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The Other Side of the Cleat

A weekend in Washington's Roche Harbor is 48 hours of pure pleasure — unless you happen to be working.

April 8, 2009
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Kevin Carlton rushes past me and heads off down the dock. He’s still carrying his clipboard and brace of incessantly squawking walkie-talkies, but he’s switched from motorboat maitre d’ into Coast Guard captain. I catch up just as he cranks the outboard on a small bargelike utility boat. “Got a call from a boater who says his motor quit, and he’s drifting toward rocks.” I jump on board along with one of my fellow “dock boys,” and we cast off.

It’s 10 a.m. Saturday morning on one of the busiest, boatiest summer weekends in Puget Sound, and as we round the end of the pier, we’re suddenly part of a chaotic boat parade. I count 18 vessels zigzagging through the crowded anchorage, with more pouring through the three channels that sluice into the northwest corner of San Juan Island. All the boats are headed our way — Roche Harbor Marina — and everyone wants to talk to Kevin, the harbormaster and commander, the man charged with making sense of this whirlpool of white hulls. Over this single weekend, the marina will dock 500 boats, pump 15,000 gallons of fuel, pump out 150 heads, haul several tons of garbage and keep everything safe, secure and fun for several thousand boating vacationers. Helping Kevin do all of this is a staff of young, energetic, good-looking go-getters. And me.

To give an average Bob the Boater an idea of what life is like as a dockhand, Kevin’s letting me don khaki shorts and the official “Marina Staff” T-shirt, and join his team for the weekend. Everyone else wearing this uniform is half my age, and frankly, I was afraid they were going to treat me like a Wal-Mart greeter and post me where I could do the least damage. Turns out they’re happy to let me pitch in with all the marina jobs. I didn’t, however, expect the chance to go on a rescue.

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“There he is,” says Kevin, pointing to a 23-foot cuddy cabin. “Nowhere near the marina like he said he was … but he is close to the rocks.”

We arrive just in time to lash the imperiled boat to our little wooden-decked rescue tug. Once the cuddy is out of danger, the owner sheepishly admits that he ran out of gas. There’s an awkward moment when Kevin must be asking himself why the guy didn’t use an anchor to stop his drift, but the only sound above our purring outboard is the boat’s Canadian flag flapping in the breeze. Then a big smile breaks across Kevin’s sun-ruddied face. He ends the silence with a hardy: “Well, welcome to Roche Harbor anyway. We’re glad you’re here!”

We mother the unlucky Canuck directly to the fuel dock where Kevin’s wife, Colleen, greets him with her own dazzling smile.

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“It was thoughtful of you to come in empty,” she says. “Fill her up, I presume?”

I hop off and help Sissy, the Carlson’s 23-year-old daughter (yes, it’s a bit of a family affair at Roche), tie up the boat. During the winter, Sissy teaches kindergarten, a job, she says, that requires the same amount of patience and care as dealing with some of the boaters who visit the marina. Colleen drags over one of the long gas lines and hands across the nozzle.

“Always let them pump their own,” she tells me. “Just keep an eye on them.”

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Another first-season boater here once managed to fill the bilge of his squeaky new sailboat with diesel. “He’s happily pumping away and suddenly we see fuel start pouring out of his hull,” says Colleen. While the boater played Little Dutch Boy and stuck his thumb in the bilge pump through-hull, Kevin jumped aboard his own boat, reached for his wine rack, opened a bottle in record time, whittled the cork down and plugged the flow. “Somehow,” laughs Colleen, “Kevin had the presence of mind to pick the worst bottle of wine.”

At one time or another, boaters at Roche have also tried to pump gasoline into diesel tanks, diesel into water tanks, and everything into their rod holders. Forewarned, I keep a close watch on all the customers. And there are a lot of them. Roche will pump fuel into 150 boats today — they’ve been lined up since before 8 a.m. — with the three gas-dock staffers buzzing around like the crew of an aircraft carrier.

My next shift is working arrivals. This is the meat of the job for the dock guys and gals: walking the wood and catching the boats. Each morning, the marina staffers are given responsibility over particular portions of Roche’s nearly mile-and-a-half of docks, but that still means a lot of hoofing.

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“I’ve measured it,” says Kaiser, who at 21 is one of the veterans I’m shadowing to learn the ropes. “We walk 15 to 20 miles a day.”

When I ask him what it takes to be successful out here on the docks, Kaiser ticks it off: “Sunscreen, drinking water and Gold Bond Powder.”

Unlike our new Canadian friend from across the watery border, most of the boats arrive at the marina under their own power — some more under control than others. The first thing I asked Kevin when I pulled on the T-shirt was whether it was proper for a dock boy to offer suggestions if it looked like a boater was coming in cockeyed.

“We have to be sensitive to egos,” he told me. “We can’t have a 19-year-old kid telling a grizzled old Seattle Yacht Club captain what to do.”

It’s quickly apparent that just having a professional dock boy or girl (or even a poser like me) standing by gives boat drivers a large margin of error. They need only get within debating distance of the dock and toss us a line. We remind them to raise or lower fenders to match the slip, then guide their stern away from the finger ends, walk the boats in and wrap lines around cleats to halt them before they hit the dock or other boats. The skippers all seem pretty relaxed today, but away from the guests, my fellow dock boys offer up the truth.

“Sometimes they mess up, and then they yell at you,” says one.

“Or they yell at their wife … that’s the worst, a guy stresses out about docking and his wife gets the rap … I mean, it’s just a boat, don’t go crazy.”

Kaiser assures me that the majority of boaters make it in just fine. “I can tell right away how they’re going to do by how relaxed they are when they approach the slip,” he says. And even when a captain does have a rough time pulling in, as long as his boat or the dock isn’t left a scorched wreck at the bottom of the harbor, the marina staff makes sure that it doesn’t ruin the whole day. “Once they’re tied up,” says Kaiser, “it’s time to chill and have fun.”

Kaiser, upbeat and inquisitive, was born to the job. “I’m a talker by nature,” he tells me. “Other than tying up boats and hauling trash, this job is all about walkin’ and talkin’.” And with that, he sends me off to mingle.

I don’t make it far, though, before an elderly couple crabbing down the dock asks me to hunt down a certain nail head “somewhere back there” that’s sticking up too high. There must be two million nails in the dock, but I say sure and go to grab a hammer. On the way, though, I stop to admire a cherry 1961 Chris Craft. Up on the bow is a stunning, teeny bikini’d blonde catching rays. She tells me she was named after the boat, Alexa. I don’t believe her, but then her mom, Michelle, pops up on deck in an equally miniscule swimsuit and says it’s true. They’re on their yearly cruise of the islands, says Michelle. “We go with the tides, no schedule, but we always make a stop here at this marina.”

“Oh yeah,” says Alexa, “my girlfriends and I always want to check out the Roche Harbor marina guys.” I stagger away, trying not to faint from holding in my stomach for so long.

There’s some good scenery around here,” agrees Kameron, a business major (all the marina staffers are college kids or recent grads) who’s my mentor for the most-famous job at Roche Harbor. “But it’s probably good that you talked to the girls before doing this.”

There are a lot of boats at Roche — which, including permanent slips (there’s a 10-year waiting list) and summer-weekend Med (Mediterranean-style) ties, can accommodate 600 vessels. But none garners as much attention as the squatty metal tub that bobs at the end of the fuel dock marinating in a clawing funk that makes diesel fumes smell like a Cinnabon.

“You’ll get used to it,” says Kam as he jumps into the Phecal Phreak, the marina’s “honey wagon” or floating pump-out station — a service that’s included in the dockage fee.

“I sure hope not,” I say as I follow him on board and stand awkwardly, trying not to touch anything, amid a tangle of a sickly green big-bore hose. I’d heard of the Phreak and figured the marina staff must hate this duty.

“No way,” Kevin tells me later. “They fight for it. These kids get paid $9 to $11 an hour running their butts off on the docks, but when they pump heads, they can triple that in tips.”

It’s also one of the few times on this job that you actually get to drive a boat. “Albeit a boat filled with crap,” says Kam.

Filled indeed. The Phreak is a veritable Hadron Collider of caca — an odiferous collection of pumps, motors and valves attached to a 200-gallon tank. And just to make sure there’s no missing it — even if you’re upwind — Kevin attached a billboard that shouts the boat’s name and slogan: “We Take Crap From Everyone.” As we float past, people come rushing out of their cabins, shouting, whistling, hailing us like we’re a warm cab on a rainy winter day. Kam waves and writes their slip numbers on a dry-erase board (our to-doo list?). As we idle to a stop by a big charter catamaran, I hear a series of slams as the surrounding boats shut their windows and doors. Kam shrugs.

“You watch: When it’s their turn, we’ll be their best friends.”

I ask the obvious question. “Oh yeah,” Kam answers, “sooner or later you’re gonna get it. Sometimes it’s just a side spray, a streak across your chest — unless of course you break rule No. 1 and hold the pump up at face level, then …”

I get the picture. “And eventually you’ll get a full-blown baptism,” he says as he pulls the starter and jams the nozzle into the first of the catamaran’s four deck fittings. The Phreak starts coughing, roaring, sputtering and gargling as the “stuff” percolates through the hose and into the tank.

And then it’s my turn. Kam talks me through it — “Slowly open the valve … wait for it … feel it? Okay, let her rip!” — and thankfully I escape a baptism. We pump the cat’s three other heads, and Kam shoves some dollars into his shorts. As we navigate toward our next job, boaters smile and wave hello, and we smile and wave back. Kam gestures with a surgical-gloved hand, taking it all in — the beautiful boats, the babes, the brilliantly sunny San Juan Islands day, even his command of the crappiest craft in the navy — and reassures me, “This is the coolest job you’ll ever have.

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