Sally Gracie TwispBy Sally Gracie

My down-the-hill neighbor Tom Doran spent seven weeks – until Sept. 14 – cruising the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte) Islands off the north coast of British Columbia on a 120-foot motor yacht that once belonged to John Barrymore.  Tom visited the heritage sites of the Haida people and learned lots about their culture, but he wasn’t one of the guests.

It was Tom’s job – as one of a five-man crew – to keep the Thea Foss running smoothly. You may know Tom as the guy who fixed your lawn mower at Tom’s Fix It Shop last spring, but he is also a qualified and experienced marine engineer. His job on the Thea Foss was to maintain the two original antique Atlas diesel engines – taller than Tom himself and 16 feet long – two 125KW power generators, and the ship’s hydraulic pumps and valves.

Although the big1930 engines are among the “most reliable ever made,” they required some TLC from Tom. He says he never let two hours go by without checking the engine room, and every four hours he had to lubricate the engines by hand. Tom experienced no major problems with the works that power and propel the ship on its annual summer cruise.

The voyage began at South Lake Union, moved through the San Juans and up to Haida Gwaii, a group of 150 island about 55 miles west of B.C.’s north coast. Guests boarded the ship from a float plane for weeklong cruises as the ship worked her way north. There is no docking on the islands, and guests were moved ashore on inflatables or the ship’s large dinghy. On these occasions Tom often served as boat driver. He also was a fishing guide for the guests.

An especially memorable visit ashore took place on Lyell Island in Windy Bay, B.C., where Tom met members of the Haida clans and helped raise a 43-foot totem pole. The carved and colorful pole weighs several tons. It was the first monument pole to be raised there in 135 years, and was designed to commemorate an agreement between Canada and the Haida Nation to preserve the region. (Photos of the “Haida Gwaii totem pole” at are nearly as good as Tom’s.)

Welcoming the support for his decision from his partner Sue Koptonak, Tom will begin a “new adventure,” as he’s been hired to work aboard the Thea Foss full-time. He and Sue will be together on weekends here or on the coast. Financial considerations entered Tom’s decision, but it’s clear, too, that the “endless and compelling” stories of his father’s U.S. Navy career, told when Tom was young, have always drawn him to the sea.