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It’s All in the Delivery

After an overnight solo delivery the Pacific Northwest, the challenges and rewards far outweigh a good night’s sleep.

April 27, 2021
44-foot sailboat under sail
The McKee Family Riptide 44 serves three purposes: cruiser, racer and self-exploration craft. Jay Leon

It’s been a great cruise. Ten days in sunny Desolation Sound, that warm water mecca on the central British Columbia coast where our family tries to go cruising every year. At the end of this particularly epic cruise, however, when it’s time to pack up and get on the sea plane back to Seattle, to reality, inspiration strikes.

On this afternoon, there is a fresh northwesterly blowing in Georgia Strait. The wind observations are in the low 20s, forecast to slowly ease through the night. Not that I’m paying attention anyway…I’ll be long gone on the next sea plane. But as I’m packing my duffle, it occurres to me that I do not have to fly home with the family. I can sail our 44-footer “Dark Star” back to Seattle and skip the delivery crew next week. Clearly the kids are ready to go home, and we are very nearly out of food. My wife, Libby can deliver them home. I can sail! Solo. Through the night. But downwind. I have coffee.

“This is going to be fun,” I think to myself. “Only 200 miles to Seattle. Wait, is this really a good idea?”

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My kids are a little confused (what is Daddy doing?), and I must say Libby is a little surprised. She subtly questions my judgement, but she can see I am not to be denied this impromptu journey.

I feel excited and a little sad as we say goodbye and soon I’m motoring out of the narrow cut of Cortes Harbor and getting ready to hoist the main. My focus sharpens on the task at hand. I often talk to myself in these situations: “Put on your life jacket…Get enough sea room…Turn Dark Star head to wind…Slow down, pilot on, at idle speed…Sail ties off.”

I hoist the square-top main, which is a good workout. Time to turn downwind and start for home. “Pilot on again, set up the spinnaker.”

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As I start rigging the sheets, I see the sea plane pass just off to port. I wave, and I’m pretty sure Libby sees me. “What am I doing?” Don’t ask that question. Back to work. Pull out the furling jib, to ensure a safer kite set. Think it through first: “Tack line out, halyard up, then sheet on. Boom. Full kite, the speed jumps from 6 to 12 knots, and suddenly it’s real. Pilot off, hand steer for a while to get the feel of the balance as I emerge into the open waters of North Georgia Strait. Away from the shelter of Cortes Island, the northwest breeze has a clean fetch all the way to Campbell River. The waves start getting bigger, and the wind settles in around 20 knots, which is sporty but not un-manageable. Gradually I relaxed, a little. A few deep breaths, then I put the pilot back on. “Cool, it is steering fine. For the moment…”

I have a fine sail south past islands called Mittlenatch, Hernando, Savary, toward the open waters off Sisters Island, often one of the windiest places in Georgia Strait. I jibe a few times. It’s a bit of work, but I have a routine with the pilot that seems to be working. In the fading daylight of late summer, the air acquires a chill, and for the first time I think about the dark hours ahead. I have a long way to go. Night falls fast, and it takes me awhile to get comfortable again in the darkness. Thankfully, the breeze has died to around 15. It’s enough to keep my attention, but “I should be okay”, I tell myself. “As long as I keep my wits about me and don’t screw up or do something stupid.”

I cooked dinner, a can of soup and some stale crackers, the last remains from our cruise, reminding me again of the peaceful family time I savored on the cruise.

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I think I’m gaining bearing on a set of lights. Then I’m not.

“Oh crap. Collision course with a BC ferry.”

These are actually 600-foot ships. I try to focus. Quickly. We are going almost the same way but converging. No option but to jibe.

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“Better make it a good one!” Stick to the checklist: Runner under the boom, slack out of lazy sheet. Mainsail on some. Turn the boat with the pilot remote, then pull the kite around.

It goes smoothly enough. Now I am close to the ferry but diverging, which is a lot better than converging. My heart rate gradually subsides a little. Still 15 knots of wind, so making good time down the track. 60 miles down, 140 to go.

It goes smoothly enough. Now I am close to the ferry but diverging, which is a lot better than converging. My heart rate gradually subsides a little. Still 15 knots of wind, so making good time down the track. 60 miles down, 140 to go.

“Better cook up some coffee.”

The night passes uneventfully but not entirely clearly in my mind. I space out at one point. The breeze is still dying as i progress south, and around 2am it is down to 6 knots. Time to drop the kite and start motoring. The drop goes smoothly, using a snuffer. I keep the main up, figuring the wind will eventually return further down the Strait. I take a few 15-minute naps as Dark Star and I slowly motor toward the Canada/USA border, using a kitchen timer to keep the naps short. Passing East Point, at the tip of Saturna Island, I enter American waters and take a slight turn to starboard toward San Juan Channel, the most direct route among many through the rocky and forested San Juan Islands.

From the open water of the Straits of Georgia, the many reefs and hazards now require careful navigation. No more napping. I get my second wind and start feeling pretty good. I have gone 120 miles, with 80 to go. Well past halfway. Shortly after, the first hint of dawn appears in the east, and for a moment I realize why I’m here.

There is no place I would rather be. All is fine with the world right then.

As I’m cooking my last two eggs for breakfast, a Coast Guard frigate appears ominously to starboard. It follows me for a few miles, mirroring my course. Is there an APB out for me? Are they running a background check?

“Who is this crazy guy our here all alone.”

Finally, the frigate turns around and leaves me in peace. Shortly after, the morning westerly from the Straits of Juan de Fuca fill. Wind on the beam, I pull the jib out, set up the outboard lead, and cut the motor. “Wow, so much quieter!” It’s great to be sailing again. Dark Star and I thread though Cattle Pass at the south edge of the San Juan Islands, once again entering open water, this time the mighty Straits of Juan de Fuca which separates Washington state from British Columbia. By now the breeze was up to 15 and still building, with swells from the Pacific Ocean for the first time, which makes for a rough but fast reach across the Straits, with the breeze gradually lifting. The pilot is doing a great job, so I can relax, drink my tea, and trim the sails now and then. I start to feel that oneness with my vessel, when she and I merge. Port Townsend is abeam at 11 am, into the narrower but current-riddled Admiralty Inlet.

The westerly breeze is dying fast, so it’s motor on again, now like a horse to the barn. I tidy the boat, make a sorry lunch from what is left of our provisions, and start to dream of a real bed. Ah, but one more great stretch of sailing to go. The Puget Sound northerly fills in like clockwork at Point No Point.

“Obviously the kite has to go back up!”

The final 10 miles is a cruisy 12-knot running breeze, plus a few jibes to stay on track, and soon enough the Seattle skyline comes into view. “Almost time for this little adventure to end,” I think to myself.

I nearly have a snafu on my spinnaker drop, but somehow, by the grace of God, I wrestle the kite onboard and down the hatch. Off Shilshole Bay Marina now, our home, that little anchor on the chart plotter, I execute a sloppy but adequate mainsail drop. And as I call the US Customs agent, I realize it’s 4 p.m. Exactly the time I had motored out of Cortes Harbor 24 hours earlier.

“Not bad for 200 miles,” I say to myself. It’s not record-breaking stuff, but it’s a solid achievement, and in a fundamental way, something I felt I had to do. My solo docking at our slip is flawless. It’s always nice to end on a good note. I’m tuckered out, and in that sort of up-all-night-kind of haze I drive home very carefully where Libby tucks me in, my mind sailing off into the darkness.

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