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Rich and I just returned from our most relaxing, fulfilling, and truly amazing vacation we’ve ever taken. It was a major undertaking considering we were boating in the unpredictable Puget Sound and Gulf Islands, in late September (i.e. a recipe for bad weather), and on a powerboat versus a more familiar sailboat.

Last September, after the mainsail ripped from the self-furling mast on the usually fabulous sailboat, Wave Dancer – for the second year in a row – Rich decided our next charter would be on a small tugboat. We paid a small deposit to reserve a week on a 25-foot Ranger Tug. However, six month later, we were told the boat was pulled out of the charter fleet. Would we be willing to upgrade to Tug Time!, a 2010, 29-foot, Ranger Tug?

Yes! YES!

Months before our charter, Rich and I took a motorboat class to learn how to drive and dock a “single screw” boat so we were familiar with what to expect. Plus, while biking in Anacortes in June, we saw a group of Nordic Tugs, some of which were for sale. We decided to explore and while walking down the dock, I noticed Tug Time was sandwiched between several larger boats. I commented to Rich, “Isn’t that the boat we’re chartering?

The couple on the boat was spending the night at Anacortes, and was happy to give Rich a tour so he could get an advanced look at the electronics. This meeting proved fortuitous; Rich noticed the chart plotter on the boat was the same brand as his GPS. In the weeks leading to our charter, he put the wave points for our trip into his GPS, and then inserted its “chip” into the Tug Time’s chart plotter.

Voila! Our routes were instantly available on the chart plotter.

When we made changes to our trip, Rich would use the charting software on our netbook – Sputnik – to update his GPS, and then place the chip back into the boat’s chart plotter. Technology!

Doom and Gloom Lead to Zoom

This year, we decided to attend the Friday evening captain’s meeting, sleep on the boat, and then leave early Saturday morning. In the past, we’ve arrived early Saturday morning, loaded our stuff onto the boat, attending the captain’s meeting, and if everything went well, were able to leave Bellingham by noon.

On Friday evening, however, when we arrived, we learned the weather had been horrific for the past few days, and another large front was arriving with heavy winds and rain. I was convinced we weren’t going to be affected. Rich was more cautious.

Recognizing Rich is the captain and I’m the first mate, I tend to acquiesce to his decisions. However, since we were able to leave early in the morning, and had a powerboat, I talked him into going “as far as” possible on Saturday. The decision was to skip our first planned anchorage on Patos Island, and head straight for Stuart Island, a picturesque island with around 800 full- and part-time residents, squeezed into less than three square miles. The island can only be reached by boat or private plane, and has no stores or amenities… aside from a few outhouses by the campgrounds.

The islands claim to fame is the Turn Point Light Station on the very tip, which is the farthest northwest point of the United States. The view is magnificent on a clear day… and not too bad when it’s overcast. Rich and I sat on the point for few minutes, waving to passing whale-watching vessels, until the sun started to set. We then scurried back to Tug Time, anchored in Prevost Harbor.

Along the way, we chatted with a woman who was inventorying the contents of one of the island’s “treasure chests.” The chests are stocked with t-shirts, cards, hats, and other souvenirs. Each item comes with an envelope. If you want to purchase something, you take the item and the envelope, and when convenient, enclose a check in the envelope and drop it in the mail.

The woman said most people are honest and pay for the items they take. Nevertheless, they’ve had some thefts.

Even though it was a stormy night, we had no issues or concerns about being washed onto the rocks because we were securely tied to a mooring ball. The next morning, while overcast, we had no rain as we drove to Bedwell Harbor on Pender Island to check in with Canadian customs.

When you go through customs, only the captain is allowed to leave the boat (or even stand on the dock). We had a perfect docking, after which, I got back onto the boat and Rich walked up to the customs offer. He returned minutes later. Evidentially, our personal information is already in the Canadian database, and they asked only a few questions.

The Only Rain in a Week of Rainbows

With the sun breaking through the clouds, we zipped to Ganges on Saltsprings Island. The wind had picked up so we were thrilled when three men appeared to help as we pulled into a slip at the Saltsprings Marina. After tying up the boat, they asked us about the conditions outside the marina. Hearing the weather had improved several boaters cast-off and headed to other destinations.

We trotted inside Tug Time, gobbled our lunch, grabbed our rain parkas, and headed to the town. Just as reached the street, a rain squall started; happily, we were able to wait it out in the harbormaster office. It drizzled on-and-off for the rest of the afternoon, but for the most part, we avoided getting wet, by ducking in art galleries, shopping at the local supermarket, and seeking shelter under covered porches.

Saltspring Island is home to many artists, their work displayed in the galleries in Ganges. You can find everything from bronze sculptures costing tens of thousands of dollars to Aboriginal art (wooden masks and carvings), beaded jewelry, fine oil and watercolor paintings, ceramics, handmade furniture, and outdoor art pieces. One gallery had carvings from woolly mammoth tusks, unearthed in the Yukon Territory.

We wandering off the main “drag” to a co-op gallery where we had an interesting conversation about living on Saltspring Island, and US versus Canadian politics. Evidentially, during the school year, there are three water taxis called The Scholarship, The Graduate and The Ganges Hawk, which pick up children living on Galiano, Mayne, Saturna, and Pender Islands, and take them to schools on Saltspring.

Older children, who are involved in sports, music, and other activities, which take place after school hours, can stay with families on Saltspring and return home on weekends.

Ganges is the main town on Saltspring so the grocery store is stocked with a wide variety of goods, including high-end products, wines, meats, cheeses, produce, and pastries. Last year, we indulged in almond tarts from the store, which I quickly sought out this time!

The tiny tarts are amazing with a flaky crust, and layers of raspberry jam, almond yumminess, white glaze, and drizzles of chocolate!

After we got back to the boat, Rich checked out the weather forecast, and learned a front was hours away. He immediately jogged up to the harbormaster and paid for another night at the marina. Sure enough, by early morning, the wind was blowing and the rain pelleting down. It rained, hard, for over nine hours!

Meanwhile, we were cozy warm in Tug Time, watching some crazy kite boarders in wetsuits fly around Ganges Harbor… for hours! I got cold just watching them catch air and then land in icy cold water!

By late afternoon, the rain slowed. Unexpectedly, we were offed a ride into town, which provided a much needed opportunity to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We also chatted with a couple who were on a boat near ours. They too rushed off their boat when the weather broke.

Visits to Our Favorite Towns

The next morning, Monday, we were greeted with blue skies. We headed to the Sydney, at the tip of Vancouver Island. We’d briefly toured this town a few months ago when we spent a long weekend in Victoria. It’s a darling town, and like Ganges, full of art galleries, bookstores, and small shops. It also has many bakeries and chocolate shops, thick with people sipping coffee and snacking on ornate desserts like tarts, small frosted cakes, chocolates, and flaky pastries. Rich, who has more willpower than I, successful negotiated us away from sugary temptations.

Instead, we bought a box of crackers and carton of milk at a supermarket. Boring!

Note: We had on board York Peppermint Pattie brownies, which I made for our trip so we wouldn’t be deprived of chocolate. In addition, I brought powdered hot chocolate with ground-up candy canes for warming up on chilly nights. Yes, I’m the scavenger who buys boxes of slightly stale candy canes after Christmas.

After leaving Sydney, we zipped across the water to Sydney Spit, a favorite picnic area. During the warm months, a water taxi takes people from Sydney to Sydney Spit. Plus, boaters come from Vancouver and other surrounding islands. Being it was late September, we were one of only three boats anchored near the spit.

Even though the sky was darkening, we lowered the dinghy and went ashore. Happily, the wind pushed the darkened sky another direction, and after half an hour, we saw clear, blue skies. Hooray because Sydney Spit has some of the finest beaches in the area, making it a great place to take off your shoes and walk in the sand, beach comb, watch flocks of seagulls, tour the site of the old brick factory, and wonder if you’re going to get wet wading across rivulets because you misjudged when the tides was coming in!

No, we didn’t get wet, but we did gather rocks and shells, a rusty hand-wrought nail, and half a brick. We also took lots of pictures.

Rum, Pears and Potatoes

The next day, Wednesday, was even better weather than the day before. We left Sydney Spit and headed to the Haro Straits where it’s been reported orca whales swim. I have my doubts because we never see them. I’m convinced Disney created orca automatons, which are programmed to surface whenever a whale-watching vessel passes by. The automations never appear when other boaters are in the area.

We spent about an hour in the Haro Straits, toying around, waiting to see if an orca appeared. No luck. Next year, we’ll spend the night in Victoria, which will necessitate traversing the full length of the strait and thereby increasing the probability of an orca siting.

By law, you need to check into US customs when you cross into US waters from Canada. This requirement makes it necessary to either visit Roche Harbor or Friday Harbor. We chose the former, which is a charming, picturesque, resort-like town. Check out the pictures I took of the town and the sculpture garden.

The only thing disagreeable about Roche Harbor was the customs officer who not only asked Rich lots of strange questions, but wanted to come aboard Tug Time and question me!

While still in the customs office, she queried Rich about the amount of alcohol we had aboard. Rich said we had part of a bottle of wine we’d brought from the U.S., an unopened bottle of wine from Canada, and several beers (we took three beers and when our charter ended, Rich had managed to drink two).

The officer then implored, “Any rum?”

Rich was dumbfounded by this question. The only conclusion he could draw was she saw on our passports we’d been to the British Virgin Islands twice, and were perhaps Rum-alcoholics

When the officer came onto Tug Time, and took a look at me, she wondered why I didn’t look like my passport picture (taken ten years ago), and when she asked to see my driver’s license, Rich commented, I wouldn’t resemble that photograph either! In both pictures, my hair was longer and I weighed a “bit” more.

The officer then wanted to know what was in the canisters on the counter.

“Coffee and hot chocolate.”

She opened the former to verify I was telling the truth. She then pointed to a bag of pears and asked if they were my potatoes. I said, “No, they’re pears.”

Her next line of questioning was where we were going. Rich said “Blind Bay off Shaw Island.” She wanted to know “what was there.” Rich in a flat tone-of-voice said “Mooring balls.”

I don’t think she was impressed with his answer because she probed further. It was obvious she knew little about boating and the surrounding area because Shaw Island is a popular, protected anchorage, which is close to Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor, Rosario, and other marinas which fill up quickly during the summer months.

Even though Shaw Island is privately owned, with only 240 year-round residents, and very few commercial or tourist-oriented facilities, it’s a great place to bike and walk around. We went ashore and bought a few things at the store, pet a large black-and-white cat, spoke to some semi-tame deer, walked for an hour or so, and took pictures.

As we were leaving, a Washington State Ferry arrived, which afforded me the opportunity to take pictures of the ferry from water-level at twenty or so feet away. At night, the ferry is awash with lights and looks like a floating palace. Even though few people get on-or-off the ferry at Shaw Island, the ferry is very large because it starts at Anacortes and drops off people and cars at several different islands.

Perfect Vacation Comes to an End

Thursday, our last day on Tug Time, was equally wonderful. Early in the morning, we went to Cypress Island, grabbed a mooring ball, and then rowed a shore. We didn’t put the outboard engine on the dinghy because we needed to carry it onto the shore so it wouldn’t float away when the tide came up. Most of the places we visited during our trip had dinghy docks.

With camera and Windows Phone in hand, we hiked to the top of Eagle Nest, the top of island, which provides 360-degree view of the Puget Sound from Mount Baker across to Canada. Using my phone, I shot a 1-minute video, which I edited when I got home.

Last year, we found an 1899 Indian Head penny wedged in one of the rocks on Eagle Nest. Rich decided to leave a penny this year and see whether it’s still there when we return in the coming years. It’ll help answer the question as to whether a coin from 1899 could have remained hidden for over one hundred years.

Needing to get Tug Time back to San Juan Yachting by noon on Friday, we decided to spend the night at Chuckanut Bay, south of Bellingham Bay. It’s a lovely area that reminds me of a model train diorama with pretty houses nestled among evergreen and fall-colored maple trees on a hill overlooking a calm bay, dotted with sailboats. Every so often, a train weaves through the houses, appearing and disappearing behind the trees.

With the clickity-clack of the train in the distance, and Tug Time gently bobbing in the water, we fell asleep, our vacation nearly over. The next morning, we fueled up, eased it into its permanent slip in Squalicum Harbor, cleaned-up the boat… and then reserved it for another week-long trip next September!