Oriental, Revisited

Eager to test our mettle in the big bad Atlantic Ocean, we pushed Temujin Southwards under motor to Adam’s Creek and a long canal that would deliver us to the Beaufort Inlet and Morehead City- our Launchpad for the Atlantic Ocean. Steaming along under flat water, we passed buoy, marsh, and coastline until the entrance to the canal approached. Rounding a bend in the creek, Temujin’s progress began to slow despite consistent output from Yanni, our trusty engine, a 3 cylinder Yanmar diesel. Adam’s Creek has a reputed current, so we throttled up the engine pitting machine vs. nature. Still, Temujin’s progress slowed until shortly she was limping along at 1.7 knots, irrespective of the RPM’s Yanni produced. Deciding that there was most likely not a magical oscillating current paired perfectly to our throttle attempts, it became evident that something was amiss.

Diagnosis and troubleshooting of the problem was subsequently discussed, after which all roads lead to the need for a dip in the balmy, 48 degree Adam’s Creek.

Straws were drawn, the kettle was put on, and after a symphony of groaning and stretching rubber, Kennon emerged from the cabin in a wetsuit. After some fretting about safety, the selection of a lifejacket, and three extraordinary minutes of thrashing around in a fierce battle pitting man against buoyancy, it was firmly established that there was nothing obstructing the propeller. This was both good and bad news. On the good side, it eliminated the need for a second act to the aquatic spectacle in which a knife would be introduced into the number. On the bad side it left the crew at a loss to the problem’s probable cause, beyond the vague assumption that it was probably related to the transmission.

In a turn of fortune, a South wind filled in, and the decision was made to return towards Oriental, where transmission parts could be purchased, and, if all else failed, professional help could be sought out.

This was actually the crew’s second visit to lovely Oriental, NC. Nearly three years previous we had driven down to look at a 33ft Southern Cross and 35ft Bristol yawl as potential boats for the voyage. While neither one merited further pursuing, we were taken with both designs, and generally had a very pleasant visit to Oriental. Billed as “The Sailing Capitol of North Carolina”, the “capitol” designation implies a sense of industry that is misleading for a town whose late night pizza haunt only fires the ovens until 8:30PM. Still, Oriental is incredibly charming, if a little sleepy, and there are far worse places to put repairs into effect.

Temujin had just enough wind to make it through the Oriental breakwaters in the light, gliding over the flat waters of the harbor as the sun set in a shroud of pastel blues and yellows and oranges and pinks. We dropped anchor in between two other sailboats, both curiously disheveled in their own way.

The first, a Catalina-ish looking boat of similar size to Temujin, showed some bizarre signs of recent attention. She had a frayed foresail that had been securely lashed to the roller furler, freshly duct taped port lights, a small cockpit light illuminated, and what appeared to be a large yellow parachute, presumably a sea anchor, floating lifelessly some six feet under the stern of the vessel.

The second boat was the essence of a derelict beauty, no doubt the victim of neglect. She was marginally smaller than Temujin, with beautifully classic lines, small ports, and a low sweeping freeboard. Rust lines seemed to weep from every stanchion and through bolt, gathering at her deck level drains and running down her hull in big red streaks, meeting a green beard of algae growing on her waterline. Vegetation was pushing up over the leeboards of the cockpit, fighting discarded oil jugs for sun. Her main cover was relatively clean and well secured, and three small solar panels adorned the cabin roof. Most curiously, bolted to her stern, paddle up as if at attention, was a Monitor self-steering vane. This is the same model as on Temujin, and a dead giveaway that at some point the boat had been intended for extensive passagemaking.

With the anchor down and the crew fortified with a sunset beer, we set to task fixing our problem. As it was most likely transmission related, we started with the manual to the KM3A1 transmission, a fantastically dry and plodding tome written in Japanese and translated word for word into English. The manual covered assembly and part numbers in great detail, which would have been great had we found ourselves in the unenviable position of rebuilding a deconstructed transmission; Conspicuously missing, however was the section on “Troubleshooting”. Starting with what we knew, we closed the manual, got the vacuum pump out, and began sucking out the transmission fluid. What came forth through the tube was a viscous substance so black that it dimmed the cabin around it. After the better part of an hour, and an untold number of pumps, the vacuum hose finally gurgled with an end-of-milkshake satisfaction. We replaced the black primordial ooze with clean and what now seemed brilliantly translucent oil.

As we readied the dinghy (see: baled water out), a long and pointy kayak shaped like the stretched raw-hide boats used by Inuits glided effortlessly forth, ferrying in it a man of indistinguishable age in very serious need of a haircut.

Enter Shawn D’Epagnier, a character so unique, so refreshing, and so unapologetically genuine that he momentarily restores faith and wonderment in the entire human race (right up until you are faced with another bearded baby boomer in socks and sandals, his heaving belly barely contained by a Grateful Dead T-shit, complaining to the cashier in your favorite diner place about the absence of Pepsi-Cola in the soda fridge).

Shawn is in his early thirties, and originally hails from North Carolina, although this was his first time back in seven years. The derelict Bristol with the Monitor that we passed on the way in? That was Alexandra, Shawn’s faithful boat. He bought her in San Francisco seven years ago, and sailed her to Oriental. “I took the dismal swamp” he noted, matter-of-factly. Obviously, this was a man with a talent for understatement. The dismal swamp is a poorly named alternate route through the ICW famed for both its beauty and intermittent inaccessibility due to lack of water to float in. It could easily be added to either of the only two possible routes from San Francisco on a sailboat. The first is down the coast of North and South America, around Cape Horn, the most dangerous cape in the world, and back up, a voyage only undertaken by sailors on clipper ships in the days predating the railroads, and the clinically insane. The second is to cross the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, essentially a circumnavigation. This is Temujin’s intended route, and one that frequently begs the self-reflective question: “Am I clinically insane?”

Shawn had undertaken the latter, solo, on his Bristol 27.

“So you’ve essentially circumnavigated”

“No, I mean, there’s a lot of land there, I mean, maybe, I guess, if you want to think of it that way.”

Shawn speaks with the slow, non-committal affect of a surfer or someone who has been in the sun too long (his full beard and veritable mane of shaggy blonde hair don’t help bucking this trope). He is affable, and kind, and surprisingly fervent when a subject of interest is broached, his blue eyes twinkling, his hands abandoning their slack position to animate a point, and a sharp intellect cutting through the blasé veneer.

Of these subjects, simplicity, something we value aboard Temujin to the point of rusticness, would dominate the evening’s conversation. We soon discovered that Temujin, with all her manual systems and classic charm, was still far from simple. Evidently Shawn had taken the torch of simplicity, run full speed past minimalism, and planted it somewhere between Spartan and primeval, singularly colonizing a new boat ethos.

Like Temujin, Alexandra relied on solar power and rain catchment for water, and her sails were hank on. This is about where the comparisons end, however. As Shawn walked through the different systems aboard Alexandra, or sometimes lack thereof, two things were striking. The first was the militant adherence to utility and a passive lifestyle. It seemed as if almost everything aboard was either scavenged or repurposed and was dual purpose. For example, Alexandra’s stove and heater were one and the same, consisting of a bespoke Franklin stove made by cutting a hole in the front end of a 20lb propane tank and leading a stovepipe from the top through Alexandra’s coach roof. Apparently fire was not of huge concern, and we did not ask if the head and the wash-down bucket were likewise integrated systems, although we were curious. The second striking thing was the incredible amount of forethought put into every decision. Nothing was It wasn’t This is a man who practices full cost accounting, to the extent that he practices any form of accounting at all. The jury is out on the last time he paid taxes.

When the subject of navigation was breached, a startling fact came to light. Shawn, king of the minimalists, did not have a sextant aboard. Neither did he use paper charts. Instead, in his inimitably low-key way, Shawn explained that he used Open CPN, an open source chart plotting software, for navigation. Furthermore, he offered: “I’m actually one of the developers for Open CPN, so let me know if you have questions about anything, I’d be glad to help.” The plot thickens. As it turns out, not only is Shawn a gifted programmer, but an electrical engineer besides. Shawn has created and is in the throes of perfecting an autopilot system designed to work in tandem with a wind vane using Raspberry Pi, a miniscule and remarkably powerful CPU universally much adored amongst the technically inclined. His system allows for a programmable course variance to maximize route efficiency. The entire unit is super low draw and nominally larger than a deck of cards. If this all seems a bit complicated, it’s because it is. To further explore the theme would require a level of understanding wholly unpossessed by your faithful author, so for those curious, please check out Shawn’s stuff at _______.

Since our meeting, we often allude to Shawn, most commonly in the structured question “What Would Shawn D’Epagnier Do?” In fact, the amount of headspace he occupies in our combined conscience is alarming, but speaks to the radiance of the truly unique. I doubt if he remembers us at all, but, if the memory saved gives a brilliant mind more bandwidth to create, or simply to ponder how best to cook potatoes fueled by his dried feces, all the better.

Dawn brought good news. Temujin’s propeller was responding to throttle, and after a goodbye coffee at the Bean, we hoisted the sails and once again pointed towards Adam’s Creek.

Eric Bihl