by Howard Eskildsen
As we approached San Juan Marine, our eyes strained to catch a glimpse of the Fairy Boat, our 26-foot Bayliner. Finally, her blue canvas top appeared in the March sunshine from her moorage beneath the orange Rainbow Bridge. At last, we could relax and begin our cruising season with a quiet, carefree overnight trip from La Conner to Deception Pass.
Illness and harsh winter weather shortened our previous boating season. Six perilous months passed since the last time we saw her on the water. The winter’s cold intensified the chill in the depths of our souls as we watched our youngest daughter struggle with a deadly disease that threatened to squeeze the life from us all. However, we endured, and spring finally arrived.
With light hearts we loaded the boat and prepared for an overnight journey to Bowman Bay at Deception Pass State Park. Fairy, the boat’s namesake, and our daughters, Sara and Emily, unpacked in the cabin below while I admired the new engine cooling system installed a few days earlier. I noted a small amount of water in the bilge left over from the installation process. The rest of the systems checked out ok.
We let loose the lines and passed under the bridge, traveling down the Swinomish Channel towards the gap in a low ridge known as “Hole in the Wall”. Despite the warm sunshine through the windows of the helm station, I felt a cold shiver as we cruised slowly between the cliffs. Fairy and I last passed that way the previous July when we moved the boat to Seattle to be our home on the water while Emily underwent chemotherapy. I recalled looking at the somber walls of the channel, wondering when and under what circumstances we might pass that way again.
Sunlight on the shallows of Skagit Bay combined with Emily’s cheerful voice to warm my soul. By the buoy marking the end of the narrow channel we turned north towards Hope Island. We no longer had to cruise slowly. With full power the boat rose up on plane, while the girls giggled below in the forward v-birth.
Near the island they decided to join us at the helm station near the back of the boat. As they sat beside us in the sunshine, the depth sounder, which had been working well, became erratic. Prior experience told me water in the bilge covered the transducer. But why? Did sea water come on board, or worse yet, did engine coolant leak from the heater core located over the forward bilge? Either possibility could end our trip, ironically abeam of Hope Island.
We slowed to displacement speed while I checked the bilge and confirmed that water covered the transducer. Despite the sediment mixed with it I placed a small drop of it on my tongue. If it tasted salty, the boat was taking on water from a cracked through hull fitting, if it were sweet or warm, engine coolant was leaking. It tasted like ordinary tap water.
A quick check through some inspection panels verified the through hulls and the engine heater core were bone dry. The water apparently was left over from flushing the heater core during installation of the new cooling system. When the girls came aft, the bow of the boat rose a bit causing the water to move aft and cover the transducer. It was pumped out and the depth sounder worked again. Nothing was leaking, our trip wasn’t over after all!
The sun played hide and seek with approaching clouds as we chased rays of light through Deception Pass. At Lighthouse Point we turned right and followed the curve of cliffs into Bowman Bay. We kept close to the cliffs to avoid Coffin Rocks, hidden by the high tide near the bay’s entrance. I did not want to discover for myself how they got their name.
We tied to a mooring buoy in the spotlight of a sunbeam. Tree covered hills protected three sides of the bay. To the west, midway between Lighthouse Point’s cliffs and Coffin Rocks, lay Deception Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During westerly breezes, waves and wind funneling through the strait would follow the path we took into the bay and turn it into a cauldron of seething water. Today, however, the wind danced lazily from the south.
“We’re in for a pleasant evening,” I announced.
We took the dinghy ashore and played on the gravel beach for a while. Later, the girls dropped us off at the boat while they explored the rest of the bay. We could hear them giggling from inside the boat. When they returned, we settled in for our first quiet night on the water in months.
I took one last turn about the decks before going to bed. A light breeze barely ruffled the burgee on the bow. The mooring line was secure, and the dinghy tied by its painter to the stern, ready for use in the morning. All should be well for the night unless… I tried to think of anything else that could possibly be of concern, and then, satisfied, went to sleep.
What was that? I awoke to a strange noise. There it was again. Something had changed and I went topside to check it out. The burgee swung about on its steel clips in the freshening breeze. Its squeaking was nothing to worry about, but what was the wind up to? Ripples tugged at the corners of the boat. Around midnight, I dropped back into a fitful sleep.
Clang! My eyes popped open. The bow of the boat pitched upward, straining at the mooring as a three-foot wave passed. The boat paused momentarily, then with a forward surge, pitched downward and collided against the mooring buoy with another metallic clang. Fairy and I were both awake by that time and hurried to assess the situation.
The hull was not damaged by the collisions since the anchor stowed on the bow pulpit took the blows, but how long could we be so lucky? Letting out more moorage line would stop the clanging, but a howling westerly wind drove down the strait, getting stronger by the minute. It was 2:45 AM and time to move!
The dinghy and its motor had to be stowed. The painter stretched full length down wind of the boat to where the dinghy bobbed up and down. I reeled it in and carefully stepped from the swim deck into the dinghy to remove the engine. Once the motor was free, I glanced back at the boat in time to see the underside of the swim deck looming overhead. It crashed down to the water level with a splash as another wave passed by. Fortunately, I was six feet behind it. It took careful timing to get the engine on board while the dinghy and the swim deck were momentarily at the same level. The dinghy was stowed on the swim deck and we were ready to go.
With the engine running at idle, Fairy went through the front hatch to the bow of the boat to release the mooring line. I engaged the propeller as she gathered up the line on the wildly pitching deck. The bow started to swing to starboard, and a touch of power was needed to keep it into the wind. Even so we drifted backwards towards an unoccupied buoy.
“Hold on, I have to add more power to keep us out of trouble,” I shouted over the wind. She seemed to have a problem with the hatch. Finally, it opened, and she disappeared below, much to my relief.
She joined me at the helm and explained that the kids had agreed to open the hatch when she knocked, but they couldn’t hear her over the din of the waves and wind. I commented how coolly she handled the situation. “A few years ago, this would have frightened me,” she replied, “but not anymore.”
A full moon winked mischievously though the clouds as we made for Deception Island at four knots, bouncing about like a cork in a washing machine. I was thankful I noted the island to be in line with the safest route of departure earlier in the evening. To the right glowering waves crashed against the jagged fangs of Coffin Rocks, exposed by the falling tide.
Lighthouse Point’s green light came into view and we turned toward the south. In the lee of Deception Island the water calmed so we powered up to our 6.4 knot displacement speed. The red light on Ben Uri Island on the other side of Deception Pass came into view. We turned southeast toward the center of the pass, keeping the green light to port and the red light ahead on the starboard bow.
“What’s the current doing?”
“It’s coming right at us at about four and a half knots,” I replied. “We’ll be lucky to have a forward speed of two knots. Look at those waves!”
The on shore wind and swells meeting the out flowing current built up steep 5 foot waves. In the soft moonlight they looked like ghostly rows of soldiers with silvery gray heads marching towards the pass, getting steeper and closer together before vanishing on the brink of the pass. Our course went through a deep corner of their ranks. We eased into the swells, keeping an eye on a possible escape route through Canoe Pass just to the left.
The following seas and the head current produced a strange carousel like motion. The boat rose upward, paused and sank downward with a very slow pitching motion. One moment the bow lights illuminated the crest of a towering wave, the next moment the wave seemed to disappear into a chasm.
“These waves aren’t so bad, but what concerns me is that.” Fairy pointed to a 40-foot log floating in the water outlined by the moon’s glow.
“We shouldn’t have any trouble avoiding the ones we can see…” my voice trailed off. I was really thankful to have another pair of eyes scanning for debris floating through the pass.
It took half an hour to reach Ben Uri Island less than a mile away. Behind it lay the peaceful waters of Coronet Bay. At 4 AM we tied the lines to a wooden float and settled down for what was left of the night.
“What time do we have to get up?” Fairy asked.
“It doesn’t matter, we’re less than an hour away from home port. We’ll sleep in, get up when we feel like it and have a leisurely trip back.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?”
I paused for a moment, grinned sheepishly, and shook my head. “Just go to sleep!”