Suddenly Sailing: Living at Anchor

Suddenly Sailing: Living at Anchor

On November 29th at around 10 AM, we were scheduled for launch into the Duwamish River. The tide was high enough that the little walkway running alongside the boat ramp was mostly underwater. After straightening things out with the office, we climbed aboard on a ladder and they began backing the trailer in.

We started by checking all of the areas that might have leaks: namely, everything we had worked on. The thru-hulls and engine plumbing all looked perfectly secure and dry. So, we fired up the engine. It came to life without issue, but no water was coming out of the exhaust. We shut it off, checked a few things, and fired it up again.

There seemed to be a suction on the raw water strainer. We couldn’t pull the lid off and it wasn’t filling normally, sitting at about 2/3rds of its capacity. We decided to remove the impeller’s cover to see if it was working. After we fired up the engine a second time, the people working at the yard were getting impatient. It would be a waste of resources for their staff to stand around while we fiddled with our engine. During our time spent in the yard, we had seen a boat go in, fail to start up properly, and need to be pulled back out to be worked on for a few days.

They asked if we wanted to be pulled back out on the trailer or towed over to a slip. Since troubleshooting the cooling system out of the water would be problematic (exactly the reason we hadn’t tested it before going in), we decided to have them tow us around. They backed us the rest of the way into the water.

That’s when the suction on the raw water strainer cleared. It might have been messing with the impeller, or maybe it was just having the hull fully immersed up to the waterline. Either way, we fired up the engine one more time and water came out of the exhaust. The little tow boat backed off, and we were able to motor along on our way. Or rather, The Sir took the helm while I spent a few minutes down below reassembling the engine box.

It was a chilly and somewhat overcast day. We motored along down the river with sea lions and the occasional gull for company. The river’s banks are a harsh industrial landscape: huge barges loaded down with containers, heaps of scrap metal, and hefty tugs going about their business.

A riverbank with a small but crowded marina. It is dusk and Mount Rainier is visible in the background.
South Park Marina on the Duwamish River.

Eventually, we reached Elliott Bay. There was a nice north wind blowing, perfect for us to sail down to Blake Island on. That said, I wasn’t feeling entirely confident. It had been several months since we last sailed, and honestly, we’d hardly had the sails up in the last year anyway. Motoring up into the wind, instruments were reporting 12-16 knots of wind. I was convinced that once the sails were up, the wind would intensify and we’d need to reef the main. We had only reefed the main once before, and it was a skill that we needed more practice with. We eventually got the main more or less properly reefed and raised and began sailing toward Blake Island with 8-10 knots of wind, which never really picked up any more than that.

View of a large container ship off the starboard bow.

We made decent speed toward the island despite the reefed main, sailing along at about 4 knots. Even then, Blackthorn seemed to be sitting uncomfortably low in the water.  We checked the bilge more than once on our trip. Granted, we’d added 75 lbs of batteries, 40 lbs of paint, probably 100 lbs of food, and at least 100 lbs of wood to our stores, in addition to other odds and ends that I’m probably forgetting. It’s not an insignificant amount of weight. We’re probably due for a thorough auditing of our non-essential supplies, and some redistribution of weight away from the back of the boat to compensate for what we’ve taken on.

A more minor but frustrating discovery was that our speed sensor still wasn’t working. We cleaned the paddle wheel and gave it a fresh coat of paint, but once we went back in the water, it remained at an unhelpful zero knots. It’s still on our troubleshooting list.

We arrived near the south end of the island’s western mooring field near sunset and dropped anchor. This marked the beginning of our life on the water in earnest. We no longer have anywhere we really need to be and no dock waiting for us to tie up to in a marina somewhere. We just need to take good care of ourselves and Blackthorn and see where it takes us.

Blake Island

We’d anchored at Blake Island on the way to our haulout earlier in the year. It’s a relatively little-visited park, thanks to the fact that it’s only accessible by personal watercraft or Argosy tours to Tillicum Village. I didn’t realize that the tours stop running in the winter months, so we had the island almost entirely to ourselves.

A view from the boat's companionway. A seagull is perched on the radar dome, looking down.
The Blake Island welcoming committee.

We never filled our water tanks while in South Park Marina. I added about 8 gallons to our tanks before we headed out, but wasn’t keen on filling up with water that some of the residents had suggested was less than clean. After our first night on Blake Island, we swapped over to the 8 gallons that had been brought onboard.

So, water was something that we needed to stay on top of. We weren’t sure how long we’d be on the island or how quickly we’d go through what we had, but water was definitely available at the campground and marina on the opposite side from where we had anchored.

The weather was consistently unpleasant for the first several days. The temperatures were mostly in the 40s, occasionally breaking 50. The wind was relatively gentle, but blowing out of the south, which the island didn’t really shelter us from. The currents were what really got our attention, though. Some very strong currents would come through where we were anchored and pull the boat one way or the other, often during the middle of the night. The anchor held, it just wasn’t exactly a restful night’s sleep.

On a cloudy day, the solar panels output enough to offset our usage of the lights and “always on” systems like the fan for the composting head. If the sun breaks through for more than an hour or so, it produces enough surplus to charge up some of our electronics. Fun fact: This blog entry is mostly being typed on the iPad mini using a cheap bluetooth keyboard because it’s more power efficient than my computer. Of course, if the sun isn’t out and we need to use the computers, we can rely on the batteries, they just can’t sustain us for an extended time without a good charge. It’s reassuring to see that we can get by on our power setup in the dead of winter in a region that is notorious for gray days.

Heat turned out to be a larger issue than power. I had the misfortune of being born with Raynaud’s Syndrome. This means that either stress, exposure to cold, or both can cause blood flow to my extremities to abruptly stop. It takes time and warmth for me to get back to normal. This can happen even when I’m not that cold—a sudden change in temperature can trigger it. It was annoying even when I lived in an apartment. On a boat, it’s problematic. It’s not that my Raynaud’s is going to give me frostbite (although it certainly could contribute), it mostly just means that my fingers and moreso my toes, don’t end up getting as much consistent blood flow as someone without Raynaud’s would get. So, if something happens to my toe, its going to heal more slowly and be more susceptible to complications. Again, this isn’t a big problem on land, but a small problem on land can easily become a much larger problem on the boat. If one of us is incapacitated by some illness or disease, we may not be able to quickly get medical attention, and if it isn’t a dire emergency, it means that one of us has to single-hand the boat to a port.

Why the huge aside on toes? Shortly before we left Southpark, I’d developed a few minor toe problems from running lots of errands in my boots. A few days on a cold boat, and these became aggravated, making it painful to walk and generally putting me in a foul mood. Our little stove puts out a good amount of heat, but we also didn’t want to blast through our entire store of wood in the first month. We’d light a fire in the morning to remove the chill from the boat, and another in the afternoon once it had started to get cold again. When we’d wake up in the morning, it would be somewhere between 45°F and 50°F, and we’d get the boat up to 60°F or maybe a bit more after each fire.

It’s chillier than I’d like to be. Combine that with my feet acting up and I spent a fair number of mornings sulking in the bed, depressed. I’ve never really done well during the winter months to start with.

Ah yes, the glamorous boat life.

Shortly after our arrival at Blake, we put the dinghy down to fetch some water. There was a gap in the weather, with some nasty wind forecast for the next day. We rowed over to the west campsite, only to find the spigots taped off. We learned that they normally get turned off for the season in October or so. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it wasn’t a welcome discovery either. We took advantage of the weather window to row the rest of the way around the island and fill the two containers with about 10 gallons of water, enough to see us through for a while.

The campground and marina were both as pleasant as they were on our previous visits. The deer that reside on the island are docile and two young bucks were fencing each other, locking antlers about 40 feet from where we filled the water jugs. A park ranger came out to talk with us and let us know that the showers there were heated, and we could buy some tokens from the little ranger’s station nearby.

The Sir handled rowing the loaded-down dinghy back to the west campsite while I took a little nature walk and periodically cheered him on from shore. We were back to having a comfortable supply of water.

Another day or two later, after a nasty bit of weather had blown through, we decided to row in for a shower. When showers aren’t available, our washing arrangement is a small basin with a washcloth and a vacuum flask of hot water. It doesn’t exactly measure up to a traditional shower. Rowing to shore and walking across the island not only provides some exercise that we can’t easily get aboard Blackthorn—it’s also a gorgeous walk.

Blake Island’s West Campground
An overgrown dirt road through the woods.
One of the island's many heavily forested paths.

The threat of some nasty weather blowing in from the south eventually prompted our departure from Blake Island. Our next destination was Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, which we’d heard about numerous times during our stay in South Park.

The combination of short winter days and an absence of favorable winds meant motoring up to Eagle Harbor rather than sailing. After the Sir had finished his daily standup for the contract he was working, we pulled up the anchor and started heading north. Several chilly but otherwise pleasant hours later, we arrived at our destination, tucked back behind the Bainbridge Island ferry dock and ferry repair facilities.

Eagle Harbor

Eagle Harbor is a very well-protected anchorage with several private marinas, an open-water marina, and a city dock. We dropped anchor on the southern side of the harbor, just north of some private mooring balls, which gave us a nice view of the Seattle skyline, twinkling away to the east during the nights. The open-water marina consists of city-maintained mooring balls that can be rented much like a slip at a normal marina. You just can’t easily walk ashore. The city dock is large, pretty much brand-new, and cheap to use, although you can only use it for 48 hours during a week-long period. During the busy season, boats may also raft up to you if there isn’t enough room for them on the dock itself.

When we rowed into Eagle Harbor the morning after arriving from Blake, we were cold and very interested in warm showers. We had the good fortune of practically bumping into Bainbridge Island’s Harbormaster shortly after our arrival. She gave us a quick introduction to the facilities and also informed us that we had shown up just in time for Bainbridge Island Winter Wonderland. The park was bustling with volunteers decorating for the evening’s event.

At the end of the Bainbridge Island dock is a public bathroom with three large stalls and one key-code accessible shower. The shower is available to folks at anchor, and they only ask that you occasionally deposit some money in the dock’s pay box to help offset the hot water you use. The shower is a large tiled room with a fold-down bench, a coat hook, and a seat in the corner. There’s no curtain, so we found it easiest to pack everything we wanted to stay dry back into the backpack, or bring a bit of rope to hang all of our heavy winter clothes up on.

After freshening up, we headed over to the Pegasus Coffee House, a charming little shop that’s taken up residence in an old brick building. We spent a few hours enjoying delicious drinks and luxuriously unlimited power outlets before swinging by Bainbridge Island’s Town & Country Market to pick up a few necessities and treats. The grocery store was a bit pricier than what I’m used to in the area, but made up for that with an incredible selection. I would be a little surprised if I couldn’t find nearly every ingredient for butter chicken in that store. We shared some absolutely delicious mac and cheese from their hot deli before picking our way through the crowds that were already gathering for the evening’s events and rowing back out.

A parade of decorated boats, including one full of carolers, rolled into Eagle Harbor later that night. Entirely by chance, we’d received quite a spectacular welcome to the little community. We spent three weeks in Eagle Harbor, and while we were there, we used the city dock and ferry to visit our family in the Seattle area three times. Even during several nasty storms that blew through the region, we were relatively well-protected at anchor. Not to say that it didn’t get noisy and bumpy on the boat, but the conditions were much better than out in the rest of the sound. The town has several nice little coffee shops, loads of restaurants and shopping, and a generally nice, if somewhat intimidatingly wealthy atmosphere to it.

A night shot. There are several large boats lit with yellow lights creating reflections on the water.
The lighted boat parade, complete with carolers.

The wildlife was phenomenal. Eagle Harbor has a population of harbor seals that are far more curious and bold than any others we’ve encountered in Puget Sound. A group of three came over to inspect us shortly after we dropped anchor, and we’d often see them wandering around the bay during our time there. On more than one occasion, a seal would start following our dinghy as we rowed to and from the boat. There was a large population of cormorants that would squabble over private mooring balls, which they were using as their own personal islands, as well as the usual noisy great blue heron. Seagulls, of course, were present, but so was a large population of ducks I hadn’t seen before, the American Wigeon. They routinely make adorable squeaking sounds.

During our time in Eagle Harbor, both my mood and the weather turned pretty foul. Whatever I did to my toes continued to make it painful to walk: One developed a very large and unpleasant blister. The weather often consisted of bleak, gray days with wind and rain. Minimal solar output and a dying laptop battery that could only run an hour or two on a charge left me fairly limited in what I could get done on days that we didn’t row ashore.

The ferry trips to Seattle helped with making it through the month. We spent Christmas with family, then returned to Blackthorn and spent one more night in Eagle Harbor before continuing along to visit Poulsbo, the little town that originally inspired our transition to boat life.

A sailboat at anchor on a mostly clear day. The boat has a black hull with white topsides and round portholes. The mast is wooden and the sails/sailcovers are rust colored.

Thank you for taking the time to read through, and I hope you enjoyed sharing in our adventures! If you have any questions for me, or just want to hang out with some cool folks, feel free to hop on the Creaturista Discord server!