By Eric Skansgaard
When my wife, Renee, and I moved from Alaska to Hoquiam, on Washington’s Grays Harbor, we missed the sense of exploration and adventure we had found there. Then one day Renee plugged the word “sailboat” into the eBay search engine, and we ended up with a 22-foot Hunter we named Taligim Chignaa, Aleut for “Dancing Creek.” On weekends we towed her to Budd Inlet, in Olympia, until I noticed that we lived beside two large bodies of water with consistent wind, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever sailed there. Nobody! To a Norwegian like me, saying “nobody ever sails there” is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Thus began our voyages of discovery.
Leaving Hoquiam under auxiliary power, Chignaa makes 6.5 knots out the Moon Island Reach. It is our first weekend cruise to the marina at Westport, a frequent stopover on the California-to-Canada route. We sail close-hauled through the steel-gray waters of Grays Harbor; the absence of sailboats and a gaping estuary bar are not reassuring.
Yet I am in seventh heaven. Average daily wind is 8.2 knots, second only to San Francisco on the West Coast. Chignaa heels 20 degrees, kicking up a nice wake. A mixture of fear and exhilaration ebbs from Renee, but the sighting of whale spouts to port mitigates her apprehension. Settling in for the evening at Float 6, we enjoy the charms of Westport, a fishing and tourist community centered on the marina.
In the morning we set out to explore North Bay. Curious seals observe our passing. Renee notes that they look like pug-dogs of the sea. Our own pug-nosed Pekingese companions, Frodo and Renono, struggle to figure out if these are things to be barked at.
Like Willapa Bay, North Bay is relatively “uncharted” because shoal formation is constantly in flux. Prior to the trip I obtained aerial photos from recent NOAA projects. Using digital imaging software, we reprocessed them to reveal submerged shoal structures more clearly. Thus armed, we drop a crab pot off Damon Point and motor north.
We note spouts off the starboard bow. Two gray whales have situated themselves in a fathom of water and are rolling about, kicking up sand. We edge closer. Cream and black fins jut from the water as they loll on their sides. Renee is on the bow and swears she hears one calling to the other.
Heading north, we reach Sand Island, in the heart of North Bay. Thousands of pelicans and seagulls congregate here. It is a National Geographic moment. Nosing carefully around the northwest corner, we find 15 feet of water to anchor in. Renee sets the Bruce while I ready the kayak.
Not a single human footprint mars the sand. We avoid larger concentrations of pelicans in a futile effort not to disturb them. Hundreds of seagulls are mewing, cawing, and diving to protest our trespass. We complete a circuit of the island, finding treasures among the driftwood.
Back aboard Chignaa, we sail north under headsail in 5 feet of water; Renee suffers an attack of depthfinder phobia and retreats to the cabin, clattering her knitting needles. Shoals rise, and we turn back; we could have gone farther only in the kayak.
Shortly after we turn, a stiff breeze springs out of the southwest. The tide ebbs in opposition to the wind, making retrieval of our crab pot a challenge. On our third pass we finally connect. I note the ring has come up sideways, yet several large Dungeness crabs cling foolishly to it. A mighty pull launches all skyward; the ring hits our stern and the crabs bounce happily home. We conclude I have no future in crabbing.
Another wonderful night in Westport, swapping stories with a Canadian couple in a 41-foot Formosa ketch. The VHF blares: “Attention, all vessels operating in and around Grays Harbor; this is the U.S. Coast Guard. The Grays Harbor bar is closed to all uninspected vessels due to unsafe conditions. Southwest wind 25 knots, swell 8 to 10 feet with occasional 12-foot plunging waves.” Sailors here have mixed views of our chances at the bar, some thinking we need a bigger boat, but we’ll try it tomorrow.
Conditions are perfect at the bar, with little wind and low slack. The Coast Guard claims combined seas of 3 to 5 feet. Given the calm, we should have no problem. We are confident, even though the swell increases near the first buoys. But as we venture farther, I realize things are more than what they seem. The ocean remains roughed up from last night, and beyond the jetties the swell is more like 6 feet with occasional 8-footers. We must keep the bow into them. In the troughs we see only water on all sides. To the south, gigantic waves rise above the sunken jetty.
I credit Renee for her increased tolerance of anxiety but realize this is potentially unsafe. Coming about is a matter of timing. As a plateau of water appears between two troughs, competing waves cancel each other out. Chignaa swings sharply and catches the next swell on the stern, accelerating to over 10 knots as weather helm increases, pulling to port. Fortunately, the swell decreases quickly on our return.
I agree with the sailor from last night; we will need a bigger boat. Our quest for more waterline leads to our maiden cruise on French Kiss, a shoal-draft Allmand 31.
The Graveyard of the Pacific is on the itinerary today. The horizon over Vancouver Island flames cadmium, scarlet, and mauve. Filigreed veils of fog shroud Tatoosh Island’s lighthouse. Shooting between Tatoosh and Duncan Rock, we enter the mist, thankful for the radar. Dodging blips, we realize we have lucked out. The Pacific is, well, pacific.
The fog breaks around Cape Alva, and French Kiss motorsails south at 7 knots. Our July passage is marked by blowing and breeching whales, racing porpoises, and the rocky, inaccessible coast of the Olympic Peninsula.
I prefer to make Grays Harbor before nightfall, so we race the setting sun. Off Cape Elizabeth we obtain a bar report from the Coast Guard: “Wind 5–10 knots, northwest swell 3 feet.” Approaching the harbor, Renee spots a crab-pot float. Before long we realize we have entered a veritable minefield, crossing line after line of floats. Keeping a cool head, Renee cons us with hand signals. We dodge floats in the dusk.
As we enter the bar, the light fails completely. Fortunately, it’s a flood tide. Red and green lights are hopelessly confused as channels branch farther back in the bay. Using radar and chartplotter we make an “instrument landing.” Our reward for reaching Westport is a fine dinner at Anthony’s Italian Restaurant and the opportunity to swap stories with other sailors.
By summer’s end we are eager to enter the Willapa. Weeks earlier I contacted the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers for information about the entrance; they both said that Willapa’s bar is too unstable to track. I finally obtain current GPS coordinates for an approach from Willy, captain of the F/V Fortress. He says the way to find the channel is to “lay offshore during a storm and watch. Then just go where the breakers aren’t.” I also do a visual reconnoiter from the road and see miles of breakers stretching away south.
It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Our hopes are high as French Kiss exits Grays Harbor in conditions that would have sent us packing in Chignaa. A northwest swell of 5 to 7 feet tests our determination. French Kiss rocks through 40 degrees with the quartering sea. I cringe when wine glasses start breaking, but Renee coolly remarks, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”
A cinnamon-colored sea lion perched on the Willapa whistle buoy contemplates our passing with an expression suggesting “Doomed, you’re all doomed.” We are alone as we line up Willy’s approach points. The “highway” on our GPS route feature cuts straight through the 6-foot quartering swell. If still waters run deep, what does that say about coastal shoal waters? I run north in the troughs to compensate for southing on the crests. We zigzag over rising shoal, and the depthsounder dips to 17 feet near high slack. Just like that we are in 95 feet off Washaway Beach and inside the Willapa! A thin mist gives the bay an otherworldly feel. Breakers crash on shoals just south of us. Motoring cautiously, we pick our way through this poorly marked channel.
In a developing sea breeze we hoist main and genoa and make an entrance among 60-odd fishing skiffs off Toke Point. Our sails are an unusual sight, and cameras flash around us. Massive by comparison, French Kiss glides gracefully with Renee at the helm, picking her way through the crowd.
The breeze builds as we approach South Bend on the Willapa, broad-reaching at 7.3 knots. At the city docks we inquire about mooring fees. A young lady says, “Well, if yer just gonna stay a week or sumpin’ I guess it won’t cost ya nothing. Now, if yer stayin’ fer a month, then I figger yer probly gonna hafta pay.” Electricity is included in the price. We explore this friendly little town, dining at an open barbecue as the only customers. Out the window we watch the chef build the fire and nurture baby back ribs. The nightlife is fine. Just above the docks sit three bars, and the locals are out in force.
The next morning we are racked with indecision. Stay to enjoy, or go and explore? Exploration, of course, wins. Our destination is Nahcotta Boat Basin on the Long Beach Peninsula, a day’s journey. Motoring through the mist, we retrace yesterday’s track to Ellen Sands. Skirting the north edge of this shoal complex, we motor south in 46 feet. Thousands of cormorants line the shoals, and one of the giant “yellow can” buoys lies high and dry on the flats. What powerful storm ripped it loose of its mooring?
There is no boat traffic in the southern channels. At the Palix River green day marker our depthsounder dips rapidly. Repeatedly backtracking, we finally settle into 20-plus feet in the Nahcotta Channel. Red day markers are not at the GPS coordinates listed on charts. Eight knots of northwesterly breeze fills main and genny as we make a silent run to Nahcotta.
Ridge upon ridge of uninhabited forests rise to the east. Long Island looms large to port as we motor into Nahcotta. What to my wondering eyes should appear but several sailboats around 20 to 25 feet. Have we found kindred spirits here?
“Dang, that’s the biggest sailboat I ever saw in here!” yells a friendly local who catches our lines. “How many times you run aground?” He is the owner of a Catalina 22 and introduces me to Larry, the assistant harbormaster.
“Pretty big boat you got there,” says Larry, “maybe the biggest I ever saw here. How many times you run aground?” Clearly, the arrival of an outside sailboat is not an everyday event. The facilities are quaint but clean, and Larry rolls out the red carpet.
Nahcotta is a working oyster marina. One of every six oysters eaten in the U.S. comes through here or Bay Center. The basin is shallow, however; we are thankful for the Allmand’s shoal draft and know we bought the right boat.
We bicycle across the peninsula. Here is the Pacific again. The highlight is Jack’s Country Store in Ocean Park, an original mercantile from the Washington Territory. We admire wood floors, glass ceilings, rolling track ladders, and rural charm.
The setting sun glows on a peaceful Nahcotta. After 6 p.m. the gates lock. Renee and I have the entire marina to ourselves. We fix barbecued ribs and Sangria and bake our first cake in French Kiss’s alcohol oven. The romance of the setting takes over. Renee turns up the stereo and we dance and plan future trips. Tomorrow Norway, next day the world.
Time and tide wait for no man, but they might for a woman. I can’t bring myself to wake Renee and am reluctant to depart. Yet leave we must. Going with the tide, we find a deeper route on the way out, more east in the channel. We have no problem going out as we have yesterday’s route on the GPS and avoid the shoals.
Off Washaway Beach everything is chaos. In front of us the swell is crowned with whitecaps. Breakers thunder to the south. I decide this is doable, that it is better to take it on the nose now than on the stern later. The afternoon wind at Grays Harbor was intense every day last week, so we expect the same today.
We nose out of the Willapa carefully. I am tempted to turn back as we close on the shallow spot, but have no guarantee that things will be better later. French Kiss’s throttle is at max, and there are spilling breakers all around us. I hold as close as possible to Willy’s GPS line, our inward track, and we rise and fall 8 to 10 feet. Just as we are about to break out, three giant swells sweep the area. French Kiss climbs the first but nearly buries her bow on the second. Maybe it was the reduction in speed, but we just sort of flop over the last giant and are clear.
We rock and roll back to Grays Harbor and make an uneventful reentry through a 5-foot following swell at about 3 p.m. By 4:30 the wind is gusting 22, and the bar is no place to be.
Borrowing from Norwegian explorers of the past, Renee hoists the blue, white, and red banner triumphantly on the halyard. The season is past, so few are here to see. Mission accomplished, French Kiss makes slowly for Hoquiam and home through the fall drizzle.
Eric and Renee Skansgaard enjoy their new home waters for the high adventure, isolation, and navigation and planning challenges. This is one of the richest sailing environments in the country, they find, that retains an undiscovered quality.