PORT TOWNSEND — Face it: We didn’t look like a team. A disparate bunch, we were tossed together under the heading Team Longboat, poised on the compass rose patio outside the Northwest Maritime Center.
Capt. Daniel Evans, who also happens to be boss of the Race to Alaska — the wind- and human-powered watercraft contest held here in June — and crew member-instructor Alicia Dominguez were our leaders for this voyage Friday. This year, Team Longboat was offered free on four Fridays in August, no experience required.
Our boat consisted of this reporter who’d never been anywhere near such a trip, a few newcomers to Port Townsend, a few seniors, a fresh college graduate from California, an experienced longboater from Sequim and a Maryland teenager who’d recently gone whitewater rafting.
Evans and Dominguez got to working their magic: Clothing us in life jackets, passing around the sunscreen, shepherding us on board, having us “fire-line” the sails and gear onto the vessel, teaching us to feather the oars so we could exit the marina.
Fresh realization No. 1: The water is wide, wide as the sky. In our 26-foot wooden boat, we are small. The Washington State Ferry crossed Port Townsend Bay looking like a giant. Other sailboats glided past, egret-like. We, meanwhile, were busy maneuvering oars and sails and rigging, with just inches between everyone’s elbows.
Our home for the next two hours, Bear, is a historic replica of the type of longboat Capt. George Vancouver employed to explore the Puget Sound region in 1792. Constructed at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Bear is named after the boat builder’s dog. A compact vessel, it weighs a bit over a ton.
Evans, looking ahead toward a stretch of windswept, dark-blue water, let us know it was time to row. We’d head for the wind, where we could raise our sails and, just as Vancouver did, behold the bay and the long fingertip of the Olympic Peninsula.
“Out your oars,” he began, and when the blades were in place on either side, “Prepare to give way,” and then “Give way — together!”
The result was a kind of symphony.
Somehow, the 10 rowers, in their diversity of size and strength, became a unit.
Fresh realization No. 2: When everybody wants the same thing — to get out there and sail — it can happen.
“This is much more calming than whitewater rafting,” said Jeremy Miller, the teenager who’d just come from practicing that sport in West Virginia.
Jeremy, who is from Cockeysville in Baltimore County, is visiting family in Port Townsend. He savors its small-town feel.
As we traveled, Dominguez and Evans schooled us on boating lingo. The floor of the longboat is called the sole. The thwarts are those crosswise struts where rowers sit. That short wooden pole Evans uses to support the sail is a boomkin, and when your stroke is imperfect and your oar drags through the water, you’re “catching a crab.”
Steve Grace, while working the tiller, provided information about the wildlife. We were accompanied this day by a few porpoises and by squabbles of birds: not just seagulls, but Heermann’s gulls, they of the blackish wings and bright-red beaks. They like to snitch fish from brown pelicans, but since those usually stay along the outer coast, Grace said, our gulls hunted and dived for their own dinner.
On arrival in a breezy part of the bay, we raised the sails, just in time for a stretch of near-complete calm. We were doing maybe half a knot.
“Longboats are about grace and good looks,” Evans said. In other words, speed is not important now.
Time flies when it’s a sun-splashed Friday. After a short stint of riding the nonexistent wind, it was time to row back home. Again the team synchronized, lifting and dipping the oars in unison, like a pair of wings.
“I’d do the Inside Passage with you all,” Evans said.
We pulled back into the marina right around 5 p.m., unloaded all of the gear and, on Dominguez’ instruction, formed a circle. She asked what we found rewarding on this day.
For Lisa Greenfield, a new resident of Port Townsend, seeing the birds and porpoises was a highlight. For Grace, it was feeling the connection to history, and to wooden-boat sailors of two centuries ago.
Longboating “is my favorite thing. I love doing it with new people every week,” said Gabe Santiago of Sequim who’d joined Team Longboat on previous Fridays this month.
“I can’t move that boat by myself,” Dominguez reminded us.
“Longboating is the essence of teamwork.”
For your chance to get behind the oars …
PORT TOWNSEND — Team Longboat is offered one more time this summer at the Northwest Maritime Center: This Friday from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The outing is open to everyone age 12 and older, and it’s free thanks to sponsorship by John L. Scott Real Estate and Holley Carlson of Coldwell Banker. Donations are accepted for the center’s many programs for youth and adults.
To reserve a spot, call 360-385-3624, ext. 104, or stop by the center’s administrative office at 431 Water St., Port Townsend.
Longboating also will be available during the Wooden Boat Festival in and around the Northwest Maritime Center and Point Hudson Marina, Sept. 7-9.
For festival information see nwmaritime.org.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.