Return to Sointula

By 1999, Barry and I had logged hundreds of hours on OPB’s (Other People’s Boats) in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. From 28 to 44 feet, catamarans and multihulls, raceboats and cruisers, stayed and unstayed rigs, cutters and sloops and yawls, they all had one thing in common: Triangular Marconi sails. But we had fallen in love with the junk rig, with Chinese sails like butterflies. We dreamed of building a boat with a junk rig, and we mailed our membership check to the only group that catered to junk afficionadoes, the British-based Junk Rig Association, or JRA.

The JRA published a directory of members back then, and we were the only ones with a Puget Sound address. I pored over the list, hoping to find someone who would take us for a sail in a junk-rigged boat.

I e-mailed Canadian Jeff Ardron, who listed an address in British Columbia. After he wrote back, saying “Come on up!” I looked at the map. His home in Sointula was hundreds of miles away, on a tiny island off the north coast of Vancouver Island. It took us two days and several ferries to reach him on Malcolm Island, where he lived with his girlfriend, Anna.

Jeff had spent a number of years rebuilding an old wooden dory, scrounging materials and using a couple of periods of unemployment to complete the work. The Nootka Rose was super-stout, a little overbuilt, but at 28 feet, capable of handling anything Neptune could throw her way.

We stayed on the island for several days, pitching our tent at the Bere Point campground. Jeff took us out sailing each day, and I took copious notes on the rig, construction, handling, and all his boatbuilding tips. I was so intent on gathering information and photographs for reference, I hardly noticed the beautiful waters where we sailed.

Jeff confirmed that our dream of building our own junk-rigged boat was realistic, and we returned home with strengthened resolve. Over the years, friends have tried to sway us, unsuccessfully. “If junks are so great, how come nobody has one?” they’d say. “Why don’t you buy a used boat and fix it up?” We returned to Jeff’s words: “It would have been easier to start from scratch, with a pile of plywood, than to rebuild an old boat.”

We’ve lost touch with him over the years, eagerly asking our Alaska-bound friends if they saw Nootka Rose at the marina when they passed through Sointula.

Last week, we stopped there ourselves, on Complexity. We scanned the docks for Nootka Rose, but she was gone. Jeff and Anna’s little beach house is now a tiny health clinic.

“He left a couple of years ago,” said the harbormaster. “I think he went to live on one of the islands.” This made me smile, considering that we were standing on an island. It was no surprise that Jeff and Anna had split up, since she seemed to have little patience for sailing, and no love for the Nootka Rose. Her passion at the time was tennis.

We walked all over Sointula with Jim and Barbara, remembering the distinctive fences, the tennis courts, the rotting boatsheds, the two sailboats wrecked on the beach. The museum was still there, expanded, with a voluble volunteer who’d emigrated from Los Angeles.

At one boatshed, we stopped to admire a forest of wooden Easter Island-type sculptures. Ryan Pakkalen, a young sculptor, was at work in his studio, a drafty and ramshackle shed lined with poly tarps. In his great-grandfather’s boat shed next door, light filtered through the roof, a patchwork of missing shingles, onto dramatic carvings of fish and birds and sea urchins. His “house” was parked outside, an ancient white van with a pet parrot sitting on the steering wheel. Ryan’s recently put a life-sized sculpture of a crocodile up for sale on E-Bay, and I’ve no doubt it will find a buyer.

We all have our dreams. Ryan’s is his art, and the volunteer at the museum’s is community and clean living away from the city. Jeff’s dream was to build a sturdy little sailing boat, and that’s our dream, too. Wherever he is, I wish him happy sailing, and I want to thank him for encouraging our dream. The next time we stop in Sointula, it may be aboard our own boat, built with our own hands. It would be fitting, and perhaps it will encourage someone else to dream as well.

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