Take a San Juan Island Cruise
Written by Captain Bill Bailey:
After spending a bit over 30 years sailing, cruising and fishing among the San Juan Islands the sights and feelings are reduced to something akin to snap shots. A flash of a hunting group of Orcas swimming toward, and then under our salmon net while I went for minutes without taking a breath. A simultaneous full moon setting and sun rising on a cool and clear fall morning off Kellet Bluff. Breaking skim ice to leave Bellingham Bay on route to check our crab pots. Standing on the tombolo that separates Fossil Bay from Fox Cove on Sucia Island during a warm summer evening.
So many images, scents and sounds! My family and I have grown up, and old, while cruising these waters, my father’s ashes are scattered in Open Bay on Henry Island, right where I caught a nice White King when I still had time to sport fish. As I lie in bed at night and listen to the low base notes of a freighter’s engine passing the north end of San Juan I am reminded again just how completely I am connected to the sea and the ships voyaging upon her.
The most recent images are all viewed from the perspective of the deck of the Catalyst,
Our 75’ charter boat, built in 1932 as the first oceanographic vessel on the West Coast. That summer, following her dedication at the University of Washington’s marine laboratory dock, she came to Friday Harbor for the first time. Friday Harbor was her summer base from her launching until she went to war in 1942. Each summer she would arrive in the late spring, load students and then head north toward Alaska. She sampled waters locally and as far away as the Bering Sea, and has made trips to Hawaii and Mexico. She is heavily built of wood, and is still powered by her original 8×10 Washington Diesel Engine, one of the last 7 Washington’s still operating in a marine application.
Catalyst is still doing the job that she was built to do, engaging the minds of her crew and drawing them into the myriad wonders of the maritime environment. There is something miraculous that happens once the mooring lines are cast off; we go back in time. The original feel and look of the boat combined with the low rumble of her slow turning engine evoke an earlier time and pace. No rushing, no deadline, just the pull of the tides and the push of the breeze. As our stem shoulders aside the jade green waters of the Salish Sea we keep watch for Harbor Seals, Orcas, Minke Whales, Stellar Sea Lions and the several species of birds that call this area home.
Come with us on a short cruise. First, join me in the engine room as we prepare to start the main engine. No key and push button for us! We first oil and grease over 150 different places on the engine and reverse gear, then, once we have air pressure up to 200 PSI we open the valve that sends air into the starting manifold. A few revolutions later the engine comes to life, and Catalysthas a heartbeat! After a short warm up we recover our mooring lines and coil them on deck. Once we maneuver out of Friday Harbor we turn north into the Channel and bring the engine up to full speed, usually about 400 RPM’s. At this rate we travel about 8 miles per hour and consume less than 3 gallons of diesel per hour. Not bad for a boat that weights in at something over 110 tons! As we travel some guests sit in the sun on the foredeck, and others sit aft out of the breeze. Some will spend the whole trip in the pilot house with me and others in the galley picking off the cookies as they emerge from the oven. (and risking a whack from a wooden spoon!). Others are so drawn to the engine that they seldom emerge from the engine room long enough to eat.
Dall’s Porpoises are drawn to our bow on most outings, and their playful games keep the guests and crew enraptured as long as they remain. They seem to be playing a game of King of the Hill on the pressure wave that precedes our passage through the waters. There is a sweet spot there in which the leader can ride without making any motion, and the others want to push the leader out of the spot so that they can get a turn. How wonderful it is to discover play in something as basic as driving to work! We may stop at Jones Island and take a walk across the island (perhaps with some sliced apple for the tame deer that live here), or we may move on toward Stuart Island. Watching the sunset from the cliff above the West Point light is a once in a lifetime moment. The colors ranging from yellow/orange at the horizon to pink to burgundy and then to a dark velvet blue that fades to black in the East where the first stars are blinking on. The smells of the sea mix with the scent of warm forest and rock lichens. It’s hard to leave, but it’s a long walk back to the bay where the skiff waits to take us back to Catalyst for a gourmet dinner and a glass of wine.
As we travel onward over the course of the next few days we will walk along trails through forest and meadows, climb hills, and paddle alongside cliffs riddled with fossils. We will find beauty in the small, and marvel at the large. We will become friends, and friends will become family. And that is the true gift of the Catalyst, a binding together of different peoples. A reminding that we had dreams once and the encouragement that those dreams aren’t dead, they’ve been carefully stored and are waiting to be picked up and examined, and, perhaps, lived out.