Off-Season Cruising at 48 Degrees North

By Derek On April 20, 2014 Under Post


Off-season sailing here in the Puget Sound region is a joy as wherever you go you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. There are no crowded anchorages and if you must duck into any marina prices are half summer rates, people are glad to see you and you never need a reservation. With water temperatures of 45 degrees and air temperatures in the 30s, it does help to have heat on board. We installed a Webasto hydronics system at my wife’s gentle urging (“No heat – no sailing!”). I have not regretted the decision to swiftly comply with her wishes at all.

In the winter you also have wind. We had about 20 knots crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca both ways on our recent trip up to Victoria, BC (Be Courteous, Be Canadian). Named after Queen Victoria, the city proudly holds fast to its colonial heritage amply reflected in its buildings, parks and cafes.


“I don’t dislike babies, though I think very young ones rather disgusting.”  – Queen Victoria

An uncharacteristically midday departure from Shilshole Marina saw us spending our first night at anchor off Port Townsend in 45 feet of water. The next morning at dawn I went out to pull up the hook and it became instantly apparent our formerly trusty windlass had decided to go on strike. This was unwelcome news because the windlass was currently attached to 180 feet of 12 mm chain which was attached to a 110 pound anchor lying 45 feet below me on the murky seabed. I spent an hour checking all the wires and voltages and then swapped out the deck switch. Still no love. Rats. Using the circuit breaker down below we were able to control the windlass somewhat but it was a team effort. Asmara, my 7-year old, sat by the breaker in the main salon while wife Ariel relayed my instructions to her from the cockpit as I raised the chain and anchor up in fits and starts at the bow. That all worked fine after a fashion but it meant no more anchoring this trip.


This was not to be a problem as our destination was beautiful Victoria, Canada where we planned to tie up to the dock right downtown in front of the famous and picturesque Empress Hotel. We crossed over the Strait in four hours and checked in to the country. Despite being the capital of British Columbia, there were very few boats and not much was going on, just my kind of place. At the magic hour of midnight, New Year’s Eve the crew was fast asleep below and there were only a few small groups of polite and slightly inebriated Canucks gathered in small clusters around the harbor (“harbour”), somewhat self-consciously cheering in 2014 in true mellow Canadian fashion. After ushering in the New Year by listening to the children snore and to the locals vainly trying to get excited I just went back to bed.

BC Parliament

The next day we spent walking all over town. We enjoyed the Royal BC Museum and the Native American exhibits. Little Adriana, 5, found the masks and dim lighting a bit scary but I was fascinated by the pictures and stories of an era of massive change long past. The stories of families and tribes being wiped out by the never before encountered disease of smallpox is heart rendering. Thousands died as they fell and tribe members either died with them or abandoned the sick and dying only to bring the disease with them to other villages. It was a plague of massive proportion and decimated a population that had lived here for tens of thousands of years. Up to 98% of the native population was destroyed within a few generations of European arrival.

totem pole

What was also notable were the photographs of the Indian villages with forests of totem poles erected outside of almost every house. This is the image we carry with us when we think about the Pacific Northwest past and it is not actually very correct. While totem pole carving had probably been around for centuries (most likely introduced by the Haida who were and may still be the pre-eminent masters of the art form), pole carving prior to European contact was a minor affair. Why? Simply put, before engaging in trade with the Europeans and obtaining hard metal, Native American cultures were using Stone Age tools. Their material culture was also much poorer and villages, let alone individual families, could not afford the time and effort to cut, haul, carve and raise massive totem poles. The brief peak of Native American culture in the Pacific Northwest ironically was shortly after European contact. Just before it was snuffed out completely.

“Pinkies up”

We decided to try to shake off these sobering stories by taking afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. Tea at the Empress is something a person should do only once in their lifetime given the exorbitant cost – just under $400 for the four of us!! Interestingly, our waiter was from Eritrea and he was intrigued to meet “Asmara” as he was born and raised in the city of the same name, the capital of Eritrea and the place after which we had named our daughter. He told us he returns every other year and things on the ground in Asmara are better now than when we visited (on another boat) eleven years ago.

We spent one more day wandering around colonial Victoria and enjoyed coffee and cakes at Murchies, a local institution. The city also has some great used book stores and we found quite a few out of print gems on quite a few out of fashion subjects.


After an uneventful return to Port Townsend to check in with US Customs (call first) and back to Seattle, I started looking at the calendar again. Our next school break was coming up in February and while all our neighbors were heading south to Hawaii “for some sun,” we of course were going north.

For various, mostly boring reasons too dull to elucidate here time to properly fix the windlass eluded me before departure. We ended up replacing the rusted solenoid box which lives in “electronics hell” in the moist anchor locker. Ten years old and it had rusted shut, an acceptable level of longevity, I thought. But this was after our February jaunt north when we decided on an easy cruise around the San Juan Islands.

Now bring me that horizon…

Aside from Puget Sound itself, the San Juans are a nice enough archipelago and are the closest cruising ground to Seattle with Friday Harbor on San Juan Island lying about 60 miles north-northwest. To get there one has to travel up the length of the Sound and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca which, depending on conditions, can be a little boisterous. After exiting Puget Sound at Point Wilson, the Strait itself is about 20 miles across – 30 nm if you are going to Victoria. We only cross in the mornings and have always had an easy time of it. Due to temperature differences between land and water by afternoon the BC interior heats up causing air to rise like a provincial-wide chimney. Cold ocean air then rushes in to replace it funneling down the Strait causing winds on the Strait to go from zero to thirty knots fairly quickly.


Aeolus and his buddies argue

Our much anticipated spring break trip in February unfortunately coincided with the one week the weather gods were angry. The region experienced six storms in eight days and the Cascade Mountains received almost half their annual snowfall during our time aboard! We did not see any snow but had wind and rain a plenty.

On our first day out the sky was overcast as we departed the marina at 0655 and the barometer read 1010.5. There wasn’t much wind and we had a pleasant motor north when by 0915 I went down below to write in the log and saw the barometer was now reading 1006 – it had plunged 4.5 mb in just over two hours. A storm was approaching, no doubt. This was well-flagged on NOAA radio, of course but I was hoping they were going to be wrong. Well, they nailed it. Given the frozen state of our windlass solenoids we decided to just pull into the Everett Marina for the night and only completed a mere 26 miles that first day. Ah well, we’ll get to the San Juans tomorrow, I thought.


It was a dark and stormy night…

The barometer continued to plummet and hit a low of 993 mb that evening. The wind built to a steady 25-30 knots by late afternoon and at nightfall we were seeing gusts of 40 plus knots. Around midnight a beat up powerboat was towed into the harbor and tied up right next to us on the 800 foot floating breakwater where we had been the only boat. However, to add to the mystery they tied up on the outside of the breakwater at midnight with the wind howling 40 knots and one to two foot chop pitching their disabled boat up and down like a pissed-off horse in a Mexican rodeo. They spent the night like that bucking up and down and grinding against the breakwater while we, just eight feet away across the dock, calmly rested in glass smooth water.

Dawn revealed the damage to their boat: smashed railings, a ripped bimini and even a missing dinghy and various pieces of equipment that had been tied to the transom platform. All this had happened to them just a few miles north of us in the “protected” water of Possession Sound, between Camano Island and the mainland.

A three hour cruise…

As a responsible sailor, one always has to ask themselves what can I learn from that situation? In other words, what did they do wrong? Shortening a very long list, I would say: new captain on a new (to them) boat suitable only for lake fishing with a crew of non-boat people out for their first trip. Naturally, they decided to venture out at night in 40 knots of wind and this is where I really began to appreciate the not insignificant depths of their inexperience. Yep, that would about sum it up. The crew were lucky they all made it back to the (wrong side of the) dock. I helped them tie up and adjust their lines and for my efforts was almost brained by the brick-sized plug of their 50 amp power cable when one of the crew carelessly threw it down to me. Clearly, these people were dangerous to know.


The next day dawned cold but sunny. Sun, yes we do like that, especially at this time of year where most days are one short stretch of grey before night sets in again at 4:30 pm. The wind was still honking so we took a taxi into downtown Everett that morning to see what was on offer. Two words: not much. Mornings are a quiet time in Everett as most of the population seemingly quietly works at Boeing assembling airplanes. We did take the girls to the Children’s Museum which was quite good and they really enjoyed it. After lunch at a Greek pizzeria it started to drizzle and the wind was picking up even more. Another front was approaching. Time for my nap.

Back to the boat we went where I discovered now our generator was not working. Mechanically it ran fine but was only producing 28 volts AC at the panel when I tested it instead of the normal 220 volts AC. After severely cutting into my valuable nap time trying to troubleshoot this latest challenge I just gave up and had a beer. This problem too could be fixed by someone more qualified than me at a later date. With no windlass and now no generator our trip was to be marinas only.

We later discovered one of the cables hidden inside the generator circuit box had come loose when a bolt holding it in place sheared off. Our local Westerbeke dealer told me he had never seen that happen before. This did not make me feel special in any way.


The wind blew 25 knots that night and it rained hard but we were cozy down below. The next day we said good bye to Everett and headed north but only made it 30 miles to Port Townsend when the weather looked iffy again and I didn’t want to risk crossing the Strait. Point Hudson Marina here we come. We arrived on George Washington’s birthday and there we stayed for the rest of the vacation watching the storms roll in and our precious days off roll by.

I spent one hour tying the boat up to the dock as with no working generator we needed power. We have a 53 foot boat and a 55 foot power cable which means the bow of the boat almost has to be scraping the paint of the dockside power station for the cable to reach. The configuration of power boxes midway between slips at this marina meant we needed to be tied in at almost a 45 degree angle to get the bow to the box. I notice in my log for that day reads, “Need/must buy 75-foot power cable!!


Snuggled into our slip at a crazy angle, we enjoyed the weather spectacle and saw gusts up to 55 knots. There were also plenty of “Maydays” and rescues that week on the Sound as boats and captains that should not be out in that type of weather were predictably getting into trouble. After four days of eating desserts at Elevated Ice Cream in cute Port Townsend it was time to head for the barn. The kiddies needed to get back to school so we turned around and motored south back to homeport Seattle. Asmara Sky fought an ebb tide all the way down but by sticking to the west side of the Sound she still managed 6.8 knots SOG (speed over ground) motorsailing with the genie out and a 5-10 knot tailwind.

No sooner had we arrived back at the house and unpacked did the weather become sunny and I found myself looking at the calendar again. Yes, our next break from school was a week off in April. Maybe this time we would make it to the just-out-of-reach San Juan Islands, I thought wistfully.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan
    June 9, 2014
    6:33 pm #comment-1

    Just read your blog – Visited Victoria in April? I would have loved to have had you visit. (how’s that for a past third conditional?)

    Bike ride was excellent – 3,000K in 6 days. Port Angeles – Mt. St. Helen – Columbia Gorge – Okanogan – Pemberton – Whistler.


    • Derek
      July 7, 2014
      9:36 pm #comment-2

      Yes, we missed you. Next time we will get together. Victoria is a place one should visit over and over again.

Submit a comment

  • Avatars are handled by Gravatar
  • Comments are being moderated