30 August 2023 | St. Helens, Oregon
I believe I last left you with us saying goodbye to our German friends and their two boys. That was in Bellingham. After a couple of days of laundry and grocery shopping, we welcomed our friends Mark & Fern, who have cruised with us in a number of different places, including Sweden, Portugal and on previous occasions in Desolation Sound and the Columbia River. This time our plans were to sample a bit of the San Juan Islands and then take the boat out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the much wilder environment of Barkley Sound.
But wait! There was assembling in Bellingham a remarkable convergence of boats and people from Sauvie Island Yacht Club. Such an event was certainly appropriate for celebration, and we all converged for dinner together the night before we were to leave to head over to the San Juans. Lucas and Amy Larimore were there, with plans to take their new (to them) boat, Neverland, back to Portland. Richard Sandefur was there to provide some assistance on the passage. Tim Hryciw was there, aboard his boat, Maria Victoria. And of course we were there, together with Mark and Fern - 8 of us SIYC members altogether. What a festive, remarkable occasion.
We decided first to go to Spencer Spit on Lopez Island in the San Juans. This is a Washington State Park, with a number of mooring buoys and access to roads and trails. Mark and Fern explored ashore, and on our second day there, Craig and I decided to bicycle across Lopez Island to Lopez Village, where the Saturday Market would be going strong and lots of groceries would be available in a supermarket. Without having been there before (except perhaps as a child), I’ve always thought that Lopez Island was relatively flat and easy to bicycle. It turns out that’s not actually the case. In retrospect, I think just bicycling to Lopez Village was enough, but then we had to bicycle back as well on what was actually a very hot day!
The farmers market was nice, although they didn’t have much produce. We bought some blueberries and a large amount of green beans, as well as a small round of Chevre cheese. After that we found a fabulous taco cart with a long line; we had a great burrito and tacos. Then we found the grocery store and loaded ourselves up for the trip back to the boat.
While we were gone, Mark and Fern had slowly explored the shoreline in the dinghy and had seen lots of interesting sights. We decided to move on the next day to a harbor on the southeast end of Lopez Island (Wambaugh Bay) which had been recommended by the ranger at Spencer Spit. Unfortunately when we got there, the bay was quite crowded. We tried putting down the anchor in an open area but were unable to get the anchor to hold. The reason was obvious when we pulled up the anchor – it was covered with a blanket of kelp. It’s great that the kelp forests are re-establishing themselves, but it does make anchoring there nearly impossible. So we moved on to MacKaye Harbor on the south end of Lopez Island with a plan to cross to Port Angeles the next day.
During the afternoon in MacKaye Harbor, we were visited by a couple of kayaks. Father and son wanted to leave their boat on anchor for the night while they visited friends on shore, and they asked if we would be willing to watch the boat, and text them if there were any problem. We said “sure.” The fellow promised to text us when he got ashore, sending his contact information. It turns out the name of the boat was “Inconceivable” which got us all on a kick of quoting lines from the Princess Bride, which all ended with “Inconceivable” and finally Inigo Montoya saying, “I do not think that word means what you think it means!” Much hilarity ensued.
Halfway across the Strait of Juan de Fuca the next morning, Craig got to work researching Canadian customs ports of entry. It used to be that you could clear customs in Ucluelet, which is what we were planning on. We hoped to jump from Port Angeles (in the United States) to Neah Bay (in the US) to Ucluelet in Barkley Sound (Canada). Well, his research disclosed that the Ucluelet customs station has been closed since early in the Covid 19 pandemic. The only place to enter Canada (from where we were) was Victoria, back over our right shoulder. So, U-turn, we headed for Victoria and cleared customs there. Victoria, of course, is a lovely place; it’s always delightful to spend time there.
During that same passage across the strait, the cello parts for Newport Symphony’s September concerts came in via my email. I therefore needed to immediately start work putting in bowings and getting the bowed parts scanned and emailed back to the orchestra librarian. That process starts with printing out the parts. It turns out that Victoria was probably the best possible place to do that.
So after runs to the UPS store, the grocery store and a nice restaurant, we were ready to fall into bed and get a very early start the next morning, northwest along the west coast of Vancouver Island. Wind, wave and tidal current predictions indicated that our best time to make the distance to Port Renfrew (our next stop) would be to start out at first light. It was a relatively calm passage; little wind meant that we motored all the way.
We’ve never been to Port Renfrew before. The bay is called Port San Juan, and we’ve always thought it didn’t look sufficiently well protected on the charts and so we’ve bypassed it. Well, now they’ve built a breakwater-protected marina (“Pacific Gateway Marina”) which makes a big difference. We were fortunate that they did have space for us. 95% of the marina is populated by 20-25 foot fishing boats and everyone there is crazy about salmon fishing. We saw hundreds of beautiful Chinook salmon in buckets and trays coming off these relatively tiny boats. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to befriend any of our dock-mates who might have sent a slab of fish our way.
About every 30 feet along the docks there is a fish cleaning station and the seagulls are hyper-aware of when fish cleaning is going on, and the likely resulting scraps of fish and guts that are likely to be thrown into the water. But the obvious ruler of the marina’s airspace is the Bald Eagle. When he (or she) approached a fish cleaning station, all the seagulls fled to a safe distance. When the eagle landed on the breakwater to inspect or rebalance the load of fish scraps, all the seagulls launched up into the air and kept a good (but watchful) distance. When the eagle, satisfied with the load of fish scraps, headed off to a group of trees onshore, the seagulls immediately came back, taking up their stations, one per riprap boulder.
Late that afternoon, Fern and I walked along the road above the marina toward a bridge crossing the San Juan River. The scenery was wild and spectacular, particularly as seen from the bridge.
The next morning, once again, we planned on a departure at first light. The tidal current would be in our favor for most of the morning and the wind wasn’t predicted to rise until the afternoon. The little fishing boats were also up at first light, leaving the marina for a nearby fishing ground which we would pass on our way out. The fishers, though, cranked their monster outboards up to full throttle, which made for a somewhat rough exit for us from the bay.
Once again it was an easy passage, at least for the first part of the trip. Whales were seen. But the rollers coming in from the Pacific became larger and larger, causing our motion to become more difficult. By the time we neared Cape Beale (the south entrance to Barkley Sound), both Fern and I had retired to our bunks to wait out the uncomfortable motion.
Rounding the corner into Barkley Sound, the motion became much easier and the wind nearly disappeared. We headed for Effingham Bay, one of the outer anchorages in the Broken Group. We were all struck with the beauty and wildness of the place and many pictures were taken. Mark and Fern rowed away in the dinghy and examined all the beauty up close to the shoreline.
The forecast for the next day was ominous, promising 20 knot winds with gusts up to 40, reaching into Effingham Bay, so we relocated to Turtle Bay – not quite as stunning but nevertheless beautiful. We spent one night there with no wind at all and then headed for Bamfield, a small town on the south shore of Barkley Sound. Bamfield is located in a narrow inlet running south from Barkley Sound. The western side can’t be reached at all by road, and the easiest way to get from one end to the other is by boat or boardwalk. The eastern side can be reached by road, but oh what a road (so we heard). 80 miles of logging road, graveled, potholed…
Bamfield is a popular place. Every transient moorage berth was full. Many boats travelled up and down the inlet and there was no realistic place to anchor. So we moved to Port Desire, the next inlet to the east. (On the chart it was printed as Port Désiré, but it turned out the locals were using an English pronunciation. So much for that bit of hoped-for exoticism!) There we were able to find room to anchor, and we were somewhat of a curiosity because the focus of that little bay is 100% on fishing. At one of the fishing resorts we briefly tied up to, the dock attendant was a young woman visiting from the Philippines, and she said she’d never seen a boat like ours, and that we’d really made her day!
Once we were successfully anchored, we made a dinghy expedition into Bamfield. We tied up at the dock adjacent to the restaurant called “The Bamfield Wreckage” where we intended to have dinner later. Even getting tied up there was not straightforward. It appeared to be a government dock, but people on the dock said it wasn’t clear that there was anyplace for dinghies to tie up. One of those fellows offered to let us raft onto the side of his little fishing boat; an offer we gladly accepted. We admired his catch of the day (3 salmon) and then set out for a walk along the boardwalk. We walked north past small businesses, homes, docks and finally the Coast Guard station. There were beautiful flowers, interesting yard signs and creative garden sculptures. We stopped at the general store and spent an outrageous amount of money on a very few groceries plus ice cream cones for the four of us. Outside the store, the boardwalk widened out and 8 or 10 local residents were sitting there, chatting or taking advantage of the store’s WiFi. We also took a seat and made some necessary phone calls that wouldn’t be possible back on the boat (there was no cell signal whatsoever in Port Desire.)
We walked beyond the Coast Guard station up the hill to the west, where there was a park with gorgeous ocean views and a newly constructed mortise and tenon roofed platform, probably intended for community events. Our friend Mark, a fine woodworker and craftsman, was impressed by the beautiful work, and lamented that this style of construction (without any metal fasteners) would not be permitted by US building departments.
Our boardwalk outing was followed by dinner at The Bamfield Wreckage. They offered amazingly good food and interesting conversations with their servers. One of our servers wore a shirt celebrating Bamfield’s fungus festival, with the shirt legend: “I am an amateur mycologist with questionable morels” and an art nouveau depiction of several morel mushrooms. He told us all about the festival, which apparently takes place in September, and which he said might not be so great this year because everything has been so dry this summer.
Skipping ahead, our last full day with Mark and Fern we spent near Lucky Creek, at the northeast corner of Barkley Sound. The creek bed fills up at high tide making it possible to dinghy to a series of waterfalls. Beyond that you’re meant to climb successive waterfalls or bypass them by trail, reaching a lake where cliff diving is possible. Numerous sources give this expedition a “don’t miss” rating. We gave it a try, but neither Craig nor I were up for the waterfall climbs or the very primitive, undeveloped trail. Mark and Fern did reach the lake and reported that a group of adventurous twenty-something young men were cliff diving, primarily for the enjoyment of a young woman who was with them, and anyone else who wanted to watch.
During that day smoke moved into the area from forest fires 50 miles north of us. By sundown, the sun was a striking orange and everything else was mostly gray. That smokey atmosphere continued into the next day when we moved to Ucluelet for a carefully choreographed crew exchange. Our friend Alicia arrived in Ucluelet in her car, there was a bit of social time together for all of us, and then Mark and Fern loaded their things into Alicia’s car and drove it back to Portland. Everyone was well prepared, and the transition proceeded seamlessly.
While we were on the dock in Ucluelet we had conversations with several local residents, including a young couple restoring an old fishing boat and a First Nations server in the Floathouse Restaurant. The young couple were living simply, but appeared to have come from a privileged background, and they saw themselves someday moving up to a boat like Sequoia. They viewed Ucluelet as an easy, friendly place to live. The server, though, told us about her problems finding work, especially in the winter, having to live on unemployment insurance with her 13 year old son, and the difficulties of finding an affordable place to live in Ucluelet, even though she had lived there all her life. The contrast was stark, and it highlighted the difference in viewpoints depending on one’s background, class and ethnicity.
We left Ucluelet the next morning. We spent one day at Turtle Bay in the mists and rain and then moved on to Robber’s Passage. The Port Alberni Yacht Club maintains an outstation at Robber’s Passage which they make available to all comers (for a fee). All the members of the PAYC are fishers; they have no sailboats among their membership. Some of the docks have adjacent picnic tables and tent spaces right there on wider portions of the dock. Most of the visitors were on fishing boats in the 18-24 foot range, and all had trailered their boat from elsewhere in Canada or the US and launched in the waters of Barkley Sound. They went fishing from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, coming back with impressive catches of Chinook salmon. Then they set up their barbecues and socialized into the evening. All seemed to be staying for several days. Club members were also there in a separate area with wide docks, picnic tables and club-owned barbecues. Many were curious about our trip and our boat.
For our part, we relaxed and explored the island along the many well-maintained trails that led to shorelines, beaches and cliff-top overlooks. The views were spectacular and both Alicia and I took hundreds of pictures. During this period we were also looking at weather forecasts from various sources and planning our trip south and our return to the Portland area. The goal was to find two days with moderate favorable winds and not much wave activity. We found what appeared to be the best possible window which would occur on August 24-25. Enough wind to allow us to sail, and not much wave action.
We departed the PAYC docks mid-morning on the 24th. (The timing was determined by our anticipated travel time and the optimum time to cross the Columbia River bar.) That first day the winds proved to be somewhat less than predicted, but we were able to get in several hours of sailing. The rest of the time we used the engine to supplement what the sails could provide. At one point that afternoon we were visited by a pod of dolphins in search of a fun bow wave to ride. They gave us a 10 minute view of their fun and then moved on in search of something else.
At midday we heard from Tim Hryciw that he anticipated leaving Neah Bay aboard Maria Victoria so that he’d be on a course that would more or less intersect our own. We did indeed see Maria Victoria in the distance that afternoon and we proceeded south, about 20 miles off the coast. We lost sight of each other during the night, but traveled in parallel all the way to our adjacent berths at St. Helens Marina, where we arrived the afternoon of August 26th.
Mark and Fern were there to meet us, so that Alicia could head directly home in her car.
That’s it for the Johnston boat travels during the summer of 2023. I hope you enjoyed reading about it. We welcome any questions you may have, and we’ll do our best to answer them