Sailing Through History with the TSCA
By Mary Charlebois
In a human-powered whaleboat, on a glorious Saturday afternoon, eleven of us set out from Dolphin Isle Marina and began navigating the Noyo River. Our trip took us through the harbor, under a 90-foot bridge and into open water. Commercial fishing boats passed our craft. Seals lounged on bell buoys and paid us little mind. We were a small bobbing dot in the great Pacific Ocean.
Anyone can take this remarkable trip while learning to team-row a sixteen-foot whaleboat. The Lost Coast Chapter of Traditional Small Craft Association (TSCA) leads this trip and others weekly in Fort Bragg California. Nationwide, TSCA chapters teach and preserve the maritime culture of non-engine powered small craft. Anyone may join excursions and classes in locations around the country.
Dusty Dillion was our coxswain, instructor, sweep oar, historian, entertainer and Lost Coast TSCA President. After his rowing, boating and safety instructions, the oars hit the water and in time, fell into a steady rhythm.
Sidebar: A Note about Whaleboats
Whaleboats were first used for whaling by ancient Inuit and Yupik communities. Whales were one of their most important resources. Every part of the whale was used, meat, oil, blubber, skin, and bone. Whaleboats hunted at sea and were used to haul dead whales from shallow waters. After harpooning a whale, the harpoon line was tied to the boat. Whales were towed to shore where villagers gathered to process and divide the catch. Whalers, large sail and steamships, hunted and processed whales for oil. These ships carried whaleboats on-board. They were used to send crews to harpoon and tow whales for processing. The boats were light and strong. They were pointed at both ends and equipped with sails and oars. The oars could be 22 feet long. They usually carried a crew of six in a boat 30’ x 6’.
Today whaleboats are used as safety or lifeboats aboard marine vessels, especially by the US Coast Guard. They are popular for rescue, recreation and competitive rowing. Because whaleboats are pointed at both ends, it’s easy to move forward or backward.
For the first mile of my outing, we traveled glassy Noyo River. Osprey cries provided a soundtrack punctuated by the calls of ravens, gulls, waterfowl and songbirds. Seals swam and dove within a few feet of the Helen Dee.
Held in place by canyon-like ridges and cliffs, the banks of Noyo River were a majestic mix of woodlands, docked boats and dwellings. The abundant river and fertile forests were home to hundreds of birds, mammals and amphibians.
Scenery changed as we passed commercial docks. Boats were tied up, their crews unloading the catch. That day, square wood bins filled with purple and grey sea urchins, were hoisted by small cranes to waiting forklifts. Within an hour, their tangerine colored roe would be packaged and sent to fish markets in San Francisco.
As we rowed on Dusty explained the origins of TSCA to us. In 1970, the government considered adopting marine safety standards declaring non-motorized small craft unseaworthy. Vessels like dories, peapods, catboats and wherries would be banned from public waterways. Believing these new standards would eradicate a vital part of maritime life and history, John Gardner and Pete Culler formed TSCA. The group’s protest of the changes played a significant part in saving traditional boats.
Our excursion took us past wharfs, where the day’s catch of salmon, cod, rockfish, crab and sea urchins were brought to sell. Our water-level perspective from Helen Dee showed the pilings, docks, boats and businesses in a way not visible from shore. We rowed past restaurants, lodging, boats of all sizes, a Coast Guard station and tour boats. Along the way, we were accompanied by the river’s flying and swimming residents.
I learned there are twenty-seven American chapters of TSCA in fifteen states. Each location’s members and waterways guide the development of education and recreation programs.
The Oregon Coots’ chapter has an extensive lending library. Maine’s Downeast chapter holds a regatta each July. The Erie Pennsylvania chapter teaches Shipwreck Science, Lake Erie Shipwreck Discovery, Principles of Navigation, and Chart Plotting. California’s Lost Coast members provide education and social experiences using traditional small craft. Members restore vintage boats and build new ones. They work with Sea Scouts, offer summer youth activities, and organize monthly mess-abouts.
My rowing adventure had an urgent feel as we began the demanding task of rowing against the tide and over the sandbar where Noyo River and the Pacific Ocean meet. Once past the pull of the river, our coxswain called for “oars up.” We rested in silence, drifting slowly back toward the river. A fog bank moved in. The air was heavy, absorbing the deep boom of a fog horn. A bell buoy’s ring and harbor seal’s bark were muffled. The slap and splash of waves against our whale boat was rhythmic and hypnotic.
On our return to Dolphin Isle, Dusty regaled us with sea ditties. His tales of life in Noyo Harbor before the steam powered boats from San Francisco came, were captivating. A fisherman’s life could be a short one. Facing some of the roughest water in the north Pacific was just part of the job; but they did it with oars, not engines.
A TSCA chapter’s excursions and classes can add real depth to destinations near waterways of all varieties, whether ocean, river or lake. Each chapter’s offerings vary according to the members and local small craft traditions. To find chapter locations and activities, visit http://www.tsca.net/.