Making it into Fisherman Bay Takes Patience and a Sing-Song Assist

My second sailing trip on my new-to-me J/28, Wild Rose, was to Lopez Island for an annual summertime gathering. It’s a special destination and time for me. I had been boating or camping on Lopez Island for 13 years with my two kids (now young adults) along with my friends Sarah and Paige and their kids, for the Lopez Island Sailing Camp. We called this week-long trip the “chosen family reunion” and Sarah had committed to sail with me over to Lopez on Saturday. Everyone else was to meet us there.

On a sunny Saturday in the middle of July, Sarah and I departed from La Conner. Sarah, a non-sailor, was content to be a passenger. I was okay with that because it would give me an opportunity to practice my solo sailing skills and learn more about Wild Rose. She napped while I tacked across Rosario Strait and then up toward the top end of Lopez Island. We took our time and the conditions were ideal; the wind was blowing 12 knots from the southwest, the sea was flat, and Wild Rose performed phenomenally.

At this point, Sarah and I had made it from the north end of the Swinomish Channel, through Guemes Channel, across Rosario, and into the San Juan Islands. Now in Upright Channel approaching the entrance to Fisherman Bay, I was feeling pretty great. Then, I thought about the dreaded Lopez channel ahead (labeled on the chart as Fisherman Bay Inlet). Here’s what the Navionics charting app has to say about it: “Fisherman Bay is a shallow lagoon entered by a marked, narrow, and tortuous channel. A rock awash is on the east side of the channel at the mouth of the bay. Good anchorage with shelter from all but southwest winds at the bottom of the bay may be had in 10 to 12 feet, soft bottom, for small craft with local knowledge. The tidal currents have considerable velocity.”

The “tortuous channel” part of the description might as well say “torturous” since its shallow depths and the infamous rock have snagged more than a few boats over the years. There is a spit on one side of the channel and homes on the other, and when a boat gets stuck on the rock or in the shallows, people tend to gather on the beach to watch until the flood tide floats it off. I didn’t want to be the island’s entertainment that evening and had no intention of making the Lopez news, and of course didn’t want to do any harm to Wild Rose.

Sarah was in the cockpit with me and the tide was beginning to flood. I rolled in the jib, pointed Wild Rose into the wind, and dropped the mainsail. I was watching the depth on Navionics closely and motored slowly past the first beacon. Wild Rose has a 5-foot draft and the depth was already limited, reading 10 feet. I inched forward until the depth bounced between 5 and 7 feet, and turned us around instantly—profanities hanging in the wind. I felt like a real sailor now.

It was a beautiful July day to sail through the San Juan Islands.

I was incredibly grateful to motor back into deep water and take a moment to calm my beating heart. I told Sarah we would have to wait an hour for the tide to come in. Sarah was cool about our slight delay and brought up some wine to share while we watched the sun begin to set.

I took the time to relax and analyze our next approach. There was no turning back. I didn’t have radar set up and really didn’t want to find an alternate anchorage in the dark. I was going to have to make the run through the dreaded channel. Fortunately, it was a glorious evening with a golden sun shimmering along the water right up to our hull. We waited patiently and I secretly hoped that another sailboat would come and try to enter the bay so we could follow.

An hour after our first attempt, there was no sign of another sailboat. However, we were losing light and I knew it was time to try the entrance again. I followed my exact route and muttered nervously as I passed the beacon. Sarah, sensing my nerves, began to sing quietly. It brought back a memory of when I had freaked out on an adventure zipline course in Nanaimo, British Columbia. I was with my family, nieces and nephews, and we were on the fifth level, the black diamond part of the course, 75 feet up, when I froze. I was stuck. My body shook from fear. I asked for a rescue. I wanted a ladder, I wanted to get off.

I had clogged up the course, and the family members behind me were now stuck and waited somewhat patiently for me to move. Other members were ahead and even came back to see what the hold-up was. The end of the course was in sight. Everyone was encouraging me to continue. I was being told what to do from all angles, but that wasn’t helping my nerves. I knew everyone was right, but I was terrified and hated them all at that moment.

And then, for some reason, the song, “In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle” from the movie The Lion King, came to mind. I started to sing it. When I got to the chorus, “A-weema-weh, a weema-weh”, I yelled for everyone to sing. Thinking I was joking, everyone laughed. Then my niece, Johanna, started to sing. She and I had been working together along the course, encouraging each other while facing our fears of heights.

Soon, the adventure zipline course treetops buzzed in unison with the chorus from the iconic song. I grabbed hold of the narrow swing and stepped onto it. I swung back and forth until I gained momentum and reached the second swing, all the while holding my tune, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle.” Once I felt the thick rope in my hand, I kept my sight on the swing, not the 75-foot drop. I had momentum now and stepped from swing to swing. When I reached the platform on the other side, the forest canopy erupted in cheers.

The top of Lopez Island means Fisherman Bay is getting close.

Back on Wild Rose, I was facing a similar fear. The singing helped me focus. Just past the first beacon, the depth bounced between 10 and 12 feet. I could feel my heart beating. Families were eating dinner on the decks of their nearby homes and we sang as we passed by. We continued to sing past the channel’s beacon, the notorious rock, and the shallow edges of the channel. Only when we reached the safety of Fisherman Bay did the singing cease.

After successfully transiting the channel, it was cocktail hour in the hammock.

It wasn’t quite dark yet when we docked, but it was close. I was incredibly relieved when I nailed my docking at the marina with the help of a man from a neighboring boat who grabbed our lines. I’m not sure the engine was even off before Sarah handed me a well-earned cocktail to celebrate our achievement. I raised my glass to thank her. The singing had worked to calm my nerves and kept me focused as I navigated to the marina.

Soon, we heard live music stream out across the bay and, no, it wasn’t us this time. It was Saturday night and the Islander Marina Pub was hopping. Part of our annual mom’s escape to Lopez is dancing to the local band at Islander Marina—it’s always a great memory, even if not the clearest one of our time together.

It had been an epic day of sailing, an incredible moment of friendship for me and Sarah. The feelings of relief and accomplishment set the tone for us to be truly ready for a classic Islander night out. All in all, it was a day I value and remember fondly from my early days with Wild Rose. And I didn’t make the Lopez news, well, not for sailing anyway.

Wild Rose approaches the infamous channel into Fisherman Bay.

Jennifer Dalton is an avid adventurer and traveler. She is originally from Vancouver, B.C. but raised her children in Washington. Now an empty nester, Jennifer has rediscovered her passion for sailing. She began her love for the wind and water when she was a teenager and has always spent time on the ocean whether it be windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, or diving. She is the owner of the marketing company Northwest Nooks.