The Blog

Filet of Sole 🎣 🚤

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Sometimes it seems like we missed the good fishing in our region. From the native people to generations of settlers, salmon was plentiful and remains a big part of PNW culture. Unfortunately, the salmon runs are not as prolific as they once were and the seasons are highly regulated. Recreational fishers may only get 1-2 king salmon per year.

Salmon harvest
Total Harvest of Chinook or “King” Salmon Over Time (Source)

Despite being called an Orcas Island Fisherman, I had never done any real fishing since moving to the island. As much as I wanted to fish for salmon, it never happened, in part because the best salmon fishing is done from a boat with a contraption called a downrigger, which we don’t have. For us, fishing would begin with lake fishing rods on Short Story.

The prized species, like salmon, halibut, and lingcod, were all out of season, so we focused on what was legal to catch this fall. As it turns out, bottom fish season is always open and each person can take home 15 fish per day. We watched YouTube videos, visited a local outdoor sports store, and set our sights on flatfish, like flounder, sole, and sand dabs.

Last year we caught a Pacific sand dab in our shrimp trap (below) and didn’t know what it was. I took the little guy home, fried it in a pan, and found the meat to be delicious. These fish all have flaky white meat like a flounder. Since then, we’ve learned that sand dabs are considered a west coast delicacy.

Pacific sand dab

We talked to a couple of friends who told us where to go and what to do. We needed a “high low rig” which has two hooks and a weight. You drop the line to the bottom and then use the current to drift the bait across the bottom. We were hopeful but skeptical. Everyone said it can be easy, fun, and very productive. They were not wrong.

From the moment my line hit the bottom, a fish hit the bait. It was a smallish sand dab. The next time, I pulled up two fish at a time. We couldn’t believe how easy it was. It was like a carpet of flatfish were just waiting for something to float by them.

sand dab fishing

In a couple of hours, we hauled in about twenty fish, mostly Pacific sole and Pacific sand dabs. You can tell the difference because flat fish are either “right-eyed” or “left-eyed”. This relates to which side of the fish faces the bottom. A pacific sole is right-eyed because it lies on its left side on the bottom. As flatfish mature, the downward-facing eye migrates to the upward-facing side of the fish. How weird.

Pacific Sand Dab
Left-eyed Pacific sand dab

Once we got home the cleaning process began. I watched more videos and we formed a production line. Sachi scraped scales; I gutted and cleaned. It was messy and awkward in the beginning, but soon I got the hang of it. In fact, I filleted a few of the bigger fish for the first time. It was not pretty, but I didn’t need stitches, so that’s a win.

Sand dab sole filet
cleaned sand dabs

With all the fish cleaned and refrigerated, we could plan a few experimental meals. We started with the classic pan-fried fish. We coated them with egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in cast iron. These were whole fish, with bones. It reminded me of the fish called “spot” my parents and I used to catch on the coast of North Carolina.

pan fried sand dab

Once on the plate, you can remove the meat from one side with a fork and easily lift out all the bones.

fish bone gif

We also deep-fried fillets, which were my favorites in fish tacos.

fried sand dab filets

Lastly, we coated the fish with a thin mayonnaise garlic sauce and baked them in the oven. Delicious!

over baked sand dabs

We ended up eating every fish we caught in one form or another. Like all fishing, it was messy to process. Cleaning and filleting the fish can be tedious and time-consuming. But that’s just fine. We fed ourselves with fish and caught a short ride from home. Unlike salmon, flatfish are plentiful, always in season, and easy to catch. I’m surprised we hadn’t done it sooner.

I don’t know that we’ll fish for flatfish all the time, or that they will compete with the protein and enjoyment we get from crab and spot prawns. But this kind of fishing helps us learn, promotes self-sufficiency, and keeps us on the water. Maybe next year we’ll give salmon a try.

New York, 2011 🗽🏃‍♀️🎤

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

We arrived in New York to cheer for our friend, Christi, who was running in the NYC Marathon in November of 2011. One of my first memories is arriving in the hotel room and putting on the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song Empire State of Mind. We both bounced around the room like the cheesy tourists we were.

It was a strange and interesting time to be in the city. Occupy Wall Street was in full swing and Zuccotti park was full of protesters living on the premises. I snapped this photo, which felt like an appropriate juxtaposition of what was happening in the financial district.

The marathon was a much bigger event than I realized and the city was full of athletic people trying to enjoy New York, but not too much. In an act of solidarity, I loaded up on carbs and wore comfortable shoes.

The weather was perfect and Christi successfully finished the marathon surrounded by friends. She and her husband, Blake, went to UNC with a few current NYC residents who all came out to support her. One of those local friends, Nick, works in finance and met up with us for drinks.

As the weekend was winding down, we realized that Madison Square Garden was hosting Jay-Z and Kanye West for two nights on their Watch the Throne tour. These were Jay-Z’s hometown shows and apparently the hottest ticket in town.

Since we weren’t leaving until Wednesday, Blake mentioned that Nick and I should try to get tickets. Seeing Jay-Z in New York was the kind of pop culture opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Our only option was Monday night and on Sunday, Nick and I agreed to try to find tickets. We’d have to use aftermarket sellers like StubHub, and likely pay a premium. Once Nick found out it was a market, he volunteered to put in the online legwork.

Throughout Monday, I received text messages from Nick about seeing ticket prices increase and decrease. Sometimes a ticket would be within reach, but something would happen. The person seemed untrustworthy or stopped communicating. Showtime was quickly approaching.

Sachi and I went to an early dinner in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden, in case I needed to meet Nick with yet-to-be-acquired tickets. Sure enough, over dinner at about 6pm, positive-sounding texts started to arrive. Nick had connected with someone with tickets who he felt good about. All we had to do was meet this person behind Popeye’s Chicken by Madison Square Garden. True story.

We met before heading to Popeye’s and worked out a quick plan. We knew we were taking a risk. The tickets could be fake, we could get mugged, the guy might never show up. We agreed that we’d drop the whole idea if anything seemed weird. But if it seemed legit, we were prepared to pay extra for the right tickets.

Sure enough, the ticket seller met us behind Popeye’s. He was a guy about our age, dressed like us. He was friendly and seemed trustworthy. The only problem was that the tickets were printed on sheets of paper instead of normal ticket stubs. Anyone can copy and print that kind of ticket and call it real. Nick and I huddled for a minute. The price printed on the tickets was higher than expected and reflected good seats. Section 1, row J. The seller’s offer was a bit more than the ticket price, but not too much.

As we were discussing, the seller said something I’ll never forget…

“Look, I’m just a finance guy. The people in Zuccotti hate me, but I’m just a normal guy. You’ve got my work email.”

It was true. He and Nick had been corresponding via email.

Nick nodded, “I’m in finance too, it’s all good.”

With that, we paid cash for the tickets and headed in without a clear expectation of what would happen. It was a wild scene inside, with people decked out in their best duds. Everyone was pumped for the show and the energy was palpable. Every turn we took led us closer and closer to the stage. Eventually, we ended up at our seats, which we couldn’t believe.

Row J of Section 1 was 10 rows back, but the stage was designed with a peninsula that pushed it out into about row H. We were only feet from that part of the stage. I was astonished. About an hour before, I was eating dinner with Sachi with no plans, and now, I was about to be face-to-face with Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden.

As showtime approached, we heard a roar in the back of the coliseum. Slowly the buzz came closer and closer to the stage. I looked back to see what the commotion was all about and saw a face I didn’t expect. Sean “P-Diddy” Combs had arrived at the show and was a few rows BEHIND us. Hah! We had better seats and ours came from the parking lot of a Popeye’s Chicken.

The lights soon went down and the show started with a roar. The truth is, I don’t know many of the words to Jay-Z’s music aside from the most popular songs, but it didn’t matter. I was there for the spectacle and it delivered. Nick and I danced and laughed and enjoyed an experience that felt authentically New York.

Later that night, I kept thinking about all the things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t. Thanks to Nick’s legwork and judgment, a random dude on the internet sold us valid tickets for a reasonable price. The seats were far better than expected.

It seems more difficult today than it did in 2011, but I continue to believe in the goodness of people. More times than not, the average person is motivated to be fair and honest. I like to think this whole scenario could just as easily happen today.

I took the photo below with my phone; the only evidence I have of the entire experience.

Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden

In New York

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothin’ you can’t do

Now you’re in New York

These streets will make you feel brand new

Big lights will inspire you

Let’s hear it for New York

New York, New York

–Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z and Alicia Keys)

Podcast Interview: On Brand with Nick Westergaard

I was recently a guest on the podcast OnBrand with Nick Westergaard. We talked about my book The Art of Explanation and what professionals can do to communicate with more clarity.

Episode Highlights

Why is it so hard for us to explain things? “We do it every day and we can take it for granted.” Lee went on to note that, just as learning to be a better runner, you can learn to be a better explainer.

The curse of knowledge gets in the way. “It curses us by forcing us to use jargon, add examples, and more.” Lee notes that it’s best to err on the side of being familiar. “We’re not dumbing it down, we’re making it familiar.”

How to make an explainer video. Common Craft has produced explainer videos that have earned over 50 million views online. All of these are grounded in solid explanations. Where do you start? “Start like you’re talking to your parents—explaining what you do and why it matters.”

Listen Here

A Train in the Sky 🛰 🛰 🛰

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Last week, we were watching TV, and Sachi jumped from her seat and opened the doors to go outside and peer into the night sky. We both looked up to see what looked like an alien invasion. Small bright dots were moving across the sky in a line. There were a dozen or more in view and they seemed to fade out of view, one after the other, until they were gone.

I snapped a bunch of photos, including this one:

Needless to say, it was a remarkable and strange event. Seeing space stations and lone satellites is not that odd, but seeing these dots, arranged so neatly and moving so smoothly in a line was fascinating.

We saw a less dramatic version over the summer that put me in research mode. The dots are satellites and specifically, Starlink satellites that are being used to beam internet access to earth. There are currently about 2,500 satellites in orbit, and once the full network is complete there may be as many as 40,000 satellites. At that point, internet access via Starlink may be open to everyone on the earth who can pay for it.

The satellites we saw that night were launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 ship on September 24th. Once released, they orbit over the earth for a couple of days as they become further apart and closer to their final destinations, a few miles up. The line is called a satellite train.

For many people, including some in our region, Starlink is a godsend because it provides fast and mostly consistent internet from virtually anywhere. You just need a dish, a paid account, and a view of the sky. Many hope it will help underserved areas around the world, and provide a connection in wilderness or unpopulated regions where people are otherwise isolated. We have friends who use it to work from their rural homes.

This, of course, is not happening without controversy. Starlink and SpaceX are both owned by Elon Musk, who also owns Tesla. No one has ever tried to add so many satellites to orbit, so there are a lot of unknowns about how it will impact astronomy and stargazing. 40,000 satellites is a lot of space junk. However, they won’t stick around after they no longer function. They are close enough to earth to be pulled into our atmosphere where they safely burn up. Interestingly, that’s a big challenge for the company. They fail and burn up all the time, and then require replacement.

The question for many people is: do we want to look up and see a bunch of satellites instead of real stars? Researchers created a simulation of what would happen if 65,000 satellites were in orbit over a few years. They found that, when viewing the night sky, 1 in 16 “stars” could be a satellite that’s also moving. I don’t think many people want, or are prepared for that reality, even if it comes with great internet connections.

SpaceX has introduced a project called DarkSat, which is meant to reduce the visibility of satellites from earth by coating them with an anti-reflective paint. Astronomers aren’t convinced.

For now, SpaceX is on track to keep putting up new satellites every few weeks. There are four launches scheduled for October, 2022. You can track the satellite trains with info on this website.

My Favorite Weather Apps and Features

I treat weather watching as a hobby. Living in the PNW means that there is almost always interesting weather to experience. I use a number of weather apps and below, I’ve offered a number of my favorites.

A screenshot of the Predict Wind App

Weather Underground (Wunderground.com) – I use this app the most, in part, because I like the interface and graph of precipitation (as seen above). Wunderground uses a proprietary forecasting system that’s based on over 250k personal weather stations.

Weather Channel App (weather.com) – This forecast is similar to Wunderground and is based on some of the same data, along with IBM’s proprietary forecasts. What I love about this app is the future radar that shows predicted precipitation moving on a map, hours into the future.

National Weather Service (weather.gov) – The US government’s weather agency. NWS data is part of most US forecasts and is known for reliability. The interfaces are predictably bad, but the data is good.

AccuWeather (accuweather.com) AccuWeather is known for accuracy and I like the app. My favorite feature is forecast for over a month into the future.

Carrot Weather (meetcarrot.com) This app is all about personality and fun. You can choose from a list of forecasts (like AccuWeather above) and it will present them in a nice interface and with hilarious/irreverent messages.

Predict Wind (predictwind.com) An essential app for boaters and coastal residents. Similar to Windy, this app shows the direction and intensity of wind animated on a map over time. Very cool design and technology.

The Most Wonderful Time of Year 🌞 ➡️ 🌧

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The summer plants are dying, or at least fading away. After a season of production, they’re slowly disappearing into compost. Brown leaves blow about and crunch underfoot.

Clouds of dust swirl around the dogs when they play chase in the garden, powdering them with invisible grains that dull the color of their fur and our floors. It’s noticeably cooler, but the sun continues to shine, sometimes through a screen of wildfire smoke.

According to my weather station, it has rained 0.83 inches since August 1st and it’s not an anomaly. Summers in the PNW are almost always bone dry, in part, because we don’t get hot enough to produce thunderstorms that would be a reliable source of rain.

Annual precipitation for our county

For weeks and weeks at a time, the sun shines bright and dries everything to a crisp, including the people.

I love a nice day in the sun, but by this time of year, I’ve had enough. The world outside is a tinderbox that needs moisture before it’s too late. Wildfire is our biggest risk. If we can get through September, we can relax with the knowledge that the rain will finally arrive in spades.

Right now, I’m a little anxious, or maybe just full of anticipation. Each year, I plan for the famous PNW rain to arrive by October 15th. Then, storm season commences and the sun disappears along with the risk of fire. It’s fascinating how quickly and reliably it happens.

I plan on the transition each year, and for now, I wait and watch for signs of change. The weather models are unsure of what will happen. It’s like the dry PNW summer is battling the north pacific currents trying to push into Washington for the winter. Forecasts this time of year often say there is a 58% chance of rain, which is frustratingly noncommittal. They might as well admit they have no idea.

It’s the forecast of rain that feeds my anticipation. I want commitment and confidence. I want a sure thing. For the last couple of days, I’ve been watching a prediction for rain on Wednesday. On Sunday, the Wunderground app showed an 80% chance of 0.20 inches of rain and it allowed me to relax. Rejoice! It’s coming! 🙌

Then, I checked the weather as soon as I woke up on Monday. Overnight the forecast dropped to a 74% chance of 0.11 inches. It ruined my day. 😞

This morning it was 68% of 0.04 inches. 🤷🏻‍♂️

At the time of publishing this afternoon, it’s down to 49% of 0.03. 😡

I’ve seen this happen so many times. The models get you all hyped and hopeful, only to crush your dreams. At this point, I expect a perfectly sunny day on Wednesday without a drop of rain. What have we done to deserve this? Why do they torment us?

Perhaps, I am addicted to the drama of not knowing. Or, maybe I’m just fascinated by the machinations of weather and the difficulty of getting it right. What gets me through is the confidence that the autumn rain will arrive… eventually. It always has.

As much as I complain about the sun at the crunchy end of summer, I love and look forward to this time of year. As I’ve written here many times before, I believe happiness lives in anticipation. Right now, it’s bright and dry and the summer weather seems interminable. But I have so much to look forward to. The cool misty air, the sound of rain on the roof, and fires in the fireplace. I miss seeing our property in its more natural state: wet and verdant. For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

The Garden Gamble 🌱

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When people learn that we live on an island that’s only accessible by boat, plane, or ferry, they sometimes conjure visions of Alaska-style wilderness and off-the-grid living. People who aren’t familiar with the region ask if we have schools and grocery stores. Despite our relative remoteness, Orcas Island does not want for amenities. In fact, our grocery stores punch above their weight and have prices to show for it.

But island life does have its inconvenient realities. A severe earthquake could cut off our power and disconnect us from the mainland for weeks. An attack (or accident) that affects mainland infrastructure could do the same. In these situations, we’d be on our own and this has imbued the island with a doomsday prepper ethic of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. We are not immune and always planned to move into the new house and start preparing.

While we don’t have a bomb shelter or a closet full of MREs, we are working to build up our knowledge and skills in feeding ourselves, and our friends. This summer was our first with a full season of gardening and catching seafood from the Salish Sea, and I’m fascinated by the possibilities.

We’ve enjoyed entertaining over 30 off-island guests this year. Some stayed for an afternoon, some for days. We want nothing more than for friends and family to have a memorable experience with us. Creating that experience from our effort is something we take as a challenge.

People who visit Orcas often prize the local, farm-to-table experience, including eating local seafood, like Dungeness crab, oysters, and spot prawns. They visit the farmer’s market to load up on fresh vegetables and bread. After a nice dinner out, they may order a cocktail or a dessert. Along with good company, food is a necessary part of any island experience.

We want to create a similar experience from home, based mostly on our own planning, time, and self-sufficiency. This summer has been a time to share what we’ve grown and caught. We’ve served many meals that featured crab and prawns we from our traps, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, peppers, strawberries, and lettuce we grew, bread and pizza we baked, and dessert and cocktails we made, all overlooking the Salish Sea. That’s always been the dream and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see it happen.

Spot Prawns

Dungeness Crab

The average visitor, I hope, feels that everything is operating smoothly and we have it all under control. This is my hope because the reality is not so flattering. We are learning on the job and always trying to figure out how to solve problems. Growing, catching, and cooking food is a challenge that always evolves. There are always new problems to solve.

From the outside, you might wonder if so much gardening and crabbing is a chore. Do we really love it, or is it a means to a self-sufficient end? It’s a good question and I’ll answer it with an analogy.

If you’ve ever gambled on a football game, lottery ticket, or at a card table, you know the rush that comes with taking a risk and hoping that lady luck shines on you. Having fished for crab and shrimp with Sachi for a few years, I came to see that all fishing is gambling. You place bets in the form of lures, traps, and bait and then hope that you’ll get lucky. Some days you win, some you lose, but the rush keeps you coming back. Experienced fishers are able to beat the odds, on occasion.

Perhaps gardening is no different. There are no sure bets, especially when you’re just getting started. You plant, water, wait, and hope. Sometimes the soil and sun cooperate, and sometimes they don’t, but you keep trying. The rush comes, but it’s spread over weeks in the summer when the garden finally matures. Experienced gardeners, like fishers, are able to beat the odds.

Today the odds are probably still against us and our garden, in part, because we’re still getting a handle on our little microclimate. Wind, shadows, sun, moisture, humidity, and temperature are all variables that can impact the harvest. Understanding what works at a specific location requires entire seasons of experiments. When an experiment takes that long, you have to see vegetable gardening as a lifelong pursuit. We are currently 1.5 seasons into a very long game.

Sachi is our chief vegetable gardener and gambler. Starting early in the spring, she placed bets in the form of squash, pepper, and tomato seedlings in the garage under UV lights and over a heating pad. She planted seeds for lettuce, beans, and more in the garden. If it works, the bets pay off when dinner is served.

The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.

The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.

One of our experiments this year seems to have paid off. Peppers and tomatoes prefer heat and warm weather. This spring we added raised beds next to the south-facing side of our home. We hoped the sun shining on the black siding would warm the plants enough to make them successful. It worked this year; a jackpot that came from a new use of the sun’s rays.

In fact, it worked so well we’ve been able to freeze the surplus and give some away. Our neighbors weren’t so lucky with tomatoes, so we traded our tomatoes for their apples and a frozen loaf of homemade zucchini bread. I like to think, if things do go off the rails, that we’ll all combine forces to get through.

Now that autumn is upon us, dried squash plants are composting and the tomato plants are looking barer. We’re watering less and looking forward to transitioning to a more interior lifestyle. Before we know it, seedlings will be growing in the garage, the garden experiment will start again and we’ll be one step closer to getting it right, come what may.

Roots

Early this spring, I planted a tree called a staghorn sumac. It was about two feet tall and looked like a dead branch sticking out of the soil. We were promised it would grow to over 10 feet, eventually. (See mature version)

Nearby is a blue Chinese wisteria tree with a trunk as big as a pencil. (See mature version)

The sumac and wisteria trees are emblematic of our approach to the ornamental side of the garden that is my domain. We’re starting small. Sure, we could spend more and get mature versions of the plants we like, or we could watch their growth and savor tending them from a young and fragile age. 

When people visit, I often tell them they are seeing a miniature version of the garden and that, over time, it will change. I want them to remember this version for a sense of scale. Starting now, each year will bring another, fuller version of it. For the first time since 2017, we can plant a tree and feel confident that we’ll see it grow and mature. That feeling has been missing for too long.

This newfound sense of permanence is something we both feel deeply, having lived in the new house for over a year. It’s fascinating to develop a new rhythm of daily life with the knowledge it may stick. Twenty years from now, will I be taking out the trash, brushing my teeth, and making coffee just as I am today? If everything goes according to plan, there is a good chance I will. The accumulation of these permanent rituals will probably get boring and stale and that goes with the territory of permanence. We can only hope we get them right as early as possible.

Part of what has gripped me about the garden is the combination of permanence and change. The sumac tree may be here in twenty years, but it will have changed constantly in that time. Every day, I can inspect it and notice the little things. I can see it in different colors as the seasons change. 

There are some parts of the garden that I’m hoping will trend toward permanence, or at least long-term stability. As a result of construction, we have large and visible swaths of the property that consist of rocky construction fill. One of my first priorities this year also seemed like the most boring: planting low ground covers that will one day cover the troubled fill areas and create a dense groundcover mat that looks great and prevents weeds. 

Today, these plants are miniature, too. I planted creeping raspberry, kinnikinnick, thyme, and cotoneaster around the property and feel real joy from seeing them spread. Everywhere they go, weeds and future maintenance are being reduced. Within a couple of years, my work will hopefully be limited to trimming the edges into the shape I want. 

creeping thyme
kinnikinnick

Right now, the hundreds of new groundcovers, ferns, sedums, trees, bulbs, and shrubs require daily or weekly care because they are new plantings. They are young and need to get settled. Most need a year or two of regular watering to establish their roots. Once established, they can trend ever so slowly toward permanence.

We’ve opted for a number of drought-tolerant plants, which I know sounds odd for the pacific northwest. Our summers are very dry, with almost no rain July-September. The tolerant ones need to get established, so my watering duties for this summer are significant. In this, I’ve developed a ritual. In the afternoons, I start a podcast and spend an hour or more watering and weeding. It’s not much of a workout, but I find it meditative and a time to focus on just one thing. Every minute I spend watering contributes to the plant becoming healthier, more permanent, and lower maintenance. I have this summer to get it right.

In June, we declared our planting season to be over. I didn’t want it to end, but I knew it was time. Sachi wanted me to pause and leave some things for next year. She knows my happiness lives in anticipation and didn’t want me to use up all the fun planting and landscaping projects too quickly. I told her something I believe deeply: there will always be projects in the garden. Unlike brushing my teeth or taking out the trash, the garden changes daily. Soon enough we can transition from clearing, preventing, and preparing to a focus on developing, maturing, and beautifying. Maybe that applies to humans, too.

Today, the staghorn sumac is changing every day and has become an essential part of the garden. The groundcovers are slowly reaching out to one another in what I call the Sistine Chapel moment of development.

Every time I water, I imagine roots below the surface slowly becoming permanent parts of the landscape. And as I do, my roots become more permanent, too.

Adrift 🦐

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Spot prawns live in the deepest parts of the ocean around Orcas Island and when shrimping season is open, it creates a minor traffic jam. From dawn until dusk each day, boats drop shrimp pots at a depth of 250-400 feet, wait an hour or so, and then pull them up. The traffic is often most concentrated during the slack tide, when currents are the calmest. 

This is our second year catching spot prawns and we’ve become proficient. On our first day out this year, we caught our legal daily limit of 80 prawns per person. Over the winter we had our 15’ Boston Whaler, Short Story, serviced and all signs pointed to a summer of fun on the water. Our new Honda outboard had less than 200 hours on it. Bring it on!

Our normal process for catching prawns is to set the pots on the bottom, kill the motor, and just drift silently for about an hour. I love that hour of calm and quiet time on the water. We watch all boats we covet and wave at passers-by. All the while, knowing that prawns may be falling for our clever trap. The thing about all types of fishing, we’re learning, is that it’s akin to gambling and can produce the same rush. Thankfully, unlike Blackjack, most of the time you only stand to lose time, bait, and the occasional tackle. For most, this potential cost is acceptable for a day spent on the water. 

Last Thursday, there were two slack tides. We chose to go in the afternoon and we were not alone. We always try to go a little early and stake our claim. It’s decidedly poor form to place pots too close to others. We use an app called Navionics that allows us to place virtual pins on a map that helps us navigate to locations of past success. The afternoon was windier than expected and we placed our pots upwind from the majority of shrimpers. As soon as our buoys hit the water, they seemed to take off like the barrels attached to the shark in Jaws. We hoped the heavy rebar we tied to the pots would keep them in place. 

I looked around and didn’t see nearby boats, so I killed the motor to start the drifting phase of the trip. I underestimated the wind and soon found that we were drifting toward other boats. I suggested that we motor to a location where we could drift downwind without worry. 

I put the boat in neutral, turned the key and knew immediately that something was amiss. There was no beep, no click, no turnover. It was like someone cut the power from the battery. I kept turning the ignition as if it might catch with the perfect turn. Nothing. 

At first, we assumed it was something obvious. Maybe the boat wasn’t in neutral? Maybe the safety switch was off? We both tried everything we could think of. I must have turned that ignition switch thirty times. The battery was connected and looked brand new. No corrosion. No missing hardware. I tapped and wiggled the terminals just in case. 

We were flummoxed and slowly drifting into a dense area of boats. Without a motor, we had no way to navigate. We have two paddles and could alter our course a bit, but not much. This situation was a bit more serious than any we had experienced, but wasn’t dire. We were not in danger and we could always call a tow service to get us home. That was the last resort. 

We brainstormed who to call for advice and quickly decided our contractor, Drew, might be the best person. He helped us with our first oil change and is an amazing problem solver. At the time. he was driving his 50-foot boat, Refuge, back from the mainland and had a few ideas to try. Nothing helped. Strangely, other parts of the boat, like the bilge pump, had power, just not the motor. He asked about fuses and we shrugged. We’d never changed a fuse on this boat and didn’t know where to find them.

He mentioned that our plumber, Greg, was also shrimping and maybe he could help. I called Greg and found that he was at least an hour from getting on the water. He asked a key question from the start: “Are you in danger?” No, I said. Maybe in danger of embarrassment. He laughed.  

Meanwhile, we’re still adrift in the wind. As we approached a boat twice our size, it seemed to slowly move out of the way. Part of me thinks they could tell we were having an issue. Maybe they could see it on our faces. My head being deep in the center console was a sure sign. 

We switched to thinking about other friends with boat knowledge who could help. I called Will and Smiley, who live close by, and have a boat in our marina. Will is a talented mechanic and together, we hatched a plan for them to come and help us figure it out, or at least tow us the 15 minutes home. I mentioned the potential of fuses causing the problem, and he said he’d bring a bag of them. 

As we drifted past the remaining boats in the shrimping area, Sachi studied the owner’s manual for the motor and found a section about fuses. The manual had a nice graphic of the inside of the fuse box and what fuses were connected to what circuits. 

We removed the motor’s cover and found a box that looked like the diagram. Will suggested using the boat key to pry out the fuses and see if one is bad. I could feel the momentum building. The table in the manual said the second 10amp fuse controlled the ignition and power to the motor. I removed that fuse, held it up to the sunlight and Voila! The culprit was identified on the first try. 

Referring back to the manual, I saw that the fuse box contained spare fuses. Wow, I thought. Honda is thinking ahead. I plugged in the spare 10amp fuse, turned on the power and the boat started right up. At that moment, Will was in his garage gathering supplies and called to ask a question. Before he could get it out, I interrupted and said, “We fixed it! It was a fuse and we have a spare!” I texted Drew and Greg for good measure. 

More than any other experience so far, this was a lesson. We now know what happens when a fuse blows, where to find the fuses, and how to replace them. The next day, we bought a bunch of spare fuses and created a backup bag that will always be on the boat. 

As amazing as it felt to fix the problem on the water, it was a stark reminder of how little we know. Fuses are boating 101 and a simple problem to fix. As we continue boating, we’ll surely have more problems to solve. It’s part of the challenge and a skill we both want to develop. 

Here’s to learning through experience and helpful friends under non-dangerous circumstances.

Island Hardware 🛠

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

We’re fortunate to have two hardware stores for the 4000 or so people on Orcas Island. The Ace Hardware in town is more focused on home goods, like paint and home improvement supplies. In local hardware terms, it’s more buttoned-up.

At the other end of the spectrum is Island Hardware & Supply, which has lumber and construction supplies, gas, and rows of Costco goods. The store has been around for over 50 years and over that time, has developed its own culture and way of doing business that feels uniquely island-like. The photo below is the lumber yard checkout station.

For example, each month, the store sends out a handcrafted one-page newsletter called the The Hardware Herald. The owner, Paul Garwood, winters in Arizona and is the newsletter’s columnist.

This month’s issue captured the culture he’s created. He wrote:

I sit around a campfire with my desert friends and explain that we need no fencing around our business — the honor system rules at the Hardware. They have a tough time with the no fence concept until I tell them that some of our loyal customers actually root for the store’s success.

Just as I think I’m making progress with my desert friends, I mention that a few of our contractors who have a tough time scheduling their orders actually have a key to the store. That’s when they look at me in utter disbelief. I did choose to omit the fact that we have a staff member and his pitbull living upstairs in Harriet’s old apartment.

It’s true. The building is surrounded by all manner of things that could easily be stolen day or night. He could try to lock it all up, but at what expense? He trusts the island’s residents to do the right thing. 

Paul’s unconventional way of doing business is found around the store and extends to things like batteries. He asks:

Should we be required to purchase the number that the supplier chooses? Well, yes, on the rest of the planet. Not here. Buy what you want at Island Hardware — you have the option to buy one or 100. And check out these prices! 

I can vouch that this system works. I have purchased a single triple-A battery. On the backside of the paper is a list of all the Costco items they resell. It’s a brilliant and helpful service that can prevent a ferry trip and he knows it. 

If it’s in stock at Costco Burlington, you can purchase a giant pack of 6 jumbo rolls of Kirkland TP (everyone’s favorite) and save $2.26 over buying the same product from us. Of course, you’d have to burn $4.00 per gallon of gas to get there and back. Oh, yes, there’s the ferry fare. Have I mentioned the value of your time? 

Going to the store is always an adventure. There is limited parking, so it’s usually a free-for-all, where you might end up parking between a pile of gravel and part of the road. The exterior changes by the season and these days, hundreds of bags of mulch and potting soil sit unprotected. Like everyone else, we usually throw a few bags into the truck on the way in and tell them at checkout. 

It’s probably no surprise that the store takes great pride in its homespun humor, including hand-drawn signs, inside jokes, and a bit of salty attitude. The staff is friendly and helpful, but you’re likely to get a sarcastic answer to almost any question, followed by actual service. 

I needed to get some scrap metal tubing for our gate and looked through a bin of scraps. Once I found what I needed, I asked about having it cut. The person quickly got to work and soon, I had the pieces in hand. As I headed to the checkout, I said, “What do I owe you?” and he looked at me for a second too long. He then asked, with a squint, “Do you live here?” I said, “Yes.” and I’ll never forget his reply: “No worries, it will all come out in the wash.” Such is life at Island Hardware. 

We started regular visits to the store soon after getting property and felt a little like outsiders. It seemed everyone there knew each other. The staff and customers all knew one another’s names and engaged in island small talk. We would overhear plans for a new restaurant opening, a business ownership change, or a shortage of good firewood on the island. We were the newbies and I’m sure it showed. Our shoes were too clean and our questions too easy. One day, I hoped, we’d be accepted into the Island Hardware culture. 

Over the last couple of years, we noticed the nods and knowing glances; the recognition that we were here to stay. We learned peoples’ names and started to consistently see island friends at the store. It’s finally started to feel homier and our shoes have generally been a bit dirtier.

On a recent visit, we collected supplies for a woodworking project and stacked them by the register and something happened that had never happened before. The cashier looked at us and said, “Put this on your account?” We nodded with a quick “yep.” and went to the car. That was when Sachi pointed out the momentous occasion I had missed. We didn’t have to say what account it was. The cashier knew us. We both smiled. After years, we were finally in.  

Small and isolated places like Orcas Island need hardware stores and I’m so thankful that Island Hardware not only exists but does so in such a family-like style. More than just about any other place, it is Orcas Island and I hope it never changes. 

About Me

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.

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