Stuart Island, one of the San Juan islands in Washington, lies about ten miles northwest of Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Stuart has two good harbors, Prevost on the northeast side, protected by Satellite Island, and Reid Harbor, in the center of Stuart, its entrance to the southeast. The Stuart Island Marine State Park provides docks in both harbors and a walking path between. A combination of paths and gravel roads connect the park to the Turn Point Lighthouse at the northwest corner of Stuart, about 2.5 miles from the park.
We’d bought a summer house in Deer Harbor in October 1997 and spent time there off and on in 1998 but we didn’t have a boat. I was determined to have one by the summer of 1999; the question was what boat?
Chicago has some wonderful yacht harbors and growing up in the area I frequently saw tall-masted, white sailboats in the Montrose, Belmont, or other yacht harbors as my family drove north or south on Lake Shore Drive and I would fantasize. I’d heard about the Mackinac Race and imagined being part of it. And why stop there? Maybe I’d sail to Hawaii or around the world.
By 1998 I’d sailed a dozen times perhaps, on Lake Michigan, on Lake Geneva, off Eleuthera in the Bahamas, and on a small lake in Maine, always in a Sunfish, and usually including an intentional capsizing or two just for fun. I vaguely understood how to steer and to manage a sail but not much else.
We were living in Boulder but I had an experienced sailor friend, Dick, who lived in Redmond, Washington, with a Catalina in Shilshole Marina, adjacent to Ballard where we now live, 20 years later. He and his wife, Peg, and sons had sailed all over Puget Sound, in the San Juans, and the Canadian Gulf Islands. He knew sailing and was happy to help us make a choice. I didn’t want to spend much money so that meant a used boat and Dick went with us to inspect some candidates in Anacortes. What we found wasn’t very encouraging. Some boats had a noticeable odor. Others had torn upholstery, green-slimed decks, gray brightwork, or greasy galleys. Maybe a modest new boat would be better.
One way or another I became aware of the MacGregor 26X. They were trailerable; that was a plus because I didn’t want to leave my boat in the water year round when we expected to be in Boulder most of the time. And our property in Deer Harbor included a boathouse with large doors and deep enough to accommodate a 26’ boat and trailer. I found a used MacGregor on a trailer near Boulder and after looking at it decided a MacGregor might work for us in Deer Harbor.
Dick told me the MacGregor was the most popular sailboat of its size in the world. By 1999 more than 13,000 had been sold. That gave me comfort. (By the time Roger MacGregor retired in 2013 he had manufactured 38,000 boats.)
The MacGregor isn’t just a sailboat; it’s also a powerboat of a sort that can travel 20 mph, an attractive option when it’s time to go home. The boat has two rudders, one on each side of the outboard. It has a retractable centerboard that folds up into the cabin and a water ballast system. When sailing you let water into the ballast tank in the hull. When you want to go fast, you slide open the ballast hatch at the stern and as the boat comes up on plane all the water drains out. Clever.
The MacGregor has no brightwork, a desirable feature because I didn’t want to spend time refinishing exposed wood. In fact the MacGregor has no wood anywhere. Makes sense. Though it’s a small boat, it has a fair amount of space in the cabin. It would easily accommodate the two of us, our thirteen-year-old son and our medium-size dog. Blue Water Yachts on Lake Union in Seattle (now in Mountlake Terrace) would provide us a brand-new MacGregor 26X with a 50 HP Yamaha outboard and trailer for less than $25,000. What a deal! We put in an order.
Before we left Boulder to pick up the boat and take it to Orcas, I had a UHaul shop attach a trailer hitch to our Ford van. Because the boat and trailer are relatively light, the van had adequate power and suspension. We loaded the van for an extended stay in Deer Harbor. There would be four of us; we were taking our son’s friend for company. And our black dog of indeterminate breed, Samantha.
Todd at Blue Water Yachts had our MacGregor ready, with “Simrishamn,” the boat name we’d chosen, painted on the hull. Simrishamn is a small town in Sweden on the Baltic where my great-grandfather had been a sea captain. Excellent!
After some training at Blue Water by Ray, a retired Coast Guard captain, we headed north to Burlington, where we’d turn west to Anacortes to get the ferry but first we stopped at Fred Meyer for supplies. We needed an inflatable dingy. Check. Personal flotation devices. Check. A rail-mountable propane grill. Check. And so on. The MacGregor has a large cockpit and cabin so we just kept piling in what we needed. No problem.
With the van and MacGregor parked in the center lane on the vehicle deck on the Orcas ferry, we all went up to the passenger deck (except for Samantha the dog), stood at the bow, and basked in the beauty of the islands. Mountains, forest, clear water, eagles, seals, warm sunshine and cool air. Heaven.
I’d arranged for a short-term slip at the Cayou Quay Marina, one of two in Deer Harbor and the closest to our house, less than a quarter mile away. I’d been careful so far never to park the van and trailer where I’d need to back up to get out but now I’d need to back the trailer down the marina ramp to launch the MacGregor. I tried backing up and got too crooked. I pulled forward and tried again and again. Norm, the owner of the marina watched and finally couldn’t stand it. He offered to help – and I let him.
The Simrishamn was launched! The outboard started easily and we were soon tied up in our slip. Oh heavenly days! The MacGregor has a nice system for carrying and raising the mast. I’d watched it done in Seattle but hadn’t watched carefully enough. I couldn’t figure out what to do.
Mike, a sailor with his boat in the next slip, had taken our lines as we docked. He now offered to help us step the mast. It tuned out he owned the lot next to ours. Most of the time Mike and his wife lived in Port Townsend, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca but they kept their 40’ sailboat at Cayou Quay and a camping trailer in Deer Harbor in the summer so they could easily sail up into Canada. We got the mast up and the sail rigged. We were in business.
Over the next two weeks we did some local sailing and our son James’ friend left with his parents who had come west from Boulder to fetch him and vacation. Showing them around Deer Harbor we ended up talking about the possibility of a global technology meltdown at New Year’s. They’d filled their garage in Boulder with water bottles and toilet paper they could barter when the year turned 2000 and civilization crashed. We weren’t worried.
Now we wanted some boating adventure; an overnight to Reid Harbor. We would leave Saturday morning and be back first thing Sunday morning – so we wouldn’t have to provision much. We didn’t intend to sail. We wanted to get to Stuart Island and Reid Harbor and enjoy that destination rather than spend lots of time en route. We left our slip in Cayou Quay Marina and headed southwest through North Pass, with Fawn Island on the south (at one time owned by Gene Hackman), past Spring Point and then north through Spring Passage, Jones Island to the west, toward the southeast point of Speiden Island.
Speiden had served as a big game hunting area years before, stocked with non-native sheep and deer, but that project had been abandoned and Jim Jannard, one of the Oakley founders, had bought it and, I think, left it pretty much alone. The south side of Speiden, facing San Juan Island, is mostly bare of trees. The north side, where we’d be passing is covered with Douglas fir and rises steeply out of the water.
Though only five miles from Deer Harbor this was the farthest we had ventured in Simrishamn. President Channel from the northeast, Speiden Channel from the west and San Juan Channel from the south all converge at the southeast corner of Speiden. The local sea floor varies considerably in depth from 600’ to a few fathoms over shoals here and there. Except at slack tide, water is always moving through the channels. Where it’s forced over a hidden reef, the water boils. Where currents collide, whirlpools sometime form. It’s an interesting place to travel through.
But. Boiling water and competing currents can affect a boat traveling across them and did that to Simrishamn, a light, fast-moving boat. It was hard to hold a course and to a novice sailor who didn’t know what to expect, it seemed we were in great danger, though I didn’t let on to my crew. Later, after passing through this area many times in many different boats, we barely noticed Neptune’s teasing.
Motoring parallel to Speiden on the left we passed a number of small islands on the right, staying well away from them because of rocks close to the surface. We could see Johns Island behind them and soon saw the entrance to Stuart Island’s Reid Harbor ahead.
Reid Harbor is about two miles long and in places only a few hundred yards wide so it’s well-protected from wind-driven waves formed outside. Washington State provides a barge-mounted pump out station, a large guest dock, two docking floats, and a dozen mooring buoys. With great moorage and with hiking on Stuart Island, Reid Harbor is popular, especially in the summer.
On this day Reid Harbor was full of boats. All the dock space was taken. No mooring buoys were available. At least 100 boats hung at anchor. That’s what we’d have to do. I was worried. What if the anchor didn’t hold?
The wind was light and out of the southeast, that is blowing into the harbor. That was good, I thought. We threaded our way through the anchored boats to a spot as close to the main dock as we could get that still allowed adequate clearance from our neighbors. We wanted to explore the island and we needed to be able to walk Samantha. We wanted to minimize the distance we’d need to row our inflatable dingy.
The MacGregor was equipped with a light Danforth Fluke anchor attached to 15’ of chain and the chain to 150’ of line. The chain is supposed to lay on the bottom so that pulls on the attached line will become horizontal when they get to the anchor. That will set the anchor more deeply into the bottom mud. At its head and at low tide Reid Harbor ends in a beach. At the harbor entrance at low tide the water is about 30’ deep. In the San Juans, low to high tide can be more than 10’.
This was my first experience with anchoring and I’d read about it and been schooled by friends to allow at least 7’ of rode (chain plus line) for every foot of water depth. The idea is to drop the anchor, let out line while backing up, and then pull on the line to set the anchor securely. The tide, which goes through two complete cycles each day, was on the low side. Typically in the summer in the San Juans the lowest tides are during the day and highest at night. In the winter, it’s just the opposite. The tide would be rising as the sun was setting. I didn’t think much about that.
Our depth finder showed about 20’. That meant I’d need to put out 140’ of rode to meet the 1:7 standard. I barely had that and besides if I had 140’ of rode out, Simrishamn would be too close to the other boats at anchor. I made an executive decision; surely 50’ of rode would be plenty. Or would it? Well, that’s what I was going to do.
We anchored and the four of us rowed to the dock in the inflatable dingy we’d towed, secured the dingy and climbed the stairs to the bluff overlooking the harbor. Simrishamn looked happy enough but I stood and watched for a while to see if there was any sign of dragging anchor. No, it looked fine.
We walked up to Stuart’s K through 8th grade school (high schoolers have to go off-island). The grounds include an old one-room school as well as a much larger modern-looking building. No kids around because it was summer. The gravel road to the school continues to the north end of the island and the Turn Point Lighthouse but we wouldn’t go that far today.
Back on the Simrishamn Yvonne made dinner, grilling chicken pieces on skewers to be served with peanut sauce and a cabbage salad that included chopped-up ramen. After our walk and in the fresh air we were hungry. Samantha the dog enjoyed her chicken treat.
Clouds started to gather so there wouldn’t be a visible sunset, but we didn’t care. The sky darkened to black and we retired to the cabin, getting out our sleeping bags and turning in for the night. In the morning we’d have a quick breakfast and head back to Deer Harbor. I turned on our masthead light and stuck my head out into the cockpit and looked around. We were surrounded by boats in all directions.
The wind, light, was still out of the southeast so all the boats were hanging on their anchors stretching to the northwest. It was quite dark now, no light from the cloudy sky, masthead lights providing the only illumination. I took a mental picture of the arrangement of boats and lights and decided to check our location during the night.
About midnight everything seemed in order but at about 2 a.m. the wind, loud and strong, woke me and when I looked outside I could see that it was now blowing from the northwest so all the boats had turned around and I couldn’t see the pattern of masthead lights I’d expected to see.
Worse it was evident we were moving slowly with the wind to the southeast. We were dragging anchor. That was very bad. As we moved among the stationary boats our anchor and rode could get tangled up with another boat’s. It could be a real mess.
I woke Yvonne and James and told them to come out on deck. Samatha was concerned and wanted to be on deck as well. A woman’s voice from a powerboat close by yelled, “Sailboat, sailboat, you’re drifting.” She was worried. In a minute our so our hulls would collide. Bad.
I’m in my underwear at the helm in the dark. I send Yvonne to the bow to pull up the anchor at my prompt. She can’t hear me because of the wind so James, midships, acts as a repeater between bow and stern. I get the motor started and back up slowly while yelling to James to yell to Yvonne to pull up the anchor. Samantha, the dog, is now also on deck on high alert.
I back away from the closest boat, barely visible in the dark. The anchor is up, and so far we haven’t fouled another anchor line but I have to stay away from the web of other lines surrounding us and make sure I don’t collide with another boat, all without being able to see much and with the wind with its own agenda.
I have James retrieve the flashlight and take it to Yvonne. I’m thinking. I’m thinking. Given that we’re in the midst of scores of anchored boats and the wind is howling, I don’t see much future in trying to anchor again nearby. We have to get free of the other boats and then decide what to do. We could head north toward the top of the Reid, into shallow water, and maybe get out of the wind or we could head south into deeper water also away from the mass of boats. But deeper water means more problems setting the anchor.
I yell to James and he yells to Yvonne that we need to head toward the top of the harbor and that she needs to guide our route. For the next twenty minutes, moving slowly, Yvonne yells to James and James yells to me, “Left” or “Right” and we thread through boats and lines without incident. We’re free and haven’t fouled another anchor rode. That’s something.
We could try to anchor again, but I have low confidence in my anchoring ability. I want to be certain that we’re safe so I yell to James and James yells to Yvonne that we’re going to the top of the harbor and I’ll tie up to one of the many huge logs driven there by storms over the years.
The tide is in and high. There’s water all the way to the logs. Simrishamn, with its centerboard raised and water ballast chamber empty, draws only a foot of water. We can get very close. I accelerate the outboard a bit to generate some momentum and then raise it so the prop won’t hit a rock or dig into the sand. I’m a little worried about the hull hitting one of the rocks that stick up from the sand but my memory tells me there aren’t many in the area of the beach.
Simrishamn’s hull grinds against the sand and comes to a stop. I jump out into the shallow water in my tighty-whiteys and wade to the bow. Yvonne throws me the bow line and I tie it to a log that’s not in the first rank but a bit further from the beach. The log won’t be going anywhere and we won’t be going anywhere. We’re safe!
We’ve been stressed for the last hour. It’s about 3:00 a.m. Nothing bad is going to happen now. All four of us get back into the cabin and climb into our sleeping bags, except for Samatha the dog – who finds a comfortable spot on a cushion. I can hear the waves lapping against the hull. We’re all asleep again in minutes. And we sleep and sleep.
When I wake up I can see through Simrishamn’s windows that dawn was hours ago. And there’s no wind noise. Total silence. That’s good. Then I remember I fell asleep to the sound of waves lapping against the hull. Hmm.
I open the cabin door and crawl out into the cockpit and look around. The hundreds of boats we were moored among are still there. Everything looks good – but the tide is now out. Simrishamn is high on the beach, stranded, and water deep enough to float Simrishamn is 40’ or 50’ away. OK, we’ll just have to wait for the tide to come in and hope that it’s as high as it was when we beached.
After taking Samantha for a walk, we enjoyed our breakfast and talked about the night’s challenges. We each had lots to say. It was a good adventure – a little bit exciting but ending well. At least, I hoped so. Was the hull damaged? When the tide came in could we push the boat off the beach?
The morning passed very slowly. Gawkers came from all directions to look at the beached sailboat. One woman walked behind the stern and muttered “What a shame.” I think she assumed that Simrishamn had a keel which was now buried in the gravel, but it didn’t and it wasn’t. I was a bit embarrassed – what kind of fool would need to beach a sailboat – so I explained to inquisitive passers-by that we were on the beach deliberately, not by accident. Oh well.
The morning dragged on, the tide turned and began to seep back. It was soon noon and we’d packed nothing for lunch because we had expected to be back in Deer Harbor by midmorning. We were hungry. I puttered around outside looking for something useful to do and found a little ding on the hull, not caused by the beaching but some other insult days or weeks before. I brushed on some white gel coat from a little bottle and waited for it to dry. We got out our books.
By early afternoon the tide was in and the stern was floating but not the bow. We tried but couldn’t push the boat free. Oh, oh. When three young men walked by on the path behind the logs that litter the beach, I approached them about helping free Simrishamn from the sand and gravel under the bow. Yes, they’d be happy to. Yvonne and James climbed aboard Simrishamn and the four of us, my three new friends and I, pushed and rocked Simrishamn until we got it completely afloat.
I thanked our benefactors and climbed aboard. We were in enough water now that I could lower the outboard and carefully back into deeper water. In less than an hour we were back in our slip at Cayou Quay Marina. After deflating and stowing our dingy and closing up the boat we walked home. Time for a late lunch and some calls to family about our little adventure.
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