May 6, 2014

The bedlam of Friday Harbor

IN A MONTH OR TWO, scores of cruising boats will be heading for the beautiful San Juan Islands, in northwest Washington state, about 80 miles north of Seattle. Many of them will be attracted to the busiest and most famous town in the islands, Friday Harbor. And many will be disappointed.

Nearly 20 years ago, when June and I acquired a little 22-foot sailboat, Tagati, people said: “Oh, you’ll have to visit Friday Harbor. Don’t miss Friday Harbor. Friday Harbor is gorgeous.”

And it is indeed a charming little town in a wonderful setting. And that’s the problem. Everyone wants to go there.

It was August 7 when we rounded Pt. Caution to enter Friday Harbor, and there we ran into traffic galore — The Victoria Clipper, large Washington State ferries discharging tourists and vehicles, seaplanes landing and taking off, and half a dozen lost-looking souls on sailboats milling around the harbor entrance, where a young man sat with a hand-held radio and a list of mooring slips.

We ducked into the harbor and tucked ourselves into a little space that was vacant on the inside of the entrance breakwater, not realizing how lucky we were to be able to fit in there. Bigger boats clinging to the outside of the breakwater were being thrown around by wakes, jerking at their mooring lines, popping cleats, and gouging gunwales.

One woman on a Catalina 30 in a very exposed position told me they’d been there 24 hours waiting for a slip to come free. Channel 66A  was filled with pleas from boats wanting berths, and having to be put on the waiting list. “It’s a zoo,” said the Catalina woman.

All kinds of boats came blundering to the breakwater, some sideways in the current and out of control. People sprinted from their own boats to fend them off. I fastened our dinghy amidships on the outboard side to discourage any of the larger idiots from trying to raft up alongside, and that made more space aft of us which was immediately filled by a small Bayliner powerboat whose two occupants started to change their baby’s diaper on the aft deck.

I watched the berthing master at the end of the breakwater crack up with laughter when a 60-footer called on the VHF and asked if he could have a slip. But the berthing master was very polite when he replied, and offered to put the 60-footer on the waiting list. He didn’t say the wait would probably be days.

June went ashore and took a long walk all around the perimeter of the marina to find a hot shower, for which she was charged only $1. She came back all perfumed and smiling, and we cast off from the breakwater, heading for a lovely quiet lagoon called Fisherman Bay, just four miles away, across the San Juan Channel.

As we pulled out of Friday Harbor, the skipper of a boat from Portland, Oregon, said enviously: “Are you going to a real berth?”

“No,” I said, “we’re outta here.”

Fisherman Bay has one of those entrances that requires you to both navigate and concentrate, which probably accounts for the peace and quiet you find inside. We followed the winding passage without trouble, using the chart in Migael Sherer’s cruising guide, which I happened to have edited for the publishers a few months before.

Migael mentions a tavern/restaurant halfway along the east shore, so we went that way, located it, and anchored Tagati about 200 yards offshore in water about 8 feet deep.

That evening we rowed ashore and enjoyed a lovely meal of delicious clams boiled in their own broth at the Galley Tavern. We sat upstairs, where wooden tables and chairs were set out under colorful shade umbrellas, and we soaked up the sunset view out over the lagoon. We counted only six other transient yachts in the whole anchorage.

Fisherman Bay was calm. It was serene. It was beautiful. And you can hardly imagine how grateful we were to be safely removed from that utter bedlam just four miles away across the San Juan Channel.

Today’s Thought
The most common of all antagonisms arises a from a man’s taking a seat beside you on the train, a seat to which he is completely entitled.
— Robert Benchley

 "John, what's my mother going to say when I tell her you kissed me twice?"
"But I haven't kissed you twice. I only kissed you once."
"Yeah, but you haven’t gone yet, have you?"

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

O Docker said...

We used to potter about in boats in the San Juans quite a bit about 20 years ago.

'Fish' Bay was one of our favorite spots, for most of the reasons you mention. And it was worth the walk into town for the bakery that used to be (and maybe still is) there.

You're right. The entrance requires navigation and concentration.

And a tide chart.

To amuse ourselves, we used to dinghy out to the spit at low tide and wait for mariners who had forgotten theirs. They were usually the ones who came charging through at full bore.

And they say a boat can't stop on a dime.