My folks came up from Los Angeles to enjoy a couple of days of cruising with us. Our destination was La Conner and Roche Harbor.
I had cleaned and prepared the boat the day before we were to leave, including loading up with 170 gallons of gas. This aspect was a little surprising because my gas gauge had indicated about an 1/8 of a tank left (capacity is rated at 170 gallons).
We set out for La Conner Saturday morning, leaving Kirkland around 10:15am. This was the first day of SeaFair and there was a dramatic volume of boats heading into Lake Washington. The Montlake Cut was the busiest we had ever seen. We felt like a salmon running upstream.
Our wait at the small lock was less than an hour and we used “Sit, Stay” (SkyHook) to keep us in place during the wait. By the time we got out of the lock it was a little after noon. We should have taken our time waiting to have had lunch, but we always seem to forget and get caught up in the excitement that surrounds locking.
Eating on our way to La Conner was thrilling and fun. At 27 knots there’s a fair amount of shaking and my folks and Lila were bouncing around while trying to enjoy their sandwiches and beverages. Since this episode we’ve acquired a box of straws for the boat!
We made it to La Conner before 3pm. Cathia and my Mom practically leaped off the boat to make it to the shops before their planned 5-6pm closing times. Lila, my dad and I finished docking and took the bags over to the Channel Lodge, where my folks were going to spend the night. While the LAIKA is plenty roomy and comfortable for a few people, it’s not big enough for all of us!
Dinner in La Conner was at Nell Thorn. While we had previously had a superb meal there, this time the staff dropped the ball and our main courses were delivered out of sequence. The crew wasn’t happy and the overall meal turned out to be a disappointment. This was regretful because there’s so much to like about that restaurant. We must of simply caught them on a bad night.
Sunday morning we met at The Channel Lodge for breakfast. My folks reported a restful night. The hotel seemed very nice. We wheeled their roll-aboards back to the boat (located just a block away) and prepared to depart for Roche Harbor. Close to departure time Cathia discovered a contact from The Children’s Garden that have a summer home in Fish Creek, an inlet at the very Southern point of San Juan Island. We decided it would be fun to stop by an say hello.
Normally we’d head out the Northern route of Swinomish Channel, toward Roche, but since we were, essentially, going Westward toward San Juan Island we decided to head back the way we came, through the “million dollar mile” and go through Deception Pass.
The last time (and first time) we went through Deception Pass we coordinated our cross for slack time, despite lots of friends suggesting that the LAIKA wouldn’t need to be overly cautious (due to our size and engine capacity). We put that to the test and motored through two hours before slack tide. While we could see and feel strong inflowing currents, the LAIKA did just fine. What we met on the other side, though, was a surprise – and something entirely new for us. Fog!
Thick, soupy fog greeted us almost immediately after we made it through Deception Pass. We had never navigated in fog, let alone really thick fog. So, we powered up the radar and set our speed for 10 knots. The LAIKA doesn’t like going at 10 knots, and its hull wasn’t designed to be held back. Not only do the engines have to work harder and burn more fuel, but the bow rides high and there’s lots of noise. It’s like pushing a truck full of water in front of us. Still, we had no choice. Navigating in fog can be tricky and is inherently dangerous.
We activated our auto-pilot so the LAIKA could be guided by our chart plotter and set up three sets of eyes to watch for traffic. I decided to sound the horn every two minutes as an extra measure of safety but I’ve been told that it’s largely a useless practice. I didn’t hear any other fog horns during our slow crossing toward San Juan Island.
I’m happy to report that the journey, though extremely slow and eerie, was successful. The chart-plotter did its job and the radar provided the necessary security that helped us avoid collision. On several occasions, as we got closer to San Juan Island, we’d note a “contact” on radar and then see it slowly appear in the near distance, only to be quickly swallowed, again, by fog. Once we turned in toward Fish Creek the fog lifted and we were greeted with bright, warm morning sun.
We stayed about an hour with our friends before deciding it was best to get back out and head toward Roche Harbor. We decided to stay on the East side of the island and head straight-up, past Friday Harbor. While we’d likely miss the chance to see Orca pods on the West side, we were worried about more fog and wanted to get to Roche early in the afternoon. As we left Fish Creek we entered into fog, but only for a little while, and it wasn’t as thick as we had seen earlier in the morning. Before long we were through it and could resume a 25-28 knot speed toward our destination.
When we reached Roche Harbor we were surprised by the number of boats. Since this was only our second time visiting, we didn’t realize it could become so crowded. The bay was packed with anchored boats and the VHF was buzzing with new arrivals awaiting slip assignments. Thankfully we had previously reserved a slip and after a short wait got assigned D-03, which is on the main dock, away from the older, original guest dock. We found our slip, backed in and were darting up the dock toward the “town” in short order.
Our plans called for us to spend the afternoon and evening in Roche Harbor and depart early the next day. My folks had a room reserved in the Hotel de Haro. The hotel is quaint. The charm, I suppose, is that it’s historical. I’m glad we were staying on our boat. But, I heard the room, with a shared bathroom, was fine. My folks enjoyed the sculpture garden while Lila enjoyed a play structure in the park and, later, swimming. We had an excellent dinner at McMillin’s Dining Room and all retired fairly early.
Monday morning we enjoyed fresh donuts and coffee and prepared to leave. I decided that we’d skip pump-out and refueling in order to make it back in plenty of time to get through the locks and get my folks to the airport for their 8:15pm flight. The decision to skip refueling was, in hindsight, a mistake. While the gas gauge read just slightly under 1/2 full, I should have realized the distance we had traveled and the likelihood that it wasn’t very accurate. But, that was in hindsight. Monday morning we set out toward Seattle, following a new course to Friday Harbor where I’d pick up and re-use a previously saved route from Friday Harbor to home.
After we had made it through Deception Pass our fuel gauge began revealing what was probably a clearer indication of available fuel than we had previously seen and, while not alarmed, we began making plans to stop and gas up.
We ended up making it to Everett Marina but, quite honestly, it was probably on fumes. We took on 182 gallons of fuel! While the voyage, to this point, had been successful, I’d mark this as a failure on my part to properly plan and navigate. I should have been logging fuel more accurately. While we didn’t end up running out of fuel, we were close. Sure, we could have received aid from Vessel Assist, but that could have also placed us in danger. Imagine running out of fuel in a shipping lane or in rough waters. The event was a teachable moment and the lesson has been learned!
Despite the dining snafu in La Conner and the fuel experience, the trip was a delight. Fast. Fun. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and, despite the fog, the weather was great. Beside realizing that fuel management needs to be performed better, it’s also clear that two days is too short a time to visit the San Juan Islands.
- Ports visited: La Conner, Fish Creek & Roche Harbor
- Approximately 180 nautical miles traveled
- Average speed 27 knots
- Approximately 190 gallons of fuel consumed ($912)
- Weather: mid-to-high 70’s, mostly sunny except fog on day 2
- Combined slip fees approximately $120
We awoke to overcast skies and a quiet marina for our second morning in Roche Harbor. If you’ve been following our tale you’ll know that we were stranded here an extra evening awaiting a coolant pump to be flown in from Seattle on Kenmore Air.
I’m happy to report our plans to secure a new (warrantied) part the previous day were successful. The folks at Lake Union Sea Ray were extremely accommodating, which was reassuring. We’re not salty sea dogs. While we’re comfortable boating and have a fairly good grasp of our equipment and general navigation skills (I just this week got word that I passed both my Seamanship and Piloting courses!), I don’t have a clue about how to maintain the two 260hp Bravo III 5.0L V8 engines. I know, rattling off engine terms makes it sounds like I do, but I really don’t.
Around 11:15am I left our dock and headed toward the main dock. It’s a long walk, but a pleasure to stroll past so many amazing power and sail boats. There were three Ocean Alexander yachts at the head of the dock on display, waiting for buyers. The 2012 58 footer could have been ours for $1.8 million. But, since I didn’t have $1.8 million and wanted to remain married, I continued on toward the seaplane arrival area.
I met the plane at the dock and retrieved our coolant pump from Kenmore Air flight 130. It had arrived promptly at 11:30AM. With the 10lb box in-hand I headed back to the LAIKA. During the way I called Roche Harbor Marine Services and let them know the part had arrived. The mechanic was at the boat by 12:30pm and confirmed the problem and began work.
The one part that I wasn’t able to secure was a new serpentine belt. Lake Union Sea Ray simply didn’t have it in stock at any of their locations. The mechanic assured me that the one I had, once cleaned, would work fine – for a while. So, I cleaned it throughly in a soapy water bath and let it dry. This removed the Glycol, which can cause the belt to slip, which is how we originally discovered we had a problem with our pump. A friend later told me these belts can be secured at any automotive supply place for considerably less than what marine stores charge. I’ll deal with that another time.
After a couple of hours we were ready to leave. It’s not that we didn’t love Roche Harbor, but we were anxious to get on to Victoria, BC – not only to visit the city but for the sheer thrill of heading into another country on our own boat.
With the crew on board we prepared to leave and made it almost 100 yards before an alarm started shrieking. At first we couldn’t figure out what was making the noise. Was it our portable CO detector? Maybe the bilge pump alarm? One of the cabin CO detectors down below? We couldn’t figure it out until, finally, we thought to look at the Mercury Vessel View screen. We discovered that our starboard engine, the one we watched get nursed back to health with a new coolant pump, was overheating. Three letters immediately came to mind: WTF. Seriously, what could it be this time?!
I popped the hatch and looked around. Everything seemed fine. There was no fluid spraying. Belts were moving. Everything looked and sounded normal. But, the temperature had moved from a normal 160 degrees to close to 200 in just minutes. I shut the engine down. Letting an engine overheat, on a boat, can be a very expensive thing to happen. We were so excited to finally be ready to head toward Victoria that, when this happened, we were crestfallen.
Using one engine, I maneuvered the boat West toward the public access docks. And, just before reaching the dock powered up the starboard engine long enough to safely and accurately saddle up and secure ourselves to the dock.
I failed to mention that by this time we had already reached out to the mechanic that had installed the pump and after providing all the details were assured that what we were dealing with was probably an air block introduced into the coolant system. It made sense, but we had to be sure. Within minutes Greg, the mechanic was at the boat and extremely apologetic.
Normally, he told us, he’d pump out all the coolant when he does a job like this and would reference his collected fluid to determine how much to put back in to the system. In our case the pump had sprayed most of the coolant into our bilge. So, when we refilled our coolant an hour earlier what we had likely encountered was an air block in the system, introduced when the pump was installed.
The solution was to let the engine and heat exchange unit cool down and slowly add back in fluid. We (actually, Greg) did this several times and discovered that, basically, we should have added almost two more full containers of coolant back in the first time. With coolant back in and an in-gear engine test done while we were tightly secured to the dock (that revealed no increase in operating temperature), we were ready to depart. With even more apologies directed toward us, we thanked Greg and set off for distant, foreign lands.
With our course plotted, we set off for Victoria by heading West out of Roche Harbor. This led us toward Henry Island where we turned South through Mosquito Pass and toward Mitchell Bay. From there we took an almost straight, South-West shot toward Discovery Island off the tip of Vancouver Island. The longest stretch of open water in Haro Strait for us was about 6.5nm. We encountered moderate chop and, at times, would drop down from 27-28 knots to around 20 knots.
Despite the chop and the speed fluctuations, we made it to the mouth of Victoria Harbor at Ogden Point in under an hour. We followed the well laid out buoys for pleasure craft navigation and were at the marina in another 10 or so minutes. Unlike Roche Harbor, Victoria is a large, vibrant city. We had been there almost ten years ago, but never by boat. It was thrilling.
Despite being enrolled in the Nexus program, we opted to manually check in at the Customs dock. I departed the boat and picked up the phone that automatically dialed an officer in some call center. There were no physical offices at the dock. Just the phone and some pamphlets. I answered a few questions about our vessel, its occupants and our plans and, before long, we were issued an entry number and welcomed to Canada! We then switched out our American flag for the Canadian flag, which is customary when visiting a foreign port.
The marina we selected and had reserved a slip at was literally next to the Customs area and we putted on over and assumed a position on the dock. We like to do “Stern in” docking so we can leave the boat and walk directly into or toward our destination. In this case the back of our boat looked out toward the grand Empress Hotel, which is part of the luxurious Fairmont chain.
We were excited to head out. So, after cleaning up and securing the boat we locked up and headed out. The one thing about being in the middle of a big vibrant city is that the docks are literally in the middle of a huge tourist spot, and the marina is open to the public during daytime hours. If you visit this marina be aware that the docks are exposed and accessible during daytime hours.
We enjoyed a pleasant dinner near the marina and then set out for a walk on Government Street. When we returned to the marina the lights on the water allowed me to capture some really nice photos. At a super high ISO setting the Fujifilm X100 delivers some stunning images.
We all awoke around the same time. A marina is typically only as quiet as the boats moored near by and our dock was packed with countless Tollycraft fans that had been partying for days. A number were preparing to depart and we’d hear the muffled sounds of an engine starting as we started our morning routine.
The day before one of us had tried the shower onboard the boat for the first time. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, a boat magically gets smaller once you spend the night and, now, even smaller when you have to convert the head into a shower stall. Yes, it was designed to work that way. But, that doesn’t mean it’s roomy or that you won’t get a bunch of things wet. So, today we all took advantage of the public showers at the top of the marina. And, conveniently, they were located just steps away from the Lime Kiln Café where, according to a friend, we’d find yummy donuts. The cafe promotes them as world famous. Naturally, we had to try several to make sure their claim was valid.
It might seem crass to move from a description of food to one of waste, but the pump-out services at Roche Harbor deserve special recognition for, well, being both efficient and clever. If you’re not familiar with what pumping out means let’s just say that when you use your boat’s head (toilet) the waste has to go somewhere. And, since it’s illegal to let it go into the water and endanger plant and animal life it goes into a holding tank. It’s probably the same for campers. Come to think of it, it’s same for airplanes (though, sometimes, they accidentally release giant, frozen masses of waste – Google it, you’ll see). Getting “stuff” out of the holding tank onboard a boat is done by sucking it out with a giant, gross vacuum. Pump-out services at Roche Harbor are, rather elegantly, handled by the M/V Phecal Phreak.
As the morning progressed we prepared to meet a friend that had traveled by boat from Seattle. The plan was to meet-up for lunch and then the crew would do a little more sightseeing/shopping. I didn’t see how that was possible since Roche Harbor was so small, but I was happy being given the task of preparing the boat for our departure.
Our plan was to leave Roche Harbor in time to make High Tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. We were told it would take a little over an hour at our speed to make the journey. Since it’s always good to be prepared, I decided to top-off our fuel tank before heading into (drum-roll) international waters!
Here’s where it gets interesting. I fueled the boat and the crew met me at the bottom of the dock. We cast off and were heading away, at marina-speed (2-4 knots) when we started hearing a really bad sound. You become familiar with the sounds your car, blender, lawn mower and, for us, boat make. And the sound we were hearing was not normal. The cynic in me suggested that it meant one thing and that starts with American Express – as in this is going to be an expensive noise.
We coasted to an area away from other boats and, while the engines were running, opened the hatch and took a peek. Well, the problem, though not the cause, was apparent – our starboard engine was leaking coolant fluid and the glycol was spraying onto the serpentine belt and causing it to slip, producing the sound we had been hearing. Not good. So, I powered down that engine and used the VHF to reach the harbormaster. I asked if there was a local mechanic and for a slip we could use while we figured out, specifically, what was wrong.
Getting over to the new slip with one engine was easy. Docking was more difficult and after a few failed attempts due to the wind I powered up the starboard engine long enough to activate Axius and quickly maneuver into the assigned space.
The mechanic showed up surprisingly fast and was able to diagnose the problem in seconds. It was a busted coolant pump. It’s not something you can just pick up anywhere and, in our case, it would have to be ordered and delivered to us at Roche Harbor. We’re on an island. We arrived by boat. We’re at the mercy of a local marine mechanic and the ability to locate the part and have it flown to where we are.
Despite it being a Sunday, I was able to reach the good folks at Lake Union Sea Ray in Seattle and, remarkably, our favorite service agent was working. They’re not normally open on Sundays but had been this one day because of Demo Days. Our contact there was able to locate the pump and gasket at their Redmond location.
So, the plan would be to have the part sent by one of LUSR’s staff to Kenmore Air on Lake Washington in time to make the 10:30AM flight to Roche Harbor – arriving here at noon. Installation, we were told, would take a couple of hours. Costs would run into the hundreds for the parts and service, but it would all be covered under warranty. Whether the part delivery by airplane would be covered as well would be discovered in a few days.
It’s Sunday evening and we’re preparing for our third night. We were supposed to be in Victoria this evening but have remained stuck in Roche Harbor awaiting an important part. If we had to, it would be possible to limp home on one engine. But, maneuvering would be difficult and the journey slow.
So, day four is almost here and we’ll see what it brings. New friends and the Past Commander from the Seattle Sail and Power Squadron arrived for a meetup that we hadn’t planned to be part of. Now, because of our circumstances, we just might. There are far worse places to be stuck. And, as a close friend recently shared with us, “cruising is fixing your boat in interesting places.”
We discovered La Conner to be a lovely little town. The Admiral (I told you I’d start using that terminology!) enjoyed a couple of hours Saturday morning browsing the local shops while the rest of us headed to Calico Cupboard for pancakes and bacon. One of us (not me) eyed what looked like a beautiful cinnamon roll but were literally seconds late in making it our own. We watched as it was grabbed and plated for another customer just seconds before our server approached the counter. It was the last one! Apparently they’re pretty good there, and in high demand. I balanced the sad face with word that our second destination was known for fresh donuts at a placed called the Lime Kiln Café in Roche Harbor. So, we finished breakfast and headed across the street to the local bookstore. One new Judy Moody book later and we were ready to make way for our next destination.
We set off from La Conner around 1:30pm heading North through the Swinomish Channel. This path can be extremely shallow and, like its Southernly entrance, demands attention and respect (unless you want to be grounded). Thankfully we left close to high tide and the normally low 6 foot depths was now a comfortable 15-18 feet. We draw only 3 1/2 feet but appreciate as much margin as nature (and the Army Corp of Engineers) can provide.
Our journey toward Roche Harbor took us around the tip of Fidalgo Island West toward the Southern tip of Blakely Island where we turned North and passed between Orcas Island and Shaw Island. The weather was beautiful. Since we were going 25 knots it was difficult to take pictures. So, we stopped! We’re slowly realizing that boating life is different than regular life. When you see things that are interesting, you stop. You enjoy. It’s silly to zip past beautiful islands and bays without taking the time to enjoy them. The efficiency and speed of a fast cruiser like ours has to be balanced with moments of slow, deliberate travel. Twice on our way to Roche we slowed down, came off plane and got out on the front of the boat to enjoy the surrounding islands and water, take pictures and breathe in the fresh air. I’m beginning to appreciate the style of boating that Trawlers enjoy – slow and steady at 7-9 knots.
We navigated through the Wasp Islands and several protected wildlife areas. When we passed sailboats we’d slow down considerably to reduce our fairly large wake. We entered the San Juan Channel and made the 2.5nm crossing fast, skirting around a West-to-East Ferry. Roche Harbor is at the Northerly tip of San Juan Island and we scooted into the Harbor just shy of 4:30pm. A quick radio call to the marina on 78A directed us to slip 27, which we found easily.
Dock attendants were waiting for us and helped us tie up and directed us to power and water.
As soon as we stepped on to the dock it was if we had been teleported to the Ozark Mountain region of Arkansas. This was not what we had imagined for Roche Harbor, a boating oasis known for hosting zillion dollar mega yachts. We were shocked to find laundry hanging from boat masts. There were people carrying on with accents that would make Mater from Disney’s Cars movie sound like the Elocution coach from The King’s Speech. The boat next to us was offering up fresh Possum Punch. Something was up.
We discovered that we had landed smack in the middle of a Tollycraft meetup – with over a hundred boats. Apparently it’s a yearly event and this year’s theme (they have one every year) was “Red Neck.” The costumes and decorations on the boats were hilarious. They were one very festive group of boaters!
We made our way through the crowds and headed straight into the little town that is Roche Harbor. There are a few restaurants and some historic structures related to the lime works that operated here since the late 1800’s. You can learn more about the history of the town here.
Just outside the town and only about ten minutes by foot is an outdoor sculpture garden that’s fantastic. Large, modern, beautiful pieces occupy the three acre park. We spent close to an hour walking among the pieces before heading back into town.
The hundreds of Tollycraft fans were being fed at a tented event across from the marina which meant we able to secure a spot for dinner at McMillin’s Dining Room. We all enjoyed the appetizers and dinner which were enhanced by a stunning sunset. In the middle of dinner the window curtains were all pulled back to expose the harbor and the Colors ceremony that takes place every evening at sunset – a tradition started in the 1950’s. Several flags are lowed ceremoniously including the Washington State flag, the Union Jack, the Canadian flag and, of course, the US flag.
We strolled to the boat just as it was getting dark and prepared for bed. The planned entertainment for the evening was Akeelah and the Bee. Day 3 would bring famous donuts and a quick trip to Victoria, BC. Or, would it?
We set off for La Conner yesterday just after noon. Heading from our slip into Lake Washington I decided to keep us at a very gentle 7 knots all the way until the Montlake Cut where we’d, essentially, have to remain at a no-wake speed (which for us is 5-6 knots) until we reached the locks. Going slow gave us time to prepare our cabin for our first multi-night cruise into the San Juan Islands.
We reached the locks on schedule and had only a slight delay until the small lock cleared. This gave us a chance to engage Skyhook which uses GPS and the two independently controlled I/O drives to keep the LAIKA in place. Since our boat was named after our dog, Laika, I like to call this feature “Sit, Stay.” It’s a virtual anchor and it works beautifully, with an accuracy of about 9 feet in any direction (which also means it shouldn’t be engaged closed to a stationary object, like a dock).
Once we turned North past Shilshoe Marina we kicked the engines into high gear and reached plane pretty quickly. For us that means we’re running about 3800 rpm and burning 24 gph. But, we’re moving fast – approximately 25 knots. Small, high frequency waves pass gently under our hull.
We changed our VHF radio from 16 to the weather channel to get a forcast of wind and wave activity. Reports suggested no small craft advisories. Our route to La Conner took us past Everett into Possession Sound, left past Gedney Island and around the West side of Camino (the only way), then unto Skagit Bay. You can view our approximate course through Google Earth with this file.
Most of the way we met relatively smooth water and the LAIKA skimmed beautifully toward our destination. For the first time, we activated the Garmin 740s’ ability to send turn-by-turn navigation sentences (directions) to our boat’s Axius and Vessel View system – essentially delivering an auto-pilot capability. While we had utilized an auto-heading feature many times, this was the first time we’d have the chartplotter’s course directing the boat.
For safety reasons the Axius will request acknowledgement before any new turn is executed when a waypoint is reached. The first time we said “ok” we were surprised by a semi-aggressive, Miami-Vice-like turn that had us going “hold on!” After all, we were traveling at 25 knots. We discovered two things. The first is that the Axius will break down sharp turns into a series of smaller turns. After a few of these we became quite comfortable with how it was executing its turns. The second thing we learned was that it was important to very accurately chart our course and avoid dramatic directional changes.
We arrived at the Western head of the Swinomish Channel and started paying extra attention to our position and the charts. According to our boating insurance agent, this area is known as the million dollar mile because of its very shallow and narrow area and two long reefs that jut out from the shore all the way to the markers sitting almost 2nm into the Bay. Boating in a hurry will take shortcuts and, invariably, end up requiring Vessel Assist after a grounding. We were determined not be a statistic!
We arrived into the marina at La Conner around 3:30pm and were met by eager dock attendants that helped us tie up. They gave us a “goodie” bag that had useful information including local current and tide information, and a map of the town. By the time we left the boat it was almost 5pm and stores were beginning to close. We did, though, find a few that were opened. I assumed my normal “bench” position while the rest of the crew shopped. Note: I suspect that within about 24-48 hours I’ll start using “boating” lingo in these posts and refer to my spouse as the “Admiral.”
For dinner we went to Nell Thorn and had a fabulous meal. Highly recommended. Pleasant, attentive staff and delicious, well prepared food. Fresh Link Cod and locally grown vegetables accompanied by a Prosecco and, later, Port.
Our first night aboard for this trip (and our second night ever on the LAIKA) was uneventful and more pleasant than the first time. We were more comfortable with our boat and had brought from home an unused memory-foam mattress that made the master bed even more comfortable. We all slept well.
Day two will take us to Roche Harbor through the North end of Swinomish Channel. Here’s our planned route as seen with Google Earth.