A Thud, Then a Gasp

October 20, 2020

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

There comes a time in every vehicle owner’s life when they are forced to test just how far a tank of gas will go. We see the gauge point to the upper case “E” and say it’s arbitrary; just a label. What matters is what’s inside the tank. We can push it a little farther. 

Last week, we found ourselves in a similar situation. We let the gauge creep uncomfortably close to the “E” and backed out of our slip to get gas. As we approached the marina, which is a short hop from where moor the boar, Sachi asked if I had my wallet. As usual, I didn’t. This has been one of the adjustments to our island and COVID lifestyle. Wallets, to me at least, seem less important; another thing to lose while on the boat. Thankfully, Sachi had our back. 

As we parked the boat by the pumps, we saw signs on the pumps that said “Temporarily Out of Order”. Assuming it was a short-term issue, we pushed the gas lower. One more trip out to catch crab. 

Soon the gauge became an obsession. I found myself glancing down every minute as we made our way back to the marina. We couldn’t repeat this trip without more gas.

The next day, the pumps were still out of order. I called the marina office and asked about a timeline. The person said, apologetically, their gas line was “busted” and it might be two weeks before it was fixed. If I’ve learned anything on Orcas Island, it’s that two weeks could, and probably will, mean two months. We had to make a call. Do we dock the boat and wait for the repairs, or do we try to make it to the next closest marina in West Sound? I called the West Sound Marina to be sure their gas was working. It was.

As the boat planed-off and we left Deer Harbor, I looked at Sachi and said, “Well, here we go!” We were on an adventure and neither of us knew what was to come. The chance of running out of gas was small, but still worrisome. I watched the gauge the whole way and tried to estimate how low it was. A 16th of a tank? A 32nd? It didn’t matter, we were committed. 

We had never needed to buy gas at West Sound Marina, but quickly found the solitary pump on the dock. Unlike your average gas station with a credit card interface, dock pumps are often guessing games. Sometimes there is an intercom you can use to talk to the office and ask questions. Other times they see you and turn on the gas. In this case, I said “Hello, is anyone here?”, thinking an intercom might pick up my voice. After a bit of silence, I pulled the handle off the pump and flipped the lever to turn it on. It cranked up and I was sure we were on our way. After an initial splash of gas, it stopped flowing and I worried we’d used the last drop and would be stranded. 

I called the office on my phone and asked if they were out of gas. He sighed and told me “No, we have plenty of gas. It’s on a timer that stops the flow. If you’d read the sign on the pump, you’d know to call first so we can turn it on.” Then he added, with a bit of admonishment, “Try again, hopefully you didn’t lock it up.”

I glanced at the pump and saw that there was a small sign. It was easy to miss, probably because it looked like the kind of regulatory sign that tells you not to smoke while pumping gas. In Orcas Island terms, it was far too official looking to be noticed. There was no handwriting, highlighter marker, or tattered edges. 

Feeling a little sheepish, I tucked my phone into an external breast pocket that zips vertically and stepped into the boat. Just as I bent over, I heard a thud and than a gasp. Not knowing what happened, I turned to Sachi, who was reaching down with a helpless look on her face. I said, “Was… was that my phone?” Yes. It was. Dammit. I felt so embarrassed. I glanced at my unzipped breast pocket, which should have held it safely.

There was an awkward silence as we both reckoned with the event. For Sachi, this was another in a long line of instances where my clumsiness or carelessness cost us time and money. She didn’t have to say anything and she didn’t. We both knew exactly what had happened and why. We have learned that the only path out of these situations is problem solving, and having a backup plan. 

My phone is an iPhone X that was recently returned to me with a new $300 screen after I dropped it on gravel and shattered the screen. Now that $300 and the rest of the phone were at the bottom of the sea. The phone is supposed to be waterproof. There was hope. 

We started to consider what could be done. I have retrieved things like sunglasses from the bottom of lakes in the past, but this was different. It was cold and I didn’t have a wet suit. But, just up the street from the marina is an organization called SeaDoc Society that is focused on ocean health. Our friends work there and we knew they had dive equipment. Maybe just a snorkel, fins and a towel would be sufficient? Sachi texted our friend, Erika, to ask if there was any chance they could lend a hand. They were just about to leave the office. No dice.  

The good news was that our tank was full with gas. That problem was solved and I needed to pay in the marina office. I made my way up two catwalks and across a driveway to the entrance of the office, where I was met with someone wearing a mask. I checked my pockets. No mask. So, I walked back across the driveway, down the catwalks and got a mask from Sachi before turning around and walking back. Once again, Sachi had our back.

As I walked up, a salty older man was pushing a cart with a gas can toward the pump and he courteously moved the cart aside to let me go by. On this trip, I made it into the office, where I could finally finish the process. Then the person behind the counter asked a question I didn’t expect, “How many gallons did you get?” I said, “What? I have no idea.” He lowered his head. The same sign I missed before also said to record and report the gallons. More embarrassment. 

I asked if I could use his phone to call Sachi and ask about the gallons. He said, “No,” as he motioned to his co-worker. She was on a call, because, of course she was. As he looked over toward her, he saw an event about to unfold on the dock. The salty guy was just about the turn on the pump, which would have wiped the number of gallons he needed for my transaction. He dropped everything and ran to a window facing the dock and yelled from the office “STOP! STOP! DON’T TURN IT ON!!!” His efforts caught Sachi’s attention, and she stopped the man just in time. Then, Sachi was able to read the gallon count and yell it to me on the catwalk. 

For the third time, I walked back to the office to finally buy the gas. As he was running our card, I told him I had just dropped my phone in the water by the pump. He thought for a second, and said, “I wonder if Gavin is around? He’s a diver and was just in his wetsuit. Maybe he could help you get it.” I couldn’t believe my ears. He handed me a post-it note with Gavin’s name and number. A sliver of hope appeared on the horizon.

After getting back to the boat, I called Gavin on Sachi’s phone and left a voicemail. He didn’t call back for 15 minutes or so and it felt like an eternity. We wandered around the dock and I chatted up a lady refinishing wood trim on a Chris Craft Corsair. It wasn’t hers and we both agreed it was not a practical boat for the San Juans. Beautiful, but more of a lake boat.

I called Gavin again and spent time looking down into the water between the dock and boat to see if I could see it. I saw a crab and some shells, but no phone. Then, just as I was writing a text to him, Sachi’s phone vibrated in my hand. It was Gavin. He was working on his boat in the same marina and said he could come take a look. 

Within a few minutes a young guy appeared on the catwalks and we got down to business. He’s hired as a diver for cleaning boats and other underwater duties. He told us his hourly rate and added that it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. The water was probably about fifteen feet deep, with good visibility. After assuming the phone was gone, we were prepared to pay him for multiple hours to get the phone back.

In a moment of awkwardness, we negotiated the cost of the retrieval, which was limited by the cash that Sachi and I had with us. This time, I had my wallet and we settled on $100, which was close to everything we had. Within 30 minutes he returned in full diving gear. The water in our area remains in the 50s(f) year-round and we both watched as he added gloves and a hoodie to his wet suit before slipping into the water.

I probably could hold my breath for the time it took Gavin to retrieve the phone, but not in that water. Within a minute, he returned to the surface, with my phone in hand. It was working just as it was when it left my pocket. Man, the relief. We were all amazed.

We paid Gavin for his time, boarded Short Story and headed back to Deer Harbor to check the traps. We brought home three Dungeness crab. If you consider the market price for crab, they helped pay for the return of my phone, so we couldn’t complain. 

Despite all the embarrassing mishaps and miscommunications, we felt so fortunate. We made it to the marina. My phone was waterproof. Gavin answered my voicemail. We retrieved the phone from the bottom of the freaking ocean. It all felt so quaint; a small town network of divers and boaters, who are also neighbors, looking out for one another. And of course, there’s always Sachi with our backup plan.

The next time I go to West Sound Marina, I’ll read the signs and record the gallons. But I’ll also wonder why it works the way it does. Why don’t they have an intercom, or the ability to track the gallons from the office? The best answer and one that will suffice for now is this: Welcome to Orcas Island. 

This story originally appeared in my weekly newsletter Ready for Rain. You can get stories like this in your inbox each week by subscribing to my newsletter.


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