Nov 21 2012 in Life Afloat by Gary Clow
At Thanksgiving, a few of us decided we should have one more cruise before putting our boats to sleep for the winter.
Cruisemaster Tim suggested a few days in the San Juan Islands. With Nov. 11 a holiday for some of us, we left the docks at Blaine at first light on the 11th, headed for Rosario Resort on Orcas Island. We wouldn’t be alone on the water because there was a lot of naval and coast guard activity, some sort of joint Canada-U.S. military exercise in the area.
The day was cool and clear as we started out. Our group consisted of Tim and Barb on Tatika, Tony and Christina on OH SEA DEE, Ted and Charleen on Abracadabra, and Sandra and myself on Descanso. With one trawler and one sailboat in our group, we cruised at 6 knots through still, calm seas, the early morning sun dancing on the water. On the radio, Tim joked with Ted about getting through border security with an Afghan hidden onboard, referring to Flame, their beautiful Afghan dog. Ted replied that he was sure the Afghan would be a little mischievous during the next few days.
Our route to Rosario Resort took us south toward Lummi Island, past Lawrence Point on Orcas, west through Obstruction Pass and then north into East Sound to Rosario Resort. All went perfectly until we neared Lawrence Point, where we were suddenly engulfed in fog which formed so fast we hardly knew what was happening. Descanso was the only boat with radar, so it moved to the front of the line. Everyone had GPS chart plotters so we knew where we were. On Descanso, we could watch out for other boats around us.
The fog rolled in
As the fog rolled over us, Tony radioed Ted, “Your Afghan is going to be able to sneak into Rosario under the blanket of fog!” That brought lots of chuckles and a few more Afghan jokes, which served to break the tension of motoring through the thickest fog any of us had ever seen. We continued slowly on, radar reflectors up and hopefully announcing our presence to other boats. It was good we had them because the water around us was, for some reason unknown to us, becoming really congested with other boats, a fact known only to Sandra and I.
Some of the boats were small, while others were huge, probably tankers heading south. We slowed as we made the turn into Obstruction Pass to head west. On the radio I asked everyone to tighten up our formation because of the narrow channel and all the other boats around us. We still couldn’t see them in the thick fog, but there were dozens of them. Maybe there was a salmon run or something, I thought.
Following up on Tony’s earlier broadcast about sneaking into Rosario, Tim radioed, “That’s good, guys, a nice tight grouping for the assault.” That brought more laughs and comments from the rest of the group as we slowly motored through the thick grey blanket of fog. None of us was very comfortable in the fog as we cruised between islands and rocks that we could not see. My biggest concern was the incredible number of vessels around us that only I could see on our radar.
Finally, I radioed to the rest of our group, “Valley Squadron, be really careful and keep a sharp lookout. There are dozens of vessels around us in the fog.”
Totally blind in the fog, except for our instruments, we finally were out of the narrow, rock-choked Obstruction Pass and rounded north into East Sound and towards Rosario, only four miles away. Our way was fairly clear now.
Suddenly, there was a collective gasp from every one of our boats. Our GPS systems went down! What a time for a GPS glitch. I radioed everyone, “Valley Squadron, I can lead us, but pull ahead so you can see the stern of the boat ahead of you.”
I guided each one until we were like a tight string of pearls moving up the sound. It wasn’t bad for me, but it was very spooky for everyone else who had to trust me to keep them off the rocks. The crowd of boats around us, still out of sight, was moving with us and if anything, growing in size. Really bizarre, and scary since they too were now without GPS. Once again I reminded everyone to keep a good lookout.
Again, one of our group cracked a joke. “Maybe the Americans don’t like Afghans!” That broke the tension a bit.
As we cruised through thick fog, Descanso’s radar showed an abrupt change in the pattern of the dozens of boats around us. The outer ones formed a double ring around our boats, about a third of a mile out from us. Then about a dozen smaller vessels picked up speed and headed straight toward us, three boats coming at each of our boats.
“Valley Squadron, watch out, something strange is happening. Lots of boats are cruising straight at us,” I radioed.
Suddenly, one of the small radar images ahead of us seemingly morphed into a large island right ahead of us. This time I radioed with a bit more authority, “Valley Squadron, Valley Squadron, Valley Squadron. Everyone stop. Everyone stop.”
On the radar, I saw a 500-foot island ahead of us where there should be nothing but a tiny blip showing up.
“A huge object just appeared out of nowhere right ahead of us,” I told the group.
As Descanso slowed, two more huge objects appeared on the radar screen behind us, one to port and one to starboard. At the same moment I saw them, the island in front of Descanso materialized out of the fog. Descanso coasted to a stop, with an immense submarine conning tower rising heavenward above it. Small navy vessels, the radar dots, zoomed in on us.
On both the VHF radio and on loudspeakers we heard, “Come to a complete stop. Prepare to be boarded. Move away from the helm and raise your hands!”
Utter terror took hold as each of our group, unseen by the others in the fog, saw 50-mm machine guns, automatic weapons, rocket launchers and Navy SEALS in full combat gear appear out of the fog. Only Sandra and I could see the immense submarine. What was happening? What was going on? What had we done?
That’s all the time we had even to think before there was a boat alongside with six SEALS on board.
“Don’t move a muscle,” they ordered.
My knees were shaking so badly that was impossible. In an instant they were below, searched everything, looked in the engine compartment and then radioed to someone, “Alpha team, we’re clean.”
Then the question, “What is Valley Squadron?”
I shakily explained who we were and where we were going. As I was finishing, one of the SEALS, evidently listening to his radio, began to laugh.
He looked at the others and said, “Relax, they found the Afghan.”
He continued, “It’s an Afghan dog. These guys really are boaters out for the weekend.”
Everyone relaxed, guns descended and we were told what was happening. The U.S. president and Canadian prime minister were having a secret meeting on Orcas Island. The military exercises were being conducted to protect them. The military overheard our VHF transmissions about the Afghan sneaking into Rosario. That and our other jokes had set in motion a huge operation to contain the threat to the leaders.
With the tension gone, the SEALS were great. The fog began to lift and we saw the fleet of submarines, destroyers and smaller craft around us. The jamming of our GPS signal ended and once again we had navigation systems. Two navy patrol boats escorted us the last two miles into Rosario, waving and laughing as they left us at the docks.
What can you say? We were all pretty shaken but had lots to talk about. And talk we did, until dinner time. We had reservations at the resort dining room at 6:30 p.m., but our group of eight arrived to find a huge sign saying, “Sorry, but we are closed tonight.”
As we stared in dismay at the sign, a woman who looked more like a Secret Service agent than a waitress asked if we were the Valley Squadron group. Finding we were, she told us we would have our meal, a very special meal, with some very special hosts who had heard about our interesting military reception and wanted to make amends.
We were ushered into the dining room, seated, and introduced to our dinner hosts — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Obama.