By the time you read this, Phillip Sax will have sailed away.
He sold the farm to buy Ness, a steel-hulled ketch, to sail around Cape Horn and “into the wildest and most far-flung corners of this planet.”
“I want to be as connected as possible with everything that lives and breathes in the ocean,” he says. “I want to zig and zag, and be a pingpong ball that bounces off the continents.”
We are sitting in pink plastic Adirondack chairs at the Northwest Maritime Center, watching boats pass by on sparkling Port Townsend Bay. A Vietnam veteran who saw combat first in 1966 at the age of 18, Phillip says, “I learned that if you have the gift of life, it’s your responsibility to make it the best experience you can.”
Last time he went on a sailing adventure, 15 years ago, his boat fell apart off the coast of California, on a trip from Newport to Puget Sound. He hit ugly weather, and a chain reaction set in. The rudder broke off, the sails ripped, the mast fell. After his companion was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, it took Phillip more than a week to limp back to shore.
He wasn’t a novice. After Vietnam, Phillip spent a decade sailing alone, worked on tugboats, commercial freighters and oil rig tenders in Indonesia. Even though the near-sinking of his boat still hadn’t helped him reach what he calls his “fear threshold,” it did occur to Phillip that “I had nothing to gain any longer from being on boats.” So he quit.
The epiphany, that he didn’t have to own a boat, came to him like a bolt of lightning finds the top of a mast and discharges its electrical load into the water. It went right through him, but smoked his chemistry.
“I put my life on a 15-year hiatus,” he says. In other words, Phillip became a landlubber. He bought 10 wooded acres at the tip of the Coyle Peninsula, milled his own lumber and built five idiosyncratic structures on the property, including a massive brick, wood-fired oven where he baked bagels for local food banks. A recluse at heart, he enjoyed his life there, “kind of a paradox,” he says. “I prefer my own company, but when I felt like it, I did a major gathering, including drum circles.”
Then along came that siren, Ness. Built here in 2000, Ness is 32 feet on deck, 44 feet overall. She’s a double-ended ketch. He’s been attracted to her, Phillip says, for years, in spite of his resolve to never go to sea again.
Ness’ owner, Zeke McFadin, left Port Townsend and took her to California, which seeded in Phillip even more desire, and then brought her back and put her up for sale. Phillip took the plunge and made an offer, but McFadin wanted cash, not a land trade.
So then, Phillip, who admits he is once again hooked on boats, finds another he likes in France, and asks Eric Schouten, Sea Marine broker at Point Hudson, to help him with paperwork on a land/boat trade. Failing to interest the French boat owner, he asks Eric to find him a boat here.
While Eric acts as yenta, Phillip gets a nibble on his property. With the possibility of a cash deal, Eric has Ness hauled out at Sea Marine for a survey. He gives Phillip a thumbs-up while she’s still in the sling. “Eric knows I’m asking this boat to sail into extreme conditions,” Phillip says.
Long story short, Ness’ owner accepts Phillip’s offer and agrees to wait for his land to sell. Phillip gives him earnest money, and negotiations ensue with the Sacramento, California, buyer.
In the third round of negotiations, Phillip’s buyer crashes his motorcycle and breaks his back, but sticks the deal out and signs while he’s still in the hospital. Eric prepares the documentation for Ness, and she now belongs to Phillip. “I knew in my heart and soul this would happen,” he says.
As we squint into the sun, Phillip says that he’s trying to cram a 15-year accumulation of stuff into a 32-foot boat, which he has moored on a private dock below his property.
Trying to let go has prompted him to write a poem, now at 25 pages, which, he says, may be finished at sea.
It explores, he says, the very human desire to possess.