Sailing the San Juans (Learn-N-Cruise)
The following morning we set out for Lopez Island hoping to find a mooring buoy at Spencer Spit State Park. The weather improved significantly for our second day. Despite the improved conditions, we all dressed in layered long, windproof clothing as the wind moving across the water was downright chilly. We saw two oil tankers (we think) while passing Anacortes. They were huge and much wider than we had imagined. We also encountered the force of currents during full moon tidal swings on our second day out. It was incredible to witness how the water moved through large straights. Eddies and rivers of water seemed to fight with one another. Although it felt like the boat was moving significantly while on board, we came to realize the importance of observing one's position relative to land. In doing so, we discovered we were barely making headway under sail. Once we finally got past the unidirectional current and entered a more open body of water the sailing conditions improved dramatically and we enjoyed tacking, jibing, and experimenting with various points of sail before heading in to Spencer Spit for the night. Upon arriving at the Spit we decided to row the dinghy to shore to explore the spit (narrow strip of land) for a while. The spit was incredible with driftwood strewn all over it like toothpicks scattered by a giant's sneeze. We also saw various dead crabs, jellyfish, and vegetation. As is often the case on beaches in the PNW (Pacific Northwest), there was very little, if any, sand. Instead, the beach was covered with pebbles of various colors and composition, smoothed by a life in the intertidal zone. On the way back I volunteered to row. Considering how hungry we were I think this was a mistake. Rowing is more challenging than I thought it would be – especially with 5 people and lots of waves. Eventually I made forward progress despite feeling like a beginning skier with oars going every which way. That night was fairly wavy. In part this seemed a product of the ferries that regularly passed Frost Island, which was located about ½ mile from where we were moored.
The following morning we were introduced to the harbor seals' morning ritual: turning a somersault in the water near the surface and slapping their tail on the water very loudly after each rotation. We observed this behavior in various locations and it always happened early in the morning. What a way to start the day! It was amazing how loudly their tails slapped the water.
After Lopez Island and Spencer Spit we headed to Friday Harbor to take showers, empty the holding tank and eat out. The Straight of Juan de Fuca had swells that were significantly larger than we'd seen in the more sheltered areas we had explored in the first few days. It was beautiful, though, and felt wide open. We arrived at Friday Harbor earlier than we had arrived at our first two locations and enjoyed taking showers with quarters in the marina. It's great how trips like this encourage you to appreciate the little things in life that we so often take for granted. In addition to showering, Brian and I bought ice cream before and after dinner and took a walk around town. Friday Harbor was more quaint than I had expected (considering the number of ferries that deliver visitors and residents to the islands each day). During dinner I was surprised to see a grocery semi truck drive onto the ferry. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised about this. How else would islanders get their groceries? However, I hadn't realized ferries would or could take such heavy vehicles aboard. In the morning we had our holding tank emptied by Pumpty Dumpty – the marina's lone poop pumper. Again, we were reminded of the little things in life and how we are so accustomed to not thinking about them and taking the conveniences of modern life for granted. I bet the Pumpty Dumpty employees think differently about each flush than most people.
After a great evening at Friday Harbor we took off for Stuart Island, heading South towards the Straight of Juan de Fuca. Fighting the currents coming out into the Straight was an incredible experience. It took us 90 minutes to travel approximately 400 yards!! Later during the trip we met someone with a smaller sailboat (and a less powerful motor). He had tried going against similar currents and had been unable to make progress. Ultimately, the currents pushed him back into the open water from which he had come and he had to change course. While we were struggling to get around Cattle Point on San Juan Island we saw a sea lion. Initially we thought it was a harbor seal, as they had become one of the icons of our trip as we saw them everywhere. However, after the sea lion raised his head out of the water we realized he was MUCH too large to be a seal. Swimming near the surface, the sea lion's body stretched almost 10 feet long and looked a force to be reckoned with.
Once we had cleared Cattle Point, we found ourselves in an extremely calm Straight of Juan de Fuca. The day was clear allowing us to see Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and grand views of the Olympic Peninsula and Mt. Olympus. Although we raised the sails for a bit, we motored most of the way to Stuart Island. Upon arriving and anchoring we took the dinghy to shore for a beautiful walk past an old school house, which formerly had about 10 students in attendance. The school had closed a few years ago. We also passed a private airstrip on our way to the lighthouse across the island. The airstrip was much more primitive than I imagined possible for landing a plane and caused me to picture myself someplace in Africa or Central America. It was no more than a gently slopped, fairly level grassy field. The plane that was parked near the airstrip was a two-seater that looked 20 years old. Despite the outdated aeronautical technology, the view from the airstrip was incredible: Mt. Baker peered over a traditional red farmhouse backed by the water and surrounded by a few trees and some grazing cattle. Based on the houses we saw (which were few and far between) life on Stuart seemed much less American than San Juan or Orcas islands. Remnants of simpler times seemed to characterize Stuart. The view from the lighthouse on the opposite side of the island was well worth the walk: the conglomerate cliffs as well as the sunlit water with islands in the background were stunning. Brian and I cooked dinner when we returned to the boat.
The following morning we practiced anchoring and mooring. In addition we pumped out our holding tank by hand (rather than having Pumpty Dumpty workers come to our boat and pump us out). This time there was a floating dock for pumping out holding tanks. The pilings to which the dock was attached were completely covered in huge sea anemones. These organisms had also been abundant in the Friday Harbor marina. Hmmm. We concluded that sea anemones had interesting diets in light of the location of their densely populated communities. After leaving the bay, we sailed a bit in the Straight of Juan de Fuca before motoring to Jones Island for the night. The winds were rather calm and sailing only lasted a few minutes. While attempting to sail, however, we did see a very curious barge – much different than those we were familiar with from the Mississippi River. These barges were composed of two parts: a tug boat pulling a huge, floating metal container. The tug was approximately 100 yards from the load it was pulling. We were curious what the tan colored heaping pile in the floating container was. Through the binoculars it appeared to be wood chips.
Once we arrived at Jones Island we again took the dinghy to shore for a great walk. Jones was a tiny island, designated as a state park. It felt freeing to arrive someplace where one could not arrive by car or ferry, although many arrived by very large powerboat. The pebbly beaches were what stood out to me about Jones. In addition, a huge windstorm had taken out many of the trees on Jones in 1990, most of which were still visible and fairly intact. I collected many smooth, colorful rocks both that evening and the following morning when Brian and I went to shore alone. Looking out into the less protected open water beyond the bay we realized it was very windy. We spent much of the morning playing in the wind and even had to reef in the sails because the wind was so strong. Around 1:00 our instructor gave us the 3rd test while we motored towards Sucia Island, our final stop along the trip. Upon finishing our tests, we ventured out into the windy and wavy Straight of Georgia for some final sailing before heading into Sucia. We attached ourselves to the mooring system in the unsheltered Echo Bay. We wondered why all the other boats had decided to anchor as opposed to using the mooring system but discovered an answer for ourselves that evening. Because we were held fairly still by the mooring system, the waves bounced loudly off the stern of the boat. We joked with Emily and Ryan that their berth sounded like being inside a guitar or inside a stomach that was digesting something. We didn't make it to land that evening since we arrived so late, but got up early in the morning to walk around Sucia a bit. We felt rude turning on our motor on the dinghy so early and feared we were waking everyone else up. However, the harbor seals were already turning somersaults and slapping the water with their tails prior to turning on the motor which made us feel a little better. Sucia's geology was fascinating. There was a large amount of sandstone that had been beautifully weathered into caves, little pockets, and smooth bulges. We had relatively little time to explore that morning, but we would definitely like to return. When we got back to the boat Emily and Ryan checked the crab trap they had set and we found 2 Dungeness crabs, one male and one female (we couldn't identify which was which). We examined them closely for a while before throwing them back. After eating a leftover style breakfast we motored back to Bellingham Bay. It was damp, cool, and windy just like the day we began. Once in the bay, we put up our sails for a bit, but the wind was fairly calm and we ended up bringing them down fairly quickly.
We had a wonderful time and immensely enjoyed exploring a tiny bit of what the San Juans and sailing have to offer.
-- Molly & Brian Lawrence