Photography by Doug Harlow
The Last, Last Frontier
The delivery of a brand-new Nordhavn 120 across the Pacific from China proves one thing among others—the world still offers many far-distant, untrammeled places, accessible to mariners only.
While working for an oceangoing-tug company as a young man, I observed three distinct seafaring types: those who preferred to ply inland waters; those who specialized in “milk runs,” carrying bulk cargoes coastally; and finally those, like myself, who favored long, long, long hauls to South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
This latter bunch was a breed apart. More than the rest, we loved the blue distances, the reliably reassuring watch systems, and the regular meals. We loved the beauty of the things you see, hear, and feel when you’re hundreds of miles, maybe even thousands of miles, from anywhere. And we loved the adventure—the exoticism, the riskiness, the edginess of it all.
“It’s like we’re the last of the cowboys,” I used to tell myself back then, “ridin’ the last, last frontier.”
Oddly enough, that old observation came to mind just recently. I was talking with Nordhavn’s vice president Jim Leishman at the time, about the delivery of the company’s new 414-ton 120-footer across the Pacific Ocean last summer from China, through the Bering Sea and the Aleutians, across the Gulf of Alaska, and down the Inside Passage to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Leishman, his brother Jeff, and a guy named Paul Grover were co-captains on the 6,000-nautical-mile, 38-day extravaganza. Nordhavn employees made up most of the rest of the delivery crew, and yes, Leishman let me know during our conversation, that ocean travel’s changed a good bit since the days when I was routinely doing it. But he also let me know that maybe, just maybe, it’s not changed all that much.
Provisioning In China
The phone rang. “How ya doin’?” asked Jeff Leishman. “You know, Derek, we’re doing a little ocean delivery trip in a few months. You wanna join us, say, as the chef?”
Derek Christiansen is a fairly young fellow, but he’d been working the culinary scene for years when Leishman called. Leishman knew this, of course, thanks to his son Brett who’d attended college with Christiansen in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“From where to where,” asked Christiansen, looking around his lubberly quarters, smack dab in the middle of America’s great southwestern desert. A little delivery trip? On an ocean? Sagebrush was more his style.
“China,” Leishman responded, “to Vancouver, British Columbia—whataya think? Brett’s probably goin’ too.”
Just a few months later, Christiansen stood anxiously surveying the galley of Aurora, the biggest vessel Nordhavn’s ever built. With its sumptuous Sub-Zeros, mondo Mieles, and thick granite countertops, the place had become his top-of-the-line domain, his posh home away from home. But at the moment, it looked exceptionally grim, almost frightening. Major-league meat is not sold in chaste, plastic-wrapped packages in China—it arrives dockside in huge chunks and Christiansen had been struggling to get three truck loads all broken down and stowed for almost eight hours now.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Bill, there was fish juice,” he says, “and duck juice (chicken was out, due to a local bird-flu epidemic), and pig juice—every kind of juice you can imagine—and it was all over the place. Aurora’s galley was like raw protein central. And I was worried Bob and Diane would come back and see how I’d turned their gorgeous new boat into a horror show.”
Christiansen was lucky. Aurora’s owners Bob and Diane Conconi, who were making the passage to Vancouver along with the delivery crew, arrived onboard well after he’d dealt with the juice issue.
“Provisioning in China,” Christiansen reminisces, “was something of an adventure.”
Getting Clear of the Land
So, will music, of a certain type, cure seasickness? “I’m a musician—I play drums in a band—so I have an extensive playlist on my iPhone,” explains Doug Harlow, the guy who was responsible for documenting Aurora’s voyage via an array of media formats.
Gordon Lightfoot. Jimmy Buffett. Bob Dylan. These were a few of the biggies that would enliven, energize, and soothe the vessel’s crew as she headed off into the wide Pacific, along with (for the younger set) bands like Grizzly Bear, Department of Eagles, and The Growlers.
But it was Tom Waits who was critical to Harlow’s survival. “I was feeling very queasy at first—very queasy indeed,” he explains. “But I put my Bose headphones on and stuck with Tom for two whole days. And hey, the queasiness eventually went away.”
The tunes that did the trick?
“A song called Singapore,” says Harlow, “another called Jockey Full Of Bourbon, and another called Shore Leave.”
Tom Waits? A cure for seasickness?
“Who knows,” he chuckles, “I’m just sayin’. ... ”
Cowboys with iPhones
Years ago, one of the great glories of offshore passagemaking could be summed up in one little apothegm: “Everybody back home really knows where I am, but then again they don’t.”
“You have to remember, though,” advises Leishman, “that a different set of conditions exist today. You’re rarely away from an Iridium phone, e-mail access, and the like. The communication blackouts that used to exist when you were crossing oceans are pretty much gone now. While we were delivering the 120, for example, I was reminded daily of all the calamities and troubles of the world. Gone, I’m afraid, are the days when you could sail off into ‘Ignorance is bliss’ for two or three whole weeks.”
In spite of the possibility that he hankers for simpler times, at least now and again, it’s obvious that Leishman remains deeply and romantically involved with the crossing of oceans, a way of life he’s written about and enjoyed for decades and decades now. “Night watches in the open ocean are often wonderful—it’s undeniable,” he says, “Really, there’s something almost dream-like about the peace and well-being you sometimes achieve around mid-passage, under ideal conditions.”
The threat of bad weather steadily pushed Aurora’s route farther north than was originally intended, and eventually she abjured a direct course to Vancouver in favor of a more northerly one around Attu (an island on the western end of the Aleutians), into the Bering Sea, and on through fabled Dutch Harbor. As the boat approached Attu, an ominous message arrived via Nordhavn’s web-based interactive forum. Serious concern followed, especially among the globetrotting graybeards onboard who’d previously dallied in spots like the Straits of Malacca and the Red Sea.
“I see you have safely and uneventfully passed through the Habomai tides,” wrote a guy identifying himself only as Nelson, “Be there any concerns or preparations of protection taken in the unfortunate case of a Habomai pirate threat? I’ve heard horrific tales of their type, nearly enough to keep meself out from the waters.”
Speculative conversations occurred. In the galley. In the sumptuous saloon. In the skylounge. In the wheelhouse. Crewmembers asked each other, “Was there indeed a threat from Habomai pirates? Were they perhaps some Mongolian tribe that operated off the coast of Siberia?”
But time passed without incident. And eventually, Aurora and her crew entered seemingly pirate-proof, American-controlled Alaskan waters. A collective sigh of relief was breathed. And then, a remorse-ridden, guilt-induced explanation was coughed up.
Christiansen, inspired by his nautical readings, had covertly slipped the piratical message into the forum stream. He admitted the whole deal, according to Leishman, after serving a meal of perfectly grilled filet mignon one evening, backed up with an equally fabulous green-bean-and-bacon casserole. Was this a highly manipulative gesture? Certainly, but, adds Leishman, it saved the young fellow from being put ashore on a small, deserted Aleutian island.
Adak: The Twilight Zone
Nordhavn delivery skipper Paul Grover was on watch in the Bering Sea when the weather turned really, really bad. “We were headed west, trying to make Dutch Harbor, further along the Aleutian chain,” he says, “when the wind went from 15 to 50 knots.”
Massive, gray 20-footers began towering, as Aurora struggled to make 4 or 5 knots. At length, it was decided that the big vessel would make the first and only weather-related stop of the trip, despite the fact that she was Canadian-flagged and not officially documented to make an impromptu entry into an American port, even an exceptionally remote one like Adak.
“But Adak’s harbormaster, Elaine Smiloff, was a really nice lady,” says Grover, “and she was like, ‘Sure, no problem. Go to anchor in Sweeper Bay. The weather’s bad and it’s gonna get worse.’”
The hiatus in Adak lasted five days. But Smiloff took care of Aurora’s crew, offering weather and other information via VHF (the vessel’s satellite dishes were blocked by neighboring mountains) while rough seas and winds in the anchorage obviated coming ashore. Additionally, she organized a rental car once the weather eased a bit, helped with flight arrangements for departing crewmembers, and even came forward with a great going-away present—caribou hot dogs.
“But hey,” says Grover, “with all that said, Adak was a very spooky place. It looked like a major city when we were comin’ in. It used to be part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, you know, which monitored the Russians during the Cold War. But when that stopped, it was like everybody just left. In a hurry.”
Driving around the island made a deep impression on everybody. There were modern neighborhoods, huge administration buildings, churches, hospitals, warehouses, police stations, prisons, airplane hangars, even a McDonald’s restaurant—all empty, abandoned.
“It was an apocalyptic scene—like the Twilight Zone,” concludes Grover. “We went into this house on a hill, in fact, and it still had the plants in the windows. The plants! Can you believe?”
The Last, Last Frontier
After getting permission from her owners, I visited Aurora this past spring in Port Moody, British Columbia, just north of Vancouver. Having completed her voyage from China many months before, she was floating peacefully in the shadows of an immense boathouse. The aura of long distances still lingered over her, though, perhaps in part because, after Dutch Harbor, the Nordhavn delivery crew added Kodiak Island, the Gulf of Alaska, Dixon Entrance, and the Inside Passage to her long itinerary before saying goodbye.
Making my way beneath the vessel’s towering, rakishly flared bow, I was reminded of a sea-punching Smit-Lloyd salvage tug I’d worked with on an oil-rig-towing job back during the 80s. Her bow had also been lofty, and impressively massive.
I climbed a ladder and went aboard. After examining Aurora’s two-tier engine room (with its twin 965-horsepower MTU 2000 M72 diesels, twin Cummins Onan 99-kW gensets, and twin 1,800-gpd FCI watermakers) and her elegant, teak-joined interior layout, I wandered up to the bridge and took a seat. It was a fine spot for a little daydreaming.
Cowboys? Riding the last, last Frontier?
Yeah, it is hard to get away from it all these days. But then, onboard a certain sort of vessel, you can still do it apparently. You can still see things and hear things and feel things that you simply cannot see, hear, and feel while using any other kind of conveyance. Good news? Oh yeah. Good news.
- Builder: Nordhavn
- Model: Nordhavn 120