There’s this book called Boats of the Yangtze.
The guy who wrote it covered the junks and sampans on the Yangtze River. It’s that thick. It’s that fricking big. There are boats on the Yangtze River that only worked an eleven-mile stretch of water. They were the perfect boat for that specific eleven miles of river. That’s it. Then they off-loaded their load and loaded it onto the next boat. That next boat took it down the river, and the first boats were towed back up the river to the starting point.
People think that’s pretty amazing. These boats are designed. You get out to the Chinese coast and you’ve got shrimpers and you’ve got log boats, junks – all these different specific designs done for one job. But we come to this coast and people don’t put two and two together. They don’t realize that on this coast, a handlining salmon boat out of Tahsis is different than a handlining salmon boat that was made in Tofino. Same job; different water conditions. Different fishing styles.
We’ve come to this homogenized world now, but when you talk about this coast, you have to remember what it was. You used to be able to tell a seiner or a troller from one across the water and differentiate in a fleet of boats one that was built in Ladysmith and one built in Campbell River. They were all distinctive – distinctive wheelhouses, distinctive designs on the hull sides.
If you’re going to start here, with this water, you’re going to have to go out and spend time on it because people are going to say stuff to you, Craig, and you’re not going to know what it means. A gill netter speaks a different language than a seiner.
When I first moved here – ’76, ’77 – the majority of the boats that left the harbour were still small, under 30-foot, day boats with ice in the hulls for keeping the fish. Onboard was the skipper, the owner, the deckie, and a cook. And they’d go out for the day. You could see silhouettes coming back in the evening.
I climbed mountains as a young guy. I got a back injury while working in the oil field, which stopped my climbing. I was despondent for the longest time. What could I do? How could I move? The first time I went rowing, it didn’t bother my back. This is it, I thought.
I found an old guy, Ed, who taught me how to row. An old fisherman, he used to live in the harbour here. He had been fishing all his life, all of it. I’m talking about from being a babe in arms on boats, his mom being the cook, his dad and uncles fishing, living on a little 26-foot troller. You can imagine how small that was.
I was going out with a young woman at the time. Her family knew the old fisherman and looked after him. She had a little power skiff. Once a week or so she’d go over to his boat and check on him. During one visit I started talking with him. She had to do something, an errand, but we were busy drinking tea. He said, Don’t worry. He’d take me back in his rowboat.
That’s when I saw him. He was just absolutely effortless on the water. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
I started going out to his boat and he showed me how to row on the ocean – commercial boat rowing. This is not health rowing, right? This was not, you know, recreational rowing. This was how you row a boat and try to make a buck at it. You’d be out there all day. Like, God, his leathery hands; his fingers were like gloves. That’s the guy who taught me how to row.
He was lean. He was, you know, an old guy in his eighties when I met him. He went to live with his sister for last couple years of his life because he couldn’t get in and out of his rowboat. Sort of like me now. I can’t get in and out. It fucks with my back.
Anyway, he couldn’t get in and out of his boat anymore. It was a killer for him. He didn’t like it. He liked being on the water. He started explaining to me how to row and how to use your energy properly. He could be in the boat all day long. So which strokes you use. Why you do it this way and not that way. How to hold the oars properly. How to feel the water. How to adjust to the feel of the water.
He had a little tiny boat that was, at that time in his life, just to get into town to go for groceries. I think it was about 12, 13 feet. But it was salty, low freeboard, and I love low freeboard. With your boat, Craig, you have to bring your hands up in order to angle the oars into the water. I never have to lift my hands that high with a low freeboard. Never.
Ed wasn’t built for long distance and anyway he was an old guy. But muscle memory, you know, is what guided him. He cared about his blade. Some people, they’ll realize that their blade is wrong. It’s making the wrong entry through the water. When you bite into the water, you have to hold the water. Ed held the water. If you get too low, you can catch a crab. Catching a crab means like you’ve caught the water the wrong way. It can pull the blade out.
A lot of people who who’ve been in rowboats for years don’t start properly. Ed said: start gently. Half stroke, half stroke, three quarter stroke, maybe a second three quarter, and then a full stroke.
Then, when you’re sitting in your boat, in your thwart, you’ll feel when it’s right. You’ll feel it in your ass. Once you know what it’s supposed to feel like – when it’s a bit down in the bow or whatever – you shift around. You’ll know what’s happened.
Most people either stroke too many times or too few times for the boat. They stroke, then take a rest until the boat has slowed down enough that they have to pick up the weight again. Or they stroke so much that they’re wasting their own effort. Because the boat’s got momentum to carry it through, right? Life is about learning when to take a rest at the end of a stroke.
Being on the water is about projecting and remembering at the same time. You’re looking around. You’re seeing the conditions. You’re projecting what’s going to happen in the next three to five strokes. And you’ve got this memory of what’s happened in the past in those conditions. You try to bring all that together to one point. That’s the beauty.
It’s at that point when you row, row, row, row, row, and all of a sudden you’re just one. I’m not much of a spiritual guy, but when people describe a zen moment you’re just flowing. You’re putting no more effort in than is absolutely required. Any more effort would have no gain. Any less effort and you would lose. That’s the moment.