A couple of years after I began sailing, I charted a 35’ Tartan for a week in April and took 5 girlfriends to the San Juan Islands. Crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca without a flotilla of boats was a first for me, and I was nervous. 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. The alternates included exceptions for weather changes, distances, enlargements of entrances and anchorages, tides, currents, sunset and sunrise times. Sure, it was overboard cruise planning, but I wanted contingencies and I wasn’t taking any chances. Better to plan to much than not enough.
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 considerably 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. Daylight was waning, and the group was tired and seasick, so The group decision was to grab a mooring ball. They were all private but forgiveness could be begged tomorrow.
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.
Once Micah and the boat hook were back on board, tied up to an empty, private, seagull excrement encrusted, floating dock for the night. If admonished, we would all gladly pay a moorage fee. Despite the windy, rolly harbor, we managed a nice dinner, libations, and celebrated two birthdays and a relatively successful first day. We sailed away the following morning, rested and grateful.
The plan for day 2 was Patos Island, so we headed that direction. The weather was great. In San Juan Channel a bald eagle dove just a few feet in front of us and snatched up his dinner, startling and amazing us. When we arrived at Patos Island there was an hour of sunlight to spare, but both mooring balls were taken. We made a few attempts to anchor despite the guidebook’s hint that it was poor. They were correct. It was only day 2 and we had to make an alternate choice again. Daylight was fading and Sucia Island was the best option, although NOT in my 9 page sail plan! A mooring ball awaited us in Ewing Bay, the northwestern most bay. It worked out quite well.
Dinner and drinks, morning mimosas in the sun. What could be 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.
The last detour from the plan was opting away from Fisherman’s Bay and anchoring outside Friday Harbor instead. The narrow, shallow entrance, even at high tide, challenged my comfort level with 6′ of draft.
Ultimately, I am glad I made that crazy sail plan even though we only followed it half the time. Just the act of putting the plan together made me more familiar with my cruising ground. I became faster at deciphering the chart and tide tables. Each evening I listened to the weather, pulled out the charts and discussed which anchorages appeared safe under upcoming conditions. We all learned crucial cruising building blocks. Flexibility is one of the most important skills of being a good sailor, and for some of us, takes a lot of practice.