Going north

Northbound, through Lopez Sound

Northbound, through Lopez Sound

Each summer, we go sailing, and each summer, when people ask us where, we say “North.”

That’s about as specific as we think we can be while still being honest about the whole thing. The first year we went, we said, “Alaska” and that didn’t happen, and so ever since we’ve been more elliptical about goals and destinations. And we’ve noticed we have had more enjoyable trips after discarding the consideration of destinations. We might say we hope to see something or get somewhere, but the goal, really, has become just to get away for the summer.

Traditionally, our jumping-off point for these excursions has been Port Hadlock. My parents have a mooring there, and it’s close to Port Townsend for supplies and marine trades to cover all those last little niggling deficiencies one seeks to cover before crossing the straits — to which it is also convenient for early morning departures.

But this year we decided to locate ourselves even more conveniently, and sail up to Port Townsend the night before jumping the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s also practice, of a sort; my folks are moving to a landlocked part of Oregon later this month, and the mooring ball will belong to someone else when we get back. So Port Townsend is in our future. We gave my parents a farewell sail up the bay and dropped them at the fuel dock before anchoring just outside Boat Haven, an 0800 departure on the next day’s agenda.

I began the day inauspiciously by doing something I had never done before: skying the jib halyard. There was a nice breeze, 10 knots right out of the south, just the thing for rocketing out of Port Townsend and catching the ebb north, and we had sailed off the anchor in fine style despite being on a lee shore. I’d sent Mandy back below to do whatever things it is she does down there, confident in my own ability to easily manage our tiny blade jib, and no sooner had I hauled on the jib halyard than I saw the sail leap up and then flop down again, with a sudden give in the line in my hands. I rushed forward but to no avail; that first good hard pull had popped the shackle right open and hoisted it well out of reach.

I called Mandy back up again. She is the puzzle-lover of the family and if there is something intricate and tedious that needs doing, she is generally much better at it than I. So, despite my better reach, she danced around the foredeck, twirling the spinnaker halyard around and lassoing the jib halyard and retrieving it by inches, while I luffed up or bore off or tacked or swerved as she directed for the best presentation of the wayward line to the wind and waves. So it was that we spent the first 45 minutes of our trip.

Although it was frustrating, most of what I thought was how fortunate we were. The winds were manageable, the waves were low, we always had the option of ducking into the marina and doing the whole thing tied to a nice, steady dock. And, more fortunately, it was the jib halyard, which at least had the spinnaker halyard nearby if I’d had to hoist Mandy after it; our main halyard, all alone up at the top of the mast, has no backup and no easy means of ascent for retrieval once it’s out of reach. We’re careful with it, but I thought I was being careful with the jib halyard as well.

Despite the tardy start, we were easily in time to catch the best of the ebb, and with the wind at our backs we cruised out into the Strait with only a low, light swell to oppose us. Despite this, Mandy felt ill initially; all that staring skyward and spinning around in pursuit of the halyard had done a number on her. So she took the helm and I stared at the clouds and we hugged the Whidbey shoreline for a time, thinking to visit Anacortes, where we’ve never been before.

And we’ve never been there yet, for our progress across the Strait of Juan de Fuca was so rapid that it put us at the mouth of Rosario Strait as it was still on the roar of the ebb. Normally, we time our exit from Admiralty Inlet on the ebb so that we hit the flood on the other end of the journey, a neat trick, but this week is a week of neaps, and the floods are short and weak and the ebbs long and strong.

We couldn’t use the old tug captain’s trick of hugging the Whidbey shore and taking advantage of the counter-current there past Smith Island, for the Coast Guard had announced earlier that the Navy was making use of its small arms range at the air base near Oak Harbor. The safety zone, usually quiescent, a dull pink triangle ignored on most charts, was active and prohibited to traffic. As the wind faded and I worked the trim and altered course desperately to try to eke out more than half a knot over ground, I could hear the rattle of machine gun fire coming across the water.

So Anacortes was out and I dithered over the alternatives: head to Cattle Pass, an angle that would allow us to sail faster? Fire up the engine and head for Watmough or Mackaye, to enter the island interior another day? After experimenting with a few different courses, the wind helped me make up my mind by finally fading to the point where we were going backward (even at 3 knots of boat speed!) I fired up the engine and resolved to make Lopez Pass, current or no, and decide on an anchorage thereafter.

The nice thing about the San Juans, and similar destinations, is that once you are there, you are close to everything; nothing is more than an afternoon of sailing away from wherever you are, provided judicious assessment of tide and current is made. So that first anchorage, whatever it may be, opens up a whole world of possibility for the following day.

In the event, we motored against the current just long enough to get through the pass, then dropped the hook in calm and sunny Hunter Bay. A motoryacht and another sailboat were there already, but Hunter is a big bay, and we formed the third point of a lazy triangle by anchoring on the other side of the bay. Solitude is what we wanted and what we gave them. After months in the city, it seemed too quiet suddenly, and I welcomed the interruption of flocks of geese honking overhead.

And because of that nice thing, where we were, at most, a half-day of sailing away from anywhere we wanted to go next, we were in no rush to get up that day, and in no rush to get going once we were up, enjoying coffee and tea and an unexpected beam of morning sun ducking in under the forecast clouds from the east.

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3 Responses to Going north

  1. Kaci June 15, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    Really enjoy your writing Scott. Hope to see you and Mandy out in the Salish Sea on PAX this summer. Tx for the mention of the Whidbey NAS exercises. Good reminder. Happy sailing!

  2. Stormy June 9, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    I’m in Friday Harbor and have a bottle of my family label waiting to share with you guys, come find me :)
    PS Once I was is such a hurry to escape a lee shore I raised my staysail before removing my lantern anchor light pulling it half way of the stay… :)

    • Avatar of Scott Wilson
      Scott Wilson June 9, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

      Oh, man! Wish I would have known that earlier, we skipped right past Friday Harbor and went to Roche. And now we’re up in the Great White North already. Maybe we’ll catch you on the flip side.

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