Every year at the Seattle Boat Show there is a special Women’s Day which celebrates women on the water and encourages women to be involved in boating. This year Christine was asked to be part of a panel of women who have found their strength in boating. Below is the text of the speech she gave.
Here’s a nice article in 48 North Magazine about the talks given. https://48north.com/2018/02/08/beyond-fun/
Finding my strength in boating
By Christine Smith
It’s 5 am.
I’m at work. I’m the only one up. My job is a combination of chef, naturalist, deckhand, and jr. engineer aboard the David B. We’re at anchor in Tarr Inlet, Glacier Bay, Alaska. The sky is a blue-ish purple. The water a perfect reflection. We’re sharing our anchorage with two tidewater glaciers — Margerie and the Grand Pacific. Even though the sun has been up for more than an hour, the high peaks to the east still cast a shadow over the anchorage. Black-legged kittiwakes are drifting past the boat on floes of ice. The air is chill, and a light dew is forming on deck. I’m working in the galley with the door open so I can listen to the kittiwakes, and to the fire crackling in the woodstove. I slip off my shoes. I want to be quiet. I hate to be the one who disturbs the morning. Stepping out on to the deck I feel the coolness of the dew seeping through my socks. I take a deep breath through my nose and my lungs expand as I breath in the clean crisp, mineral-earthy smell of Tarr Inlet. Suddenly Margarie glacier rumbles, breaking the silence and sending ice cascading into the mirror perfect water. The nearby colony of kittiwakes raise their collective voices and become the foreground of my soundscape.
This is now my everyday life, but it wasn’t always that way. It took years and a lot of chance, opportunity, determination, but mostly the willingness to learn.
I often think my journey to working on a boat started in 1996 when I met my husband, Jeffrey. But, really it started when I was a child with my love of learning. It started with my grandparents taking me on nature walks. They taught me about frogs, beavers, and woodpeckers. They showed me trees and wildflowers. I was 11 or 12 when I encountered my first black bear and because of my grandfather, I already knew to respect the bear, but not fear it.
My path also started with my aunt who own her own dump truck. I saw her strength as a woman working in a male-dominated industry, and her ability to work big machinery. I saw her determination to be a professional. By watching her actions, I broadened my horizons. If she could do anything, I could too.
Through my parents, I learned how to see. It was from their love of photography, that I learned to look for the beauty of nature. I learned to look for rare moments. I learned capture images for myself, and for others. I learned to tell a story through an instant in time. My early teachers helped to shape my interests, and by chance, these interests eventually lead to boats.
In my 20s, I daydreamed about owning a bed and breakfast in the San Juans. At that time I only had a daydream and a low paying receptionist job and no commitment to a plan for my future.
When I met Jeffrey something changed – It wasn’t my low paying job. What changed was my commitment to a plan – starting charter boat business. By making that commitment, I had my big chance to create my dream job – a job that encompassed all my favorite things. The only catch was, I didn’t know anything about boats or boating. But I wasn’t going to let a little thing like something I could learn get in the way of that job.
Jeffrey and I decided that the best way for two people without much money to get into the business would be to find an inexpensive old boat to fix up. Because Jeffrey had years of experience working on and around boats, I was willing to trust him with decisions about what would work best for us. He was also willing to be my mentor.
In 1998, we bought the David B, a rustic old wooden boat built in 1929. Through my eyes it looked like all it really needed was a little sanding and some paint. Before we purchased the boat, we discussed what the steps would need to be taken to rejuvenate the David B. Jeffrey also talked with me about the boat’s engine, and what a cool find it was. It is an antique, made by Washington Iron Works and was the David B’s original. We agreed that it would probably take two years before we were up and running.
In that first year, I discovered a whole new world. Boat lingo, boat woodworking, new kinds of tools. I also got to revisit my old insecurities about math, algebra, and geometry.
I took a woodwork class. I read books on wooden boats, boat construction, boat fasteners, boat history, boat everything. Some of the knowledge stuck, a lot of it, didn’t seem to stick at the time, but later on something would come up and I’d remember reading about how to caulk a wooden boat with cotton and oakum or what fasteners were used on some boat built on Lake Union.
At times this desire to run a boat frustrated and discouraged me. Two years passed, and we had hardly made any forward progress.
Our estimation of two years turned in the 3, then 4, then 5, 6, 7, then 8. The boat and the dream seem seemed to be slipping away. In spite of dedicating all my spare time and money to working on the boat, there just didn’t seem to be enough time or money to complete the project.
In 2001 while we struggled with rebuilding David B, I got my first job working on a boat. I was a deckhand on a passenger boat. Even though I was planning to operate my own boat, I actually hadn’t spent any time on the water. I didn’t know how to tie up a boat, or what knots to use. I had learned a lot of boating terminology but didn’t have any actual experience. The night before I started my deckhand job, I confessed to Jeffrey that I was nervous about not knowing basic boating skills. He puzzled for a moment, then got up found a tiny cleat and a running shoe. We practiced tying up using the shoe as the boat and the shoelaces as lines.
Working on the passenger boat re-inspired my desire to finish the David B. I loved getting to see how a passenger boat was operated, and visualizing what it would be like to run the David B.
The big day came in 2006 when we officially started running the David B as a charter boat. I was excited, it was something I had trained for and imagined for 8-years. On our way to Juneau I got my first chance for a wheel watch. We were in Johnstone Strait at Current Pass. If you haven’t been there, it has a lot of current and a lot of traffic. I was nervous about driving on my own. I knew that I had l come along way since we bought the David B. I had learned how to read charts, I knew how the chart-plotter worked. I was familiar with the radio in case there was traffic. Before I took the wheel, I asked questions about Current Pass, and how I should best navigate. My nerves calmed as I watched out the window, checked the chart plotter, and kept the David B on course.
For three years we operated the David B. Everything was going perfectly until the winter of 2008.
I mentioned earlier, the David B has a very special antique engine. We did all of our usual engine prep for winter. Our only mistake was we forgot to double check that all the water in the engine’s cooling system had been drained. When the water stopped coming out, we walked away. For a couple weeks it was cold. Really cold. One day we walked down to the boat. It had snowed and we wanted to make sure everything was ok.
Things weren’t ok. The engine that we had thought we had carefully winterized was broken. Each cylinder barrel had monstrous cracks. Protruding out of the cracks were long, thin, delicate ribbons of ice. I was too shocked to express any emotion. For three years I was the person I wanted to be. I had learned so much, I got to experience Alaska, I was able to teach people about shoreline ecology and old growth forests. I watched people’s expressions as I showed them ice calving from a glacier. I got to share my knowledge with my guests. I got to meet people from all over the world, and cook delicious meals for them. In the cold engine room, I stared at the Washington’s wounds and saw all that I loved doing go away.
I took the freezing of the engine was an opportunity to learn. After the initial shock, we researched ways to fix the cracks. I told myself that this would be a great time to learn how the engine worked. It would give me hope that we could overcome the setback and continue to run the business, as well as give me an even greater confidence in operating the boat. It took the whole winter, but we did it. Me and Jeffrey together. I helped remove the heads, pistons, and liners. I touched each piece that came off the boat, I cleaned all the parts, I drilled the holes for the stitching pins we used to fix the cracks. I took the opportunity that the broken engine presented and I used it to learn. Now when I do my engine check every other hour, I know what’s going on inside of the engine, because I have seen the parts and I have touched them. I can help troubleshoot and diagnose developing problems with the engine because I’ve learned about it.
Four years ago I decided to take another step forward and sit for my for 100-ton captain’s license. I knew I had the time and I had a lot of experience, but it was also something I wanted to do to be a professional mariner. I was comfortable with everything about the class and the test with the exception of the math. I’ve always struggled with math partly because I’m dyslexic and it’s easy for me to transpose numbers. I was always the slowest to complete the time, speed, distance problems. I was very self-conscious about being the only female in class. I was disappointed in myself for being so stereotypically terrible at math. I wanted to prove that I could do it. I wanted to be seen as a professional.
Test day came. I didn’t have any trouble answering the rules questions. Then I got started on the navigation problems. I read, and reread. I plotted and erased. I questioned myself. One, by one, the other students finished and left. I was the last one in the room. I re-read, I erased, I checked, and double checked. The instructor came over to my desk as I stared at my answers unable to decide if I had done everything right. He looked down at my answers and said, “If I told you passed would you stop?” I had done it. Captain.
I love learning. Through my willingness to learn, I’ve been able to create my perfect job, and do what I want. Learning has opened up so many doors and helped me conquer obstacles of all magnitudes. Through an openness to learning, I have become, a naturalist, a chef, a photographer, a published author, a ship’s engineer, and a captain.
Years ago Jeffrey asked me if my dream of owning a bed and breakfast needed to have a foundation, or if it could float. These 22 years since have been filled with accomplishments that my then 26-year-old self could not have dreamed of. My drive to persistently learn has been rewarded with a life on the water. A life that includes scenes like that one out my galley door, with sounds of kittiwakes and calving glaciers.
It’s Five-ten now, Margerie glacier and the kittiwakes are silent again. Time to get to work.