It began like many great adventures begin. Drunk, at 3 a.m., I got on a sailboat with no motor to head to the San Juan Islands. We remembered to bring beer and rum. And forgot oh so much. The boat was conveniently moored at the public wharf in downtown Port Townsend. Had it been in the marina, with its lanes and breakwater to navigate without the aid of a motor, we might have been dissuaded. Had we been sober, we might have been dissuaded. But the lure of the wind was delicious, and so we shoved off.
Items I now keep in my Adventure Bag: paraffined matches and a single cigarette; a journal and pen; toilet paper; a compass. In fact, I keep a compass in my car as well. There are few times when I don’t have a compass. Now.
The first event of this trip should have turned us around for home. I was at the helm and the owner of the beautiful 27′ wooden sloop sat just forward and across from me in the cockpit. The wind was strong and steady so we were probably making about 5 knots. Then we noticed a large freighter bearing down on us from about a mile away. I kept my course, but Kyle wanted me to tack. I refused. Considering our location, the freighter was probably making something around 15 knots. And we, running with no navigation lights and no radar deflector, were invisible. We were arguing, Kyle ordering me to tack in a way that I thought would have us cross the path of the ship. Thankfully, I refused, and the freighter passed by us about 75 yards away.
After about another hour of cruising, I took a nap, and Kyle took over the helm. His boat, “Sherpa” was handsomely outfitted below deck with settees and a small wood stove that we kept stoked with scraps of mahogany and teak, purple-heart and other exotics that Kyle gathered from his shop. So I was comfortable below and apparently slept like a stone. Like a stone that had had too much to drink. I suppose somebody aboard the freighter had in fact spotted us in the rolling waves, and notified the coast guard of our stealthiness. When I awoke it was daylight, and Kyle was sailing us back towards Port Townsend. When I asked why, he told me I had slept through the Coast Guard boarding of Sherpa and that they had even pulled my wallet out of my pants to check my identity, after attempting to wake me. This was another moment where we might have made the wise decision to return to home port, however I convinced Kyle that we should complete our journey.
Kyle went to sleep while I sailed on. I had the wind to my port-side stern and cruised easily through pillowey waves. I was making good way and it was peaceful sailing, since I was moving close to the speed of the wind. I kept Whidbey Island in site for a good portion of the sail to aid my navigation, and when Kyle awoke we had just run out of wind but were about a mile from Cattle Pass, the entrance to the waters between Lopez and San Juan Islands. Our destination was Watmough Bay, on the south-east side of Lopez. Unfortunately, Kyle refused to believe we were where I told him we were. He is a stubborn person. And this having been my first trip to the San Juans, I ceded to his belief. We began creeping west, which ultimately was bringing us up the west side of San Juan, in the opposite direction of our intended destination.
We were more at the mercy of the complex currents than exploiting the soft and inconsistent wind. The water drew us towards the rocky coast of San Juan Island, close enough that we could see people on shore making the most of a warm and sunny day. Our beer supplies were dwindling, but we had rum. About half out of smokes. I heard a rushing of water that sounded like the incessant pummeling of rocks in a class three rapid. But I could see no rocks. The sound grew louder and louder, and I was becoming nervous as we were drawn closer to shore. The boom of the mainsail flopped around ineffectually, yanking at the sheet. Then we started spinning in circles, unable to control anything. We were a leaf on the surface, detritus.
The sound I was hearing was the rush of water running over itself. The currents were so contrary and convoluted that I could literally see layers of water spilling over other layers. I pinned my eyes to specific spots and swiveled my head to keep my stomach calm. People on shore watched us flounder, probably laughing.
Eventually, we caught some wind. It was later in the day, which is typical. We sailed up the coast on a nice reach, cutting easily through the swells that formed. We kept going. We had a chart, but no compass. It wasn’t until late at night that Kyle realized the error in his navigation. Pointing to a mass of light, he wondered aloud if it weren’t Victoria, on the south end of Vancouver Island. Belonging to Canada. And he promptly changed direction. We continued to sail into the night, stained glass lamps lit by kerosene blazing away in compliance with nautical law. Haro Straight was a glossy moor, the damp breeze demanded rum. Kyle was determined to sail us home.
I awoke to Kyle calling my name. “Is that Protection Island?” he asked when my head popped up through the hatch. Protection Island sits just northwest of Port Townsend. If it was, we were basically home. I looked at it. “Could be,” I said, and then I looked around. There are no other sizable rocks nearby Protection Island. We weren’t home. “I’m going to sleep,” Kyle said, “You figure it out.”
Though the early morning water was feathered by breeze, it wasn’t much to move us. Seeing a boat cruise into a bay, I followed, thinking at least I might be able to find somebody to admit my seafaring failings to and get directions home. I came across a can buoy, green and marked “3.” And a kelp bed. Looking at the chart, I realized where we were. Watmough Bay, our original destination. I called Kyle up to confirm my orienteering. “Good,” he said, “Take us home,” and went back to bed.
Since we had no compass, I decided to take an initial bearing off of two small islands in transit, and keep a heading based on the sun. I wanted to hit Whidbey Island so we could follow it down to within sight distance of Port Townsend. As I began to put some distance between my markers and myself, a thick, low-slung fog rolled in. I was able to see where the sun was, but had at max 70 yards of sight distance, sometimes less. To make matters worse, we were crossing shipping channels, and for at least an hour I heard a hum that I attributed to a motor on a vessel I couldn’t see. The wind was strong and smooth, however, so I at least had maneuverability. I never saw the origin of that noise. But after about four hours of sailing, I did see Whidbey.
It was about this time that Kyle woke up and joined me topside. We were both enthralled, and I had navigated to within a mile of my mark by the shifting sun alone. Sailing down Whidbey was easy, and stress free, but the previous hours had left some tension between Kyle and myself. We were almost home, and crossed Admiralty Inlet just North of Port Townsend. And then the wind abruptly died.
They say sailing in Western Washington is either boredom or terror. The wind comes up and the wind dies, quickly. Kyle and I spent the last four hours of our trip in waters just north of Port Townsend, glaring at each other, crisping in the afternoon sun, rolling cigarettes of crumbled tobacco with pages of obsolete current charts, unable to stomach the four fingers left in the bottle of Sailor Jerry that had until now been our captain.