I didn’t expect this nautical non-sequitur, but even a career technomad needs to get shaken out of a rut now and again.
Way back in 1993, after ten years and 17,000 miles of wandering the US aboard my “computerized recumbent bicycle,” I decided to build an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran and chase the same crazy dream on water, heading down the Missouri River and turning right to begin the Great Loop of coastal and inland waterways… about 10,000 miles. The plan was gizmologically intense, and there are plenty of stories on my Microship cobwebsite about the development decade that followed. A 132-mile mini-expedition happened in 2001, then another year or two of refinement… and then, as life evolved, I quietly moved on to other things, eventually wanting a boat big enough to live aboard. The little boatlet sat untouched, a forgotten centerpiece of my life.
Well, OK, that was frustrating. Ten years of intense effort for a piece of dusty artwork, occasionally shown to lab visitors? I reluctantly listed her on Yachtworld, but the market for geeky unfinished one-person amphibian multi-mode micro-trimarans is not exactly booming. I posted a few articles about loaning her to the right person in the hopes of seeing my labor of love get Out There to do a proper expedition… even if not with me. Nothing came of that either.
But a couple of months ago, taking a break from the seemingly endless Nomadness project, I went for a stroll on the docks over at the Port of Friday Harbor. I chatted with a friendly fellow traveling through the islands on his homemade Marsh Duck, then another couple of guys on a beautiful wooden boat named Tern. “Gosh, I wish I had a little boat…” I mused, imagining how much fun it would be to hop in and go for a sail, not needing crew, not worried about back pain or projects… hey, wait! I have a little boat! One that consumed a quarter of my adult life! I think I even smote myself on the forehead as I doubled my pace and hurried back to Nomadness to start the (deliberately short) to-do list.
In less than a month, she was on the water:
But let’s back up a bit. Getting her splashed was an adventure, and took advantage of one of the most complex and time-consuming parts of the project… the landing gear.
Energized by the plan, I threw myself into preparations: renting a slip at the port, buying a registration sticker, replacing the very dead split-open marine battery with a new pair of golf-cart monsters, adding a solar charger, recharging the hydraulic system with water, fixing the LED navlights, and tweaking things I had barely touched since the turn of the century. When the day arrived, I was fortunate to have the assistance of three friends: Paul Elliott of Valis (a lovely Pacific Seacraft 44 sailboat… he’s on the left in the photo below), and Al & Kristi Thomason of Viking Star (45′ Monk trawler). Geeks, muscles, and an event photographer, all rolled into a fun day with people I enjoy… how much luckier could I get?
We almost turned back at the start, though. The ferry Elwha had just disgorged a summer-scale bolus of cars, and we found ourselves gingerly navigating this crazy contraption through turbulent traffic while fielding questions and testing landing gear calibration to minimize drag. But we pressed on, got in the groove, and decided to go for it. With one stop to rehydrate, we covered the mile between lab and port in about an hour (zig-zagging on back roads to avoid the busy Spring Street through town). In the photo at right, we are rolling down through the ferry loading area, with the guys keeping gravity from taking over and me steering via a winch handle plugged into the hydraulic control at the bow. You can see the 60-foot white Nomadness mast dead ahead.
We made it onto the marina walkway without incident, then I biked back to the lab to fetch my truck with sail rig and other hardware. The next phase was one that I had been nervously dreading… installing 130 pounds of batteries and crankset, hoisting the boat with the crane, swinging it over the rail, and lowering it to the water far below with the hope of safely getting it from there to a dock where I could step the mast, climb aboard and make the short trek to my slip. In the photo below, the guys have rigged my dock lines and some stray webbing straps into a quartet of matched slings hanging from the hook overhead, and I have retracted the landing gear. That’s Kristi, our photographer, at left.
Holding the crane-control pendant (up, down, in, out) in one hand, I got her clear of the rail and threw myself into the arm that swings it around. Paul managed a pair of looped-back control lines he had fashioned with old halyards to keep it properly oriented, and Al waited on the water in his inflatable dinghy. It looked like a long way down… but only took about a minute once in the air.
There was no dock adjacent to the crane, so the plan was for him to catch the boat, free the slings, lash himself alongside, and trundle off to a more suitable location for mast-raising and climbing aboard before making the run to my slip. In this photo, Al has the Microship under tow…
After we tidied up the crane and Paul recovered all the deployment lines, I shouldered the mast and started trotting out to the breakwater to meet my little boatlet… already looking almost comically small against a backdrop of yachts. The tiny amas were no match for our first planned landing spot (behind a 70-footer, as I recall), so we located an open area on the walkway and Al brought her alongside. The task now was to step the mast, leading to what quickly became known as our Iwo Jima moment:
(The mast has Delrin bearings at the base, which drop into a Teflon-anodized aluminum tube solidly glassed to the forward bulkhead. It can be rotated via a long loop of line and the double furling drum, allowing the 93 square-foot sail to be deployed or retracted from the safety of the cockpit.)
And then, before I knew it, I was afloat! Things were creaky and unfamiliar, but it felt spectacular… and when I pedaled away from the dock to head around the outside breakwater toward my slip for the summer, I recalled the fantasies that had long ago sparked the obsessive creation of this machine. The next day, I rigged the sail, adjusted the crankset (coupled via Tran-Torque to the deployable Spinfin drive unit, spinning a model-airplane propeller at about 600 RPM), tweaked the hydraulic rudder control system, and pedaled out of the harbor for the first test run.
Having this in such a public place takes me back to the bike epoch, when emerging from a cafe to resume my trek would first require answering a round of questions… and, sometimes, getting to know interesting people. At the marina, conversations on the dock are frequent, and I’m glad I installed those Nomadic Research Labs decals with a link to the old Microship front door. Of course, it sometimes makes it hard to get things done. The other day I was head-down in there with rump aimed skyward, and from somewhere behind me came nonstop chatter as folks speculated about the machine and fired questions my way. Just like the good old days…
A Month of Micro-Adventures
Launch date was June 26, and I am writing this exactly one month later. She has been off the dock 14 times, covering somewhere around 50 miles, getting slowly refined one piece at a time. It’s a short hike from Nomadness to Microship via foot, bicycle, dinghy, or kayak… and I’ve been delighted to discover that when it’s a nice day in the San Juan Islands I can just go sailing. What a strange concept.
She sails well, other than making a bit more leeway than I would like (probably a result of the flat canoe hull, daggerboard notwithstanding)… and I was particularly pleased that the furler is now behaving. In the photo above, the black plastic “shelf” under the drum is a recent addition, helping keep the line from falling off, wrapping around the mast base, and making it impossible to stow the sail without clambering awkwardly forward and unwinding it… a tricky and dangerous maneuver even in mild conditions. This is assisted by a small block on a bungee in the cockpit to keep the loop tensioned when not immobilized by a pair of cam cleats.
The most frustrating problem so far has been human-induced. On the first Saturday night in the port, somebody climbed aboard the boat, scuffed some paint, broke my radar reflector, left the nav lights on, and… the only serious part… tried to pedal with the Spinfin drive unit retracted! This sheared the bond between the 5/8″ stainless input shaft and the collar that supports the top drive gear, robbing me of my primary mode of non-sail propulsion (I do have a trolling motor, but pedaling is faster and a lot more fun… and includes an automatic turbo mode triggered by being on a collision course with a ferry). The drive is now in the lab as I research solutions… probably drilling a hole through the entire assembly and pinning it with a hardened steel rod, since a full rebuild would be a huge project. But hey, the electric motor works, there are new batteries, and I’m not going to let this interfere with my short summer of mini-expeditions.
How is it otherwise? Well, look at this happy selfie taken outside Parks Bay on Shaw Island, just after crossing San Juan Channel:
One of the greatest pleasures of all this is being able to focus on the sailing, something I’ve been missing during this long dock marathon in Nomadness. As some wise person once observed, “the smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure,” and I am suddenly attuned to every wake, tide rip, frond of Nereocystis Leutkeana, and creak of my little ship. I’m getting to know local waters, and taking the time to enjoy the moments instead of working endlessly on chipping away at a massively complex long-term project. In the big boat, local trips like these would barely warm up the Yanmar or shake out old sail wrinkles, and many days would be spent preparing for departure (and, with some challenging back and knee problems, I’ve been reluctant to single-hand my 18-ton ship). The Microship is a perfect antidote to those crunchy-dockline blues. Both of the little jaunts shown on this chart plotter photo were micro-adventures of a mere 5 miles or so, filled with challenges and memories, glimpses of the beauty of this place, and reminders of why I’m putting so much energy into the larger project.
I’d like to share a few tech details of the boatlet, but I think I’ll save that for next time; I’ve been tweaking the hydraulic system (getting rid of a leaky over-pressure valve that was letting the rudder drift up, along with identifying the cause of some steering mushiness), trying to get an APRS tracker going, muttering about RFI from the solar MPPT charger, fiddling with video monitoring, researching a suitable fixed-mount VHF to replace the dead one installed 12 years ago, assembling a simple on-water bivouac system to extend my range, gathering the parts for a “clothesline” anchoring rig to allow beaching in tidal waters, and so on. This machine was never truly finished, back when the project wound down in 2002, but current plans are much more modest than the high-stress large-scale expedition for which she was designed.
And yarrrh… it was blowin’ half a gale. We had no business out there, but were making for Hicks Bay… then the eddies kicked up around Reid Rock and swept us off course, streamers flying off the waves, whirlpools spinning logs, birds screeching, rudder hard over as we fought off a gybe, too much sail out, wakes from fender-slappin’ powerboats throwing spray off the amas, crossbeams a-creakin’. It was grim, I tell you. Them what died… them was the lucky ones…