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San Juan Islands – July 2009

After several attempts we have finally accomplished our maiden voyage as a kayak mothership by voyaging from Oak Harbor Marina to the San Juan Islands and launching, paddling, and retrieving a kayak while at anchor and cooking, eating, sleeping and living independently on the boat for several days at a time. Part of the challenge is the age of the boat (1972) and the need to spend so much time restoring the boat so it’s safe for use. If you’ve been following these posts you’re aware of the major issue (fuel starvation). We discovered another issue over the course of this trip.

Overall the trip was wonderful. We revisited some places we had not seen in thirty

Mothership at James Island with F-1 aboard

Mothership at James Island with F-1 aboard

years and spent time in an anchorage new to us but convenient to some of the best paddling in the islands. Since I’m in my sixties one of the important aspects is whether I can handle a kayak on board keeping in mind that one does not have the luxury of standing on a dock while anchored in a remote cove. The weight of a skin-on-frame (SOF) kayak makes this much easier. Right now I’m carrying the F-1 SOF strapped to the port side of the fly bridge where it does not interfere with visibility or

Teka stands watch as her water taxi returns from a visit to shore

Teka stands watch as her water taxi returns from a visit to shore

handling. This arrangement makes it easy for me to move the kayak into position for launch and to put it back into place after use.

The essential component of entering and exiting a kayak is an inflatable dinghy whcih does double duty as a water taxi to take Teka, our Jack Russell, to and from her numerous daily visits to a nearby shore.  We noticed an increase in the numbers of inflatable boats being used as yacht tenders this year compared to 30 years ago; most of them being propelled by outboard motors not oars. The prices have dropped to around $600 from the 1970s when they typcally cost around $2,000. Our “real” Zodiac was purchased off Craigslist from a gentleman on Vashon Island for $700.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that it was even easier to enter and exit the F-1 (with its 32.5 inch long cockpit) from the Zodiac than I had imagined. The inflatable’s inherent stability makes counterbalancing the boat almost unnecessary. I say “almost” because it’s still a good idea to keep one’s weight as close to the middle of the inflatable as possible until you can slither into (or out of) the cockpit. The following sequence shows me exiting the F-1. (Notice that I had to turn the kayak around to accommodate my bad left knee.)

Approachng the Zodiac for exit.

Approachng the Zodiac for exit.

Rolling out of the cockpit into the Zodiac

Rolling out of the cockpit into the Zodiac

Exit completed and ready to get onto the mothership

Exit completed and ready to get onto the mothership

One result of our testing was the discovery that the F-1 would rest securely on the Zodiac which means that I can tie it down and leave it there for another paddle later in the day without the necessity of putting it back on the mothership or the risk of

The F-1 resting securely on the Zodiac

The F-1 resting securely on the Zodiac

leaving it floating tethered by a painter. There was little tendency of the Zodiac to capsize during either entry or exit but it was somewhat tender during the operation so it’s important to keep your weight balanced as much as possible. Nevertheless, this system is eminently usable and later on we noticed another kayaker using the same system to move from his kayak into an inflatable at the anchorage in the northern cove of James Island (a Washington State Marine Park).  We have a yearly permit for these parks which often include a WWTA (Washington Watertrails Association) campsite for hand-powered vessels. Our permit allows us to stay at a dock (if available) or mooring buoy at no charge for up to 3 days at which point we must move to another park or simply anchor in the same area if we don’t want to move. Without a permit the fee to use the dock or a buoy is $10 per night but anchoring is free.

It’s worth noting that many people in the Puget Sound area use these parks for summer vacations even with small runabouts launched at nearby locations on the mainland. By

James Island campsite with runabout anchored and stern-tied to the beach

James Island campsite with runabout anchored and stern-tied to the beach

using their boat to transport family members and camping gear they can rent a camp spot on James Island for $13 a day and keep their boat near the beach in front of the campsite for free. This makes the San Juan Islands into very cheap family vacation spots. It should be noted that one needs to watch the weather closely when crossing large stretches of water in small boats (Rosario Straits from Anacortes and the Straits of George from Bellingham are particularly dangerous in strong winds and currents). However you can travel to the Islands by ferry trailing your boat and simply launch right in the middle of the crusing grounds. This eliminates any dangerous crossings in the small boat.

The beauty and relative safety of kayaking the Islands is beyond question. In just four days we visited six anchorages and one of them was smack-dab in the middle of the

Typical paddling in theSan Juan Islands

Typical paddling in theSan Juan Islands

Wasp Islets between Orcas Island and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. This anchorage is wide open to San Juan Passage and should only be attempted in fine weather but it makes a great place to day-paddle a popular area while staying close to lunch.

Wildlife is more abundant in 2009 than we remember it in 1979. We saw eagles, herons, seals, and deer (remarkably unconcerned with people). We did not see raccoons which can be a nuisance on the islands (another good reason to stay at anchorage or on a mooring) or river otters which we understand are more common now, too. No sign of Orca or Grey whales but we were not in their usual haunts; although we were on the edge. Night time bio-luminescense in the water at James Island was spectcaular. Jellyfish are numerous.

The Captains Cabin in dryer times - ready for bed

The Captains Cabin in dryer times - ready for bed

The new issue we discovered was during a 45 minute thunderstorm the first night at anchorage. The sudden heavy rain opened several small leaks in the cabin of the mothership but by far the worst was right over where my head usually rests when I’m in my bunk! Fortunately the storm was over quickly but we’ll have to fix those leaks. Otherwise, the mothership makes a comfortable headquarters for paddling. The long VHF antenna mounted on the flybridge makes it easy for a solo

Sue starting our dinner of grilled salmon steaks and rice

Sue starting our dinner of grilled salmon steaks and rice

paddler to stay in touch with anyone remaining on the boat. We found that a stainless steel grill perched on the engine cover made a perfect outdoor kitchen and removed cooking heat from the small cabin during some of the hottest weather we’ve ever encountered in the Puget Sound area.

The only major downside to the voyage (besides the wet bunk) was the 50-gallons of gasoline we used during the trip. A simple kayak trip into the Islands would have cost

Before the storm; anchorage in Westsound, Orcas Island

Before the storm; anchorage in Westsound, Orcas Island

far less but would not have been as comfortable and would have meant that my wife would amost certainly not have come along. The cost is competitive with any camping trip into the Islands using a car and either state or private campgrounds and using the state-operated ferries for access and offered much more convenient access to the best areas to paddle. Future trips will probably involve anchoring in a central location and spending more time paddling. Next year, with improved kayak storage and better electronics, will be different. We will probably not keep the boat in a marina but choose, instead, to simply trailer the boat to a launch ramp and then move into the Islands. More trips this summer should give us a better idea of how to use the boat.

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