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Bareboating on Puget Sound

Protected waters and a sensible itinerary make for a great family cruise

Protected waters and a sensible itinerary make for a great family cruise

Depending on where you are, Puget Sound can look no bigger than a mountainous version of the Intracoastal Waterway. That’s what I thought when I first laid eyes on it from the lighthouse at Mukilteo Park on a sunny day last July. Then I went to the top of the iconic Space Needle in Seattle and nearly got the wind knocked out of me, staring incredulously at the immensity of this vast inland sea. Wow, it’s big!

Framed by distant snow-capped peaks, the tendrils of these indigo waters stretch out in all directions, inviting adventurous sailors to come explore them for a summer or a lifetime. My family and I had to settle for a week on a chartered sailboat, and I already regretted this limitation.

After a thorough search of local bareboat charter companies, we reserved Wilson, a Catalina 36, from the good people at Windworks (windworkssailing.com) at Shilshole Bay Marina and were introduced to Thor, a gregarious boat hand who took us out for a spin and put me through an extensive checklist to make sure I was qualified to safely sail the boat. “How much time have you spent on Puget Sound?” he asked. “Oh, about three minutes.” I answered, honestly. We laughed, and I added that I’ve been sailing the East Coast and Bahamas for about two decades.

After an hour running through charts, navigation, docking, sail handling, anchoring, radio and engine operation Thor was satisfied as to our competence, and we set the date for our week on the water.

My family and I live in Florida, and most of what I know of Puget Sound came from stories about George Vancouver, who explored these waters for Britain in 1792 and placed names on almost everything he saw. In all, he spent two months here and upon returning home, spent the rest of his life writing about what he’d experienced. Looking at the NOAA chart he helped create, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. “Where will we go?” asked my wife, Kanako. I was unable to answer. Like a kid at an amusement park, I wanted to see it all.

Getting underway at high noon, the first thing we learned about sailing the sound is that you need to get underway early or you won’t be sailing on the sound. The wind is usually light and variable and frequently dies in the afternoon (unlike the ocean back east). We also had our teenaged daughters on board, which meant this was going to be a challenge. If you’re a parent you know what I’m talking about. How can kids sleep that long without being dead?

Of course, I wanted this to be fun for them too, so I axed the ambitious itinerary, and decided we would make a large clockwise circle around the central Sound, stopping at a different port each night. That way, the girls could get their beauty rest while their mother and I got underway early enough to catch the good winds of the morning. (I can also report that throughout the week we had excellent cell coverage for those all-important online games and Instagram photos!)

The San Juan Islands are a sailor’s paradise

The San Juan Islands are a sailor’s paradise

Heading south from Shilshole, we had two of the best nav aids a sailor could ask for: the snowy peaks of Mt. Rainier ahead and Mt. Baker astern. We also scanned the waters for orcas, but I’ve learned that these gentle giants are suffering from diminished stocks of salmon and are difficult to spot. The first day’s destination was Blake Island, a 475-acre state park with a surfeit of cheap moorings, docks, campsites and showers. As we aimed for a mooring, and I also received another lesson about Puget Sound: it’s either incredibly deep or incredibly shallow, with the depthsounder spending most of the day reading in excess of 600ft, then suddenly retreating to 10. The tidal range is also a Maine-like 10-12ft, so running aground can be both embarrassing and uncomfortable. Still, Blake Island was a treat, and we spent the afternoon exploring the trails that wandered through second-growth forests of giant red cedars and Douglas fir trees.

Back on board, the sun set behind the Olympic Mountains at about 2100 and the temperature plummeted to the low 50s, too cold to hang out in the cockpit, but reasonably warm below.

Day two began with sailing wing-and-wing off the anchor northward toward Orchard Bay. This is why we sail! Around these parts, Washington ferries are ubiquitous and move rapidly among the many islands. They are the commuting vehicles of the island residents, and smaller vessels must be perpetually vigilant and ready to give way. At the narrows in Rich Passage, we were also schooled on tidal current when the SOG dropped from 6 knots to one. As if to emphasize my poor timing, six sailboats appeared from around Lemolo Point going the opposite way. Note to self: pay attention to the tides before getting underway.

We, therefore, fired up the engine and crept past the small Navy base at Key Port, where the restricted area on the chart will on occasion have live torpedo firing drills. Little did we know that nearby a WWII-era mine would pop up a few weeks later, creating a dangerous situation and necessitating that the entire area be closed to marine traffic until it could be detonated by the Navy. I’m glad we didn’t catch the thing in our prop!

Next on the list was Liberty Bay, which terminates at Poulsbo, known in these parts as Little Norway. Originally settled by Norwegian immigrant fishermen in the 1880s, the people there have maintained their Norwegian identity with bakeries, bookstores, craft shops, restaurants and even a Sons of Norway lodge that serves lutefisk.

13thbirthday

After a pizza dinner and a hike up to the First Lutheran Church, we took in a free concert at the park with most of the town’s population in attendance. As we rowed back to Wilson, a buck moon smiled down on us and an inquisitive harbor seal popped his head up by our transom and stared with intelligent eyes as if to say, “Where do you think you’re going?”

Next morning was my daughter’s 13th birthday, and we were off with the outgoing tide. Her expectations included a nice restaurant and shopping, so we had to find a good “civilized” place to stop for the night. Approaching long and narrow Agate Passage the wind lightened to a mere wisp, and we ghosted through it on little more than the current.

Back on the open sound, the wind clocked steadily to the southeast, and we beat into it till we cleared Point Monroe and turned to the south. But then the hot sun had handcuffed the wind, and the waters became a giant navy-blue sheet of silk—time to crank up the engine.

Getting ready for a hike at Eagle Harbor

Getting ready for a hike at Eagle Harbor

At 1630 we made the turn into wide and inviting Eagle Harbor and tied up at the City Dock with its large metal-grid floating docks. For $0.50 per foot we got hot showers and a free pump-out, all within a short walk of the Town & Country grocery store and the pedestrian-friendly village of Winslow. Paved hiking trails lined with madronas and blackberry brambles wind their way throughout this charming place, never far from the waterfront and the hundreds of boats docked there. After dinner at the Madison Diner, we headed back to the boat, where we enjoyed a birthday cake with 13 candles and enjoyed another quiet night aboard under thick blankets.

At this latitude, the day dawns early and the harbor quickly came alive with kids in Optis, teens in sculling shells and adults on SUPs. Sailboats were also soon heading for the sound and deciding we should do the same we pumped out the holding tank, cast off the lines and stared out, only to have the engine sputter and die. “Wilson!!” I cried à la Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Having spent a lot of time on Catalinas I quickly got into the engine compartment to pursue the cause of our problem. However, my troubleshooting yielded nothing, so we dialed up Windworks and got Thor on the line. Together we touched almost every base we could, but had no luck identifying the source of the problem. Because there was no real wind, so we even discussed a tow the boat back to Shilshole Bay—a most unappealing option. Finally, as an afterthought, Thor suggested looking at the fuel pump. “How do the wires look?” he said, and right there before my eyes, I saw—a broken positive wire. With a diesel it’s almost always a simple solution; why didn’t I see that? After that, I found a spade connector, crimped it on. Wilson roared to life, and our charter was saved.

Underway at last with the help of the ebb tide, we had a clear run to the sound. But no! Kanako shouted that a ferry was now silently backing out of its slip, directly into our path, forcing us to stand down to let the leviathan quietly pass ahead and steam off for Seattle.

By now it was late in the day, so we made the short run south to Blakely Harbor with a clear view nearby Seattle, which twinkles in the night like the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz.

Our final day out was bright and hot, so we aimed for Elliot Bay and downtown. As usual, the wind soon began its slow death as we tacked north, aiming for Discovery Point where we planned to stop and walk around the lighthouse at Fort Lawton. After dropping the anchor and backing down, though, we learned that Mr. Murphy was not yet done with us. Thunk! The painter wrapped around and seized the propeller.

In Florida, this is no big deal—put on a diving mask, jump in, unwrap the offending line and off you go. This time, though, when I descended the aft ladder my legs went numb. Great Caesar’s ghost, it was cold. In I went and quickly did the job, practically leaping out of the water afterward. Now I know why ocean mammals have so much blubber!

Back at the marina, we refilled the fuel tank with 2.5 gallons of diesel. The attendant asked how our day was and was shocked when I told him we’ve been out for an entire week. Later, safely tucked away in our slip we watched the low sun spread a fiery crimson glow over the huge marina and tony homes perched on the nearby hillside. Trains rumbled by on their way to Alaska. A chill wind swept in from the north.

Standing watch over all this was a giant bronze statue of the first-century explorer Leif Erikson, who sternly looks to the north as if planning a voyage. He never made it here, but thousands of his fortunate descendants did, to enjoy these beautiful blue waters between the mountains. 

Robert Beringer and his family sail a 34ft Catalina out of Jacksonville, Florida

May 2019

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