An Outdoor View: The sailor’s walk

This column first appeared in the Clarion on March 31, 2006.

The “sailor’s walk,” best described as sort of a lurching swagger, is an interesting phenomenon.

The lurching occurs when someone who has been on the water for a while goes ashore and tries to walk. When you’ve been on a rocking boat for a day or more, you need to spend some time on a stable surface to get your “land legs” back.

The swagger takes more than a day to develop. Young sailors who stay at sea for longer than a month get it bad. Its cause is pride and arrogance. Those who contract it are noticeable by their bold step and cocky demeanor.

I recall a trip from Whittier to Nuka Bay, on the gulf side of the Kenai Peninsula, four guys in a 34-foot cabin cruiser. After four days of cruising and fishing our way through Prince William Sound, we put into Seward for fuel, water, ice and fresh vegetables.

When we had tied up in the small boat harbor, the captain turned us loose on the town. We set out on our separate missions, each with a chore or two to do. It was early August, and the streets of Seward were crowded with gawking tourists who seemed to have nothing better to do than to wander around and to get in my way. It was then, while steering through that aimless mob, that I realized I was doing the sailor’s walk — strutting and feeling superior.

It’s hard not to feel superior when you come ashore from a trip such as the one we were on. We had seen and done things that most people would never see or do. We had learned the skills and done the chores necessary to keep us safe and comfortable aboard a boat. We had not only functioned as a team, but had formed lasting bonds with one another. We had faced danger and adversity, albeit in their relatively minor forms, and had come through unscathed.

In Prince William Sound, we had passed places that hadn’t changed much since English, Russian and Spanish explorers had been there. We caught fish and saw whales. We cruised past the deserted village of Chenega, where the tsunami generated by the 1964 earthquake had swept up the hill and destroyed the village, killing half the population. We anchored for the night in places where we were the only humans for miles around, where the only sounds were of our own making.

And now, in Seward, the best part of our journey still lay ahead. Who wouldn’t feel a bit superior, or at least very fortunate?

Not knowing port from starboard doesn’t keep you from feeling the stirrings of what it’s like to be a real sailor, and to walk like one. The first time it happened to me was in the late 1960s, on a trip from Puget Sound to Petersburg, Alaska, with my father in a 19-foot, outboard cabin cruiser.

We passed days of fog and rain so dense that every mountainside wore multiple waterfalls. We cruised on seas like mirrors, the sun cutting jewels in our foamy track. We anchored in places that didn’t look as if humans had been there since Lt. George Vancouver explored the Inside Passage. At night, the Old Man would stoke up a cigar, pour our daily ration of grog and say, “How’d you like to get beat in a game of Cribbage?” We were having the time of our lives.

It happened in Ketchikan. We had been living on the boat, and hadn’t set foot on solid ground for a week. The sailor’s walk came upon me the instant I stepped onto the dock.

At the time, I didn’t realize what was happening. I must’ve been a silly sight, lurching jauntily along the sidewalk, an arrogant look plastered on my face, just off a 19-foot boat. The looks people gave me, I took for envy and respect. As if they had somehow learned where I had been and what I had seen and done.

The Old Man, to his credit, didn’t say a word. He had been there before.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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