Between Cypress and Guemes Islands in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, a 1 to 2 knot ebb current will keep you entertained for hours tacking back and forth as you sail North against wind and tide. It is best to treat this flow as you would a river and to stay out of the deep fast current in mid-stream to play the eddies and back waters on either shore. With a light northwest wind, and a slackening ebb the Guemes shore showed the most promise tho it took us two hours and twenty short tacks to make the 5 miles to Rosario Strait. A heavy 40 foot monhull cruiser (given a three mile headstart, we overtook him midway down Guemes Channel) fell further behind on each tack giving us satisfaction in the race, tho our progress made up-stream on each tack was grim. For him, it must have been nigh on bleak.
We slipped under Sinclair island with a fine topsail breeze and carried on across Rosario, north of the Peapods. A tack to the north to clear Orcas Island and the fickle wind deserted us. We ended the day motoring across the north shore of Orcas, thru its odd and counter-intuitive currents to pick up a mooring at an old favorite – Sucia Island’s Shallow Bay.
That night and into the next day the wind howled around Sucia as a mighty offshore high pressure fed a heat-induced inland low. The wind flows like a river here too, funneled down the Straits of Juan de Fuca to fan out North and South directed by the imposing North Cascade Mountains, crowned by magnificent, snowy Mt Baker. In our little part of this world, the river of air came from the South at 10-20 knots, shifting to the Southwest as the day progressed. The islands here are high and bluff bastions against the wind – Orcas’s Mt Constitution rises some 2400 feet from the water below – and cause their own disturbances, lees and eddies. The aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of this place combine to create conditions impossible to predict.
We left Sucia with a forecast 10-20 knot Southwesterly, running with an ebb tide. Instead, we experienced a light and variable Northwesterly in Orcas islands wake, along with lumpy uncomfortable seas left over from a night and a day of muscular wind. We played the shifts and vagaries of the wind until we crossed the tide line defining Orcas’s wake and came into the cross hairs of the pressure as it rounded and compressed around the massive North East corner of the island. 20 – 25 solid knots sent the boat careening as we tried to stay as high into it as possible to prevent being swept down into Lummi Island across Rosario. Maravilla absorbed the blow, dug in her shoulder and arced across the strait.
A third of the way across, we saw him. Big, black, wild and free – he splashed and blew his way South with the tide, against the wind. A single Orca Whale was off our bow, about 1/4 mile crossing from left to right. His seven foot dorsal fin was black as night and strong as Douglas Fir. It looked solid enough to cleave steel. He moved fast, blew bold and proud, cared not a whit for the struggling little sailboat bouncing across the strait to leeward of him.
Eternal, colossal mountains funnel cold strong wind; the tide ebbs to the moon; an Orca born pink and gasping for breath in the deep, is now bold and sure and strong – imposing. Here lies wild. Here lies magic. Here lies life.
And we plucky, adventurous souls sail our way across these massive forces – with only the gift of words to express them.
We slid across the deceiving west-bound ebb north of Sinclair island and picked up the honest and full South-bound current along the east shore of Guemes island. The island moderated the wind to an easy and solid 10 to 12 knot lift. We eased sheets and flew down the east shore, windward hull lifted gloriously free in the sunshine, bow wave chuckling, dual wake burbling – 8 free and easy knots made down the track. We sailed like this for an hour with the autopilot engaged, sails eased slightly, across the flat water in the lee of the island. We dared not speak, lest we break the spell, the magic of reaching fast with wind and tide. Sunshine sparkled on quiet little wavelets. A momma seal with a pup riding on her back rolled and splashed as we skated past, propping junior on her belly. We hung off the windward shrouds, surveyed our domain. At the end, the wind collapsed behind the high hills at the south end of the island. The magic ends, but the moment lasts forever.
We had one last joyful romping mile across the bay in 15 knots until under Cap Sante we furled sails and brought Maravilla back to her slip.
Maravilla – possessed of trimaran magic. Aboard her, we had a small adventure to Treasure Island, experienced the eternal power of wind and tide, saw the king of Rosario in all his glory, took a magic carpet ride along a mystical shore. Aboard her, we are enchanted.