It all started simply enough. A suggestion from Robert to do a weekend cruise to Dabob Bay. He had mentioned wanting to explore Hood Canal before, this was the first step to actually doing something about it. Being eager myself to do any kind of cruising I jumped on the bandwagon.
So as we frequently did, we sat in an "artsy" bar not far from the University of Washington and informally planned our adventure. It was planning that was usually a more seat-of-the-pants variety; a combination of sheer serendipity and desire to just be out on the water. The plan, such as it was, was to leave Saturday morning from Union Bay, go through the ship channel out to Shilshole Bay, sail as far as we could, then motor to Dabob Bay. We would return the next day. Since neither of us really needed to be back on Monday, we figured we would have some slack in our schedule in case we were delayed.
Hood Canal. A deceptive name if there ever was one. And also deceptive to look at. This sleepy strip of water on the east side of Puget Sound is rarely more than 1 mile wide, but cuts a long straight groove at the foot of the Olympic mountains before taking a fish hook turn near Bremerton. Although you couldn't tell by the shores, the glacier cut canal is so deep that the Navy submarines based at Bangor, WA conduct diving and maneuvering sea drills with great frequency. Hood Canal is also synonymous with high winds. A floating bridge near the head of the Canal was destroyed at one time by winds topping 100 knots. Dabob Bay is a rather large bay adjacent to Hood Canal about halfway down the channel. Since the mouth of the Canal is a good distance from Seattle, Dabob was a good goal to get a taste of cruising in this sparsely populated area.
Early morning Saturday found us wandering down to the waterfront home of the university's yacht club. Amongst the hodge-podge of different boats available to rent to club members was a 26 ft. Excalibur, the club's largest keelboat. Built in the late 1960's by Islander, Excalibur was designed to rate favorably in the CCA rule, having a fin keel, spade rudder, and a masthead rig. It was a pretty solid boat that withstood the various abuses of the club members with grace. The sail inventory was well worn but functional with a genoa, lapper, and working jib along with a mainsail. Auxiliary power was wrapped up in a 9 horse outboard hung on a bracket off the stern. Both Robert and I had sailed the boat so we were familiar with its simple layout. With sails and gear stored aboard we set off, motoring to the Ballard Locks, then out into Puget Sound.
The wind was fairly light and fickle, but with the powerful 150% genoa set we were able to get almost to Point No Point before the wind failed and an adverse current threatened to sweep us backward. Knowing that we still had a long way to go at 2:00 pm., we fired up the motor. Motoring with an outboard has never been my favorite thing to do. Especially when having to deal with a motor that has had hundreds of university students fiddle with it. Today, though, it proved to work flawlessly.
Entering Hood Canal was anti-climactic. The lack of breeze turned the whole body of water into a glass mirror. The sun disappearing behind the Olympics meant that we would still be motoring a long way in the dark. No matter, navigation was simple. In fact we had yet to look at the chart. So over the din of the motor we talked and ate.
Robert was a long-time doctorial student, so long in fact that over 10 years had passed since receiving his bachelor's degree. He was frequently distracted by boat-building projects, an occasional woman, and an odd trip home in his Triumph Spitfire to visit his parents. Sailing was a family passion, exposing him at an early age to Californian ocean racing. His long student membership at UW allowed him to become qualified on all of the different boats at the yacht club, including teaching sailing at regular intervals. But the most defining characteristic of Robert was that he was a loner. And since I've always been a bit of one myself we became good friends. I'll never forget our late-night sojourns to a local bar in 1987 to watch the America's Cup live from Australia, emerging bleary eyed and smelling of cigarette smoke after the bar closed. Ah, but to watch the action, tack for tack, to chatter about tactics, to disagree with the commentators, to watch the sails blow up, it was all good fun. The other bar patrons looked at us with disdain because they figured they were forced to view something akin to watching grass grow.
So after an interminably long motoring spell, we turned into Dabob Bay and immediately anchored near the Toandos shore. Cloud cover made the night pitch black so after figuring that we were set for the night, we turned in to sleep the slumber of the dead.
Waking up was slow and peaceful, but once alert in my sleeping bag I could tell that things were different. Not only was the cabin brightly lit with sunshine, but a certain sustained whistling noise belied a significant breeze. From my bunk in the quarterberth I could feel the boat rock, followed by a lull, then rock some more. Being groggy from sleep, it took me a bit to get used to the rocking motion once I decided to become vertical. I stepped out the hatch to be greeted by a breathtaking sight. The air was so clear and bright, that I felt like I could reach out and touch the Olympics. I could see every pine needle, every patch of snow high up on the peaks. The sky was deep blue and cloudless. Tears welled up in my eyes. Unfortunately not from emotion, but trying to look into the increasing wind. White caps were visible all across the bay and our boat was swinging wide arcs around our anchor. Time for a short conference.
Since the wind was blowing from the north down the bay, we decided to uproot and swing around the corner toward Hood Canal because we would be protected along the shore. Not bothering with the motor, we pulled up the anchor and raised the working jib and flew the around Tskutsko Pt. Once under the bluffs the wind slacked off and we anchored only a boat length from shore. The water was so clear we could see whether the anchor set or not. Great! Time for breakfast.
Now our lackadaisical planning started to show its shortcomings. I had brought some lunch material for both days, but we had eaten almost all of it the evening before. What we were left with was a few candy bars. Robert had planned to snag a few oysters, so he promptly donned his wet suit and snorkling gear and went over the side. Within 15 minutes he had 2 buckets full of good-sized oysters.
Not knowing anything about oysters, I asked, "How do we cook them?"
"We'll just steam them or boil them in water. They'll open up enough so you can pry open the shells." Sounded easy enough. The question now was, "What do we use for water?"
The water tank on the Excalibur was made of rigid plastic. The boat was used infrequently so the supply could sit for months in the same old tank. Our disdain for such a water source was so much that we didn't even check the level before we left. Didn't matter how much was in there, it would take a herd of stampeding polar bears before we would let one drop pass our lips. We brought some water in canteens, but it was not enough to boil the oysters.
Robert looked at his catch after struggling back on deck. "Well, we'll just use sea water!"
Okay! So sea water it is, and we commence cooking about half of the oysters. After fumbling with opening them and cutting myself a few times on the sharp shells, I was quite impressed. Despite the slight salty taste from our impromptu cooking technique, they were big and tasted good. I have yet to have oysters since that day that could compare. So with our bellies full, we now turned our attention to...
Getting back. The wind was now 25 knots outside of our protective wind shadow. And its northerly direction was exactly where we would have to go to get out of Hood Canal. Once we turned the corner at the end of the Kitsap Peninsula then it would be downwind all the way to Seattle, but the 15 mile stretch up the Canal was the most daunting. So we decided that we would start with the working jib and full main. The working jib was slightly smaller than 100% of the foretriangle, but it was old and stretched out. It would have to do. So we pulled anchor, raised the sails, and sailed placidly along our protective shore until we nosed out beyond Hazel Point. We braced ourselves as we immediately heeled over to 30 degrees and started plowing into the 2 - 3 ft. chop. Excalibur just shouldered her way through the constant spray, slamming occasionally as she dropped off an unusually steep wave. I looked to windward at the sea of white horses and spotted the Hood Canal Bridge 10 nm off in the distance, the most obvious landmark that we had to pass. It was going to be a long day.
I guess the nice thing about nasty weather is that you rarely see anybody else out in it. A scan from north to south revealed that we were the only boat on the Canal. Our tacks took us from one side of the Canal to the other. Once we got abeam of the Bangor Navy Base, a lone patrol boat decided to venture out to talk to us. Although ostensibly out to warn us to keep clear of the waters around the base, I think he was bored and wanted to see what hapless people choose to sail in such conditions. He stayed a comfortable distance to leeward of us to yell over the racket. He could hear Robert just fine, but we had difficulty hearing him. As they tried to understand each other, the noise level was increased by the slashing sound of tearing sails. Within seconds a 2 foot gash opened up in the leach of the working jib, not along the seam like it normally would, but right in the middle of the fabric. The newly deformed sail started to shake and rattle the rig, so I immediately released the halyard and handed in the sail before it ripped any more. Our disaster apparently startled the patrol boat, since he stopped and drifted away. Now sailing bareheaded, Excalibur slugged along at just over a knot. Clearly designed to always sail with a jib, the diminutive main alone didn't have enough power to really push through the chop.
"Well, what now?" I yelled back to Robert.
"Put up the lapper."
A larger jib, the lapper is 135% of the foretriangle. Since we were overpowered with the working jib, more sail area seemed to be slightly odd, but we had to do something. I immediately started to put it up. Once we had it up and adjusted, Excalibur leapt to attention and started driving at a much faster speed. The lapper was bigger, and it required all my strength on the winch to pull it in to close hauled, but it was cut much flatter than the worn working jib so it increased our power without increasing the heel.
Now we were cooking! The occasional firehose of water over the deck now became a constant one. But with each tack, the bridge got closer and closer. We were winning in our quest to go to windward, but we were losing time. As we crossed under the east rise of the bridge, the sun had disappeared behind the Olympics. We were less than halfway to Seattle. But the north headland of Kitsap Peninsula was in our sights, after rounding that, well, we could look forward to a long, fast downwind slide to home.
Less than a mile from passing the bridge, a small bang followed by the unmistakable sound of an unfettered sail thundering in the wind brought our attention away from our next destination. The clew grommet had pulled clean out of the jib and deposited itself neatly on the deck. We now had no way to pull in the sail. After lowering the lapper with heavy heart, we were now bareheaded again making around a knot.
"Let's try the engine." Robert is plainly grasping at straws like I am. But the headland is only..."that" far away.
I struggled with the motor which we hadn't used since the night before, and it finally coughed to life. But being hung off a stern plunging up and down in the waves, the propellor didn't spend much time in the water. To prevent damage to the engine I shut it off. Time for other alternatives. We could bear off for Port Gamble, now off our starboard beam, but anchoring there would not be protected from the wind and waves. Time to check the chart.
The only chart I brought was a small craft chart with microscopic detail. In the waning twilight I scanned the Hansville coastline looking for any protected area as the Port Ludlow side was totally exposed. I spotted a very small bay, but because of the scale did not show any depth markings. There were several piers shown in the bay, but who knows what's there? I bring up the idea to Robert. He agrees, mostly I think because it's an idea. Any idea. In the now faded light, it's impossible to tell where the bay is, so between the description of land on the chart and counting headlands, we aim for what we think is the right spot.
Slowly, slowly, we inched toward the dark land mass. Soon the waves dropped in size as we entered the protected lee of the peninsula. I dropped the motor in and fired it up, soon making our progress faster. Sure enough, a water entrance into the trees appeared as planned. I slowed and Robert went up to the bow.
"I'll look for shoals and we'll just motor in really slow," said Robert. Excalibur had no depth sounder, so I slowed to a crawl. I don't know if Robert could see anything anyway because of the darkness. I had this sudden thought of running hard aground and the sudden stop pitching Robert over the bow into the inky water. But slowly we motored as more of the little bay opened up to us. Suddenly around the corner I spotted a small marina with sailboats much larger than ours sitting quietly at their docks.
"Well, hell," I said with relief, "if they can get in here then we won't have any problem."
We spotted an empty berth and tied up. I have no doubt that our remaining supply of oysters will make for a tasty meal. It will have to do until we get back to Seattle. I looked over at the marina office, and it appeared to be one where a family lives above it. I sauntered over to see if we needed to pay for moorage there. A lady answered my knocks.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," I began and then told her an abbreviated version of our trials for the day and if they didn't mind tying up to their docks until morning. She was suitably impressed with our resolve (or stupidity) to get as far as we did considering the conditions.
"Is there anything that you need?" she asked.
"If you don't mind, I would like some tea bags, please." A few minutes later I was back on the boat with tea bags in hand and a message that we could stay until morning free of charge. Having downed the rest of the oysters and tea, sleep was most welcome.
The next day was as calm as the first, and we were forced to motor the entire way back to UW. Our day was not done, however. Being somewhat embarrased by our sail damage, Robert and I whisked the jibs unseen into the sail loft above the waterfront center and repaired them while simultaneously learning how to work the heavy duty sewing machines.
Thus ending our cruise to Dabob Bay. I never got a chance to return to Hood Canal.