pearls of dew – I wipe a space clear and sit down on my soft seat.

For a long moment I sit as the boat softly drifts away from the dock side. The lap of the water is there beside me now, far off across the bay a rooster crows. You feel the soft, damp, air and there is no single identifiable noise but your whole body is filled with the sense of dawn, alone on the water.

I run out the saturated wet oars and wipe dry the upper foot or so, rub some stuff on the leathers and feel the water under the blades. A glance at my watch to remember my start time and then we pull away. The heron at last realizes I am nearby, reaches out his wings and, with a ghastly cackling screech, launches himself into the air and departs for a new rock a hundred yards down the shoreline. The light over the hill to the east is beginning to brighten, the gently moving mist clouds begin to take on a third dimension as the new day's light strikes through.

I am rounding the Point now, the dock and my motor boat fast disappearing from view. Somewhere a motorcycle clatters its way down the road and fades into the distance. Then, silently, a seals head appears on the surface a few yards behind me. I quietly say, "good morning". I am not sure if he recognizes me or not but I see him most mornings. He looks at me with a doleful expression and swims a little closer. I know the seals because they each have their own territories and are never more than a hundred yards or so from the same spot each morning. Of course I only see two or three or maybe four on any particular day – but they are always in the same place and never together. We have one who gives birth on our dock, sometimes twice a year. Two years ago I came down one morning and found a seagull had draped the afterbirth over the top of my wheel house – what a mess to clean up! Then I jumped with surprise as the seal came half out of the water and crashed down into it right alongside my boat. Was he playing, or just showing off!

I am half way out to The Rock in the middle of the Sound now. I glance over my shoulder and see I am right on track about two hundred yards to go. I watch my shore marks to hold my heading. The boat is pulling well now and I have overcome my early morning stiffness, not a sound as we come up on the The Rock and I round it, close too on the western side. The usual white seagull gazes down at me from the top of the pole – and then, as the little sand patch comes in sight, I realize there is a seal lying there waiting for the morning sun. I am only twenty feet away but going smoothly without making a sound and he just lies there and watches me pass. Strange that I have never seen him there before.

Back in the 1930s, my father used to take us to spend a summer holiday at the seaside. We always went to the same little town of Barmouth on the west coast of Wales. It stood at the head of an estuary and had done for perhaps several hundred years. My father's family used to take him there when he had been a small boy. My father was highly regarded by the old salts who operated the fleet of row boats and the ferry across the river from the town harbor. And so I was naturally inducted into this small group at an early age. I recall that I used to watch with great care, how they handled the boats and particularly, how they rowed them and how smoothly they came in to the quayside. I vaguely have an image in the back of my mind of being sat at the rowing thwart of a skiff called the EVA, and then pushed out into the stream. I would have been about ten.

Anyway, I managed to get the oars out and row back to the quay and that was how I learned to row. When the War came, and the bombing started in Birmingham, my father was very ill and my mother took us to live at Barmouth. Looking back it seems to me that I spent all my waking hours down at the quay. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was allowed to take parties of summer visitors up the estuary in the big, Whitehall style rowing skiffs and, when I wasn't doing that, I was "Bow Boy" on the ferry boat BETTY – my first ever paying job at a sixpence a day, (10 cents US). I learned to sail a small boat in those years but sailing never got into my blood like rowing did.

In the years that followed, I found myself living in coastal areas in various parts of the UK and Scandinavia and never missed a chance to go rowing. As I grew older and progressed at my work, I was able to own a boat – and of course it invariably had a dinghy. Cruising for me, whether it was on the English coast or later, in the Baltic Sea, was essentially going from one place where I could row, to the next opportunity to take off in my dinghy at dawn – or as the sun was going down.

As I approached retirement, (I was now a regular reader of Wooden Boat magazine), I started building small row boats. I built a "Wisp", a fifteen foot narrow, planked boat that had remarkably similar lines to those much bigger boats that I had rowed as a child in Wales. I named it KATE ELEY after one of the larger boats of my childhood. When I finally did retire in 1989, I took KATE ELEY, along with a sailboat I then owned, to our new house on Orcas Island. There, in West Sound I found my Nirvana! At least I think that is what its called. Now I could row to my heart's delight and any time of the day or night! Which of course for me meant dawn every summer's morn.

After a while we built our own dock and shortly thereafter, I spent one winter building ROSIE – a dory with its stern sawn off that Dynamite Payson had published in the pages of Wooden Boat. It so happened that about that time the child of a friend of ours had suffered serious injuries after being run over by a speed boat in Florida. I wanted to do some experiments to see if I could come up with a small motor boat that would be safe for children to play with. So I modified ROSIE to have a false inner bottom that I could easily remove and so enable me to simply install different propulsion schemes.

Partly because of the experiments I intended to do and partly because I didn't much like thin ply boats – that wasn't how those old boats at Barmouth had been built – I doubled the plank thickness for ROSIE. Well, about the time I finished ROSIE, my life style took on a new dimension as I started a video production company and, by the end of the 1990s, this was becoming modestly successful so that my attention was permanently diverted from the workshop to my new studio. Though ROSIE had now replaced KATE ELEY as my standard morning row boat.

It is now full sun-up and I am approaching Skull Island. The sun is just about to top Turtle Back Mountain on the east side of the Sound – I have been going for about twenty minutes now and I ship the oars as I come up on the inside of Skull and let the boat drift. Sure enough, a moment or two later a seal's head comes out of the water just astern. I say softly, "good morning Diana." I don't know if it really is Diana but she had said before she died that she would come back as a seal to swim in front of her house and she is nearly always there when I pass by on my early morning passage.

I head east now, across the Sound to Jennifer's Rock where I watch the early morning traffic on the road above me. Then along the shoreline heading south towards Haida Point. I like to go in real close to the rocky shore along here. If the tide is very low I can usually find the old car chassis that lies on the bottom below the high point of the road – the vehicle must have fallen about eighty feet into the water many years ago.

About five years ago we had some heavy rain storms in July and I discovered my aged old body was no longer strong enough to pull ROSIE with several gallons of rainwater in her bilges, up onto the dock. My wife told me I had to sell her and she went out and bought me the "Walker Bay Ten."

At first I was a little concerned about going out in the new boat. I mean I am not a wooden boat fanatic but most of the boats in my life have been of wood and I felt a certain kinship to wood – I was comfortable in a wooden boat, I knew how to fix whatever broke or came adrift; a reasonably chunky wooden boat just feels so stable and you know if you accidentally hit a stone on the beach, the stone will get pushed aside, not the boat.

And now here I was about to set out in "Tupperware". As the next few mornings came and went I began to realize that the "Walker Ten" had some quite pleasant features! To my surprise I heard myself telling a friend one morning that, "It really rowed rather nicely." Now after five years, I tell people that it is the ideal row boat for an old man – and I love it! I can beach it, pull it out, turn it over, and pull it back right side up – all on my own. It is a real delight to row, doesn't mind a bit of a chop or a headwind – and it tracks nicely. But, strangely enough, I have never given her a name. You see plastic boats hadn't been invented when I started rowing!

I'm just raising Haida Point on the way back now. 








There is a sort of indentation in the rocky shore just before the Point. It would make a delightful little harbor – that is if it had a rock breakwater across the entrance to hold off the violent westerlies we get here occasionally. Common in the UK, but here on the West Coast breakwaters are a real rarity – but then the breakwaters across harbors around the Atlantic coasts were built hundreds of years ago (how did they know where to put them before they had Planning Departments I wonder?) Anyway, like this morning, most times I run into my little harbor and count the oysters on the bottom and look for red Rock crabs scurrying under the rocks. There is a resident mink amongst these rocks and sometimes he will make an appearance – going quite fast across the jagged and barnacle infested rocks along the water's edge. How is it his feet are not torn and bloody I wonder?

I head out and round the Point, to see my little tug sitting at the dock a hundred yards away. Between the Point and my dock there is what I call "Our Pool". It lies below our house and I keep a mooring in the middle for guests. Since the Pool looks sort of threatening to boats – too small for a big boat and obviously too shallow to anchor in, nobody ever hangs out there unless we have invited them. We had a friend who used to come in an old sailing fishing boat with a keel that went down ten feet – my friend was quite safe in "Our Pool" nestled up to the corner at the lowest tide!

I am passing my mooring now – I hang a line on it to catch mussels so I pause for a moment to pull it up and check the catch – not bad.

The sun is well up now, contractor's trucks make noisy processions on the road and the big cruisers on the Club dock are disgorging kids of all sizes into incredibly fast speed boats that chase madly across the Sound in noisy search of their crab pot markers. One stops just off the end of my dock and proceeds to haul in his pot. I potter over to him and bid him a "good morning"!

I suggest politely that he has chosen an unfortunate spot for his pot. He finally accepts my presence and gruffly demands why. I explain he is twenty feet away, directly in line with my dock and that I sometimes have visitors come after dark when it might be difficult to see his float. He says, "so?" I explain they might cut his line and he would have lost his pot or, the prop shaft of one of my big boat friends might catch his line and damage the boat – and maybe sue him for the many thousands of dollars the marina may charge him to fix it.

He responds that there are no such boats in sight this morning – he doesn't see very well, I assume! I point to an area a couple of hundred yards away and tell him that is a real hot spot – he grunts!

And I row back to my dock where I can see a neighbor is waiting to tell me the latest news of his wife's illness. I let the boat glide in towards the dock, dip my port oar at the last minute and lift the starboard out of the gunn'l. The "Walker Ten" softly kisses the side of the dock and I lean over to secure the bow rope. For my last few seconds aboard I sit and look around at the bustling activity – the magic of the dawn has softly stolen away.


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