Suddenly Sailing: Twenty Days on the Water
A Side Note
This March, The Sir and I got married. For readability, I’ll be referring to The Sir’s aunt and uncle as though they were my own.
Getting to Going
The season had been off to a slow start for us. We wanted to get out and about and start exploring Puget Sound on Blackthorn, but at the same time, there was no real impetus to go. And of course, there’s an endless list of little things to do and take care of on a boat. Sometime in May, we decided to open up the floorboards and inspect part of the bilge, looking for rust spots. This turned into a multi-week project of grinding, priming, sanding, painting, and so on. We made mistakes, fixed our mistakes, and learned a lot by the time it was all said and done. I also had a fair amount of work to keep up with, and we quite randomly won a trip to a video game expo in the middle of it all, as well. We were keeping quite busy, and none of it involved sailing.
While out with our aunt and uncle, who originally piqued our interest in the boat-life, they invited us to come along with them for part of a trip. We figured it would be as good a time as any to get out a bit, and agreed to tag along as much as we could. The next week or so was spent scrambling to wrap up as many of the maintenance tasks as we could, and on the 23rd of June, we set out, with The Sir’s brother, Zeke, as additional crew.
To Blake Island
Our first destination was Blake Island, a small state park that is only accessible by boat. It’s a few knots (nautical miles) from our home port and covered with hiking trails. It also has some campgrounds, and along the shores are several mooring ball and places to anchor. I’d been to the island on a few occasions, but always as a passenger on other boats. We set out around 11 AM on Friday, motoring through Port Orchard and then Rich Passage. The wind was dead, but we needed to make it to Blake Island regardless, hopefully with time to pick up a mooring buoy and meet up with our traveling companions. We noticed a minor malfunction in our equipment as we headed out: our sensor for the boat’s speed wasn’t reporting. The device is basically a little paddle-wheel on the bottom of the boat that allows you to tell how fast you’re moving in relation to the water around you. We could track our speed over land via the GPS, so we figured we’d continue on and see if whatever was blocking it might be knocked off while we were underway.
This was our first real experience with currents. Due to a very strong current that rips through our marina, we have to time our departures at slack. Just a few weeks prior to our departure, we’d watched as a large boat was mercilessly driven into the dock and then the breakwater of our marina by the current catching its keel. Thankfully, no one was injured, and the boat suffered mostly cosmetic damage. The entire experience was eye opening, to say the least. And so, we left at perfect slack. When we reached Rich Passage, we hit a strong flood current going the opposite way and plodded along at a putzy one knot until we finally got through.
As we neared Blake Island, the wind began to pick up. We hoisted our sails, killed the diesel, and sailed along at about 5 knots down to the south tip of the island, where our aunt and uncle had spotted an open mooring buoy. Dropping the sails turned into a bit of a production, between some shallows off the southern tip of the island and the wind changing direction as it neared the tip. Eventually, though, we had the sails stowed and motored up to a mooring ball. I’d like to say that I snagged the ball flawlessly and had us tied on in moments, but what actually happened is much more entertaining and embarrassing.
For the uninitiated, a mooring ball is a hefty chain with a ring in it that is kept at the water’s surface by a float. The chain is then anchored to the bottom. It’s basically an anchor that you can just tie on to. Perfect for The Sir and I, who had only dropped anchor a handful of times.
I went forward with Zeke while The Sir did his best to approach the ball at a speed fast enough to overcome any current, but slow enough to allow me to snag the ring with a boat hook and tie on while not running over the ball. The first approach was a bit fast. I snagged the hook on and pulled while letting Zack know to slow us down and kick it in reverse. I had one of those moments where I should have known better, but decided I could deal with the ball as the boat began to overrun it. The result was me staggering down the deck a ways, death-grip engaged on the boat hook, which was fully extended at this point. Mercifully, the hook’s plastic end had enough give for the hook to pop off the ring without breaking it or ripping the hook out of my hand. Our next go around was much slower, and much more successful.
As much as I like to joke about the stupid nicks and knocks and other incidents that occur while boating, it’s worth noting that it is extremely easy to be seriously injured by or on a boat. With the forces at work, it wouldn’t take much to have an extremity crushed or removed, or to suffer a serious blow. Should you find yourself on or around boats, beware of placing yourself between the boat and other heavy objects (such as docks or other boats). Likewise, be aware of where ropes are in relation to you and think about how they might move if they were suddenly put under a lot of tension. As contrived as it looks in the movies when someone is jerked around by a rope getting wrapped around their foot, it’s surprisingly easy for it to actually happen when there’s enough rope on deck.
Bonks in the Night and Seeing the Bottom
The buoys off the south of Blake Island gave us a view of a pebbly beach which gradually transformed into a buffer of vertical, eroding earth and then gave way to dense pine forests. The peculiarly un-majestic calls of bald eagles could be heard from time to time, and a small regiment of raccoons trundled along the water’s edge, foraging for tidbits between the rocks. We settled into this little paradise, alone aside from another boat on a buoy a few hundred feet away, and ferried over to our aunt and uncle’s boat aboard their dinghy. We had a lovely dinner of pasta with lamb aboard their powerboat before we ferried back and tucked in for the night
When we’d come in, there was a decent current running. This keeps the boat in a nice little line behind the mooring ball’s float. We quickly discovered that as the current ebbed or the wind picked up, the mooring ball’s empty plastic float would loudly bonk into the Blackthorn’s steel hull. There are few better ways to get a piss-poor night’s sleep than loud, unpredictable bonks a few feet from your head in a strange moorage (- don’t worry, I’ll get to a few of those even better ways before too long). We got a not entirely restful night’s sleep, despite the occasional bonking.
The next day, The Sir decided to see if he could get a clear look at the non-functioning speed sensor on the underside of the boat. However, between the frigid water and ripping current that was running that morning, the endeavor was entirely unsuccessful. A hefty wet( or dry)suit is now on our shopping list. Failed diving attempts out of the way, we mosied over to the mooring balls on the island’s west side so that we could be closer to our trip aunt and uncle’s boat. At dinner the night before, they had commented on how the tides were low and the depth of the water near their boat had appeared nerve-wrackingly shallow, but ultimately not been an issue. We picked up a buoy near them on that side. When the tide rolled out, the excitement began.
Of course, the wind was being inconstant. So, the boat would swing around in a circle, dragging the mooring ball around with it whenever the wind changed. And of course, it would pick up and swing us toward the shore not once, but twice while the tide was at its lowest (somewhere around 3 feet below the recorded low-tide readings). Zeke hauled us a little closer to the mooring ball while I held the tiller over hard to keep the rudder from dragging through the mud and potentially smacking into rocks. You probably could have jumped from the boom gallows to shore without getting wet at that point. For the next hour or so, we anxiously watched the bottom and shore while the tide rushed back in. Thankfully, we’d be on our way again before the next low tide came.
During the afternoon, The Sir and his uncle puzzled together how to get our dinghy’s sailing rig up and running while I worked below decks and answered occasional inquiries. They did get it up and going and puttered around under the light winds that were blowing that afternoon. I made some variety of lentils with squash that evening, if I recall correctly, and we hoisted our dinghy, May, back on deck so that we would be ready to depart the next day.
(Or, what's that beeping sound?)
Our next destination was Gig Harbor. We’d never visited the small town in south Puget Sound by land or sea, and weren’t entirely sure what to expect, but we’d heard it was quite the boating destination. There are two routes to Gig Harbor – south down Colvos Passage, where the current always runs north in varying strengths, and the longer route off to the east. With the wind dead and motoring inevitable, we opted for timing our journey so that we could take advantage of when the Colvos current would be at its weakest.
We motored over near the mouth of the passage, The Sir at the helm, keeping our eyes out for the ferry that crosses the area. The water on the approach was choppy and the surface had patches of green growth that we did our best to avoid. We had the engine running around 15-hundred RPMs and then brought it up a bit higher, giving us around 4 knots of speed. It was shortly after that that the beeping began. I was further up on deck when it started. It wasn’t a familiar sound to any of us, but as soon as I popped my head through the companionway, the source was obvious: our engine was overheating. We quickly stopped the engine.
It’s not a fun feeling to be on a sailboat on a wind-dead day with your only means of propulsion overheated in an area where there are strong currents and ferry traffic. Not a fun feeling at all. The Sir stayed topside while I had Zeke come down to help me figure out what was going on. Someone called our aunt and uncle to let them know we’d run into an issue and were trying to resolve it. Their boat idled a few hundred feet from us as we began our investigation.
We moved the companionway stairs aside and popped the wooden cover off of the engine to let it cool down. I’m fairly sure we already had the blower on at the time. I’m not a mechanic, and I still need to take a diesel engine course for maintenance, but I at least knew that our engine relied on raw seawater pumped through a heat exchanger for cooling. Our problem most likely had to do with the supply of raw water, although we’d also topped off the fresh-water coolant prior to departure, which couldn’t be checked while the engine was hot. I started by looking at the raw-water strainer, which has a transparent plastic lid. There was nothing trapped in it, but the water level was low, as though there was a suction somewhere. We pondered our options at this point. We had an impeller cover on the water pump designed for quick removal – quick being a relative term, when you still have to unscrew and remove one of the sides of the engine box to access it. With the suction being at the strainer, it seemed unlikely that the impeller, which was further down the line, had caused the problem. With the engine still in the process of cooling down, we were limited in what we could do at the moment. I pulled the engine’s manual off the shelf and quickly ran through the trouble-shooting section. There was nothing that seemed to apply in the list of possible causes. After a short discussion and verifying that the engine had cooled back down to a safe temperature, we fired it back up.
The engine started up without issue, with water coming out of the exhaust and water-lock, as it should. Over the next few hours, we checked the exhaust religiously as we made our way south towards Gig Harbor. We put up the stays’l to catch the slight breeze that picked up from time to time, but the impact was minimal. After several hours of motoring and dodging clumps of growth, floating debris, and a surprisingly large number of Mylar balloons, we left the passage and approached Gig Harbor, which was visible only as a clump of houses that disappeared behind a heavily treed slope from our position a few knots away. On the trip through Colvos Passage, a number of powerboats had passed us, some staying a polite distance away and slowing as they passed, while others elected to motor quickly past us close enough to examine Blackthorn and leave us rocking heavily in their wake. As we neared Gig Harbor, it became apparent where most of these boats had been headed. There was a steady stream of watercraft, mostly large powerboats, coming and going from the tiny cleft that we were approaching. It was easily the busiest water we’d traversed to date, not that that’s saying a whole lot.
Our aunt and uncle had arrived a few hours ahead of us and kept us posted on the moorage situation. I prepped our docklines and fenders while The Sir and Zeke traversed the narrow channel around the point and into a peaceful harbor that was completely infested with boats, dinghies, paddleboarders, and kayakers. The traffic coming and going was a clue, but the water was uncomfortably crowded with boats. To our right were numerous boats at anchor, and to our left was aisle after aisle of docks and slips. We motored in at a crawl and with some help from shore, guided Blackthorn into a slip next to Majestic, our aunt and uncle’s generously sized 380 Sundancer.
The marina, Arabella’s Landing, had lovely accommodations, including huge tiled showers and cheap laundry. After days of not bathing and broiling temperatures – for Seattle, at least – it was nice to settle in, shower, and just take in the little town. A harbor seal popped its head up to say hello right near the dock within a few minutes of tying off our lines. I’m not superstitious, but I am always happy to see their charming and curious faces after arriving in a new place.
We spent two nights in the little town, with Zeke heading back home at this point to take care of some things. Most of the shops in Gig Harbor were for furniture and clothes that would have been entirely pointless for us, but there was a cute general store near the docks, a raucous restaurant where alcohol was flowing in excess, and an absolutely wonderful used book store. Someone has compiled a book of coffee shops in Puget Sound, accompanied by artwork, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll be gifting myself the kindle edition before too long. I also wanted to scope out the Seven Seas Brewery Taproom while we were there, but sadly, couldn’t find the time. I have no doubt that we’ll be making our way back before too long. Waterfront aside, there’s a bus that runs frequently (and cheaply) over to a major shopping center. Before we departed, I stocked up on the essentials – bread, peanut butter, Triscuits, chocolate, some veggies, and a six-pack of beer.
Our next destination was Penrose Point State Park – It would be another solid day of motoring, down south through the Tacoma Narrows, and then past Fox Island and up into Carr Inlet. The wind was mild, but blowing the right direction at least. We left Gig Harbor a bit before noon to make our checkout time and had a few hours to kill before the current would begin to die down in the narrows. So, we threw up some sails and idled with the wind up the edge of the narrows before the current caught us and scooted us back the way we’d come. And then we repeated this until the current finally let up enough for us to start making progress. We fired up the engine and motor-sailed most of the way. Shortly after the bridge, we encountered a pack of baby seals. Not swimming together, but every 100 yards or so would be a mother seal and its pup, bobbling along in the water. They would come within 50 feet or so of the boat, not seeming to mind us a bit. About this time, the current was running stronger in our favor, adding two and a half knots to our overall speed. We passed into Carr Inlet, and rather than seals, we were accompanied by harbor porpoises. Several pods popped up in ones and twos as we crossed a wide expanse of water with pine trees creeping right down to the shore. Here in particular, I got the distinct impression that we were on a massive lake, rather than in a stretch of salt water that reached all the way out to the pacific.
Some Peace and Quiet
Penrose Point is a state park with a campground, dinghy dock, and a handful of mooring buoys on either side of the point. Parallel to the point is a long spit of hard-packed mud that is exposed at low tide. We tied up on a buoy and relaxed. I took turns between keeping on top of some work and enjoying the lovely surroundings. Near the campground is a diner that also offers a handful of souvenirs and sundries (and little more than a handful).The building is from a time that has since passed, all sturdy beams and bright white paint with blue trim. There’s a counter where you can sit on the swiveling seats and enjoy an ice cream, and a little alcove with large, fixed picture windows overlooking the bay. The warm air carried a glow of nostalgia.
We tagged along for a trip to the diner and a walk along the spit at low tide over the next few days. The beach was teaming with tidal life – crabs, sand dollars, mussels, geoducks, anemones, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others. Most memorable were the hundreds and hundreds of crabs no larger than ants that would go scuttling every which way when you took a step or moved a rock.
Most of all, our time there was peaceful. The boat traffic was minimal, the buoy was deep enough that we didn’t need to worry, and the weather was warm and winds mild. However, our aunt and uncle needed to move. They had a meeting come up with relatively little notice in Tacoma. So, after just a few days, we were on the move again.
The trip to Tacoma was a bit of a slog, but we made good enough time. As we came back up through the narrows, we encountered far more floating debris than we had on the way down. The sun was beating down and the wind was dead. Tacoma was a confusing cluster of waterfront outcroppings, and we slowly made our way through the busy waterway (this was the weekend before July 4th), and moored out at the edge of the waterway on a side tie at Dock Street Marina.
And a Change of Pace
We’d stay in Tacoma until the 5th of July. Compared to Penrose Point, Tacoma was noisy, dirty, crowded, and industrial. But not in an uncharming way. The Tacoma Glass Museum was right next door, and while I didn’t visit during our stay, I had been once before. There’s a large pedestrian bridge next to the marina which has a number of pieces on display.There were numerous restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and so on within a short walk. Groceries and the Proctor Farmer’s Market require a bus unless you’re feeling particularly ambitious.
While we were in Tacoma, I had a nasty anxiety and stress induced blowout. It was over something simple and not particularly important, but it left me feeling mostly unsociable for the bulk of our time there. This was made even better by our impressive failure at filling our diesel tank. Long story short, our boat has two diesel fill ports, and we picked the wrong one. We avoided getting any in the water, but managed to spill some into our quarter-berth, and I now know what diesel tastes like. Drama and diesel difficulties aside, I did get to visit the very excellent Valhalla Coffee Co. that is located in the same building as yet another Seven Seas Taproom. We also discovered on this occasion that thanks to the holiday, remodels, and every other inconvenient one-off reason imaginable, the only bars open after about 10 PM were those jammed full of university students playing beer pong.
Tacoma allegedly has one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the region, if you’re into that sort of thing. It is not visible from the marina where we were staying, and the city’s entire transit system was running on a wonky schedule for the 4th, with shuttle buses to the event having an 8 PM cutoff and then not running again until after the show had finished. The Sir, Zeke – who had rejoined us just for the holiday – and I opted for staying in, watching Venture Bros., and eating some Chewy Chips Ahoy for the evening, which suited us just fine.
Return to Blake Island and Northward
The next day, we headed northwest. The wind was actually blowing gently out of the north, and we could put up some sails. It was fidgety and died on us entirely before we reached the mouth of the passage, but we motored along and found that the wind was going at a gentle but steady 5-8 knots. So, we killed the engine and sailed for an hour or two, tacking back and forth up the passage. It was tiring in the narrow passage, but nice to actually be putting the sails to work for a change. This time, we moored on the east side of Blake Island. The east side of the island is not particularly sheltered and gets a lot of traffic from the shipping lanes. It was not a peaceful night, between the bonking of the mooring ball and the restless rocking of our boat. The next morning, we crept back over to the west side and secured ourselves after confirming that the tides would not go too low.
We went ashore with our uncle for a bit of hiking around the island. Enormous mossy pines grew thick enough to create a canopy overhead. The trails varied from steep and muddy to well-manicured with little benches. As we entered an area where the undergrowth was low and lush, we could hear an owl, somewhere just out of sight. We did encounter a few fellow hikers, but overall it was quiet and felt isolated.
The next day, we left before noon and raised the sails. The wind was up out of the south. We’d be traveling to Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay, and our route took us sailing around the outside of Bainbridge Island, then down through Agate Passage and past Keyport. It was the longest day of sailing we’d done to date, mostly through high traffic shipping lanes. The plan was to sail up to Liberty Bay and try our hand at anchoring. The wind was very consistent at 12+ knots, only fluctuating as we neared landmasses. The sailing was fast and rewarding, if a bit nerve-wracking. We did a series of tacks rather than jibing at first, not entirely confident at this point. We passed fairly close to Seattle and Elliott Bay, hardly noticing the city backdrop as we focused on our position and shifting the sheets and sails. We crossed back over the channel and then rode the edge of it, heading north and jibing back and forth until we reached the Port Madison, a large bay where the wind picked up a fair amount. We dropped the sails, not entirely smoothly, and tidied up as we motored the remaining few miles through the narrow Agate Passage and over to Liberty Bay.
Liberty Bay is like a more subdued, approachable Gig Harbor, with distinctive Scandinavian undertones. The main street through town has a bakery with a hundred-year history and a little general store with overwhelming varieties of licorice and beer. However, our immediate concern as we approached Liberty Bay was our non-functional windlass. A windlass is a hefty motorized winch that raises and lowers the anchor, and ours was doing absolutely nothing, even though the circuit’s breaker was closed. I figured out how to operate the device manually, but we decided to grab a slip for the evening and see if we could sort the piece of machinery out, rather than have our first anchoring involve hauling massive lengths of chain with a single-action lever. The marina breakwater was crowded with harbor seals as we approached, including numerous pairs of mothers with their pups.
Poulsbo’s marina has much narrower aisles between the docks than ours, and the wind wasn’t particularly strong, but it was spontaneous. Fortunately, our aunt, uncle, and a helpful bystander all lent us a hand with guiding Blackthorn into her slip for the evening. We poked around Poulsbo quickly, as it was nearing 5 PM and most of the shops were set to close soon. The Slippery Pig Brewery had a nice happy hour menu, including tasty Reuben sliders and a delicious “Hog Thai’d” pumpkin-curry ale that I’d be happy to drink again.
When we got back to the boat, I set to troubleshooting our windlass. Boat wiring is almost universally a giant pain in the ass. Wires get snaked through walls, behind bins, under furniture, you name it. Things aren’t always labeled or consistent, and pretty much every boat is unique. Vibrations from the engine chew through wires if they aren’t carefully guarded against chafe. Blackthorn isn’t particularly bad – we have diagrams and much of the wiring is labeled. That said, I’m no electrician. I decided to start by just making sure that a fuse or terminal hadn’t vibrated loose. Fortunately for me, the problem was an obvious one and a byproduct of my own neglect. After replacing our starter battery a month or so ago, I had missed the black wire that connects the windlass directly to the battery. I had tucked it back out of the way under the chart table. The entire system was without power, and it whirred to life without issue once it was reconnected.
During our brief stay in the marina, we also had an inspirational eccentric of a man dinghy up to shore to come take a look at Blackthorn. He was wearing a punny pirate shirt with a jolly roger, a bushy beard, and an impressively functional leather tricorne hat. His boat was a beautiful white Lord Nelson 35 with black stripes that he’d bought six years ago, and he’d spent the larger part of the last year living at anchor as he sailed from place to place in Puget Sound. He had a wealth of information and boating anecdotes to share, and was just genuinely curious about Blackthorn’s unique appearance. Beyond practical knowledge, he was passionate about maritime history and how things had been done in times past. His love of sailing was readily apparent, and he was working his way up to cruising to more remote locations. We chatted with him for a while, and in the end, he encouraged us not to be strangers and to just aggressively keep learning.
The next day, we motored out and dropped anchor in Liberty Bay. There are entire books written on anchoring. The Sir has read one of these, and I have not. It sounds very simple – you drop a weight to the bottom and that just holds the boat in place, right? That is generally the idea, but in reality, you’re taking a chain and sticking it on a 50 pound weight and trusting it to hold a 20,000 pound object in place, while you’re sleeping, the wind is changing, and the tides and currents are moving as well. You really, really, don’t want to screw it up. Even if you’ve set your alarm to detect the boat drifting, you don’t want to try and reset the anchor in the middle of the night, or better yet, to discover that your boat has started wandering off while you’re ashore.
As I said, I haven’t read the book yet, but apparently, the key is to keep the line between the boat and the anchor mostly horizontal. This means that you need to let out enough chain so that even at high tide, you’ll keep a low angle between the boat, the bottom, and the anchor. Of course, the more chain you let out, the larger the circle your boat swings around in as the wind blows. If it’s a nice anchorage, chances are you won’t be the only boat around, and you really don’t want to knock into someone else at anchor. So, there’s a bit of simple math that has to happen when you pick a place to anchor. We decided on an appropriate amount of chain, and I wrangled the anchor around our bobstay, then watched the chain go out, keeping an eye out for the markers that indicate 10 meters, 20 meters, and so on. Once the anchor hit the bottom, The Sir started backing away from it as more chain was fed out. Then we backed a bit more and sat their anxiously, eyes glued to the GPS.
We didn’t set the anchor watch until after we’d backed away from our drop point. This was a stupid mistake, and we knew better, but we’d had our hands a bit full with dropping the thing for the first time on our own. So we played a guessing game on where we thought the anchor really was. We dropped the dinghy, rowed out to our best guess and set the anchor watch from there with the portable GPS. The GPS’s battery died in the night as it sat next to our bed. But, really it didn’t matter, because we were waking up every hour or so to make sure we hadn’t started dragging towards one of the dozen or more boats anchored in our vicinity.
The next day, I installed a free app called SailSafe and fiddled with it until it seemed to have a good read on our location. It worked perfectly, except for when my cheap phone’s GPS would drop out. This only seemed to happen while I was using the phone or we had the boat’s wifi on, so it wasn’t particularly problematic. So, we had our boat anchored, and my phone set to call The Sir’s phone if the boat seemed to be wandering off. Now, we could row ashore and enjoy Poulsbo a bit.
The next few days were spent enjoying peace and quiet at the anchor, rowing near the seals without upsetting them, sipping delicious lattes from the Poulsbohemian, and browsing the used boat bits and bobs at Longship Marine when I wasn’t working. In the evenings, we were relaxing under a brilliant full moon and watching the tiny bio-luminescent critters light up whenever the water was disturbed. However, we’d accumulated a small pile of to-dos that would be best handled on the dock, so we eventually decided to head back to our home port.
The trip to Bremerton was a few hours of motoring, half an hour or so of waiting for slack, and a not entirely graceful landing in our slip, assisted by a helpful neighbor. I stepped back onto the dock with mixed feelings. (One of them was the pain from bashing my knee into god-knows what as I helped fend off a neighbor’s boat that we got a bit too close to.) It was nice to be able to plug in, relax, and take it slow for a bit without worrying about logistics, but at the same time, there is something that makes me feel very whole and lighthearted when we’re just floating around on Puget Sound, with nothing but a steel wall between us and millions of gallons of raw natural force – sitting on the couch, enjoying a warm breakfast while the waves roll by, or walking to the bow and taking in the motion of the water and the tree-lined shores as the wind pushes us on.
Thank you for taking the time to read through. 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!