How I Spent My Summer Vacation, An Essay

It might have looked like this, but it didn’t.

It was a dark and stormy night.

This is only partly true, but I love the way it sounds and I’ve always wanted to lead with that sentence. Consider it foreshadowing.

Readers who are familiar with the geography of this area may have read our recent post The Luxury of Time and realized we had begun the story in the middle, that is, that we were already halfway home when that story began. This, then, is the story of the day before that night; a day which shall be known forever as ‘the longest day in eternity’, until it is usurped by a day even longer.  Especially when on a sailboat, having a schedule is terrible. Time, as they say, is the enemy. And for us, the Universe always conspires to keep us in the San Juans just a little bit longer, no matter how much we plan in advance.

This chart will keep us all organized in the telling. Match the letter to the corresponding part of the story. It’s easy.

After a lovely sail on Friday down the west coast of San Juan Island, looking for whales (but being there too early in the day, as usual) Mike and I were headed to the south end of Lopez Island, ready for an early start across the strait the following morning. You see, we had PLANNED to have two full days to get home. It would be a little hurried, but not too bad. We never seem to get to the south end of the islands quickly. I guess that’s because we’re really never ready to leave.

We were just west of Cattle Pass about 5 miles looking at a lovely sunset. (A) The wind had died, leaving us no choice but to crank up the trusty Westerbeke. And that’s when things began to really get interesting. The word ‘interesting’ in this context  means something UNplanned, something that will need to be dealt with, something that will keep us from our stated goal of getting home in a timely way. That’s because the Westerbeke, a work horse engine if there ever was one, decided just at that moment that it needed a new starter solenoid. It communicated this by responding with a decided ‘click’ when we tried to start the engine. Click. Click. Click. Try again. This time push real fast. Clickclickclick!  Nope.

I looked at Mike and he had that look on his face that he gets when things begin to go wrong. It’s a look that combines irritation with thoughtfulness and manly self-control.  That’s when I decide to simply enjoy the scenery and keep quiet so he can think. In a way, it made poetic sense to me that this would happen. I mean, every other part of the engine has been rebuilt. It has been extremely reliable. This is the last piece. So of course, it had to go out on us during the trip.

On these trips to the islands, if we are going to have any kind of trouble, it’s going to happen on the leg home. And because we always go home the same way, it’s destined to happen on the west coast of San Juan Island.  Our boat knows that we don’t really want to leave the islands. It tries to keep us there, whatever the cost.

Be honest. You’d stay here, too.

While Mike tinkered and swore,  I began to think about our relationship with various starters over the years. There was the old Cutlass convertible that we used to start with a screwdriver, jumping the solenoid. Worked like a charm. Then there was the starter in the Ford Fairlane that stranded us in Salt Lake City at Christmas time, just before we got married. Mike took that one apart on the hotel room floor with a cheap set of tools and blind faith. Such are the stories of a long marriage. And they build a kind of trust in one’s spouse over the years. A firm knowledge that things will work out, that we can handle ourselves well, and that we are unfailingly resourceful. And so our interesting trip home began.

We wanted to go thataway. But it was not happening. Not at all.

No wind, no engine, strong tidal currents in that area. Big rocks on the shore.  These conspire to create a situation that cannot be dealt with by sitting passively by, beautiful sunset notwithstanding. Mike began to tinker with the solenoid, looking for a way to bypass that piece and jump start the engine. He assures me that diesel engines are not rocket science, that they need fuel, air, and spark (to get started, thank you very much , Tate) and that’s pretty much it. It was the spark that was missing from the equation and if anyone knows electrical stuff it’s Mike. He took stuff off, put stuff on, made me push buttons, said ‘DAMN!’ a few times. By the time he started throwing tools into the bilge I knew he had just about had it.  The sun was going down, and just sitting there at the mercy of currents wasn’t an option. We had to get going somehow.

He put the little two horse Honda engine onto Puddler, tied her close to the stern of the boat, cranked the motor, and began pushing. The thing about that part of the islands is that there is no place to anchor. If you are on the south western side, you have few choices. We had about 1 1/2 gallons of gasoline for the Honda, so keeping fingers firmly crossed I steered Moonrise and we began to head toward Cattle Pass at about 3.5 knots. The tide was with us and this was a huge bit of good fortune as Cattle Pass is downright dangerous when your are trying to go against the tide. According to the tide tables, we had almost two hours to get well clear of the pass before the tide turned. Our stated goal at that point was to find a safe anchorage for the night and we knew we would find this in Griffen Bay. When faced with impending doom, we find it’s important to keep the short term goal clearly in the foreground of your thinking.

Feeling pretty smug, we chugged along at a right good clip and rounded the pass. The night was dark, though, if not stormy,  and it was fortunate we’d been in those waters before. We knew where to go. (And, of course, we had paper charts and a GPS).  The combination of smugness and fatigue, and being in a rush to beat the tide proved to be our undoing.  I tried to take the shortest route possible to get into the bay. (Hey, I was tired and getting cranky. I wanted my bed.)  I chose a course that sent us right through an uncharted garden of huge bull kelp. And the night was too dark to see it until we were upon it. My smugness vanished. (B)

Now, kelp is lovely. It flows so gracefully in the water. It provides food and protection for critters. But it eats sailboats alive. We were well and truly stuck in the kelp just north of Goose Island (an island no one could ever miss because if you can’t see it you can surely smell it). Mike was unable to use the Honda to push us through because the kelp would wrap around the little prop and pull it right off. The only thing was to try to kedge ourselves out of the situation. Out came the extra anchor, the one Mike almost didn’t bring because we ‘probably wouldn’t need it’. By this time it was midnight. Nothing I enjoy more than being stuck in kelp with no engine on a moonless night downwind of Goose Island. It’s more fun that you can shake a stick at.

I attached the line to a winch on Moonrise and Mike rowed the anchor out past the kelp. I winched Moonrise toward the anchor and we made a little progress. We repeated this dance a couple of times, which takes much, much longer to do than it does to write. By the 4th time it was clear the the tide was turning and Moonrise was being pulled backwards into the kelp again. This would have been pretty discouraging, but soon we realized that if we just waited, we’d be free of the kelp with the help of the sea and we could go on our way around the corner to our safe harbor. And this came to pass. Victory was ours against the massive kelp. I’d like to post photos of this part of the story, but it was dark, and besides, Mike gets pissed off when I start taking photos at tense moments. Even though I usually think to do it. Can I help it if multiple parts of my brain operate at once?

Thanks to the sturdy Puddler and our little Honda, we anchored at about 2:30 AM in Griffen Bay (C) in about 15 feet of water, close to shore. The night was fine. We were safe, Moonrise was safe, and the next day we’d carry on to Friday Harbor where we would find services. I cooked a hot dinner and we went to bed.  I had a ridiculously good night’s sleep. Mike, of course, did not. His mind was working the problem all night.

We awoke early to a lovely day, fair winds, and a big Coast Guard boat anchored close by. Makes me wonder what we looked like on their radar as we waded through that kelp the night before.

Our Coasty neighbors. Who knows what nefarious they thought we were doing in that kelp?

Fresh wind gave us a great sail into Friday Harbor (E) where we were warmly welcomed by the good people at Friday Harbor Marine. They offered us a slip and talked to Mike about a possible cheap fix to limp us home. You’ve got to love a business that could milk you for every dollar you have because you are at their mercy, but they don’t.  If you are going to be stranded someplace, you could do worse than Friday Harbor. I walked up the hill to buy a few things for dinner so I wouldn’t have to cook.

Mike thought he had a fix that would work, but as the day wore on I saw that he was getting more and more frustrated and discouraged, not to mention just plain tired. He started talking about maybe leaving the boat in Friday Harbor and us taking a ferry back to the mainland, then having to come back and get the boat. All I could think was how much that was going to cost us not only in actual dollars, but in time and hassle. And for such a simple problem. (And the story of the Ford Fairlane, stuck in a garage in Salt Lake City, came to mind once more…)

It’s hard to be stressed out about being stranded in Friday Harbor. That sailboat in the middle of the photo belongs to our new diesel mechanic friend. He lives on it. Sweet!

Let me just say that at this point the only thing making this a stressful situation was the issue of time. There it is again! If Mike hadn’t been pushed for time, this would have been nothing more than an inconvenience. We could have hung out at the dock in Friday Harbor, had the thing rebuilt, enjoyed our time there, and been on our way. Life would have been interesting, but not stressful. And my husband would have had a good night’s sleep.

I thought having a fresh set of eyes looking at the problem would be worth the cost at this point. I just did not want to leave Moonrise behind. It felt somehow wrong.  Fortunately our new friends at Friday Harbor Marine knew just the guy. Brent Huntington is one awesome diesel mechanic, and a pretty nice guy as well. Plus, he is a sailor. Within 1/2 an hour he and Mike had worked out the solution to the problem. (And he told us about his other gig as a captain for Sailfast Adventures. What a life!)

Sometimes it pays to have someone else to scratch heads with.

Trusty Westerbeke once more full of life, we headed back to Cattle Pass to cross the strait. It was already late in the day and we had at least 30 miles to go. But the day got REALLY interesting when we approached the pass. The tide was going out, but a gusty 20 knot wind was against it creating the huge haystack waves for which this pass is famous. And they come from multiple directions.  Again, time is the greatest enemy in the world when you are sailing. We couldn’t wait so off we went, knowing we’d just have to gut that part out and that as soon as we were out of the pass the wind would be on our starboard beam and we’d have a great sail across the pass. (G)

And this was true. What was also true was that the wind picked up to about 25 knots and the waves were, in a word, big. They positively roared. They were directly on the starboard beam.  And once again, we were crossing the strait at night. What is it with our karma that we’ve crossed this thing at night so many times? You cannot be complacent with waves like we had. You have to steer the whole time, working the waves to keep the boat on an even keel. I don’t mind being heeled over at 20 degrees, but I get a little annoyed when she lays over to 30 very often. We don’t really have the appropriate size sails for weather like this so keeping the boat balanced takes effort. Moonrise does have two reefs on the main, but still the main would have been too large with that weather, so we were sailing with only a very reefed jib and using the engine to keep the boat moving through waves and balanced. It was truly that dark and stormy night! We crossed in record time for us, sailing into Port Townsend at around 9:30.

I’d like to say that the day ended there with a nice quiet anchorage and a good night’s sleep, but that would be a lie. We went on to witness that sailboat on the rocks that same night. Still, it made for an interesting day/ night combo, and we learned, once more, that we can be resourceful. We learned how to use our extra anchor to kedge ourselves out of kelp. We learned to push our big boat with our little boat. More than that, we learned, once again, to rely on one another and to get out of a ‘situation’ and into safety.

Actually, now that I think about it, what we really learned is that we should move to the islands. That would solve all of these problems right away.

Cliche sunset shot.


10 thoughts on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation, An Essay

    • Wow! ‘Team Moonrise’. I like it. I think that needs to be on a shirt. Seriously. I never thought of that. Yes, we kicked serious kelp butt!

  1. I’ve been waiting for the story of your trip! Wow you guys encountered alot, lol. I’m glad you fixed it and everything turned out ok. Your GPS shows a depth of 325 feet. I can honestly say we’ve never been close to water that deep in Sundowner, geesh you weren’t kidding when you said No Anchoring!

    On the brightside cruising in the future might be a piece of cake compared to these thing and your marriage seems super strong:D It is motivation to me.

    • Yeah, the water is deep on that side of the island, all the way up to shore in some areas. That’s why the whales come there to feed. But it’s just like swimming: swimming is the same in shallow water or deep water. You do the same things. Except anchoring. You don’t do that! 🙂

    • Thanks! We were never in any serious danger, though. Just inconvenienced. But now we have an almost completely rebuilt engine because there isn’t much left to rebuild on it. So that’s all to the good.

  2. Woohoo!!! If your marriage survived that whole deal and there was peace between you when It was finally concluded you two are truly IN for the looooong hall!!! Those are the kinds of adventures (?) that make a marriage stronger. Bill and I had more than a few of those but on land….thank heavens! Suggest you two find a better route home in the future!

  3. Oh, sheesh, Betty! That was nothing. We’ve survived much worse than that. Remind me to tell you about Salt Lake City sometime. And that was BEFORE we were married.

  4. So… I know this is totally nit picking, but the nerd deep inside me just cannot rest without saying… On your comment about a diesel engine needed air, fuel, and spark…

    The beauty of diesels is that they don’t need a spark. Gasoline engines do, which is why they have “spark plugs”, but diesel engines only really need fuel and air to run. They have no ignition system beyond compression itself.

    The “spark” you needed was the electricity to turn the motor. Believe it or not, I’ve read an account of a sailor that lost a starter in the mid Atlantic and out of boredom and frustration rigged a line all the way up the boom and around the engine fly wheel. He got enough purchase to pull the line and start the motor without a “starter”. Pretty amazing things… diesel engines. Oh and you guys. =)

    • Well, my nerd husband and you would get along famously. Yes, the spark we needed had to do with the starting mechanism. For the record we tried various methods of getting the thing to start, including getting the boat going using Puddler and then throwing the thing into gear. Nada. Mike might have even made a comment about wishing we had one of those old fashioned kinds of engines that have the big wheel on the front that is meant to be cranked by hand. Great. Now you’ve given him another idea of a project to add to the boat – some kind of alternative starter in case we’re ever stuck in the middle of the Atlantic, or , in our case, the Pacific. What say you come on up and give him a hand? I’d LOVE to be around when the two of you get together. (Oh, and Cidnie’s Mark could come, too. I think he is the same breed.) Gee whiz, Tate, I sure do hope you can rest now! 🙂

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