It has been a long summer. Planned sailing experiences were dashed by the issues of Covid-19 restrictions. Lock downs in place delayed planned repairs and refitting. Striving for perfection would have meant more time in the marina, so in mid-August my sailing buddy and I went out for a trial cruise to see if the modifications to SV Hadley were functioning properly. We anchored one night and captured a mooring ball on another night. The newly installed refrigerator, cooking gear, sails, and the newly rigged anchor/mooring equipment all worked well.
Planning immediately began for a longer cruise in September. At the same time, my friend in Los Angeles contacted me regarding his plan to visit the San Juan Islands under charter. Coincidentally, another friend with a Hunter 43 in Anacortes announced he would be in the Islands during the Labor Day weekend. Timing was perfect. We chatted, and the concept for a mini rendezvous in the Islands was born.
When you sail familiar waters, the need for detailed charts and navigation plans feels less important. Such thinking is the fertile ground for trouble. I started studying the weather about 15 days prior to our planned departure. I wanted to get a feel for the weather patterns. This helps me with situational awareness in order to judge the NOAA and National Weather Service provided on VHF Ch04 in the North Puget Sound region. With the predictability of the summer Pacific weather based on the location of the Pacific High, I opened Windy maps to view the progression of Lows out of Siberia, and the High in the North Central Pacific. The Lows looked to be on track to hit the Oregon/Washington coastline, only to be nudged north onto the Alaska/BC coast and over Vancouver Island, then down into central Canada. This meant fair skies would bless our planned cruise.
All was well until six days before our cruise date, when a High-Pressure cell collapsed and pushed up against Vancouver Island, creating the opportunity for a 24- to 48-hour period of strong northerly winds to creep into the forecast for Labor Day.
I prepared a summarized forecast for the weekend and sent a copy to my chartering buddy about the possible conditions he would face during the start of his charter. We had talked about anchoring in Blind Bay on Shaw Island, but the site is open to the north. I concluded that an anchorage with a northerly-faced opening might not be the best place for a Monday night stay. We conferred with my fellow Pacific Northwest sailor, and he suggested that Parks Bay would be the place to go.
With Parks Bay chosen as our destination, I went to work checking the tidal currents at Deception Pass; it’s not a passage you want to traverse when the tidal current is against you. An early morning departure and a 6-hour transit from Everett to Deception Pass would place us in the area just near the beginning of slack water at 1 pm; perfect.
Forecast winds? Variable morning westerly winds veered to northwesterly at about 7-10 knots, typical Pacific Northwest winds on the nose for a cruise. Winds were expected to change gradually to northerly as the day progressed. Not good for sailing, but would improve based on our planned route. After about 10 am, we would get a period of fore beam to beam breezes and time for a sail.
We arrived on Sunday and started our prep of the boat and provisioning for the 4- to 5-day cruise. Joining me on this adventure was my lifelong friend from Portland. We awoke early on Monday Sept 7th to overcast skies, good visibility and temps about 60F. Motoring out of Everett Marina and rounding the last channel marker, we pointed SV Hadley on a bearing of 305ºM into the chop, blowing down Saratoga Passage. Our adventure had begun.
As we got near the northwest end of Saratoga Passage, the wind favored us for about 45 minutes with a 12-knot beam reach. This decayed as we closed in on the wind shadow of Whidbey Island, and the wind shift began as a northerly. Soon the wind was on our nose again. The channel of Saratoga Passage narrowed, and up came the chop as the wind blew down the channel at about 20 knots. Clearly the expected windstorm had begun.
Nevertheless, our timing was good for Deception Pass. The high mountains of Fildago Island on the north side of the passage sheltered us from the wind, and the currents were nearly nonexistent. We made the transit through Deception Pass without incident. My next immediate concern was the crossing of Rosario Strait.
Rosario Strait runs about 15nm from Orcas Island in the north, to the south end of Lopez Island in the south on a bearing of 184º, separating the San Juan Islands from a series of islands in Skagit County. On this day, the winds were out of the north, northwest. My fear of big waves running down Rosario immediately softened as the fetch and the wind direction were not aligned. Good News. We headed into the breeze and raised the sails to the first reef. Knowing the forecast was for increasing wind speeds through the afternoon and evening, this made for a prudent decision even though we were sailing in the lee of the islands
We had a grand time sailing for about 2 plus hours, 16 miles in Juan de Fuca, along the lee of Lopez Island towards Cattle Point. As we neared the end of Lopez, we started to feel strong gusts from the building wind coming south down San Juan Channel. Using the sail reef proved to be smart. At this point we would need to drop the sails, as the next leg of our cruise had us heading once again bow to the wind. This time the wind was aligned with the passage near Cattle Point. The waves were more than chop and the idea of pointing the bow into the maelstrom did not sound pleasant. It would be like trying to ride a bronco while roping in the mainsail on the boom. Time for plan B.
Looking out beyond Cattle Point, the headland rises some 300-500 plus feet. The sea state beneath this headland was more favorable. We continued sailing a quarter mile beyond San Juan Channel and Salmon Bank shoal on the west side of Middle Channel and steered the boat towards the headland. Now in the lee, bringing down the main sail and furling the jib was incident free. No one was tossed into the water (meaning me). The sail was secured on the boom. After this note-worthy experience, we turned back north to once again transit the passage off Cattle Point.
The Middle Channel is deep 50-70 fathoms, fenced in on both sides by shoals and rocks. The currents flow south down San Juan Channel into Juan de Fuca on an Ebb, and runs north up Juan de Fuca into San Juan Channel on a Flood. It is a great place to see wildlife, including birds, sea lions, seals, Dall’s porpoise, salmon, and, occasionally, Orca that feed on the up-welling currents and rich nutrients provided. We were greeted by all but the Orca on our passage.
While the waters of Cattle Point can be punishing, our passage near the time of slack delivered only a few wind waves splashing over our bow, carried by the wind to the man at the helm. I’ve been in much worse. Once through San Juan Channel passage, our progress north to Parks Bay on Shaw Island was a cake walk. We pulled into the bay seeing our rendezvous mates at anchor. We found our spot and dropped anchor within 10 minutes of our planned ETA of 5 pm. A successful 10 hour start to our 2020 post Labor Day cruise
It was time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful sunset with a “sundowner” beverage. This is cruising in the Pacific Northwest.