From the March, 2021 issue of 48° North.

Reminiscing on unplanned racing, downwind sailing and idyllic anchorages turning from winter to spring

Flying the spinnaker as we head north towards Port Townsend.

When we hoisted Yahtzee’s blue asymmetrical spinnaker outside of Shilshole on a cool Friday morning in late February, it was with a sigh of relief. After toiling in a Seattle boatyard for far too many days, our crew was ready to get back to our normal winter routine of cruising the San Juan and Gulf Islands.

Simply put, we were just happy to be out sailing again, and it looked like we were going to be doing a lot of it. The forecast for the upcoming week showed lots of wind from the southeast to southwest, which we hoped would hold and allow us to make miles hopping north from Puget Sound, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and onward to the islands. We didn’t have an exact plan for where we wanted to be and when. Instead, we had a loose outline and would take it a day or two at a time and let the weather be our guide. It was a plan made to order.

Shipwrights’ Regatta to Points North

There are qualities in a partner that you love because you don’t have them and there are qualities that you love because they’re mutual. Spontaneity is, fortunately, one that my wife Jill and I share. About two hours south of Port Townsend, she poked her head up from down below and said, “Hey, the Shipwrights’ Regatta is tomorrow. We should do it!” That’s all it took.

After spending the night at Boat Haven Marina, we signed up to race in the cruising class 10 minutes prior to the skippers’ meeting. Weather-wise, it turned out to be one of those days where if you could order conditions for a sailboat race, this is what you’d choose. The cruising class start was second and we got a decent one in the shifty northwesterly breeze funneling off of town. We had a reef tucked in the main and were sailing fast and pointing high as we got off the line.

Shipwrights’ Regatta competitors spread out across Port Townsend Bay.

After rounding the second mark we shook out the reef and gained a bit of boat speed downwind. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, we had cleared out in front of our class and seemed to be adding distance during each leg, especially upwind. But it was hard to tell if the boats in front of us were in our class or if they’d started with the racing class. When we crossed the finish line after two laps, the race committee gave us a hearty wave and cheer, and I thought there was a decent chance we had at least placed. We’d won.

The post race party was like many at the Northwest Maritime Center (prior to the pandemic), with free beer, prizes, and great conversation to be had as the party spilled out onto the deck overlooking Port Townsend Bay. Port Townsend is a place Jill and I always love to visit, and the hospitality of this group of sailors made it even better. Good thing we both embrace spontaneity.

We’d moored Yahtzee in nearby Point Hudson Marina after the race and, before turning in for the night, we could feel the wind changing. A near gale was forecast to blow out of the southeast all day Sunday and we had plans to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward Roche Harbor. Jill and I knew the ride would be both bumpy and fast and, with pangs of anticipation, we prepared the boat for what was to come.

Go Time

The first day of March dawned blustery and rainy, with patches of blue sky popping up as well, which would set the tone for the day. With the wind blowing steady in the mid- to upper-20s and gusting in the low 30s, we worked together to get the mainsail up and tucked in two reefs. Once the sail was set, we turned north and Yahtzee quickly gathered speed, accelerating first above 7 knots and then above 8. The waves were building as we passed Point Wilson and the sun came out in full force, splashing hues of orange on Whidbey Island.

Port Townsend faded quickly behind us as we sailed out into the Strait and, with Jill at the helm, we executed a flawless jibe in waves that were topping 5 feet or more. Setting a course towards the western side of San Juan Island, we surfed fast in the following seas and our crew hooted and hollered with each surge forward.

With sustained winds in the upper 20s now, we made it nearly halfway across the Strait before we knew it. Then, in what seemed like an instant, the southeast wind died, leaving a sloppy mess of a chop. Bobbing in the unbearably confused seas, we lit up the engine and motored for a few miles when, just as suddenly as the wind died, it came back up but out of the west.

Close reaching now, the breeze built back above 20 knots and we sailed fast under staysail and full main. Rounding the western side of San Juan Island, Mosquito Pass came into view and we were soon weaving our way through the snaking channel in a series of jibes.

When we reached our destination at Henry Island, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and shared hugs and high fives before cracking a celebratory beer. All in all, it was an exhilarating and wild ride. That evening, we had a beachside fire, reminisced about the short passage, and made a tentative plan for the days to come.

Onward to the Gulfs

After a relaxing day around SYC’s outstation at Henry Island, playing on the lawn and hiking, yet another favorable breeze came our way and off we went across Haro Strait to check in at Sidney, British Columbia.

From Sidney, we caught the tail end of the low that had brought us north and used it to keep moving. With full sails set and fighting a bit of current, we sped north past Portland Island, in between Salt Spring and Prevost islands, and dropped the hook in James Bay on the northern side of Prevost. Along the way we were treated to winds from 10 to 20 knots, rainbows, rain showers, and boat speeds ranging from 3 to 10 knots. That varied weather pattern had been the theme of the week thus far, and we could tell that late winter was giving way to early spring.

The author rowing to shore from Yahtzee at Pirate’s Cove.

Wallace Island was next and another following breeze had us scooting northward up Trincomali Channel. Again…more rain, sun, and wind. After setting the hook in Princess Cove, the lone boat there, we hiked through the forest and the boys played on the rocks overlooking the channel. While watching them play, we enthusiastically chatted about all the sailing we’d been doing and, along with the absence of crowds — we concluded high summer cruising in this same spot couldn’t even compete.

The next day while rounding the northern point of Salt Spring Island, we were overtaken by a squall. Big drops of rain coupled with strong headwinds brought visibility to almost nothing, and I hoped we wouldn’t hit a log or snag a crab trap. With one reef already in the main, we motor-sailed slowly towards the southern end of Tent Island to let it pass. Blue sky followed and the sun filled in brilliantly, causing my black foulie jacket to steam in the warm light. I took it off, tossed it aside and rolled the jib out on a broad reach to sail the remaining miles into Ladysmith.

Sailing into Ladysmith Harbour seven days after leaving Seattle, memories of the boatyard trials were gone and my grin was as big as when we popped the spinnaker on day one. When we woke the next morning, we didn’t expect to see the sun shining so brightly through our cabin windows. Under a brilliant blue sky, we readied Yahtzee to get going north from Ladysmith’s Dunsmuir Islands towards one of our favorite spots in the Gulf Islands — Pirates Cove Provincial Marine Park.

About an hour later, our son Porter and I pushed our big blue spinnaker up on deck and prepared it to fly. With Jill at the helm, we got it rigged and set quickly and Yahtzee bounded forward like she knew where she was going. Ticking off the miles, I trimmed the sail to the shifting breeze, Jill held a steady course, and the boys reveled in the sunshine. Yet another beautiful morning to be out for a sail.

Our routine of sailing a short distance every day allowed us time to stop and enjoy the world around us. And with decidedly spring-like weather, the islands were coming to life. Now at the northern terminus of our March cruise, it was time to stop and relax for a few days.

Pirate’s Cove and Spring Preview

Being the only boat in the anchorage once again, we had our pick of spots in Pirates Cove on De Courcey Island and set the anchor just before noon. Boat shoes were promptly kicked off and layers were shed down to t-shirts. The warmth of the day had us drying things on deck and getting ready for a few boat projects. In anticipation of heading down to Victoria and then offshore to the Columbia River in April (see the August 2020 issue of 48° North “Destination: Portland”) Jill went up the rig to check and inspected all the fittings, and I tackled a few small rigging projects with Porter’s help.

Porter and Magnus dig in the park’s famed treasure chest.

An empty Pirates Cove is a cruiser’s dream. Besides the small private marina in the cove, the anchorage can be packed with boats in the high season, so we relished the solitude of the moment and explored the park to its fullest by foot and boat for three full days. We rowed and paddled through the small islets nearby and got another preview of spring, as showers and sun alternated overhead. With the mix of sun and rain, the park’s flora popped and bloomed in electric green hues and we hiked many of the trails along the water’s edge and through the woods. It was a magical finish to a memorable 10 days.

When we set the spinnaker just north of Seattle over a week prior, we hadn’t actually planned on sailing so many days in a row or making it quite so far. But when the wind and weather are at their best in the offseason, sometimes you just have to go for it and see what happens. We couldn’t have ordered it up any better.