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Reflections at Eagle Harbor

by Chris - February 6th, 2012.
Filed under: Boating. Tagged as: , , , .

It was the first weekend in February and the first weekend of calm, sunny weather for 2012. This would also be my first solo trip in my 40 foot cruise-a-home, the Rock ‘N Row.

It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful the San Juan Islands are. Just 5 minutes out of the marina wall and its like someone just slapped me in the face with splendor. While pulling out of Burrow’s Channel, a decent sized pod of harbor porpoise swam in a tight cluster between me and the rock wall of the channel. Normally they would take evasive action in the presence of a boat and swim away, but in this case they didn’t have anywhere to go. I appreciated the rare opportunity to see so many up close.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my plans to move aboard my boat full time this September. I had made the goal last September in order to give myself a year to prepare the boat and my life. With seven months to go, the boat was progressing quickly. Mentally, I am completely prepared and excited to begin this new chapter of my life. However, the closer the date gets, the slower my work day seems to go by.

Also, it’s interesting to observe the reactions of my friends and family. Before last September I would talk about my desire to become a full time cruiser, but whenever I would share my aspirations, they would be met with a consistent incredulity. As the date approaches however, I am beginning to notice increasing amplitudes of admiration from a few, and pessimistic inquisitiveness bordering on panic from others.

As I pulled the boat into Rosario Strait and set my course north, I began to reflect on one of my favorite unanswerable questions: What are peoples end goals? From my experience, I believe the vast majority of people just drift through life and ‘get by’ with little to no thought as to where the course they are on will take them.

It took me a long time to come to grips with this concept. People have consistently remarked to me (in both positive and negative connotations) that I am very focused on my future and where my life is going… like a laser beam. I was never taught to think this way. I have always approached life in this manner. But the contrast between the two approaches of life has only recently come into focus for me.

The current was amazingly strong in Rosario Strait. As I pursued my northern route, I slowly approached a small, local tug pulling a small barge. We began to enter a slow ‘turtle’ race as I gained on him at about ½ mile an hour. As I slowly crept up to him, his boat began to get closer and closer to my port side. What had started with parallel paths going north had now resulted in a collision course. He needed to go northeast, up Guemes Channel and I needed to go due north, up Bellingham Channel.

My brother is a big boat captain who spent a fair amount of time working on tugs. He has always told me to stay away from tugs. They can’t stop when towing a load and will not hesitate to run you over if you get in their way. Remembering my older brother’s advice, I adjusted course to stay parallel to the tug until I was far enough past him that I could revert course to my northerly route.

As I slowly crept up to about half a boat length ahead of him, I was able to notice the ferry for the first time. I hadn’t noticed it before because it was on the port side of his boat, which blocked my view. It was heading back to Anacortes from the San Juan Islands. It was big and heading towards us fast! The ferry had to head due east, and they had set a course to cut in front of us. Our northerly progress had forced him to arc wide and the ferry now clearly intended to cut in front of us as close as possible.

As the minutes slowly ticked by, the ferry passed about 300 yards ahead of us. By this time the tug was just yards behind my dingy; far too close to adjust course before the ferry wake hit. I told my dog, Tula, to hang on as I gripped the wheel and braced myself for the impact of the ferry wake.

We took the wake dead on the nose of the boat and bucked accordingly. Tula shot up about six inches off the floor, caught completely by surprise… I tried to warn you dog.

Washington State ferries are incredibly well engineered vehicles. They are designed to move very efficiently through the water. The wake they create dissipates very quickly and whenever I cross paths with one (which happens frequently) I am continually amazed at how little wake they leave behind. However, I had never passed this close to one and the wake was proportionate to the size of the ship. If I had been in a 20 foot boat instead of a 40 foot one, I think I would have caught some good air!

Once we got through the first barrage of wake, I turned hard to port to signal that I wanted to get out of the tugs way. He was about 60 feet behind me and turning lazily to the east.

During this whole time, I was running at 1800 RPMs on both engines and only moving through the water at 5 mph according to my GPS. We had all been fighting at least a 4 mph current. As I passed the southern tip of Cypress Island, I pulled into the back eddy created by Secret Harbor and Cypress Head. My speed on the GPS jumped to 10 mph. All right! That’s more like it!

The last half of the journey to Eagle Harbor took half the time as the first half thanks to presence of back eddies. I’m really looking forward to the day when I’ll have time to wait for favorable currents. Mother Nature exacts a high gas tax for going against the flow.





Eagle Harbor and the Cone Islands

Foreground: my friends sail boat rafted to my boat. Background: the Cone Islands with Mt. Baker behind.

As dawn began to barely poke its head above the horizon, Tula woke me up with her signature move: “I’m just going to wiggle around… wiggle around… wiggle around…. Oh, are you awake? Let’s go to the beach!” She refuses to learn to pee on the deck of the boat and lets me know when she needs to go to land. Thankfully, she’ll wait until the sun comes up (almost). Oh well. I’m an early riser anyways.

As we made the short trip to land, the red glow of the sun highlighted the wispy clouds like the gentle paint strokes from a master painter. The wind was calm and the harbor was full of birds of all kinds awaking to greet the day. The sky and scenery was so beautiful I felt like laughing and crying at the same time.

Just as my boat will eventually absorb energy from the sun and wind to charge its batteries, I feel like my time out here gives my soul time to absorb the beauty around me – to give me the strength to endure life on land a little longer. At the same time, this beauty is like a sirens call, emphasizing the frustration I feel towards my day to day life on land. Every trip is taken with the ever present knowledge that I can’t stay.

While Tula stretched her legs, I filled up a small burlap bag with small pieces of driftwood for the little wood stove I installed on the boat a few weeks ago. This trip was also the first opportunity I have had to give it a good break-in.

Back at the boat, time got away from me. After fixing breakfast, stoking the fire, cleaning the boat, doing dishes, it was already 10 am. A quick hike up to Duck Lake and back and the clock read 2 PM. I headed out in the dingy to see if I could catch a fish, but as I got closer to the Cone Islands, I could tell that I had left too late. I was in a losing race with the sun as I watched the shadow of Cypress Island creep over Big Cone Island. Once the sun sets, the fish stop biting. They won’t bite at a lure they can’t see. Hmm… there’s always tomorrow.

On the cruise back, I reflected some more on my obsessive compulsive tendency to focus on my future. I realized that all day I hadn’t thought about anything other than the tasks at hand. Why is my mental process so different out here? Perhaps my problem is that I focus on planning out my future to the n’th detail when I’m forced into inaction – out of desperation to do ‘something’ to progress my life. Forced idleness is truly the worst torture for me – like solitary confinement in a prison cell or being stuck doing menial computer work while imprisoned in a cubical.





My dog Tula

Tula, my dog (not happy)

The next morning. Wiggle wiggle wiggle… wiggle wiggle wiggle…. “Oh, are you awake? Let’s go to the beach!” Again, the sky was just getting light. The sun was at least a half hour below the horizon. Not a cloud in the sky. As a compromise, I decided to take the dingy about a ¼ mile north to a beach on Cypress near a small island the locals call Elephant Rock. Tula got to run around on the beach and I got to sit on a small cliff above and watch the sun rise above the horizon. As an added treat, I got to watch two Canadian Geese honk their way from specks in the sky to a water landing about 100 feet from me.

After breakfast I set out, determined bring home some fish for dinner. Three hours of jigging later and I had three fish to show for my efforts. Two greenling and one cabazon. The first greenling was clearly too small to eat, so I threw him back. Cabazon’s are nearly all head and have to be pretty big to get any meat off of their little body. This guy was too much on the small side. Plus, they are one of those fish that are so ugly, they’re almost cute; so I threw him back too. The remaining greenling would have added to a nice haul, but by himself, was less than a meal. I decided to take mercy and let him live too. Oh well. Hopefully they’ll all grow up and I can catch them again in a few months.

The wood stove had performed admirably all weekend, but the drift wood I had gathered on the shore had been wet and didn’t give off as much heat as it should have. I decided to go to the beach before I left to stockpile wood for the future. I filled up two 5 gallon buckets with pieces of bark about the size of a silver dollar. I’ll let these air dry in my shed for the next trip out.

After prepping the boat for the return trip, I caught a favorable ebb tide – the same one I fought on the way here. Running one engine at 1600 RPM, I did just under 9 mph the whole way home. I probably burned one third of the gas just by waiting to catch a favorable tide.

Heading back ‘home’, facing the stark contrast between the modern life I was returning to and the simple but beautiful life I had been living the last two days, I felt vindicated that the path I’ve set myself on is the right way to live; for me. I yearn for it. I have always felt out of place in modern society and completely at home in San Juan Islands. I look forward to the time when I can call the San Juan’s ‘home’ and I make ‘trips’ to the mainland.

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