Dr. Barnacle and the Alaskan Chainsaw Method
As a young man growing up in suburban America, Lowell Harrison recognized he wasn’t cut out for a status quo lifestyle. He quickly came to know people living in collective houses, going on long bike adventures, and living off the land. At 16, he looked to ocean adventure as the pinnacle of self-sufficiency. With a friend he designed a raft to cross the Atlantic Ocean as a floating community: onboard gardens, lots of musical instruments and a tire apparatus to break the waves. 10 years later he was putting his own boat, the “Libertatia”, in the water in Seattle with an intimate crew, heading out on an epic journey across the Pacific.
Julian sat down with Lowell at his vessel in the Berkeley Marina to learn more about the journey, and how to keep the dream alive, living both on and off the grid.
Julian: What do you tell people you do?
Lowell: Mostly I tell people I’m a sailor because that’s what I really like doing. Then if people really persist I say, “OK, I actually do stuff for money to support my sailing habit.” Sometimes I tell them I’m a commercial diver, cleaning boats under water.
J: How can you make a living as a full time sailor?
L: Most people who are full time sailors generally do deliveries. It’s a niche market. You’ll get a call from a yacht broker in Seattle, San Francisco, or Miami, and they’ll say, “All right, we have this 40 foot boat that someone just bought in New York, and we need to sail it there from Florida.” You fly over there and sail it up to New York. But they don’t pay very well, maybe like $100/day.
J: Sounds like sailors don’t get the kind of respect that they used to get back in the day…
L: Well they didn’t get much respect back then either. They would be out at sea for years at a time and then they’d be back in Port with no money. They’d be forced to do things that were way too dangerous just as a matter of course. Some would even be given drinks at the bars until they passed out. The next day they’d find themselves 100 miles off shore as an indentured servant on some private vessel. They used to call it “Getting Shanghaied” in Bay Area.
J: Is that why they became pirates? Pirates are kind of the original entrepreneurs of the sea aren’t they?
L: Yeah for sure. I have an affinity with pirates. They were romantics. They wear their heart on their sleeve — just “sail over the horizon and see what we find” kind of people. Pirates are a misunderstood group. Some of them were plundering for the good of many. They plundered state sponsored privateer ships, which were just like the corporations of today — going into tribal ports with their private militias, suppressing the indigenous peoples and raping and pillaging the natural resources.
J: Pirates were holding a higher set of principles and values.
L: In fact, a lot of the pirate ships were run democratically. Crews who started off as a group of indentured servants would become mutineers. They’d set their captain off in a dingy, throw him overboard, or just steal a ship from the harbor. Then as a reaction to the hierarchical life they’d been living on commercial vessels, pirate ships would draft up papers, like ships’ by-laws, and actually have a democratic processes of decision-making, including an elected captain.
J: So how did you stumble upon this opportunity to clean boats and make money?
L: It was totally random. I had been working as a cabinetmaker off and on for a year and a half in Berkeley. I really liked that job but they ran out of work. I had all these unforeseen expenses and things in my life pile up all at once, and I was just really desperate for money. So I was spending a lot of time on Craigslist replying to job postings. It was funny, I don’t even remember replying to the job posting for the diver thing. But, the guy called me back and said he thought I was perfect for the job. I started working with him a couple days a week and then I realized that I could start doing it myself. I started building a clientele just by being on the dock all the time. I cleaned a few people’s boats on the spot like that. Then I realized that it was a good opportunity, if I kept their contact information and provided a quality experience, they’d use me again. Those people became my customers, and when other sailor friends heard I was getting into the diving thing, all these jobs came out of the woodwork, so it’s just built from there.
J: The ascendance of Dr. Barnacle! How’d you get that name?
L: Well, I think you gave it to me… (laughs)
J: So what kind of gigs brought you to this moment in your life?
L: My life has followed a seemingly unguided course all around the world, doing lots of different things, whether it was professions, or just hobbies that I was doing full time at the cost of not having a real way to financially support myself. Just pursuing my passions. I’m 28 now. If I total up all the things I’ve done in the last 10 years since I left home and started traveling, I actually have gained a surprising number of skills: Everything from operating a tractor, or properly cutting a tree down, to dealing with interpersonal conflict in communities, or communicating across language or cultural barriers. Those are all things that I’ve done extensively. Mostly I’ve gained these skills through osmosis, just by participating in activities I was interested in. When I was building our boat, The Libertatia, I wouldn’t have really been interested in knowing how to use a chainsaw, but it turned out that we needed to cut down our own trees and mill them with a chainsaw. I learned this amazing way of milling wood called the, “Alaska Chainsaw Method.”
J: How’d you learn that?!?
L: Just through YouTube actually. I looked at some pictures online and it’s a simple concept. We figured it out.
Probably 95 percent of what I’ve learned has been built through working on projects and in community, researching online. The other five percent was actually acquired through a class that I paid for. I took a knife making class when I was a teenager. That was an actual art school class. I utilize my knowledge of Metallurgy quite often, but I don’t forge metal on a regular basis. I took a basket making class once, which actually gave me a lot of intuition when it comes to tying knots — being able to see the weave in fibers. How they mesh together and lock together, helps me in improvising knots and rigging up stuff.
J: A lot of people talk about “building the ship while sailing it.” What do you make of that?
L: Building the ship while sailing it requires a bit of luck. The more prepared your ship is before you sail it, the less you have to rely on luck, as it pertains specifically to sailing. When we were sailing to Hawaii and back we’d be constantly working on the engine while under way in heavy weather. I remember our alternator belt was at an odd angle to the rest of the flywheel of the engine, so the belt was wearing out really quickly. We’d have to basically hang ourselves down into the engine compartment and replace the belt while the engine was running. On deck, it was 45 degree, pounding rain, 8–12 foot waves, spray coming over the decks, and everything.
J: Holy shit man. What are some of your greatest learnings from being at sea?
L: I can’t pick one, really. I definitely came to appreciate all the positive people in my life while I was sailing on the ocean. When I didn’t have anything else to do except steer the boat, when I was just on my watch, my mind would tend to wander towards thinking about people throughout my life’s history who had just been a positive influence on me. I don’t know what that distills down to it, I was just really appreciating people who had been my friends.
J: Wow. Gratitude.
L: Yeah. Gratitude.