Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Circumnavigating Lopez Island

Over Memorial Day weekend we took Belle Starr for a circumnavigation of Lopez Island, the southern most island of the San Juan Island group in northwestern Washington State. Catching the last of the ebb, mid-day on Thursday before the weekend, we sailed east from Port Townsend and tacked in fair to light winds, north along the coast of Whidbey Island.

The plan was to sail to the northeast end of Lopez Island, but having spent most of the day coaxing Belle Starr on light airs, we optioned to cross Rosario Strait and enter the San Juans through Lopez Pass, at the southeast end of Lopez.

The San Juan Islands are notorious for contrary currents with migrating standing waves that challenge a sailor's skill. Standing waves resemble the water in a washing machine with no particular direction or design. This condition can occur whenever two tidal currents collide and/or a wind pattern opposes the tidal flow. It's curious to watch a tide rip move over a body of water and suddenly engulf you in what sounds like rapids on a river.


As we approached Lopez Pass, we negotiated a tide rip two miles wide and four miles long. With the worthy Stone Horse bucking hither and yon, the pass was difficult to separate from false openings in the islands. Once inside however, the rocky entrance opened into the beautiful and inviting Lopez Sound. Our chart showed there might be good anchorage to the southwest in either Mud Bay or Hunter Bay. As we approached, it became obvious that Hunter Bay was the best choice. We set anchor among several other boats and settled in for a comfortable night, as a full gale developed overhead. A high bluff offered ample protection from the prevailing westerlies.

Since we expected to catch the rising tide to push us north sometime around noon, late morning coffee found us absolutely alone in a bay lovely enough to entice a mariner to stay for a while.

Belle Starr is a thoroughbred however and as the tide turned and a breeze came up from the south, she chaffed at her anchor, ready to run. Under mainsail alone she made an easy four knots toward Spencer Spit, on the northeast side of Lopez Island. Washington State maintains a park at Spencer Spit with several buoys and a low sandy beach for access. Bounded to the east by Frost Island, this anchorage is pretty but the spit doesn't offer much for protection from prevailing winds. The boats we saw anchored there were pulling hard on their moorings so we crept around a headland to Swifts Bay. The tiny community of Port Stanley offered no public shore access, but Swifts Bay was a peaceful spot to spend our second night.

The next day we sailed around Upright Head and southwest through Upright Channel to Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. The wind shifted from south to west which afforded a comfortable broad reach all day. Friday Harbor is a busy place, offering US customs, food, fuel and entertainment. You can imagine what it was like on a holiday. Tied up at the transient dock seemed threatening as boaters who take their craft out for one weekend a year floundered all around, jockeying for the highest profile. We picked up necessary stores and escaped to an anchorage out of the hustle and bustle. There we found our first wood boats of the trip.

Next morning found us sailing tight tacks into a rising southerly in San Juan Channel. It's a heavily used thoroughfare, so a small boat must be wary. The biggest threat to a gunkholer in the San Juan Islands is not the rocks or the weather, but large private motor boats who apparently determine right-of-way according to tonnage.

An ebb tide in the San Juan Channel flows mightily through Cattle Pass directly into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. With the wind on our nose and the current at our back, we battled our way through mostly submerged rocks and a high chop for two nautical miles before finding a steady breeze on the forward quarter which was to carry us all day, back to Port Townsend.

As a footnote, isn't that Junk interesting? Her skipper was busy, concentrating hard, so I didn't interrupt. But I'd like more information about her. If anyone recognizes this craft, please let me know.

I didn't even catch her name...


Unknown said...

Junk rigs! So many beautiful junk rigs. Sounds like a great voyage to me. Thanks for sharing.


doryman said...

That's interesting, David. I was just pondering photos of that junk as you left your comment. I added a footnote to entice someone to come forward and offer us more.

Brandon Ford said...

Sounds like a great trip. We always enjoyed James Island, which is close to Lopez. It was always our first stop when we arrived in the San Jauns.

Sorry I missed your May trip to Oregon. Let me know if you're coming down in June. I think we're here at least until August.


doryman said...

James is close to where we were headed but I'm happy with how the trip turned out. I thought you were traveling north sooner. Obviously we need to talk.

Dave Z said...

The unknown Junk looks like the GILDED LILY from Guemes Island. If so, it was built in the 90s by Bill... um... W? A talented builder, who, among other things, built Charlie Sheen's house. Or so he said. He built three Dory based boats in Puget Sound, that I know of; a motor cruiser, a sailing trimaran, and G.LILY (his last).

We last saw her in Sitka, then owned by a couple from Guemes.

Nice to see her again!

Dave Z

doryman said...

Thanks Dave,
Gilded Lily looked salty and caught my eye from a good distance. She packed up early, so I didn't get a chance to hail her. I hoped she'd spread her wings after she left the harbor, but we followed her by just a few minutes yet saw her no more.