Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Season Finale

There has been a mid-season hiatus on the show "LiLo and Her Inexperienced New Owners" due to a writer's strike. But now, thanks to a renegotiation of the contract (more caffeine was a serious sticking point) we are back with the rest of the winter move to Olympia. If you haven't been following this family dramedy, check out the first episode here.

After awakening to more bilge pump noises, we were off to locate stuffing for our stuffing box. But first, breakfast! We found a creperie up the street, sat in the tiny dining room (seating for 4) and shared delectable breakfast confections. Then we walked up the main street to the local hardware store, but they didn't have a marine supply section. We explained our problem to the owner and were rewarded with a personal how-to guide. We knew we had found an true expert when he began his advice with the words, "You take a pair of undershorts..."

We traded sailing stories for a few minutes before returning to the boat. The plan had been to leave first thing in the morning to make the best use of the tides, but since that was no longer an option, we decided to relax and enjoy the beautiful head winds anyway. After the last episode, we were a bit jumpy about odd engine noises, so we made good use of the time from Kingston to Blake Island (a scheduled pit stop for leg-stretching) by tracking down what made the engine rattle every time we stood on the second companionway step. (A bit of sandpaper, properly applied, should do the trick.)

We pulled into Blake Island a couple of hours before dusk (someday we really will spend some daylight hours on this island!) and chatted with the sailors who stepped up to take our dock lines. They had just come over from Vashon Island for the night and were horrified to hear that we were planning to continue on down to Gig Harbor that evening. "But you'll be out at night!" they chorused. Old hands now after our one night's experience, we responded with confidence. "Night sailing is beautiful!"

And it was. All the way down Colvos Passage to the west of Vashon Island, we had smooth...umm...motoring and relatively calm weather. There is a well-lit marker system of navigation markers throughout the Puget Sound, and this area is no exception. It is always fun to be the first to spot the next light. We followed the old sailors mnemonic "red right returning," and slipped between each set of red and green, grateful to be that much closer to port.

We were grateful too, for our GPS. Although the trip would have been quite possible without its aid, we found it especially helpful as we neared the entrance to Gig Harbor. The perimeter of the harbor describes a rough triangle with a barely navigable opening at the tip of one point. Factor in a sand bar and low tide, and you have a bit of a tricky entrance. We had been in and out of Gig Harbor twice in the daylight or we would probably not have attempted it at night, but all went smoothly. We kept a close eye on the depth sounder (Nissa drew just 2', so we felt enormous with 4'6''), tried to spot the small lighthouse past the bright fishing vessel lights, and...whew...we were in.

Hmmmm. Now which of these marinas has guest moorage available? Our cruising guide said to look for white dunce caps on the pilings and, when we spotted them, we pulled in close to check things out. I hopped off and walked up the ramp to see if we were in the right place while Bryan tied us off. At the top of the ramp, there was a code-locked gate and I'll admit to a bit of apprehension when it clanged shut behind me. But I quickly found the fee box--and the code for the gate on the marina paperwork--and we were set for the night.

Well, all of us except Bryan, that is. He didn't want to spend another night listening to the leaky stuffing box and sloshing bilge pump, so it was time to put the morning's advice to the test. I read "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch" to the girls, all the while, silently rooting for Bryan (the apparent underdog) in his battle to keep the ocean on the proper side of our keel. Armed only with a box knife and a pair of clean underwear ("Why the clean ones? We don't have laundry capabilities!"), and trying to keep his hollering to a minimum (this is a "family" boat), he dove up to his waist in the engine compartment and rummaged in the dark for a bit, emerging victorious.

Then he climbed out onto the bow and, with no small amount of banging about, rigged a pulley system with the spinaker halyard to lift the dinghy up onto the bow--the marina information had been very strict about charges for extra feet of dock space. (If you care, we would advise trying this trick in the daylight your first time.)

The next morning, the fact that we were no longer leaking was not enough to keep us from our now-traditional daily West Marine run. After breakfast (I ran up the hill for coffee and pastries from the local coffee/pottery shop), we took our time deciding on the right fuel filter for our system, hoping that would help the engine run a bit more smoothly. We picked up lunch at the supermarket deli and the girls and I sat in the park to eat while Bryan (he ate too, but faster) went down to the boat...and promptly back to West Marine for a heavy-duty magnetic tool retriever. Unfortunately, the mounting bracket for the fuel filter wasn't magnetic. I hope it is biodegradable in salt water.

Back again for another fuel filter--of course, the one in the water was the last in stock--and then back to the boat to install the substitute we hoped would suffice. But the day was lovely and the town delightful, so it wasn't too burdensome to spend a bit more time at the dock. There are always interesting boats to examine and dogs to pet in a marina. Soon enough, it was time to unplug and stow the shore power cord, untie the lines and pull away into the Tacoma Narrows. We knew from experience that we couldn't be careless about the currents in this area (ask me about that story another's funny now) and we hit them just right this time. Without the dinghy dragging behind us, we made 7-8 knots through most of the channel, under the new Tacoma bridge span and out the other side.

We settled in for another long day, but the familiar waters and the sun overhead did much to boost the morale of the crew. Bryan had just curled up in the starboard quarterberth for a little nap when I heard a "sploosh" just off the side of the boat. I looked, expecting to see a seal--we had seen one or two every day--although they usually are too timid to approach this close. Another "sploosh" and another and...was that a dorsal fin? Hoping whatever it was would stick around long enough to be identified, I called to Bryan. "Come up quick!" Soon we were seeing fins cresting on both sides of the boat. Bryan and the girls grabbed the camera and went up to the bow where the view was best. I cut back the engine, but the pod had been attracted to our speed and fell away until I sped up again. Now Bryan took the tiller and I joined the girls on the foredeck. We clutched the bow pulpit and leaned over to see the black-and-white flashes of (we think) Dall Porpoises dancing through the bow wake. We had seen these playful animals once before on a wildlife viewing cruise out of Resurrection Bay in Alaska, but here, they were so unexpected, so close. All exhaustion gone, we squealed and danced at this breathtaking gift of the sea.

The energy boost lasted even after our visitors faded away. We had been facing the wind head-on for most of the trip, but now, as we turned toward Nisqually Reach, we would have a good chance of favorable winds. And we needed the wind. With all the marinas at Gig Harbor, one would think there would be a fuel dock. But no, there's no fuel to be had without toting a gas tank up the hill to a filling station and back. We thought we had enough to get us to the fuel dock at Zittel's Marina or Boston Harbor, but a quick call to each and some rough calculation made our situation clear. If we didn't put up the sails, we had a pretty good chance of running out of fuel before we could make it to either fuel dock. But if we sailed (in the quickly dying wind) we would not make it in before they closed for the night. (This would probably be a good time to point out that our gas gauge is a bamboo stick marked, helpfully, "Full," "1/2," and "Empty." And our gas tank, well, it's an old beer keg. The inspector said it looked sound enough, but it lies on its side under the cockpit and we're not familiar enough with our capacity and usage yet to know if an inch of gas on the end of the "gauge" means "Sure, you can make it!" or "Just a tiny puddle in the curve of the tank.")

But sailing into the sunset is the stuff of which dreams are made, right? And then the moon came up, and we sailed along its path to the accompaniment of soft music and good company. If we hadn't been so tired, it would have been unbearably enchanting. However, even after pulling out our big Genoa to replace our smaller headsail, we were still only making 1/2 a knot and, despite the vacant waters, we didn't relish the idea of spending the entire night tacking sinuously across a shipping channel.

So we took a deep breath, noted our exact fuel level...and fired up the engine. My stomach tensed as I sat in the cockpit, willing the boat ahead in the water. This was by no means the most dire situation of the trip, but after all we'd been through, I was a bit tired of problem-solving--tired, period. When we'd gone about halfway to the nearest safe harbor, Bryan checked the fuel level again. We were both relieved to see that it had hardly budged. Another 30 minutes found us putting in to the quiet mooring field at Boston Harbor. Once again, we were grateful for previous daytime experience as we navigated past numerous boats at anchor against the glare of the marina lights. The guest dock was full, so we turned back to find a clear spot to anchor among these hibernating vessels, impatient to have LiLo in her own slip for the winter.

Morning dawned foggy, and Bryan launched the dinghy off the bow and loaded the gas tank and the two youngest sailors. They disappeared into the mist only a few yards away, but by the time they had returned, the fog was giving way to another gorgeous day. After a few more minutes paddling about in the dinghy, we motored the last few knots to Olympia.

But before we could pull into our slip, we needed to find a pump-out station for...well, obvious reasons. With everything else that had gone wrong on this trip, it shouldn't have been a surprise when the nearest pump was broken. So we pulled around to Swantown Marina in East Bay, took care of business and, FINALLY, pulled back into West Bay and into our slip at Fiddlehead Marina.

Then we still had to walk to the car rental company (after days out in the elements, the weather away from the water was surprisingly warm), rent a car (without a reservation--not a good plan), and figure out how to get car, car seats, and children all to the same space...legally (here's a hint--it requires ice cream). After a quick stop at our new favorite teriyaki restaurant and another to fill out some paperwork at the marina, we were free to head up the Olympic peninsula for Port Townsend to retrieve the car we'd left behind...was it really just Saturday?

Back in Olympia, we gladly crawled into our beds on the boat for one more night (Olympia to Hillsboro is only about double Bryan's normal commute, so we took him straight to work on our way home the next morning). I remember saying, "We're going to tell our friends about our trip, and all the things that went wrong, and they will never understand how much fun we had." It's true, we did have fun. Even the girls claimed to have enjoyed "the whole thing!" But I think more than the fun we had, we enjoyed the satisfaction of discovering all sorts of new things about our boat and ourselves and the knowledge that this hard work was just the beginning of many more adventures together as a family.

Stay tuned...according to my calendar, sailing season is only weeks away!

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