Okay… it’s taken me a while to finish my tale about our charter in the San Juan Islands in late September. I got temporarily distracted by the “election” and slightly addicted to writing a diary on Daily Kos.

After leaving Rosario Beach, Rich made me practice man-over board skills for several hours using a buoy that he’d rigged together with weights on the bottom so it stood upright in the water. After my attitude changed from “I think I can sail” to “I hate sailing,” we decided to mosey to our next stop… Spencer Spit, a finger of land with mooring balls on either side.

By the time we reached the spit, the wind had kicked up and even though I was able to grab a mooring ball twice, the wind was too strong for me to hold onto the grappling pole until Rich could scramble from the cockpit onto the deck and tie a line around the metal loop at the top of the ball.

Frustrated with my obvious whimpiness, Rich decided to give it a try while I steered the boat. He missed the ball and while trying to reach out and grab it, he dropped the grappling pole in the water. Ha! Fortunately, the pool floated and I was able to grab it off the back of the boat when it floated by!

We then decided to motor to the other side of the spit where the wind was hopefully calmer. Once again, I grabbed a ball, but the metal loop was stuck so we zipped over to another ball. Success! Rich the sailorman

Also moored was another sailboat. I’m sure the couple aboard were laughing so hard at our fumbling that their sides hurt. And no doubt they had plenty to “write home about” after seeing me on the beach half an hour later with my pants wet from falling out of the dingy and my life vest buckled incorrectly. In contract, they were nattily dressed with deep tans, swanky clothing and dry boat shoes… even though they’d rowed ashore moments earlier with their Wheaton Terrier. It’s surprising how many people sail with their pets and are dedicated to going ashore several times a day to let their dogs use the terra firma. Sophisticated sailor

The next evening, we had an easier time grabbing and tying up to a mooring ball. We were also more successful at rowing ashore to the tip of Orcas Island. We wandered around and heard some rustling down by the beach and were able to catch a glimpse of a young deer with blotchy black, tan and white fur, trying to scamper up the steep sea cliff

Several other deer, with more solid-shaded fur, were already on top of the cliff. The young deer splashed through the water to the next beach, then ran up a trail to join the rest of the pack. It was a very magical moment.

The next morning, we gingerly sailed along the coast, avoiding dozens of crab pots and small fishing boats. Unlike the crab pots used in the Bering Sea on the show, Deadliest Catch, the pots used in the Puget Sound are small, about the size and shape of a car tire.

A line (rope) extends from the pot, usually on the sound floor, to a colored buoy that floats on top of the water. Because aFisherman putting out crab potsanyone can apply for a license to crab, there are many make-shift crab pots with a chunk of driftwood instead of an easy-to-spot colored buoy. When sailing close to shore or in an anchorage, you need to always be on the look-out for crab pots. 

As we neared Bellingham Bay, a man who was on a sailboat behind us called to us. His engine broke and he needed a tow to part of the bay that would allow him to catch the wind and sail back to Bellingham. We tied a line between the boats and towed him for thirty minutes or so until the wind picked up. We then motored back to the harbor where San Juan Sailing is located.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around fisherman’s wharf and studying for my final written bareboat certification exam. I knew that I would be required to show my docking skills at the fisherman’s wharf so we scoped out the area. We also talked to several of the fishermen who had just returned or were going out for Dungeness crab, salmon, flounder, cod, or squid (in California). Their boats are fascinating (and savage) with large lights to fish at night, pulleys, outstretched poles with rows of hooks, and large purse seine nets.

The next morning, the weather took a turn for the worse. It was bitterly cold, windy and rainy. Nevertheless, my instructor was waiting at the dock at 9:30 to test my skills. I motored out of the harbor and quickly turned into the fisherman’s wharf where I successfully docked and undocked. We then sailed into the bay to do man-overboard and other maneuvers. The wind – 20 to 26 knots — was so bad that the boat dramatically heeled over when I tacked and jibbed, and according to Rich, the deck would nearly touch the water.

My instructor, however, having sailed since she was 16 years old, wasn’t perturbed and gave me courage to continue sailing. It took all of my strength to hold onto the wheel and to yank out the Life Sling when it came time to demonstrate this skill. Rich, meanwhile, skillfully handled the sails, which were reefed (made smaller), and was an amazing crew-of-one. My instructor, who’d had knee surgery a few weeks before, hung on, gave commands, and assured Rich and I that the boat wasn’t going to tipped over.

After an hour of sailing, we pulled in the sails, fired up the engine, and motored back to the safety of the harbor. I then took my written test, got 85% (go enough to pass), gave my instructor a gift basket we’d put together earlier, and fantasized about curling up in a warm bed.

After a quick lunch, Rich and I cast-off from the dock and motored to Chuckanut Bay (south of Bellingham). Chuckanut is a beautiful bay with tree-lined shores, pretty upscale houses, and a train track that weaves through the landscape. It looks like something a train enthusiast built because throughout the day and evening, you can see and hear the trains as they chug through the trees, around the houses, and then disappears. When we were there, the trees had already turned orange, red, and yellow, making the scenery more dramatic.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t in our favor. After a rough windy and rainy trip to the bay, we attempted to anchor. We had no problem initially dropping the anchor, but Rich felt we’d drift into the shore with the horrific winds so we decide to find another spot. The problem was that I couldn’t get the anchor up so Rich and I traded spots. I thought the boat was in gear, which would have helped Rich pull up the anchor. The boat wasn’t in gear so Rich pulled, and pulled, and pulled.

Exhausted, he gave up and we met in the middle of the boat to discuss our options. It was then that I realized that there was a traditional winch on top of the windless to help pull up the anchor; Rich discovered that I didn’t have the boat in gear. Using the winch and putting the boat into gear, we were able to get the anchor up and relocate further from the shore.

Because of the winds, however, Rich couldn’t relax and set his GPS to “monitor” the movement of our boat. If the boat drifted, an alarm would go off. Nevertheless, Rich stayed up most of the night “watching” the boat. I got up periodically, having been completely exhausted from taking my tests.

Around midnight, we put on our warm fleece clothing and sat on deck for an hour or so. By now, the sky had cleared, but the wind was still fierce. It was wonderful seeing the moon-lit sky, listening to the trains in the distance, and talking about our week of “almost perfect” sailing.

The next morning, we quickly pulled up the anchor… using the winch and windlass… and headed back to Bellingham Bay. We had the boat unloaded and cleaned up before noon then zipped to Mount Vernon to shower and conk out!