Dearest Port Townsend,
In this time of pandemic, and the first cancellation of the Wooden Boat Festival in 44 years, I’m in mourning. An utter emptiness. But then, I remind myself why I am here.
From the moment I first saw your name on a map, the laws of attraction made it inevitable that we would meet. Jutting into the sea with your jaunty but mannerly chin, you were all salt air and seagull cries and tradition. From my perch in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, I half-figured you for one of those relics that got turned into a caricature, the kind that pops open like history’s tulip in spring and withers to a silent grey vigil at the autumn departure of tourists. A seasonal flash-in-the-pan. How wrong I was about how alive you are, Port Townsend.
The first time we met was during the 1998 Wooden Boat Festival, that siren’s congregation of shapely wooden hulls dressed in gleaming varnish and the finest Stockholm-tarred rigging. You snagged me then. After that I flew down from Alaska every year for my annual big gulp of sailing camaraderie, singing, sharing, gawking, and yeah, drooling on varnish. Again and again I was astounded that such a thing existed; this much happiness was almost too good to be true.
I’d fly back to the land of snow and ice, sated but hungry for more, aware that while Alaska was an exciting place to sail, keeping my 24-foot sloop in those rough waters presented its own challenges. I wanted to sail with less stress, and to live among peers who spoke sailing.
Besides, compared to Alaska, Port Townsend felt semitropical.
Still, I would not have traded those brief bright summers of rumbling aquatint glaciers and nine species of whales. I would not have traded paddling through bergy waters so loaded with salmon that one of them spooked and jumped not just into my kayak, but down my lifejacket.
One September day whose exact date is lost to memory, I pulled myself away from the Festival and walked up the hill to see what you were really like. Seriously, Port Townsend—could something this jolly, this splendid, be real? Strolling, I discovered much: that bike lanes and sidewalks grace your roads, that the speed limit is 25, that homes are lived in and cherished year round, that driveways contained more old pickups than luxury cars, that bulletin boards advertised events stretching well past tourist season. I discovered a bustling farmer’s market, a busy library, and a community of writers, artists and musicians who actually support and like each other. I found a steady stream of every kind of music or dance or literary event a body could want, and the parades! You are nuts about parades, Port Townsend.
I found people who are more interested in community than status—and they live here year-round. Wow, City of Dreams, I think I’m in love! Early signs: combing the real estate listings on winter weekends while making excuses to Alaskan friends—it’s just to get a sense of the market, you know, not to actually buy anything.
But in 2005, the B&B I normally stayed at during the Wooden Boat Festival was booked. Friends recommended another place further out, a lovely Victorian inn with fine hosts. The view from my turret-window included an adorable little cottage. That’s the kind of house I’d like to find, I thought. Sweet, small, and full of personality. Ah, well, maybe some day.
Also staying at that inn were the owners of a big Chinese junk from the Festival. Over breakfast they invited me to sail back to Portland with them; they were leaving the next day. I found myself caught between the wild urge to chuck the job and go to sea, and something that passed for responsibility. The latter won, but was losing its grip.
Shivering through another endless minus twenty winter, I combed the real estate listings, and there it was: For sale, the little cottage I’d seen from my turret. Not cheap, but not completely out of reach. Over a hundred years old, in good but not great shape. I gulped and bought it. Six months later I chucked the job, sailed 1400 miles to my new home, and discovered whales are not uncommon around here, either.
Arriving in the nick of time for the 2006 Wooden Boat Festival, I greeted new friends from previous years and thought, whoa, I’m a local now! Feels good! A year later, the future love of my life sailed in on a boat identical to mine. The stars aligned, we adjusted our boat-to-person ratio, prepared for a long voyage, rented out the house, and sailed our 24-footer to New Zealand. Returning home in 2013, your open arms welcomed us home. We fit right back in as if a voyage like that was a perfectly normal thing to do and our sanity should never be questioned. That’s what I’m talking about, Port Townsend.
Love like this lasts forever. You will endure, Port Townsend, and so will I.
PS—Don’t gentrify that working-class maritime tradition.
Photo of Wooden Boat Festival by Al Bergstein. All rights reserved.