A Shakedown Sail to the San Juans

The importance of a shakedown sail is, I think, often forgotten or underestimated. A shakedown sail before a longer one helps discover problems with boat work done over the long winter. And perhaps more importantly, it rebuilds sailing skills, especially physical and mental stamina that might have grown weak over the winter.

Not just any shakedown sail will do – the weekend cruises we did twice a month over the last 7-8 months don’t prepare us fully for the 1-month cruise we’ll be taking this July (to the west coast of Vancouver Island, much like the route we did two years ago). So last Thursday evening we took off from Shilshole for a 4 1/2 day trip to the San Juans (2 days in the islands before we needed to head back for work the day after Memorial Day).

Thursday: Shilshole to Port Ludlow

We took off about 5pm and sailed upwind to Port Ludlow, taking about 5 hours and arriving after dark. There was only 6-10 knots of wind, and sailing upwind makes the journey take quite a bit longer, but we sailed 100% of the way except for the last 1-2 miles into the harbor. Going past Point No Point we had 7.5 knots over ground with the 2 knot current push.

Currents were a recurring theme of the four days – there are large tides currently, due to 2-3 ft minus tides and a new moon. We encountered many whirlpools and tide rips in the San Juans and around the Point Wilson washing machine. This was probably the biggest benefit of our shakedown sail – it was a good refresher in using currents to our advantage, and we hit them all right, often getting 3-4 knot boosts.


Sailing into the sunset towards Port Ludlow

Friday: Port Ludlow to Cypress Island, Eagle Harbor

We left Port Ludlow early, about 8:30am, to take advantage of the ebb current. Due to leaving early we had to motor, but we got a big boost from the current, hitting 10 knots over ground (6-6.5 over water) past Marrowstone and Point Wilson.

While traveling north up Marrowstone Island just outside the southbound shipping lanes, I saw far off what looked like an approaching tidal wave 5 miles away. That didn’t look right to me, so I grabbed the binoculars. Yup, it was a submarine, heading right our way (against current) and pushing a huge wave! Submarines (and the two flanking escorts) don’t broadcast on AIS, for obvious reasons. So you really have to keep a good lookout for them. With us traveling 10 kts and them 5-10 (hard to say, due to no AIS, but less than normal since they were going against a 3-4 kt current), we closed the distance pretty quickly – glad I hadn’t decided to cross the shipping lanes.

There was a lot of cargo ship traffic out, and approaching Point Wilson we were monitoring 3-4 container ships over AIS on my phone. It’s difficult to stay out of the Point Wilson turning circle because it’s 4 miles wide, consumes most of the waterway, and the 4 kt current was tending to push us into it.

We ended up in the separation zone, not wanting to cross a northbound ship, but with two eastbound ships (near Dungeness spit) incoming (but far enough away not to be an immediate concern). Normally container ships are fast and we can take their stern, but since we were moving 10 knots and the northbound ship was only going 15, we were being pushed west when we wanted to turn north. We radioed the northbound container ship to put our nerves at ease and confirmed that we should wait for him to pass.

The rest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca crossing was a pretty typical slow sunny weather crossing – 4-6 kts wind, so it took us 5 hours to cross, but we ended up sailing all the way to Cypress.

View from Eagle Harbor, Cypress Island

Spinnaker Mishaps

After Juan de Fuca, on the way to Cypress, we raised the spinnaker to try to get into Rosario Strait, which was just switching from an ebb to flood. Like often happens we got stuck in the SE Lopez area for an hour or two. But then the flood in Rosario carried us quickly to Cypress. We ended up sailing on a beam to close reach with the spinnaker, and accidentally got it backwinded when a 90 degree wind shift happened near instantly at the SE corner of Cypress.

I had left the upper spreaders without spreader boots after the rerig, because the upper spreaders are pretty smooth and don’t contact the genoa – but I hadn’t realized the spinnaker does, when it’s backwinded. We tried to do a takedown while backwinded, because 2-3 kts of current was carrying us swiftly towards the point, but it got stuck on the upper spreader and ended up getting a small tear!

Then, because not enough had gone wrong yet, we got waked by an Alaskan fishing ship pushing a mountain of water against current in the channel. We had no boat speed or steerage after getting the spinnaker down, and the unexpectedly large wake soaked the foredeck, including the spinnaker. Lesson learned – maybe don’t try to fly the kite upwind while sailing on current in a channel with a fishing ship approaching against current. 

We had heard of good hiking on Cypress Island from a fellow blogger, Chris of SanJuanSufficiancy, and Cypress didn’t disappoint. We could spend three days hiking there probably, but only had time for the Pelican Beach hike plus Duck Lake. The Eagle Cliff trail is closed from February thru July 15, for habitat restoration, but would be fun to come back for sometime.

Cypress Island hiking map (just the top half – there’s a lot more!)

Saturday: Cypress Island to Watmough Bay

Saturday we headed south on the ebb. We sailed most of the way there, but with only 0-3 kts of wind we weren’t really sailing on wind, we were sailing on current. I’m not sure if “current sailing” is a thing, but that’s what we’re calling it. The techniques are similar to motor sailing in many ways (we’d furl the genoa and just point the bow with the current). With a 2-4 kt current, we made decent speed.

We got the last mooring ball at Watmough (there are three – with a fourth closer to shore but it looks unmaintained). It was super hot and sunny, and in the morning we went for a hike up Chadwick hill, providing amazing views of Rosario Strait. It was a short but steep hike, with some short class 4 rock scrambling involved.

View of Boulder Island and Watmough Bay, with the Strait and Olympics in the background

Huge fog bank over the eastern Strait on Sunday. We later sailed into this fog.

The massive tide rip line where Rosario Strait meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Later we sailed through this line (but intentionally routing to the tail so it wasn’t too bad).

At first I thought these were falcons or raptors, but later I figured out they’re turkey vultures. Not nearly as exciting!


Sunday: Watmough to Port Ludlow

We left about 10:30am to catch the ebb out of Rosario, and had a nice 8-10 kt beam wind going through some big tide rips. Then we went into the fog bank, with visibility less than 1/2 mile, but still sailing on a close reach to close haul. It got cold, really cold compared to the last few days – I had on wool socks, wool hat, and three layers (shirt, fleece, ski jacket). Our new VHF antenna cable install I did during the rerig is proving to be useful – our reception is much better now, and it was nice to know we could hear other ships communicating in the fog that our handheld VHF didn’t pick up at all. Near Smith Island we were picking up Victoria coast guard and the Kingston ferries, and at Port Townsend we were picking up boats at Anacortes.

Tide rips off Rosario Strait. We avoided the breakers, and had a lot of fun (but only because we had enough sail up and just enough wind to power through them).

We made good time to Smith Island, skirting the eastern tip, and then got stuck in the Point Wilson washing machine for 2 hours. The skies had cleared to blue + sunny, but the wind had lightened to 1-5 kts, which wasn’t enough to power through the sloppy waves.

Passing 0.4 nm from Smith Island in heavy fog

The Point Wilson whirlpool was still transitioning to flood, and we couldn’t point deeper than 120 degrees with the light wind, so it took quite a while. After Point Wilson luckily the wind strengthened to 8-12, and later to 15-20 while passing Marrowstone Island. We were flying wing on wing with a 2-3 knot current push, sailing as fast as 9.5 knots over ground!  Amazingly, there were two other sailboats motoring downwind with us, doing about the same pace. Sailing conditions don’t get much better than this – hot, sunny weather with a perfect following wind and flat seas – I’ll never understand why some sailboats don’t sail in those conditions.

A racing thoroughbred motoring downwind in 10-18 knots. Sorry Neptune’s Car, but this was too good to pass up. Sailing isn’t just for Duck Dodge + Swiftsure ya know. 😉

We anchored out in Port Ludlow about 6pm. Port Ludlow is one of my favorite ports – super picturesque, well protected, and conveniently located for shortening the sail back to Seattle. There was a sailboat anchored in the secret bay inside The Twins – we’d like to do that someday.

Monday: Port Ludlow to Shilshole

Monday we had to wait for the flood tide to start in the afternoon (not till 3pm! We left at 12 though and fought some of the ebb) so we went for a dinghy row and checked out the bay behind The Twins. And surprise, there was a raft-up of 5 sailboats in there that we couldn’t see from the main harbor because they were hidden behind the island! The bay is much larger in there than we thought. We got a recommendation to take the middle channel coming in, so we’ll definitely have to try it sometime.

We motored 30 minutes or so out the harbor and then set sail on a beam reach with 5 kts north wind. Only sailing about 3 kts the 2 knot current pushed us a good bit, but when the wind rose to 8-10 we flew the spinnaker and made 5 kts, about 3 kt VMG. Eventually the tide turned and the wind got even better (10-15 NW) and we flew along at 6-7 kts. We tried to race a J/105 with 4 crew and a symmetrical spinnaker, but they edged ahead. Sadly the wind died around Kingston (it was undergoing a 2-3 hour transition from south to north wind) and we motored the last hour and a half.

Overall it was a great extended weekend, riding some super tides, doing a lot of sailing mileage, and enjoying sun + warmth in the San Juans (which were not that crowded yet since it’s still early season).

A spectacular sunset at Shilshole capped the conclusion of our trip.

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