As boaters, we get to see the world from a unique perspective. We arrive in cities or towns by water, taking in the view of cliffs, trees, and mountains rising from the earth. Out on a bay, river, or lake, the glint of the sun or the water’s shifting tone as clouds roll in cannot be seen anywhere else. Up ahead, there’s an anomaly on the surface — is it a troop of frisky otters porpoising along the shore? Off to starboard, a tide race is churning the sea into whitewater along a reef. Everyone aboard crowds the rail to take it in. Experiences like these keep us returning to our boats, year after year.

Perhaps the best word to describe it is awe, which is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a mixed feeling of reverence, fear, and wonder, caused by something majestic, sublime, sacred, etc.” In popular culture, party dudes have hijacked the word, diluting “awesome!” into a shorthand for thanks, excess, or anything good. But for boaters, seeing something awesome truly is a regular, memorable, and moving experience.

As we wind down another year and head into 2024, I invite you to join me in recapturing the full experience of on-the-water awe.

The author’s wife, Kate, stops to take in the hues of golden hour over Fisherman Bay, Lopez Island.

My wife, Kate, had occasionally been a day sailor, but when she suddenly got a yearning to come cruising, she helped me further appreciate the sublime. One evening, we went for a walk along the Lopez Island road that fronts Fisherman Bay. I was sizing up the houses along the east side of the pavement when I suddenly realized that I’d left Kate behind. I turned and saw her standing silently, facing west. When I asked what she was looking at, she just waved an arm at the scene unfolding before her. Completely engaged by the transformation of the water from a respectable silver to a dozen shades of orange, burnt sienna, and ocher, she was speechless. She had discovered golden hour on the Salish Sea. Awesome.

Fog and sun mix on the water to create an awe-inspiring scene like no other.

Even as my catalog of adventures and on-the-water experiences steadily grows, I too find moments where words fail me. A few years ago, I’d tagged along with a group of small boat sailors deep in British Columbia. Low clouds hung in the sky and drifts of fog periodically obscured my view down a long channel. It had been drizzling on and off all morning, but not enough to don proper rain gear. With a wind against the current, the water looked like crinkled aluminum foil. In the distance I could see a change in the texture, but only when I was nearly upon it did I realize I’d entered the edge of a stationary cloud dumping a massive amount of precipitation straight down, smoothing out the aluminum-foil disturbance of the water’s surface. The rain was hitting so hard that I could watch individual droplets splashing and bouncing off the sea. Stunned, I stood there, mainsheet and tiller still in hand, as the water cascaded off my hat like a personal waterfall. Finally, when the first icy rivulets began pouring down my back, I snapped back to reality long enough to grab a coat and drape it over my shoulders. I sailed on, dumbstruck by the intensity of the rain. Awesome.

Golden hour at Winter Harbour on Saturna Island, B.C. is a thing of beauty.

Experiencing awe doesn’t always happen far from civilization, or during intense conditions. Just a few months ago, I’d spent a night at James Island State Park, four miles from Anacortes. The west side of the island was bathed in the amber glow of the golden hour, but the east side sported a stellar view of the Cascade Mountains, with Mt. Baker alight in the last rays of the day. Strolling in a low spot that forms a campground there, I pulled out my camera to frame a picture.

“Did you get a good shot,” asked a man in a lawn chair.

“Not at all,” I said ruefully. “It looks so right with my eye, but on the screen, it’s just a tiny thing.”

“Yep,” he agreed.

We stood for a few minutes admiring the alpenglow; reds and oranges contrasting with the white snow on the peaks were captivating.

“I can’t imagine a better place to be on vacation,” the man said. “Every night, a different show. It’s so amazing.”

Our eyes scanned the surroundings and we observed the rippling waters of Rosario Strait contrasted with the silhouettes of scraggly fir trees perched on a headland. A few lights twinkled in town; a boat headed south, revealing the scale of the waters. I was glad to stand there in utter silence because saying another word would have taken away from the majesty of it all.

In the coming year, I hope that we’ll all linger in these moments of awe. Let’s cut the engine and drift, noticing small wonders, like a vast school of shiny bait fish shoaling and turning as one. Let’s anchor out, then row the dinghy to the shallows, creeping along the shoreline, riding the powerful force of the tide. Let’s make an extra effort to bring a landlubber aboard, sharing the joy or fear of the new, and reconnecting with marvels we may have taken for granted.

As for myself, I plan to experience the awesome while pushing into more exposed seas in my small boats, close enough to touch the water and see what lurks beneath, aware that a whale or a big gust could easily capsize my little craft. For me, all this brings on that state of awe.

Whether traveling by paddle, motor, or sail; alone or with a crew; overnighting on the beach, in a cockpit tent, or in a boat’s cozy cabin — let’s get out and have an awesome year.

A friend paddles past Cape Horn on the Columbia River as the sun breaks through the clouds.

Bruce Bateau sails and rows traditional boats with a modern twist in Portland, Oregon. His stories and adventures can be found at