Row Camping in the San Juans; the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Row Camping in the San Juans; the Strait of Juan de Fuca
That morning the weather was perfect. The glue had dried on our new boats. It was time. The adventure ahead was to row across the treacherous Strait of Juan de Fuca in little rowboats, reach the distant San Juan islands, and then spend a few weeks wandering and camping. We busily threw our gear together and went to Safeway one last time. Then we went down to the water. We had two of some things that we only needed one of, and had forgotten to pack some useful stuff. A typical start.
My first trip of this kind was last fall in a boat (the Loon) that I designed for the purpose. The boat had a tent, anchoring gear, and could be put on the roof of a car. Lessons were learned, and I designed a new boat (the Pacific Loon) which is lighter, faster, and has a better tent. Jon showed great faith in me and built the untested design at the same time I did. Our trip would prove the merit of the new version.
The boats had zero miles on the odometer as we started packing for the trip. While Jon loaded his boat down with camping gear, I rowed around the marina where I live in Port Townsend, WA. After my quick row I loaded my stuff. It was my first chance to try the boat out, and I wouldn’t get to row it unloaded again for another 170 miles.
Jon finished packing and took his boat for it’s first row. We were both watertight! We took some pictures of each other and then started out for the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The San Juan islands were some 25 miles distant. We could easily have driven our boats north to Anacortes and shortened the trip to a few miles, but there was poetry in leaving our front door under our own power.
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The tide was behind us. “I make it 3 knots, the boats are going great!” Having a tide behind you is good for morale. Spirits were high, and though I had some doubts, Jon’s faith in my new boat kept them at bay. We had the whole length of the Quimper Peninsula to head for shore if things got weird. In no time we found ourselves drifting off of the Point Wilson lighthouse, checking for ships. The shipping channel comes very close to land at Point Wilson, an ideal jumping off point for a game of frogger: pick your moment and row like hell!
I stared at my GPS as we rowed. Nervously counting the time we had left in harms way. “We are a third of the way across the first lane!” “We are in the middle”.
The tide was picking up, pushing us faster, but in the direction of the shipping lanes. “We’ve got a lot of tide behind us, we are going 6 knots!”. “We are clear!”
It was time for a toast. We didn’t break champagne bottles on the bows, but we spilled a sip of Rainier on them as we drifted north towards Point Partridge. It was a fine, sunny day with calm winds. Now that we were across the shipping lanes, our worst challenge was behind us. We passed the buoy at Point Partridge. Ahead, we could clearly see the edge of the current, and as we went over the ledge of water that demarcated our fair tide, we hit a tide that opposed us.
And like that, our speed dropped from 6 knots to 1.
We rowed for the shore of Whidbey Island, rowed over the kelp beds, and then started north in the skinny water between the kelp and the rocky shore. We found almost no tide that close to shore and were able to make OK progress. I wasn’t keeping a good eye on things behind me (that which lay ahead) and as a swell receded I found my boat high-centered on a barnacle covered rock.
The next swell was already underneath me before I could react and so I kept rowing. I checked the bilge, but no water. The boat was tough enough! I had confidence, but there is confidence and then there is confidence. Sitting on open water in a tranlucent craft made from plywood, sticks, fabric and staples can make you feel insecure. Getting dropped on a rock, dragged across, and lifted off again by waves with no harm done is reassuring.
We rowed on, and as we rounded the next bluff we decided to land the boats for lunch. The surf was less than a foot, but it is a skill to land in any surf, and this was our first shot at it. We looked a little foolish, but the boats stayed dry. The thing is to have the oars stowed before that moment when the wave recedes and leaves you on dry land, so that you are ready to spring up and guide the boat higher onto shore with the next wave.
After lunch we learned the next skill, which is launching in the surf. I dragged the boat down into the water again, but in the transition from guiding the boat from outside and rowing the boat from inside, I had drifted to nearby boulders. I grabbed an oar to fend off, and didn’t bother with which end. I choose the wrong end and my oarlock slid off into the surf.
I really should have finished my oars before I left. My plan was to add a Turk’s head knot to retain the oarlock once we were underway.
You can’t really row a boat without an oarlock, can you? So I stripped to my underwear and started feeling around in the sand with hands and feet to find the precious ring of metal. I tried to time my investigations between the waves but frequently got full torso splashes. Jon found the prize with his foot, saving the day.
We got underway again, and after a few hours it became clear that the tides would not be strong in our favor for some time. We had to row with purpose if we were to make a safe harbor by sunset.
The winds were still calm and the sun still warm and lovely, but off in the distance it must have been blowing hard because the swell kept building, 1, 2, 3, 4 feet. The boats felt wonderfully stable. We could row without slowing down. But between each wave we’d loose sight of one another.
As the sun went down, we approached Deception Pass. Deception Pass is notorious for the strong tidal current that runs through the chasm that separates Whidbey from Fidalgo island. The swell that had been building was now piling up on the shallows around Deception Island, as high as 6 feet. The boats remained sure footed, but we were tired. Our last effort pulled us by Coffin Rocks and Gull Rocks into Bowman Bay. The swell made all the sailboats anchored in the bay buck up and down furiously. They clanged and banged as their owners watched nervously.
We pulled into the far deep corner of the bay along the headland. It was too shallow here for big boats, but we need almost no water to float. Here in the corner we were too far from the entrance for the swell to reach us. Our boats lay peacefully on their anchors, and we ate Tasty Bites, tuna from a can, and couscous. It was delicious, and we were dead asleep as soon as the tents were up. We covered 25 miles in 11 hours, and still had all of our oarlocks.