Winter crossing of Commencement Bay in lively conditions.

This is our third winter with Sea Lab, our C-Dory 22 cruiser, and the end of each boating season has been a rush to find suitable storage. I wish we could keep her at home, but we live on a heavily wooded site and there is a remarkable amount of organic matter that falls out of the trees; and heaven forbid a whole one should come down on her.

Eventually, we found a space that was tolerably close to home, and the very next day dawned crisp and bright. It looked like good timing to get her across to Point Defiance and pull the boat out at the big launch ramp. As I cleared the roof rack of kayaks and waited for Tekla to get off work to help with shuttling, the wind started picking up. I knew the forecast was rainless for the next couple days, but I didn’t notice any particular mention of wind. By afternoon when we dropped the truck and trailer off at the ramp, the flag at Tacoma Yacht Club was straight out and snapping, hmm…

We motored out of Tyee Marina on Sea Lab, rounding the crusty ship breakwater at about 3:00 in the afternoon. The course ahead looked surprisingly smooth until we got beyond the protection of Browns Point. Then the north wind was pushing some pretty big chop. At least the current was with, not against, the wind. Still, the waves were right on our beam so we had to adjust course a little so they didn’t bounce us off the bulkheads. When we came around the breakwater at Point Defiance, the yacht club flag was still snapping, but we peacefully tied up to the dock after a bit more excitement than we bargained for. I had one hand on the wheel and the other on the cute little manual windshield wiper handle all the way.

Pesky mussels on Sea Lab’s transom.

Now the work began. We pulled up the ramp to the wash down area and had a look at all the mussels and barnacles growing on the trim tabs and engine mounts. It’s amazing how fast those things grow and how hard they are to remove, the little freeloaders. We strapped her down to the trailer and triple checked everything before hitting the road. Our plan was to park Sea Lab in the driveway over the weekend for cleanup and then take her down to the storage yard before the weather deteriorated into real winter.

Of course, the next morning when I wanted to get an early start, it turned out to be the first frost of the season and boat cleaning at 33 degrees is hard on your hands. We decided to delay and wait for the sun to warm things up a little before we could really get into it. When the temperature climbed, and we were doing the multitude of big and little things necessary to ready the boat for winter, I began to reminisce about Moondance.

Winters were very different when we had our Cal 27, Moondance, moored in downtown Tacoma. Sure, there were some chores to get ready for the cold weather, but when it got a little too cold for work, we could close up the companionway and turn on the heat and cozy up in the spacious cabin and relax. Many times, on a winter Friday night, we would decide that we wanted to be out of the house for the weekend and Moondance was our refuge. We could quickly pack up some food and Tim Tim the sailor dog, and settle onto the boat for a long slow weekend of reading, cribbage, or strolling downtown to find a good taproom. Some of the nicest times we ever had on our sailboat were weekends in the slip. No errands to run or housework to do, just slow and pure rest away from the outside world. We have certainly enjoyed Sea Lab, but those winter weekends are something I miss about a sailboat that stays in the water year-round. Weekends on the trailer in the storage yard don’t sound very interesting, cozy, or relaxing!

Another thing that kept us on the water in winter with Moondance was exercising the motor. Everyone knows that machines that sit too long get grumpy and ill-behaved, so I always watched for a weather window to take Moondance out for preventative de-grumpification. It was usually just a motor around Commencement Bay, often on one of those mild winter days that are pure Pacific Northwest with glassy water and liquid sky, the mountain looming behind the Tacoma Dome. Though obligatory, these quick trips were always peaceful and cool with all the interesting winter sea ducks we have around here.

Swabbing the deck in the forest.

Then there were a couple of winter trips when we brought Moondance to Blake Island for the New Year’s party that goes on at the state park docks every year. One year in particular, we had a clear and cold weather forecast over the holiday weekend. We knew our heater worked well, so we threw in some extra blankets and nog and headed for the boat. We got underway at 8:30 a.m. and motored our way across Commencement Bay in a north wind and up Colvos Passage with help from the north-flowing current. We decided it was too cold to sail, so we just hunkered down in the cockpit and steered to Blake.

We arrived at a nearly full marina, but there was a spot for us on the dock. We tied up, met our new neighbors, and commenced with New Year’s activities. The weather turned really cold, and the wind picked up and continued to blow through the weekend. The main activity turned into boat hopping and sharing heat with everyone who came by, perhaps along with a card game and a warm drink. New Year’s Eve came quickly enough and Paul the park ranger had a big fire going in one of the picnic shelters, along with bottles of champagne to share with all who would brave the cold. Of course, at midnight the fireworks in Seattle lit up the night sky over the Space Needle and the view was spectacular. Auld Lang Syne rang out through the chilly night air, and all in attendance had a night to remember.

When we crept from under the blankets the next morning, we found that the temperature had dropped to 28 degrees and, I don’t care how well your heater works, that’s a cold morning on a boat. It had snowed at some point during the night and the neighborhoods surrounding Puget Sound stood out in brilliant white. The wind was still blowing, but it was time for us to run for home.

Snug quarters on Moondance for a chilly New Year’s Eve.

We eased our way out of the marina and put up a double reefed main and our little Yankee-cut jib and were flying south as fast as we’ve ever gone. The thought kept entering my mind that if one of us went overboard into the rough water in freezing weather and so much wind, it would be the end; I pushed the thought down to stay focused. It was so cold. We made it back to Commencement Bay in record time. Sailing into the area where the big ships anchor, we prepared to pull the sails down. Without a roller furling headsail, I had to go on deck to lower the jib. Tekla was having difficulty keeping Moondance into the wind, but I managed to get the jib down and stay on the boat, then I came back to douse the main.

With cold-clumsy fingers we motored our way back into the slip in gingerly fashion and immediately lit the heater. We sat in front of it for a long time getting feeling back into our hands and feet. We didn’t know it at the time, but I looked up wind speeds for the bay at the moment we arrived and they were a steady 30 knots. At points along the way, I remember feeling terrified and simultaneously thinking this was the best sailing I’ve ever had! I’m not sure Tekla would say the same, but she would say it was memorable.

Homeport for the holidays.

I guess now that Sea Lab is on the trailer and the motor is winterized, a spontaneous decision to take advantage of an unexpected weather window for a holiday cruise will require a little more persuasion to get me off the couch. For all the fun and ease that we’ve experienced cruising our little powerboat during the sunnier seasons, winter brings some particular compromises compared to our years with a cruising sailboat. The space in the C-Dory is not quite so cozy as the sailboat, and all the cushions are in the basement. I can feel winter inertia setting in. Maybe I’ll rent a cabin in the mountains for the holidays, or just take a walk down Moondance memory lane again.

Dennis and his mate, Tekla, reside in Auburn, WA and usually keep Sea Lab in the water at Tyee Marina.