I'm not an exceptional sailor. I'm a little claustrophobic and I get motion sickness driving around the block. So it was with some trepidation that I headed out with the family to meet Josephine, a 44 foot sailboat chartered through San Juan Sailing for some cruising around the San Juan Islands archipelago, in the Pacific Norhwest.
We took the ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. On Tuesday afternoons there's a good chance you'll have no trouble boarding, but you do need to show up early to be sure. We'd decided to walk on, leaving the car parked at the dock in Anacortes. Loaded with seasick medication and cure-alls, we ferried across the placid water to the Friday Harbor ferry dock. There are lockers just up from the dock and we had some time before we needed to meet up with the rest of the crew, so we stowed our backpacks and went for a walk.
There are lots of little shops for browsing and open air places to eat ice cream and clam chowder - not in combination, of course. We picked up a few things at the supermarket and got a taxi over to English Camp. The weather was spectacular and the roads were lined with wild flowers. Our 20 minute ride dropped us at British Camp, a grassy swath along an inland bay where British soldiers whiled away their days, but not fighting with the American camped on the opposite side of the island. English Camp has a formal garden, a cemetery, and a number of pristine wooden buildings, but its primary charm is the stunning location in a sheltered cove.
Michael, our captain, buzzed over in the dingy to fetch us. We piled in, first our gear and then ourselves, and off we went to board Josephine, anchored in glassy water. Oysters were barbequing. Beer was being poured. We tossed our gear below deck and joined them. The oysters came from Westcott Bay, just across the channel, and they are in demand worldwide; Japanese oyster lovers claim the Westcott Bay specialties as a dining delicacy. I am certain ours were much fresher. We tossed the shells in the water, to the annoyance of the seagulls flitting just off the bow.
Our captain was in constant radio contact with a friend of his who runs a whale watching charter; at about 7 p.m. he got the call. J-pod was on the move, heading our way. We motored out to open waters, and there they were, 12 or 14 orcas - killer whales, heading south, surfacing every ten minutes or so. They were in resting mode, meaning that they travel very close together, using minimal energy, and even breathing in a somewhat simultaneous manner. There was one large male in the pod; his dorsal fin was easily twice the size of the others. We floated near the whales for about an hour. At one point we were the only boat nearby. The orcas surfaced about 50 yards from us and in the silence we heard their breathing, a deep hollow sound.
We anchored off Roche Harbor for the night. It took some time, but we managed to assemble the canopy without making too much of a disaster of it. I slept rather restlessly, but I blame that on the seasickness drugs, which were totally unnecessary - we were the perfect definition of "dead in the water" all night. (Note for reluctant sailors: Don't dope up until you're sure you need to. The side effects are rather a nuisance and that stuff takes some time to get out of your body.)
It rained that night, but morning was bright and clear. We docked in Roche Harbor for a walk. Roche Harbor used to be home to a lime and cement works. Many of the buildings are still in place, including the lime kilns.
There's a small museum in the lobby of the Hotel de Haro. In front of the hotel are two stunning gardens which were in full bloom. We walked up to the mausoleum, a monument built by the factory founder. It's hard to imagine this picturesque cove as the heart of a dusty, noisy, somewhat destructive process (many old growth trees were cut down and used as fuel to fire the equipment). I had a cup of coffee and a fresh donut - fluffy, not the least bit greasy - at the marina café. We eventually all found ourselves back on-board Josephine, motorsailing for Stuart Island.
We unfurled the sails once we were out of the harbor. After catching the wind, the engine was killed. We we under sail!
It was quiet except for the wind and the sound of the wheel turning. We took turns at the helm learning to watch the tell tales and the horizon, looking up and down and at the land. We heeled over to one side and then the other, shouting commands at who ever was working the lines. Josephine turns around on a dime with a swooshing sound as the water streams past her hull.
Two hours of sailing found us anchored in the silence of Stuart Island.
There are short hikes on Stuart, one to an old schoolhouse, another to a viewpoint looking over the opposite bay; but I took advantage of the sunshine and sprawled out on the jetty for a nap. It was the first time I'd been warm all day. (Note for reluctant sailors: Wind stop clothing is essential. I'd been advised that the weather would be exactly as I'm used to as a Seattle resident, but I beg to differ. Sailing is windy business and keeping the wind out is what keeps you warm. I DID remember to bring a hat.)
We'd made dinner reservations in Roche Harbor, but that was not to be. While we were idling away the sunny hours, the winds picked up and there was no getting back. We headed into gale-like winds and rough water. Spray reached over the bow. The sails were full and we scooted at a brisk clip.
One of our party headed below, afraid she'd be tossed over board. The rest of us held on tight. Eventually we tied up in the relative security of Deer Harbor, where we rented a slip for the night. After tying up and cleaning up, we walked up the hill to the Deer Harbor Inn for dinner. No matter where you eat, you can't go wrong with Copper River salmon. The restaurant was cozy and my shellfish and delicious salmon bowl were smothered in butter and green onions. Unfortunately, the restaurant had underestimated their business for the night and we headed back to the boat without dessert.
The night was clear and windy and the boat sloshed back and forth in her slip all night, but I was too tired to care. I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the porthole to a sky filled with millions of stars.
The next morning we set out to look for whales again, but they were moving faster than we were, and conditions were still rough. We couldn't go where they'd gone, so we went back to Roche Harbor to catch a shuttle back to Friday Harbor. The sailing was peaceful in the channels; in spite of the rolling weather conditions we lost the wind but managed to cross some distance and back to land. The shuttle ran us back across San Juan Island to the ferry dock where we ate ice cream in the sun while waiting for the Anacortes ferry to pull in.
The scenery around the San Juan Islands is spectacular. Seals and eagles and osprey, and even orcas await the observant sailor. Boating is a luxurious way to travel if you don't mind the constant motion or the somewhat confined space. There are folks who love to be on the open water and I'm lucky to have had the chance to try it out. I'm not sure I'll rush out to go sailing again, but I can certainly see the appeal. (Note to reluctant sailors: Give it a try. You might find it's exactly what you want.)
By Pam Mandel, Seattle Correspondent. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature on Friday Harbor Inn.