Sailing north to the San Juan Islands was a big deal for us. We’ve sailed them before; we took our sailing lessons here in the beginning, and we chartered a sailboat once with friends. This time we would be the crew of our own boat. Our experience good or bad and our safety for better or worse, depended in large part on our planning and preparation. Our comfort or lack of it was up to us and our boat. How long we stayed wouldn’t depend on a week long vacation schedule.
After years of dreaming, a year of planning, months of preparation and weeks of anticipation, it was a lot to look forward to.
Our route to the islands involved making a decision that would set the tone for the foreseeable future. There are basically two ways: From Port Townsend, we could go back south around the southern tip of Whidbey Island and up the east side. It is considered the more comfortable, safer route. There are lots of safe harbors within an easy day sail of the last. Once we got to Deception Pass, we could have waited for a slack tide to shoot through to the northern islands, or we could have continued north through narrow little channels to the far end and eventually gotten to where we wanted to go.
Or we could sail out of Admiralty Inlet and cross the Straights of Juan De Fuca to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in one 23 mile shot of open water straight in from the sea.
There had never been a question before last summer when I met a guy with a thirty-five foot power boat that never took the straight route. When I expressed my thoughts he looked at me from the corner of his eye and began telling me about the currents, and the sudden changes in weather, and the shipping, and choppy seas. From that point on I began asking other sailors, and I found out that most of them took the long way around and missed the open water.
I spent all winter thinking about it, and in my heart I knew I would take the open water. It called to me.
So when June found us in Port Townsend we began watching the weather forecasts for the Eastern end of the Straights. What we were looking for was a calm morning, with an outgoing tide, and no storms brewing in the mountains, or at sea. The closer we got, the more it looked like Friday was our day to cross, and so we did.
It was 48 degrees in the early dawn when the alarm clock went off at 0400. We were all bundled up in our wool sweaters and foul weather gear as we nosed into the outgoing tides of Admiralty Inlet at 0445.
It was an amazing day. The sky was clear as it began to grey and then pink in the east. The outgoing tide set up a pretty good chop as it ran full tilt into the deep waters of the straight, but that did little more than raise our pulse. We got to sail for awhile as the sun peeked over the Cascade Mountains to the east, and lit the Olympic Mountains on fire to the west. By leaving so early, we never got within five miles of shipping traffic, and at last as the day warmed, our forecasting came true, and the wind died so we motored through the rolling swells in the big beautiful Salish Sea.
By 1145 that morning, we had taken a mooring ball at Turn Island about 1.75 miles from Friday Harbor. There were several choices of places to go, but we wanted someplace that was protected from the south and west because we were expecting a little blow that night. Turn Island worked well for that, and in fact, it would have worked perfectly but for the “NO PETS” sign on the beach, something we hadn’t known about before we got there. We stayed four nights.. the park ranger only showed once.. and we hiked some and kayaked all the way to Friday Harbor, and all the way around Turn Island.
We hadn’t intended taking “Wings of the Morning” into Friday Harbor at all, but the morning we were leaving I dropped the lines to the mooring buoy, and Sherlene slipped the engine into gear and got nothing. The engine revved up but we didn’t go forward. There might have been some tension among the crew while I dropped our anchor over because there are large boat eating rocks all around, and the current was pushing us that way of course. As soon as I got the anchor down the engine went into gear, but now I had fifty feet of chain out that I had to pull in by hand. Sherlene put the engine back into neutral while I pulled up the anchor, and when we were free, we didn’t have forward gear again. Back down went the anchor. We did this three times before finally the engine slipped into gear as I pulled the anchor off the bottom.
This had happened before, and I had traced to problem to the linkage which I thought I had fixed. This time with Friday Harbor so close, and the consequences so high, we decided to pull in and take a slip so I could stand on my head in the engine room one more time and fix the transmission once and for all.