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We were throttled down to 500 rpm, trolling for silver salmon in one of the passes in the San Juan Islands off Washington and British Columbia, when the ferryboat cut us off at the pass exactly the way a Chicago truck driver will cut you off on Halsted Street. We had thought he was going to zoom straight up the center of the pass, as any right-thinking ferryboat would, and so we veered our 36-foot powerboat toward the shoreline, about 100 yards away. But the ferryboat kept aiming for the narrowing space between us and the land, and at the last minute we realized that this 1,717-ton hot rod had us cornered, so we altered course. He missed us by about 30 yards and we braced to take his wake. "Sit down!" I yelled at the kids. Now we would find something out. Was I the father of three born sailors or three sissified city kids who couldn't take a little pounding? Whack! The first wave hit us and the boat shuddered. From below I heard the delighted squeals of Julie, 9, and Barrie, 5, bouncing up and down on their bunks. The boat shivered and yawed and things flew around as we lurched some more. Captain Al Mendenhall muttered, "Durn!" which is as vulgar as Captain Al Mendenhall can get. My son Evan, who is 6 and still struggling with his v's and b's, rose three feet in the air, like Gus Grissom, and on his return to the deck said matter-of-factly, "This is fun. I like the wabes." And that was the high point of the trip, kidwise.
It didn't matter that we cruised through Washington state's San Juan Islands for 10 days and rode horses and dug clams and caught muscular salmon and four-foot sharks and collected shells and mauve starfish and explored wrecked tugboats and a derelict British blockhouse and old lime kilns and who knows what all. The apogee of the trip was getting the bum's rush from a ferryboat. Julie, the 9-year-old, said the experience was enough to make up for missing a week and a half of the Soupy Sales show. Soupy is No. 9 on her list of favorite historical personages (I am first, President Kennedy is No. 2, her school bus driver is No. 3 and the Rolling Stones are Nos. 4 through 8). Barrie, a preschooler who has a laugh that could make Ford Frick smile, kept asking when the big boat was coming back. And Evan told me as the day wore on that if I couldn't produce another "gigantic" ferryboat backwash he would tell me what I could do with my boat trip.
I must confess to having had certain anxieties even before our chartered 36-foot sedan cruiser Allu headed out of the Bellingham (Wash.) Yacht Club for the San Juans. For 10 days we would be some 15 miles offshore in the northernmost part of Puget Sound: me, the three kids, Captain Mendcnhall and an old friend of this magazine, Phil Portrey, who would serve as navigator, fishing guide, social director and baby-sitter. At worst, I envisaged a total ennui. I had never thought of boats as anything except transportation or fishing platforms. To me a boat that was not either making a specific journey from X to Y or pulling fishing lines through the water was a perversion. Yet here I was committed to just hacking around 400-odd islands with no destination, no itinerary and no plans. A landsman with no destination, itinerary or plans can be arrested as a vagrant.
On the other hand (I thought as we prepared to cast off all lines), the trip could turn into another Vietnam. The kids would be fighting day and night, ventilating their sibling rivalries in the confines of our small floating battlefield, and I would be spending most of my time trying to mediate, ordering apologies and holding down the decibels.
I promptly decided that the way to fend off this possibility was to let them know who was boss straight off. So when Evan gave me some lip as we were crossing Bellingham Bay toward the cool, green islands, I told him to go below until he could learn to behave himself, whereupon he burst into tears. Little Barrie marched across the cabin, looked me straight in the eye and said in her breathless way: "Judy says—when you boss a child—and make him cry—God feels—sorry for him!" Then all three children went below to ignore me vigorously.
There was simply no end to my ineptitude until I finally gave up and let the natural wonders of the San Juan Islands take over in the entertainment department. I mean, I would get into situations like this: We were cruising near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the kids wanted to know how this body of water got its name. Well, I explained, it was named after Juan de Fuca.
"Who is he?"
Well, he was a Greek explorer, and his real name was Apostolos Valerianos.
"Why isn't the strait named the Strait of Apostolos Valerianos? It's a lie to name it after Juan de Fuca."
No, it isn't, because Valerianos sailed under the name Juan de Fuca when he went exploring for the Spanish government.