I'm Matt, a software engineer and boating enthusiast based in Washington State (but on the move). I started Hermit Cove Boats, offering cool skin and frame boat plans and kits. Check it out!
After Wooden Boat Festival last year, we decided to take a vacation in the San Juan Islands. It is the best time to be up there. I’m told it’s because school is back in session. If that is the real reason, then I support year ‘round education.
It wouldn’t be our first equinoctial jaunt, but this year we faced a challenge. A mystery engine problem had been plaguing me for months. The mystery, I guess, is why I didn’t just hire a mechanic at the first sign of trouble. At the time of our trip, I incorrectly assumed my problem was severe: a blown head gasket. But Kristin had taken time off from work already, and for anyone leading a productive life time off is sadly rare. The engine still worked, so we decided “ef it anyway, we’re going”. After all, between towing insurance and wind power, we should be okay.
Hindsight is 20/20, and now I can tell you, Dear Reader, that the engine problem was nothing more than a leaky seal on the shaft driven raw water pump. 100 bucks worth of parts and a few hours of work and she was good as new. As we set out, though, we knew that running the engine was for emergencies only, and doing so might end our trip. Still, with nothing to do for a month, sailors can afford to take their time, right? Well, we are very very silly people. So we decided the best way to make use of Kristin’s limited time off was to take 2 days off per week. It wasn’t really a month off, it was a month of 3 days on, 4 days off. I would keep the boat up there, and be more or less constantly either moving towards or away from some ferry dock to pick her up and drop her off.
We had thrown the gauntlet down for ourselves: sail a lot, sail like real sailors, or get towed home with our tail between our legs.
Hindsight, again, is 20/20, and it totally worked. But divorce was way more likely than a good time. We had days of slow drifting, and we had days where we’d rather be somewhere else, somewhere just a few miles away, but we could only get there by motoring. We often had to stick near the ferry terminals, to be sure of returning Kristin to work on time.
The thing about wanting to get somewhere but not being able to is that when at last you finally can get there and drop your anchor under sail, you feel like an Olympic medalist on the podium.
But really, it’s total crap not having an engine.
It was a trip of many firsts. Notably, our first time choosing a safe anchorage in strong winds only to have the winds shift around and force us to move. We were in Shallow Bay on Sucia Island. We sailed in and set our speed-over-water record getting there in 25+ knots of wind and rising. We dropped the hook and got the sausages on the grill. “Wow, look how black the sky is north over Canada!”. The forecast over US waters was for south wind, but at Sucia Island you are really in Canadian waters and their forecast told the truth. Wind from the northwest. We put it off as long as we could; but in the end we pulled our just warm sausages off the grill and fired up the engine. We never could have sailed out of there with the wind now on our nose. The engine was a necessity. We had sail up as soon as possible and as we cleared the reefs at the harbor entrance I finally exhaled.
The thing about not trusting your engine is that you want to award it a gold medal when it still gets you out of trouble, even when you really should have hired a mechanic to fix it months ago. We had the sausages back on the grill soon enough, safe in the narrow fjord-like confines of Snoring Bay.
The next day we sailed south, heading back to the ferry terminal. We were wing and wing with sails out, running downwind. The autopilot steered as we moved 1/4 of a mile per hour. We lounged on the bowsprit and watched flotsam drift by, given ample time to study each item as it came and went. It was sunny, a lovely day, and we had no choice. So we sat there and poked along. If we had any choice we would have fired up the engine and got to our destination. But we had no choice and what remains is a wonderful memory.
We made it the whole month this way, to our credit. I managed some boat chores while Kristin was back at work. And finally we found ourselves anchored on the south end of Lopez Island, poised to return under sail to Port Townsend triumphantly as “Real Sailors”. We were just waiting for a favorable wind forecast, and tomorrow was looking good.
“What is that smell?”
“Oh jeez, our diesel tank has rusted through and is slowly dripping into the bilge.”
We tried patching the leak with wax, but it was leaking from between the tank and the hull, someplace totally unreachable. Not having used the engine much the tank was full, 35+ gallons. Our bilge pump is not automatic, so we were in no danger of a spill. But we couldn’t really wait til the wind filled in and then sail home with all that diesel sloshing around down there. So we called in the tow company. We always thought we would, but we were wrong about why.
It was a dead calm night as we were pulled across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at 7 knots. It is one of the many unexpected joys of life: the sound the boat makes as it moves through the water at hull speed using neither riotous engine power nor shrieking wind. Dead calm, the milky way overhead, and a gurgling shwooshing of the boat plowing through the straits which at 2am were ours alone to enjoy.
It was a lovely trip, and I can’t wait to get back out there. Oh, hey, September is just around the corner!