Row camping in the Gulf Islands; there and back again
Row camping in the Gulf Islands; there and back again
The current running through the anchorage never let up that night off Tumbo Island. Strangely, it never even changed directions. Under the tent, any ambient light was blocked. So when the phosphorescent dinoflagellates lit up their star-like white lights, they were clearly visible through the translucent hull. As the current rushed by, the stream was filled with a thousand little tinkerbells blinking on and off as they sped along. It was easy to get lost in the show, which when laying on my side was literally right before my eyes. It was transcendent, psychedelic, and almost impossible to photograph. Sorry.
That morning as I awoke, I heard a good breeze outside. The tent wasn’t making any noise and the air inside was still, so I stuck my hand out the opening in the stern. It was blowing at least 10 knots out there! This is my first experience with a heavy fabric tent, and I am happy to report it would take quite a windstorm to so much as jostle the tent. My anchor was holding, and it was still twilight, so I went back to sleep.
We had an easy morning’s journey back to Winter Cove. We were moving closer to the Saturna ferry dock so that we’d be ready to pick up Jon’s girlfriend the following morning. She had enough time to join us thanks in part to the three day weekend, “British Columbia Day”. This is where people in British Columbia celebrate being from British Columbia. We rowed to meet her on the same ferry that had previously brought us medical services, the first ferry of the morning on Saturna island.
And then we were three. The boat handled two persons wonderfully, though I took some of the heavy stuff from Red Zep (Jon’s boat) to ease their load. I didn’t envy the tight quarters they’d have at anchor when sleeping, and I can’t recommend it, but the skinny little things didn’t seem to mind. We returned at once to Browning’s Marina to reprovision, and then the next day we jumped out into the Haro Strait and caught the ebb tide down to Rum Island.
Rum Island is connected to another, Gooch Island, but only Rum Island is public. It’s a lovely spot. The island would be right at home nestled between Patos and Sucia, and that’s the highest praise an island could receive. It had one misfortune though, one that it shared with Browning’s Marina the previous night. Loud, drunk, homophobic morons, who felt the need to make sure that everyone for kilometers around could tell that they were loud, drunk, homophobic morons. They were anchored out alongside us. “I got no problem with gay people. I’ve got two gay friends. But what I can’t stand is that they have sex.” Then the loud individual holds forth for an hour or so about gay sex. Using “retard” and “fuck” as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, articles… This summary lends too much coherence to the noise they made, but is typical of several soliloquies we heard in several bays. Avoid Canadian anchorages on three day weekends. Their morons have learned how to handle boats.
The next morning we showed admirable restraint and did not sink our slumbering neighbors. We had to return our crew to mainland Vancouver Island, and return ourselves to the United States. In high season there is a foot ferry that runs from Sidney Island to the town of Sidney, so we didn’t need to go very far out of our way. We rowed west to Sydney Island and the ferry dock, and said our goodbyes. She continued west and we started our eastward trip to San Juan Island.
Roche Harbor was about 7 miles away, and almost all of that water was scary. Tide rips, shipping lanes, tons of yacht traffic (everyone was headed back from the US after their long weekend), so much was happening all at once out there. Our plan was to cut directly across the lanes, and get washed down by the tide along San Juan Island. Then having reached the south entrance for Roche Harbor at the turning of the tide, retrace our steps back north in more protected waters.
As we set out, we checked a website that shows AIS data (where big boats are, and where they are going), and found that a tanker was coming our way from around Turn Point. We couldn’t see it yet, but it would be just about the same place as us in about 45 minutes. If we rowed quickly, we’d miss it. So with the fear of god (or Zhou Galaxy, the ship which for that 45 minutes was our vengeful deity) we rowed like hell for San Juan Island.
Our hard work paid off, and 45 minutes later we watched Zhou Galaxy pass us almost a mile distant. We did such a good job in fact that we failed to get swept south along San Juan as we had planned. Instead we were caught in an eddy taking us to the north side, taking us really fast. At the same time, the wind came up, opposing the current that we were riding. The result of this wind-over-current action is always the same, short steep waves. Sometimes dangerously steep. Sometimes not so short. We were barely able to move through the water, flotsam and jetsom remained alongside as a reminder that in this heavy chop and wind, all we could hope for was to maintain a heading. We bounced up and down, rowing when we could. But it didn’t matter, we were going 5 knots directly towards the US Customs Dock in Roche Harbor.
The back eddy we rode in was just like those little pools you see in mountain streams. The water rushes by, but some of it turns around a rock to flow into a calm pool. Some leaves float downstream, others turn the corner and are forever stuck, gently swirling. We were those leaves, in a river 5 miles wide, with a rock named “Battleship Island” to eddy behind.
Out in the main channel megayachts labored against the tide. Just 1 mile away and the water was against them as surely as it was with us. Impossibly, we were outpacing them, on track to arrive in Roche Harbor first. Yet we barely made progress against the nearby driftwood and seaweed. A strange stretch of water.
We rowed up to San Juan Island, just a few feet off of the rocks. Getting out of our boat and onto those rocks would mean illegally entering the country. We were so close to home! We came around the point of the island and stuck our noses out into the main stream. Now we had to work hard, but by staying right off of the shore, we quickly found ourselves in the still waters of Roche Harbor. About 2 hours early. The trip had only taken 2 hours. I felt elated at the speed, but depressed at having misjudged the currents so badly.
We toasted our success by squeezing the last out of a bag of wine, and then reported to customs. At customs we finally got to meet face to face with a border guard. They were initially confused, but they could see our boats right out the window.
“You rowed over in those?”
“From Canada?”
The boater ahead of us in line was asked if they had any financial instruments worth over 10,000$, but they didn’t bother asking us. One of the ladies felt Jon’s bicep to see if our story seemed plausible. Our story checked out.
They let us back into the country, the fools, and we went straight for the bar. Then we reprovisioned and got out of there. Roche Harbor is no place for a small boat.
As we left, we noticed a guy in a dinghy tied to a 22 foot sailboat trying to start his outboard. He and his boats were drifting toward the docks, and would soon collide with a big yacht tied there. Families in dinghies sped all around, oblivious to the drama that was unfolding. But they looked smart in their captain’s hats and anchor-print scarves.
“Are you ok?” I called out. Asking a question which had an obvious answer.
“Hell no!”
“Want some help?”
I cleated the sailboat’s bow line to Jon’s stern and he started rowing. As he did, the bow line of the dinghy came untied, and the sailboat’s owner was drifting away from his boat. I rowed around to tow him. He had no oars. I’ll never understand the faith people place in outboard engines. I’ve never owned one, but half of the ones I’ve been around have failed… Maybe I am just bad luck.
We reunited the boat and its owner and got out of there. We were haunted by the vision of those families behind the wheel of their rigid inflatables, eyes focused straight ahead, unseeing.
Our return trip took us through the heart of the islands. Here the tides are less pronounced, so we had to work for our miles. The weather would soon pick up, strong winds from the south. It was deja vu for me: my trip last fall became a race to return to Anacortes before the weather pinned me down. This time I had more confidence in the new boat. We didn’t bother racing. The weather forced us to camp on the beach at Obstruction Pass, where we watched a sailboat on a mooring buck mercilessly in the southwest swell.
The morning came for us to head for Anacortes where we would end our trip. It was a surf launching from Obstruction Pass, and then we faced 20 knots from the south in Rosario Strait. These conditions would have grounded my previous boat.
It was slow going, and we got sprayed by surf sometimes, but we were able to pull around the north end of Cypress, and then ride the ebb down to Anacortes. The grey and the rain and the chop did nothing to dampen our spirits.
We landed at the park by the Guemes ferry, and used the traditional end-of-trip toast: “To cheating death!”.
At the end of my last trip, I was too tired to carry my boat. This time I triumphantly carried Starbuck through the park and up to the parking lot. There we met a friend and loaded the boats onto her roof rack. It took two trips to move our stuff to her house, and we still had to drive back to Port Townsend, but the trip was at an end. We covered 170 miles in comfort and style. I can’t wait to do it again.