When I was 15 years old I got hooked on the TV shows Sea Hunt, Flipper and all those great Jacque Cousteau films. At 51…I’m now hooked on Tolly Tollefson and Christina Cousteau.
I knocked on Mr. Tollefson’s front door a couple of weeks ago and was met by his caretaker. I explained that I had just walked the 4 miles over from the marina at Port Ludlow in order to meet with Mr. Tollefson…if possible. Although it was almost dinnertime he relented and went to gather up Mr. Tollefson.
The caretaker introduced me to Tolly Tollefson and then left the two of us in Mr. Tollefson’s library to visit. For all of you who have know Tolly at various points along his almost 98 year journey…allow me to provide you with a glimpse into the man from my novice point of view.
I found a great man. Yes the body is almost 98 years old and yet the azure blue eyes continue to sparkle and dance with an ever present sense of adventure. His business card these days reads…Ex-Designer & Builder of Tollycraft Yachts – Confirmed Bachelor, Old Man of the Sea – Too Old & Tough to Kill and Too Young in Spirit to Die.
I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Learned to SCUBA dive in a 100 foot natural spring in Santa Rosa, New Mexico called the Blue Hole. Went to college in Florida and received a degree in Oceanography / Ocean Engineering.
A few months ago I got frustrated with my current job and decided to take the afternoon off to go for walk at the marina in nearby Astoria. As I walked I came across a 40’ Tollycraft Sportfisher for sale. I was immediately attracted to the elegant crisp lines, the open cockpit and the proud cutting bow. And so began my love affair and hunt for Christina Cousteau.
Mr. Tollefson’s door was not the first…and I suspect it will not be the last…door that I knock on. I was so enraptured with the Jacque Cousteau films that I often wanted to become Christopher Cousteau. That desire lead me into SCUBA diving, to Florida Institute of Technology for Oceanography and ultimately to Mr. Cousteau’s front door.
After college and a brief stint at an Engineering desk job I spent two months traveling in Europe on a Youth Eurail Pass. In Niece, France I met a beautiful Welsh girl studying French at the local University. One afternoon we took a scooter ride over to nearby Monaco and I noticed the Cousteau Offices.
One thing lead to another…Beverly from Wales was beautiful and knew French…she managed to get me an interview with Mr. Cousteau’s First Mate of the Calypso. During the interview I was quickly informed that French was the language used aboard the Calypso for all emergency situations and that unless I became fluent I could not work aboard the Calypso.
No problem…I already had a “girlfriend” studying French at the local University. The deal was that I would leave the country and re-enter on a Work Visa to be employed at the Monaco Aquarium until I learned French. Then perhaps…on to the Calypso.
Oh the impatience of youth…I declined…went sailing in the Caribbean for the next 2 months aboard a 50’ Morgan Catch. Life has been good…but oh my…what might it have been?
That recall was in my heart and mind…as it is always…during my walk at the Astoria Marina. It seems that the message we most often find ourselves preaching to others is the very one that we most often need to heed ourselves. Go for your dreams…find a way…just do it…
Three months latter I was aboard a 40’ Tollycraft Sportfisher named Swell Dancer making my way from Chinook Landing in Tacoma, WA to that very same marina in Astoria, OR.
Did I know exactly what I was doing or getting into? No. But I knew enough…to depart from the dock…with the faith and courage that I would figure it out as I continued to make my way forward.
I yelled at the Sailboats to make up their minds…and I yelled to the Ferries that I was coming through…straight up the gut of the Puget Sound. I yelled orders back and forth to myself as both Captain and First Mate and it bolstered my fledgling courage.
Port Ludlow is spectacular. But how does one dock a 40’ Tollycraft…having never done so? On my third approach, Vivian appeared from within her gorgeous Sailboat docked just behind “my spot” at the docks. She grabbed the bow line and the wind was kind enough to assist with the stern. I laughed and said “bet you couldn’t tell that I’ve never done that before”. She could…and also encouraged me that I would get better quickly…she was great.
Tolly’s library is everything that you would imagine. Seafaring books, photographs, mementos and something else…kind of a quiet, thick ether of the men and women he associated with…now long since gone but still somehow present within his space.
His living room view captures the whole of Port Ludlow and its alluring passage out into the Puget Sound and beyond. I read on the Internet that he used to hail Tollycrafts that ventured into the port. Perhaps you’ll be so lucky.
We talked for about a half hour…about beginnings…not carrying too much debt in business… about his friends, including the Monks…boat designs…fuel consumption rates and how to achieve the best performance… boating to relax and ponder your life…my upcoming passage from Puget Sound to the Columbia River Bar and Astoria.
Tolly had taken the voyage several times and told me some of the dangers to watch out for along the way. And dear readers…who perhaps think that I was foolish to go it alone…he never once attempted to discourage me. I think maybe his spirit wanted to go along vicariously one more time.
The leg from Port Ludlow to Port Angeles within the Strait of Juan de Fuca was wondrous with beauty…until the fog bank. I learned how to trust my GSP positioning and radar equipment real quick. The fog finally broke just east of Port Angeles and I got to attempt my second docking.
I slowly crept into the marina and headed for the guest docks. I spotted a long berth between two immense Westport Yachts that I figured even I could make it into. As I came around the first Westport my stomach dropped as I saw a small sailboat right in the middle of “my spot”.
I quickly set about learning how to turn a 40’ Tollycraft…plus an additional 6’ of bow pulpit and swim ladder around in a 60’ space. A couple of guys came out from one of the Westport’s and offered their assistance. The great thing that I was learning about the boating community…was that people help each other…often.
Once I had docked I laughed again and said “that’s only my second docking and I haven’t hit anything today”. The one guy looked at his friend and said “it’s still early” and then invited me over to check out the Westport…not only did it have a helicopter…it had two just in case.
Do any of you remember the stock of white hair that Tolly had in his youth? He still has a lot of it.
Port Angeles to Neah Bay was like a page right out of Peter Pan’s Neverland.
Third docking…more help. For dinner I enjoyed a Macaw Indian Taco made of delicious Fry Bread smothered with Ling Cod, tomatoes, onions, peppers, lettuce, salsa, sour cream and cheese. The girl who made it for me told me about her Dad who fishes all summer and smokes Salmon all winter. She said that he was even written up in the NY Times a few years back as a result of an article in search of the best fish of the Pacific Northwest.
In the morning I went by and found a small house with a smoke shed alongside…visited for a while, bought a couple of pounds of indescribable smoked Salmon and took off for the open water of the Pacific.
Once I got beyond the mouth of the Strait the surface of the ocean calmed down and the day was glorious. Colors out on the open waters of the Pacific take on magical hues. My camera was broken but my daughter had taught me how to take memory photos and send them up to God for safe keeping.
Gulls, cormorants, pelicans, porpoise and then a long line of whales…I cut the engines and ran from port to starboard with my mouth agape for the next hour or so. What magnificent creatures…they move like I want to learn to walk…with grace, purpose and completely unhurried.
My port for the night was to be Westport within Gray’s Harbor. I knew enough to traverse the bar with an incoming tide…the higher the better; however my time spent with the whales had delayed my arrival until just after dark.
No problem…the moon was full…and I had already identified Westport to be located at the Harbor’s south end on my GPS. Once across the bar and well into the harbor I saw bright lights but could not make out a marina entrance so I continued toward what I thought would become the Westport Marina.
High atop the bridge of the Tollycraft presented me with the best view from which to navigate…until the plastic windshield became clouded with condensation. Forced back down below to my interior helm station the GPS was so bright that I couldn’t see very well out of the glass windshields…I hadn’t yet learned how to dim the display.
Next I heard a scrapping sound on the hull below…quickly checked the GPS and found that I had strayed well beyond the narrowing channel out into the very shallow eel grass.
Navigating by GPS in the dark becomes like playing a video game. And for those of you who know better please bare with me…when that triangular pointer designating my boat pointed upwards…no problem…I turn the wheel to the right and the boat goes right.
But when that same triangular pointer pointed downward…I got into all sorts of trouble…for when you turn the wheel to the right the boat goes left…and I became altogether disoriented very quickly. As my anxiety rose I actually turned my backside to the wheel and began making my turns from over my shoulder.
Hearing the scrapping of the hull…in the dark…and disoriented to boot is not a lot of fun. I made a couple of pigtail designs in the eel grass and on my GPS screen…then slowly made my way back to the narrow 8 foot deep channel. According to my estimation the Westport Marina should be just beyond the bridge ahead…but everything beyond was completely black.
I was disoriented, scared and dry mouthed…I was done. I radioed the Coast Guard for assistance.
They asked for my position…I knew from doing some surveying work how to give North and East coordinates. Did I have a life vest aboard? I put one on. Any medical emergencies? No. How many people on board? Just myself.
Any mental health issues…did they mean in the past…in the moment…or in the future…
The humbling aspect of being led out of the narrow slough that I had followed…back into the main harbor and finally into Westport Marina is that those guys aboard the Coast Guard Cutter are all in their way early 20’s. And I thanked God for them…for their willingness and for their training…it made me think of our Armed Forces throughout the rest of the world.
Regardless of your skill level…the Coast Guard always refers to you as Captain…kind of like calling a young boy a young man…we seem to step up to the plate a little taller the next time.
They led me safely to the Westport Marina that I had significantly overshot.
The next morning with my confidence slightly shaken I departed for the final leg of my voyage. Seas that day were running between 6 to 10 feet. At 2600 rpms I surfed down the front edge of the swells at up to 22 knots and slid down the backside at about 12 knots.
At one point I slowed down and an alarm went off…I thought about stopping and finding the source…it was too rough to stop…ran the engines back up to 2600 rpms and kept pushing forward…the alarm subsided.
My GPS maps ran out at the Washington / Oregon boarder…I did the best I could.
My forearms and hands grew strong against the constant battle with the rudder to maintain a true course.
My deck shoes seemed to grow suction cups as I gripped the Fly Bridge deck using all the muscles of my legs and feet.
And the Columbia Bar loomed ahead…
By the time that Mr. Tollefson and I had finished our visit he was patting me on the shoulder…saying goodbye and inviting me back…I found a great man.
There was a small craft warning that day for crossing the Columbia Bar…less than 36 feet…not a good idea.
But by now I was the Captain of a 40’ Tollycraft that had surely demonstrated it’s seaworthiness to me…so I waited for an hour circling the outer buoys…waiting for the tide to turn…
Upon my approach I notified the Coast Guard that this would be my first attempt to cross the Columbia Bar and headed in…
A better description would be headed through…for the Bar Crossing feels like being in a washing machine…big swells and small breakers coming at you from every direction. I remember making waves in the bathtub as a boy trying to see just how much my candle propelled tug boat could take before being swamped.
And I remembered what Tolly Tollefson had told me…that the boat can often take a lot more than you can at the moment…so I hung on…I yelled at the huge Cargo Ship to give way so that I could hug the bouys…until I discovered that I was following rather than approaching…lots to learn.
The lengthy Bar Crossing eventually gave way to the much more gentle ebb and flow of the Columbia River and I faced the final challenge that I had been dreading the entire voyage within the back of my mind.
How on earth was I going to navigate the narrow Astoria Marina…glide past my assigned slip and back in between the dock finger and my neighbor’s boat? That scared me as much as anything that I had yet encountered…because now there would be witnesses.
Full speed ahead…
I renamed her the Christina Cousteau.
Perhaps Tolly Tollefson is a confirmed bachelor because he’s given his love to so many others…including you and me.
As the fourth owner I have found that the Christina Cousteau was a Swell Dancer on the Isle of Caprice as an Impudent Lass.
Thank you Mr. Robert Merland “Tolly” Tollefson…for your gift of adventure on the High Seas given to so many of us!
PS – A week after having reached the relative safety of my slip in the Astoria Marina I was shopping at nearby Englund Marine…I proudly informed the Sales Rep Connie that I had just traveled from Port Chinook in Tacoma to Astoria aboard my very own 40’ Tollycraft temporarily named Swell Dancer…”Oh”, she replied, “you must be the one whom the Coast Guard guided out of the south slough in Gray’s Harbor last week…”
“Since then, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let each one of us throw off the pretense and fear that so easily entangles us…let us run our race looking unto Jesus…the author and the finisher of our faith…who for the joy that was sat before him…Tolly, Christopher, Vivian, unnamed helpers, Connie and you…endured the cross and sat down at the right hand of majesty…”
“Love casts out fear”…and unfortunately…”Fear can cast out love”
Don’t let that happen…be strong and courageous…go for your dreams…find a way…just do it…and the next time that I lose my way…I will ask you to read me my story anew…
September, 2008 Journey