A few years ago (about 8 now) I charted a 35’ Tartan for a week in April and took 5 girlfriends to the San Juan Islands. It would be my first time crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca without a flotilla of boats, and I was nervous. I was going to be responsible for 5 good friends and a boat for a week and I had only been sailing for 3 years. I handled this unease by meticulous planning. By meticulous, I mean I had a 9 page printed sail plan with two alternate destinations for each night depending on the weather, enlargements of entrances and anchorages, tides, currents, sunset and sunrise times. Some may consider that overboard, and admittedly I do now, but I wanted contingencies and I wasn’t taking any chances.
We left on a spring tide and rode the ebb north at a screaming pace. The goal was to get from Shilshole to Stuart Island on the first day. About half way across the Strait of Juan de Fuca (PUCA), a strong west wind started to blow and building waves on our beam started to make the skipper and crew a little green-faced. It also slowed us down and it was clear that an alternate destination was needed. One of my alternates for that day was MacKaye Harbor on the south end of Lopez Island, and we made a bee-line for it, anxious to get out of the wind and chop.
We tried to set an anchor several times, but only managed to harvest kelp. We were running out of daylight, tired, and seasick, so we decided to grab a mooring ball despite knowing that they were all private. We would beg forgiveness tomorrow and offer a fee.
Because of the spring tide, we were at a higher high tide that day. We approached the mooring ball, and grabbed it with a boat hook, but the ball was at the top of it’s available chain, and there was nothing left to pull. Both Megan and Micah grabbed the boat hook, but because of the wind I couldn’t keep the boat stopped, so rather than pulling the ring to us, the ring pulled the boat hook to it. That wasn’t on the sail plan.
We needed that hook and we also didn’t want to pay for it. We tried a couple of passes to pick it up, but the wind was still building and we weren’t able to grab it. Our brilliant spur of the moment plan was to put Micah in the dinghy and life-sling her around the mooring ball until she got close enough to retrieve it.
After getting both Micah and the boat hook back on board, seasickness, hunger and lethargy won and we finally landed on a private, seagull excrement encrusted, floating dock for the night. We decided we would gladly take whatever admonishment that was handed out when we were caught, and would plead for mercy. It was still pretty windy and rolly within the harbor, but we managed a nice dinner, had some libations, and celebrated two birthdays and a relatively successful first day. We also scooted away undetected the following morning, rested, and grateful.
The plan for day 2 had been Patos Island, so we headed that direction. In San Juan Channel a bald eagle dove just a few feet in front of us and snatched up his dinner. It was amazing to see but our steerage suffered a bit from eagle watching. We made it Patos with about an hour of sunlight to spare, but both mooring balls were taken. The guide book said that the anchoring wasn’t great, but we tried anyway. We can concur with the reported results. It was only day 2 and we had to make an alternate choice again. Since we didn’t have much light, Sucia Island was the best option, but it wasn’t in my 9 page sail plan! As someone else took the helm, I studied the chart and the cruising guide. We chose a mooring ball in Ewing Bay on the northeast side. It worked out, quite well.
More good food and drink was had, and the following day we enjoyed mimosas under the morning sun – it just couldn’t get any better. After a short hike on Sucia Island, we headed to Matia Island which WAS in the plan. We played in Boundary Pass for awhile, then arrived in time for dinghy diversions and a silent moment at sunset.
Only once more did we have to detour from the master plan and that’s when we decided that, despite our planning, the entrance to Fisherman’s Bay with 6′ of draft just wasn’t in our comfort zone so we anchored outside of Friday Harbor.
Ultimately, I am glad I made that crazy sail plan even though we only followed it half the time. Just the act of putting it together made me more familiar with my cruising ground, and I had become faster at deciphering the chart and tide tables. Each evening I would listen to the weather and pull out the chart and discuss with the crew which anchorages appeared safe under different weather conditions. Being flexible is one of the most important skills of being a good sailor, and for some of us, takes a lot of practice.