It was decision time. There we were, sailing up Hale Passage, the wind, the waves and the tides all conspiring to sweep us out into the Strait of Georgia. Which was exactly what we wanted. What we wanted was to sail out across the Strait of Georgia to Sucia Island where we would presumably tie up to a mooring or dock and celebrate the first night of our big sailing adventure in idyllic splendor. Except that we had one small problem…
Our outboard motor had just died—expired might be a better word. This was not a simple honey-why-don’t-you-try-the-choke-this-time kind of a problem.
I suppose it might seem odd to the non-sailorish type to have your “sailing adventure” crippled by the lack of a motor, but there it is, the sordid truth: you can sail all you want when there is wind, but when there is no wind—and there is often no wind in the San Juan Islands—you need a motor. You might also need a motor when there is too much wind to put any sails up. And it is certainly a handy piece of equipment to possess when trying to maneuver in and out of harbors and marinas especially when dodging giant ferries, fishing trawlers and multiple other boaters. So you can see why we were a tad concerned.
We had set out that morning from Bellingham, Washington after over 20 hours of driving punctuated only briefly by 5 hours of sleep in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Klamath Falls, Oregon and multiple food and potty stops for us and the dog. We had negotiated interminable rush hour traffic in Portland, Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle. All of this was followed by the final insult: the detour around the collapsed bridge over the Skagit River in Burlington, which was quite possibly the most badly marked detour I have ever attempted to follow. Thank goodness for smart phones and Google Maps! David navigated and I managed to pull it off with only one illegal lane change and no visible damage to boat or truck.
All of the delays put us into Bellingham much later than we had planned. And we still had to make the obligatory trip to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and a grocery store before launching to buy all of the bits and bobs we had remembered on the way that were vitally essential to setting out on our trip and that we had completely managed to overlook in our initial preparations. Somehow, we navigated all of these hazards and even managed to find a restaurant still open for a quick bite at 9 o’clock, but by the time we arrived at the marina it was far too late to even think about launching and we were far too tired to bother. Instead, we crawled aboard the boat on its trailer and listened to the 1000 car freight trains rumble past the parking lot as slowly and as noisily as possible all night long.
We were finally able to rig the boat and launch Friday morning. I left David to get things shipshape while I washed the salt water off of the truck and trailer and parked them in the long-term lot and walked the dog one last time. When I arrived at the boat, David said he had to go up and get some hose clamps and hose for the outboard motor from the nearby marine supply store. It always amazes me that we can watch a TV mystery and pick out the murderer in the first 10 minutes because of some stupid tip off and yet we never, ever, seem capable of spotting the foreshadowing of doom in our own lives.
But David procured the necessary parts in short order and oblivious to danger, we set out into a strong headwind and powerful chop. It was so rough that the dog buried herself deep in the V-birth and refused to move even as I attempted to strap a life jacket on her. We hoisted sails quickly “because the motor was running a bit rough” and we still didn’t hear the dum…dum…dum… in the soundtrack. At one point, David looked back to notice that our American Flag had blown off of the backstay. We probably should have turned back right then. In the movie version, the camera would have zoomed in ominously on the empty backstay and the soundtrack would develop a decidedly menacing sound all meant to inform the viewer that we were as good as wearing red shirts on the Enterprise. In our movie, we just sailed blithely on.
And it was a good sail. The dog notwithstanding, it is exciting to beat to windward. That’s when the boat heels over and you take spray over the bow and your sunglasses become worthless and you smile a lot. Once I got over the initial jitters of finding myself pounding through the chop headed for who knows what adventure, I was really enjoying it.
We sailed out across Bellingham Bay, over the bar and into Hale Passage, which takes you between the mainland and Lummi Island and out to the Straight of Georgia. That’s where the wind began to drop off some. It was about one o’clock by then and we weren’t sure how long it was going to take us to make it to Sucia Island, so we decided to fire up the motor and motor-sail up the passage to speed things up a bit. Only the motor was still running rough. This might bother normal people, but this motor had run rough pretty much since we acquired it. We had taken it in multiple times to be worked on and most of the “fixes” generally lasted one trip out of the harbor—if we were lucky. I kept joking that it was possessed by evil demons and that we would be as well off hiring a priest to perform an exorcism as we were after multiple “repairs.” We kept threatening to buy a new outboard, but we had yet to find ourselves angry enough or desperate enough to overcome the price tag. I was getting used to seeing David pull the cowling off and begin fiddling with the motor mid trip, so it didn’t concern me too much when he began working on it. Mentally, I was calculating how many times he was going to have to do so during our upcoming week of sailing when I heard a loud snap and David said some very bad words. Somehow, during the fiddling process, a brass fitting in the carburetor had snapped.
So now we weighed our options. We could continue on our merry way with no outboard and hope that somehow, by some miracle, we could make our way to a port—without a motor and very likely in fickle wind conditions—where we could somehow and by some miracle effect repairs or purchase a new outboard. Or we could turn around and head back to Bellingham where we knew there was a marine supply store within walking distance of the harbor with possibly the most complete collection of bits and parts for boats that we had ever seen.
We turned around.
Now, before you go typing any smarmy platitudes in the comment section about how we made the “smart” decision or the “wise” decision, let me tell you we made the only decision possible. To have continued on for a week of “sailing” in the San Juans in that particular boat without a motor would have been insanely stupid (a lesson which would be pounded blatantly home less than two hours later) and while we can be stupid at times, we are not insane.
And I know this is where the story should end, but not so fast—literally! We had been sailing north on a beam reach which means the wind is coming at a 90 degree angle over the port (left) side of the boat, so that when we turned around, we were still sailing on a beam reach, only now with the wind on the starboard (right) side, headed south. We were moving along quite smartly approaching the red buoy marking shoal waters off of Portage Island. This had been the last “mark” we passed on the way out. Now we would be reeling them in in reverse order—first the red buoy, then the point off Portage Island, then over the bar leading into Bellingham Harbor (giving the buoy marking the rocks off Eliza Island plenty of room), past the anchored barge, then the red buoy off Post Point, then on to the marina where we would whip out our trusty credit card and purchase a new outboard motor. Or so we thought.
And the red buoy was there. It was right there! Only that’s when the wind chose to die. It didn’t die suddenly, though. At first it toyed with us like a cat playing with an ill-fated mouse.
“Over here!” It would cry, ruffling the water temptingly.
And we’d follow the ruffles and gain a little way on our buoy until the wind would laugh and die off again, only to ruffle a new spot that was…just…over…there… And then we’d watch the buoy recede as the tide began sweeping us north up Hale Passage in the direction we desperately wanted to go, but just as desperately needed to avoid. And this, children, is what we call irony!
So we came up with the brilliant idea that we could somehow, you know, wire the broken fitting back together.
Only, that didn’t work.
As we watched the red buoy grow smaller and smaller, we finally became really desperate and decided to try to run the outboard with David simply holding the fitting together. Only David couldn’t hold the fitting together and start the outboard at the same time. So he held the fitting together inside the carburetor while I stood behind him and pulled the string to start the engine for all it was worth, and it worked!—sort of… He could only hold it together for so long before his fingers cramped and he would have to let go. So we travelled in spurts. We kept trying to improve the system so that he could hold things together longer but we could only ever get so far at a crack. Every time we would stop for David to rest his fingers and to brainstorm better ideas, the tide would continue its inexorable attempts to push us in the wrong direction.
But finally, we managed to spurt ourselves over the bar and into Bellingham Bay proper where the tide was not quite so insistent. We even got a little bit of a breeze and made some progress under sail…for a few tantalizing minutes anyway. Then it died completely. We tried a few more engine spurts, but by now, David was having real problems holding the fitting together with the result that we were spitting as much gas out of the engine and into the bay as we were using—not good! (It had also occurred to us that we had created the perfect bomb with David at the epicenter. All we needed was one spark and that movie might not end so well!) We had to write the engine off completely at that point and think of other options. Using our trusty GPS, we estimated that we were only two and a half miles from the marina at this point, but it was a long two and a half miles!
First, we called the harbormaster. Was there someone who could tow us in? We would be happy to pay. The perky lady who answered the phone gave us a couple of numbers and we started there. The first people we called weren’t even willing to come out because they were “just too darned busy.” Okay… The first fellow said since we were a sailboat, we should just sail in. Really?? Cause we never thought of that!
Next we called BoatUS. For the non-boaters, BoatUS is the AAA of boating. Could they give us a tow? This turned out to be a not-so-simple process, requiring a conference call between David, BoatUS, Vessel Assist and the cast of a Broadway musical–at least that’s how it sounded to me. The nearest Vessel Assist turned out to be in Anacortes. We had foolishly assumed there would be one in Bellingham. So, it turned out we would have to pay for Vessel Assist to drive all the way from Anacortes (about 16 nautical miles), then tow us 2.5 miles to the marina, then drive all the way back. The price estimate came out to about $750! We could simply dive overboard, swim to shore and buy a new boat for that. And our particular plan with BoatUS does not cover unlimited towing, so we were going to have to pony up more than half of that ourselves. David thanked everybody politely and we went back to examining our options.
Next we called the Coast Guard. Assuring them that we were in no way in any sort of danger and wouldn’t ever remotely even think of using their resources, we asked if they had any suggestions. They said call Vessel Assist. They may also have suggested calling the “just sail it in” guy. I can’t remember. Then they suggested we flag down a passing boat to tow us in. We scanned the nearly empty bay, then looked at each other despairingly—also not-so-simple…
That’s when we started paddling. I know some of you might ask why we didn’t think of that sooner. Well, you know how much I love our boat because it is ballasted? I believe I’ve mentioned this once or twice now. See ballast would be…um…weight. So while we had, indeed, thought of paddling; up to this point, we simply hadn’t been desperate enough to try to force all of that weight to get up and move using our own feeble physical strength. It’s not like paddling a canoe or rowboat. The deck of the boat is high enough off of the water that you really have to reach down to get the paddle to bite and the boat weighs almost 2000 pounds. But we did seem to be out of other options and surprisingly, we actually began to make progress. We were able to keep up a consistent pace of just under one knot. We calculated that at this rate, we would make it back to the marina by 10 o’clock that night—assuming we could continue paddling at this pace for 2.5 hours. Unless one of us had a heart attack first!
It was about that time that we saw two RIBs festooned with armed and armored men dashing across the bay. We were amazed when they turned and dashed over to our location. Had the Coast Guard had a change of heart? It turned out that they hadn’t. The guys in the RIBs had noticed us paddling and had come over to see that we were okay. They hadn’t even spoken to whomever we talked to on the phone. They were friendly and polite and yet ever so unhelpful. I offered to fake a heart attack, but that would only have gotten me off the boat and then poor David would have had to paddle alone. Soon they dashed off to look for mariners stupider than us who might be in real, actual danger.
So we were pretty much resigned to paddling until the wind came back up or until we were completely exhausted when we saw a fishing boat working its way back to the marina about a half a mile off. We waved in a desperate and desultory fashion meant to convey that we would really like a tow, but would totally understand if they couldn’t or wouldn’t help us because that’s what we were getting used to. We actually thought they hadn’t seen us and were chugging on their merry way when they miraculously began to describe a slow turn towards us. They had seen us and were willing to give us a tow. So we tossed them a line and were finally “rescued.” The fellow driving the boat was great and didn’t tow us too fast or try to “crack the whip” with us just for a cheap laugh. He must have been Uncle. Grandpa minded the towline while Dad sat and cleaned up lingcod after beautiful lingcod while the kids watched in rapt attention. They refused to take any money for gas and simply let go of the rope as we passed the guest dock and we coasted right in.
The punch line of this story is that when David walked into the outboard motor dealership the next day expecting to whip out the credit card and cringe while they rang up a new motor, he said “unless you happen to have a carburetor for a 1985 Yamaha…” and it turned out they did! In fact, they had several in stock because, as the girl at the counter put it “That’s a real work horse of an engine. A lot of people around here are still using them.”
So for a tenth of the price of a new engine, he was able to replace the carburetor and we were able to set off again on our great sailing adventure, just one day late. The motor ran great the whole time and our new American flag stayed firmly attached to the backstay!