[ The article below is about an 85 year-old socialist who, for the past 15 years, has been preparing for the adventure of a lifetime: He is building a boat and will sail to Cuba along with a crew of friends he’s met on the journey. –BL ]
The Old Man, the Mountain and the Sea: Naturalist Has Big Plan for Sailboat
by Blaine Harden
ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. — At 85, App Applegate keeps pushing the limits of living off the grid.
Out here in Puget Sound, on the upper west side of the American dream, he lives in a shack without running water, listens to National Public Radio on a hand-crank radio and avoids outhouses as ecologically incorrect. He prefers a shovel and an open field.
Barely 5 feet tall, Applegate is a Hobbit-size pioneer among the counterculture cadre that has long sought soggy exile in the far corners of the Pacific Northwest. But Orcas Island, which Seattle millionaires are busily refurbishing as the Martha’s Vineyard of the West, is not nearly far out enough for Applegate. So, for the past 15 years, he has been building an escape module.
It’s a whopper: An 80-foot, 50-ton, three-masted sailboat. Local sailors say the wooden barkentine is nearly finished, solid and seaworthy, if a bit rough around the gunnels. Applegate built it by hand — outdoors, often in miserably dank weather — and he paid for the whole thing with Social Security checks. He plans to sail east around the world to dock in Cienfuegos Bay, Cuba. He’s a fervent admirer of Fidel Castro.
There is a logistical kink. The boat sits where it was built: on the side of a mountain beneath towering Douglas firs, 400 feet above sea level, six miles from a suitable boat launch. A narrow dirt road — steep, potholed and snaggled with switchbacks — lies between Applegate’s boat and its departure for his beloved “Coo-bah.”
“We will set sail in April,” he said. “I am not yet sure which April.”
Before explaining how Applegate — a retired physics professor and self-described atheist, socialist and radical — intends to get himself and his boat off the mountain, it makes sense to examine why he went up there in the first place.
“I came to Orcas to sit down and read, to enjoy the ferns and moss and to escape the contemptibility of our politicians,” he said.
In this respect, Applegate is not all that far off the demographic grid, as it exists in the Pacific Northwest.
The region is more liberal, more literate and much less religious than the country as a whole. Washington and Oregon lead the states in the percentage of adults who report no religious identification — 25 percent here, compared with 14 percent nationally.
There is a secular orthodoxy here, and it believes in wild salmon, clean rivers and urban growth management. Twenty-eight percent of the population voted for George W. Bush in 2000, compared with 45 percent nationally. Politicians in Portland and Seattle have welcomed gay marriage. Heterosexual marriage, meanwhile, takes its lumps. The Northwest has a higher divorce rate than any other region of the country.
Politically correct Northwest residents drink Wild Salmon Organic Pale Ale and build houses out of wood that is certified by a third party to have been cut from sustainable forests. When Washington state residents die, they are 12 times as likely as Alabamans to be cremated rather than buried. Eco-aware residents, apparently, don’t want to contribute to cemetery sprawl.
The name of Applegate’s boat is the Aproximada. It’s Spanish for “approximate,” and the word captures Applegate’s design and construction philosophy. It also describes his departure schedule and his technique for recruiting sailors who might want to go with him to Cuba.
The Aproximada has eight berths and will need a crew of at least five. So far, there is only one sure bet.
She is Rivkah Sweedler, 58, a woodcarver and longtime exile from what she calls “the dominant culture.” She and Applegate joined forces in 1997, shortly after her husband died. He helped her move on after her loss; she eased his loneliness and turned him into a phenomenally healthful eater. She typically serves him a breakfast that includes triticale flakes, buckwheat groats and pumpkin seeds.
Applegate and Sweedler see eye to eye on religious, environmental and political matters: Her late husband, Walter, was also an atheist. App and Rivkah are outspoken advocates of open-field defecation. They deeply dislike President Bush.
Sweedler will be the ship’s cook and has already filled the Aproximada’s larder with bulk organic foods. While she is not nearly as excited about living in Cuba as Applegate is, she’s trying to keep an open mind.
The position of onboard engineer could also be filled. It might be Barbara Roddy, 54, who has a degree in combustion engineering from the University of California at Davis. She has helped Applegate do much of the mechanical and electrical work on his boat. Roddy makes her living on Orcas as a fix-it person, hot-tub sales agent and specialty-cruise guide. She runs Captain Barb’s Mechanical Wizardry and leads Captain Barb’s Lesbian Cruises and Adventures.
When Applegate retired to five acres of forest on Orcas Island’s Mount Pickett in 1977, he had no intention of ever living anywhere else.
“I had had it,” he said. “I was just going to vegetate.”
Born and raised in the Northwest, he was retired from a number of professions that had taken him from Honolulu to Yaounde, Cameroon, but had never made him much money.
With a master’s degree in physics, he had been a college professor, a guide for cruises around the Hawaiian Islands and the self-taught builder of a 100-foot steel sailboat that he captained along the Eastern Seaboard. (He sold it for next to nothing, and it later sank.) His last job was in 1976, as a Peace Corps worker in Cameroon.
Settling in on Orcas, Applegate promised himself that he would stay away from boats.
“Too much work,” he said. “I didn’t want to build any damn vessel.”
Yet one thing led to another. He had time on his hands. The Social Security checks kept coming in. He became curious about the Douglas firs on the island. Could they be made into a substantial sailing vessel?
Applegate is not without social skills. It did not take long for word to get out among the 3,500 year-round residents of Orcas Island that the little white-bearded socialist on Mount Pickett was witty, self-deprecating and a good listener. He also has a gift for persuading islanders to volunteer their time and power tools for his boat. Over the years, they have painted the Aproximada, hoisted its heavy beams and helped rig its sails.
“Here is a man who started this project when he was 70, an age when most men sit back, watch television and give up,” said Joe Goodrich, 58, who owns a roof and deck cleaning business on Orcas and often helps Applegate with heavy lifting up on the mountain. “App is a powerful example of what you can do if you don’t quit.”
In the 15 years that Applegate has been building his boat, Orcas Island, which is an hour by ferry from the mainland, has become the preferred summer destination for Seattle’s high-tech millionaires.
As property values have soared, farmers and commercial fishermen have all but disappeared. Most year-round island residents have found jobs in the service industry — taking care of rich people’s houses, boats, cars, lawns and children.
The Vineyardification of Orcas has increased the value of Applegate’s five scruffy acres more than tenfold — but otherwise it has left him alone, at least so far.
“The folks who show up in designer cars and designer suits soon figure out the best way to get along on this island is to try to fit in,” said John B. Evans, a Republican county commissioner and a close neighbor of Applegate’s. Evans lent him a grinder to smooth the hull of the Aproximada.
County authorities are well aware that Applegate’s shack and sanitary facilities are not up to county codes, Evans said.
“All the rules aren’t followed all the time,” he said. “We have million-dollar houses next door to yurts. The culture supports that. And people like App. He is so far out there, it makes for interesting conversation.”
Applegate, though, wants out. If push came to shove, he said, he could probably get the boat off the mountain in a week or two.
His plan involves two large bulldozers, signed waivers from downhill neighbors and a bond to pay for damages — if the boat runs amok and squashes a house or two. Several people who know details of the plan say there is a good chance it will work.
Applegate, though, has to wait for more Social Security checks to bankroll the plan. He also needs more crew to sail the boat. He doesn’t appear especially panicked about the lack of either.
Thanks to Sweedler, he has constant companionship and eats well. His health is excellent. Nearly every day, friends drive up the mountain to check on him, work on the boat and review the countless ways in which the United States is succumbing to moral and environmental rot. Some of these friends wonder privately if the Aproximada will ever get out of the woods.
Applegate, himself, acknowledges only one time-related reason to get the boat off the mountain and sail away: Castro could drop dead.