Waitress: No, I mean how do you like them cooked?
Customer: Even better.
If you don't think that's funny, you've never been 10 days at sea with your children. I am proud to say that my 9-year-old daughter was able to match Captain Al joke for joke. She would say, "What is the biggest pencil in the world?" and he would say, "I don't know," and she would say, "Pencilvania." When the guffaws (some of them sincere) had died down, Julie would say, "What does your clock say? Answer I don't know."
"I don't know," Al would answer dutifully.
The other member of the crew, Phil Portrey, runs a gas station and auto repair shop in Ferndale, Wash. and spends most of his time away from it.
A few years ago Phil decided to take an outboard-motorboat trip to Alaska to show that it could be done. Everybody around told him he was crazy to set out on such a harebrained trip. Portrey's answer was to make the 2,000-mile journey in an open 24-footer (SI, May 9 & 16, 1960) and come back as refreshed as if he'd just gone fishing. Once, when he took his 72-year-old father out in a 16-foot open boat, the gas line broke loose and covered the bottom of the boat with flaming gasoline. The Portrey p�re et fils raced five searing miles to the beach, sank the boat in shallow water, recovered some floating frankfurters for lunch, refloated the boat and went out and caught five salmon. When a Portrey sets out to do a thing, he does it.
The two of them, Captain Al and Executive Officer Phil, made life comfortable and low-pressure on board, which is essential for a cruise with children. Even their mode of speech was relaxing and restful; they dealt in well-seasoned, carefully tested phrases in marked contrast to the convoluted tergiversations of the effete East. "Say when!" Phil would say as he poured for Al and, after a bit, Al would say, "When!" Al made the children laugh by telling them they were more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and they laughed again when Phil asked if he should start the stove and Al told him he could fire when ready, Gridley. Phil ended each meal by saying, "I've had it," and soon all the children were making the same announcement. They picked up enough mots to last three years in the public schools of Connecticut.
And if the children admired our boatmen for their proficiency with simple, clear English, I soon learned to admire them for their seamanship in a body of water that presents problems unknown to most Sunday sailors. In this far tip of Puget Sound all sorts of mysterious actions and reactions are going on beneath the surface. Cold Alaskan tides pour down Georgia Strait to the north and meet the warmer tides coming up the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west; these two saltwater rivers blend in whirling conjunction and then slam into a vast infusion of lighter fresh water pouring into the bay from the Fraser River and other streams. The result is a "living" bay, almost exactly like a pot of water just before it comes to a rolling boil. Crossing from one San Juan island to another in a dead calm, we would see constant etchings on the surface that bore testimony to the mixing process going on underneath. Every now and then, for no visible reason, patches of water as big as a mile square would erupt into noisy whitecaps, while the surrounding waters remained flat. Here and there we would see whirlpools slowly swirling, with treacherous knots of logs at their centers. Once when we were "mooching" (drift-fishing), we came to an invisible whirlpool that turned us a full 360� before spinning us gently off the rim. During the spin, our lines, at various angles from the stern of the Allu, never varied in their distance or direction from the boat. Phil Portrey swears he has seen upwellings of this working body of water so intense and sudden that bottom fish like red snapper and rock cod were propelled to the surface with their air bladders billowed out of their mouths like balloons. "I shudder when I look back on my first trips out here," Al Mendenhall said. "At first we only had a 24-footer and I used to take the whole family out in it, and the only explanation I can make for getting away with it is that the Good Maker puts his arm around you the first few times and after that you're on your own. I finally had a couple of bad experiences, so I went to the Coast Guard school and learned what to do in these waters."
"The tides are one reason you really need a flying bridge here," said Phil Portrey, who captains his own 20-footer when he isn't out on somebody else's craft. "You need to be up there to read the water. And you have to throw out all the normal rules. Like in a storm out here, sometimes you're better off going deeper into a storm, if you have to, to avoid a rip. When you're in a storm you've got a wind and waves coming at you from one direction. You can manipulate your boat to handle this. But when you're in a tide rip the waves will come from every direction and pop right up in back of you. If I'm in a small boat and a storm comes up, I either run for it or head for the middle of a kelp bed. Kelp hardly ever grows on reefs, so you're pretty sure you won't go aground if you're in a mess of it. And all that kelp helps settle the water."