Port Townsend, Six Months Later

A smack of moon jellyfish

A smack of moon jellyfish

Port Townsend, WA 

Douglas and I are back in Port Townsend after six months of traveling north through the inside passage. We made our way through the waters of the Strait of Georgia, Queen Charlotte Strait, Fitz Hugh Sound, Chatham Strait, Peril Strait, and others with names we had contemplating and trying to imagine the past year. Spending weeks in isolated anchorages and sailing through waters without another boat in sight. We visited small communities in British Columbia and southeast Alaska, spending six weeks in Sitka, ultimately our favorite town of the trip. The wildlife was a strong and emotionally stirring presence, daily we observed some form of wonder; breaching whales in Chatham Strait, Dall’s Porpoises racing across the bow, eagles on the hunt, flocks of geese making their way south in large V shaped flocks, massive smacks of jellyfish. We sailed through all types of weather, calm days where our sails hung loosely, the waters flat and undulating like oil, and days where the seas were whipped up and the winds were blowing steadily in the high 20s, gusting higher. We motored more than we wanted, and I nursed a running a grudge against tidal currents that ran through narrow channels, often with no wind. On our way south we felt driven to make the most of all good weather days, pushing on under sail or motor, aiming to get miles behind us. 

Mostly I felt humbled each day on the water.  Those days gave me plenty of time for thought and reflection. The scale of the environment we passed through and the abundance of wildlife were awe inspiring and something I enjoyed thoroughly. The further north we traveled the less we saw signs of society. The clear cutting and fish farms that were so present along the southern BC coastline gave way as we rounded Cape Caution and pretty much disappeared once we crossed into Alaska.  Each night that we anchored in a new cove we would be entertained by eagles, gulls, seals, sea otters further north. 

We left Sitka about five weeks ago, pushing to get past Cape Caution before  bad weather locked up the area to the north of Vancouver Island. Once around the cape there was the business of getting through Johnstone Strait, another notorious body of water, along the east side of the island. (I read last night that a boat with four aboard flipped in the narrows, I don’t know the circumstances, but when the currents run there they can create ship destroying whirlpools and large flows of standing waves). To travel south along the east side and in protected waters, of Vancouver Island,  we had to pass that relatively narrow slot where storm strength winds begin this time of year to work against the currents to produce truly ugly water. But we played our our timing well, making it through both bodies of water, getting in some excellent sailing along the way. The window is closing, since we passed through the gales have been building and running for days at a time up north. We met a couple that was caught north of Cape Caution a couple of days after we had rounded and they told us of sitting through 65 knots gusts while tied to the dock in Shearwater.  

Daylight started to work against us as well. For months we had enjoyed long days with dawn starting to glow at 4:30 in the morning and sunset lingering to 10pm, giving us opportunities for extending our days. When we needed to continue on to a distant anchorage or if we needed to be on the water early to meet slack water at a specific place we had plenty of light to work by. Over the past few weeks the days started to clip themselves shorter at either end, the sun showing up later each morning and leaving us each evening as we sorted out anchoring. 

We have a map taped up to the bulkhead that separates the salon from the v-berth that covers the inside passage. It begins with Port Townsend just visible above the green painter’s tape we used to secure it, and covers the area northward, including Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast to Aristazabal Island. That is the “southern portion” of the two maps we used to get an overall view of the area we traveled through. There is another map that we used for the northern section. Each night when we  arrived at a new anchorage I’d place an X on the location and write the date. On just this map I’ve just counted 38 spots where we either anchored or tied up to a dock over the past 6 months, there are another 31 spots on the northern section. Each of those slightly scrawled dates represent a mini adventure in anchoring or the happy conclusion to a day on the water. 

Being back in Port Townsend feels good. There are many people on the dock who spent the winter here last year and are returning for another season. It has been nice to catch up. There is something nice about the familiarity of a place after being on the move for a few months. It also is taking a bit of adjusting, after being in so many isolated places and having  a free form to our lives. 

A nice surprise was to see an old friend from Portland who has just started taking courses at the NW School of Wooden Boat building. I hadn’t seen him for 15 years. And now he is docked two boats over, doing classes during the week and then returning to Portland on the weekends to see his family. What a crazy, small world…. 

I think I have a good amount of “processing” time ahead but wanted to post a note to put a punctuation on this portion of the trip. My thoughts at the moment are that there is a lifetime of exploration along the waters north of Cape Caution, we peeked at a small amount and look forward to spending more time in the region. I would head north more quickly in the future, and make our way around Cape Caution and into the northern BC and SE Alaskan waters as soon as possible. I would also like to spend a trip north focused on Haida Gwaii island. And as sailors our next trip would involve more “outside” passage than inside. We had planned on sailing along the outside on our return but repair work in Sitka changed those plans. It is a wonderful part of the world and I hope we are all able to preserve it as long as possible. 

For the moment we have a list of projects to tackle on Tumbleweed and are starting our research for heading to the south Pacific in the spring. The trip north was meant to be a “shake down” cruise, to put our systems through the paces, find out what worked, what could be addressed differently. We learned an incredible amount. A boat like this is a complex set of interconnected systems. Running them for six months mostly on the move has stressed  them and shown us what works well and what we can improve.  And reordered our priorities, giving us a better understanding of what we’ll need to do over the winter to prepare for a trip south. We can enthusiastically endorse the Valiant as a great cruising yacht, Tumbleweed was a pure joy to sail even in the most challenging conditions. 

I’m working on a list of resources we used for the trip, and notes on what worked well, what we’d like to improve, and will post as I get those thoughts organize.