Life’s character-building events sometimes include rocks

Tacoma News TribuneJanuary 27, 2014 

Saturna Island is “a magical place: quiet and remote, yet accessible by vehicle and boat — a perfect retreat location. Incredible panoramic views, spectacular rocky shorelines and peaceful bays are all part of the charm.” So says the guide.

My husband and I would amend this idyllic description to include a submerged rock that lies just northwest of Boat Pass.

Life presents endless character-building experiences: getting laid off from a job, moving to a new city, raising children (double points for that one), losing a loved one to death, getting old. We have/are experiencing all of those and can now, reluctantly, add to our list “running aground in your sailboat.”

We are skilled, diligent sailors — really. We monitor weather, check tides and currents, consult charts and tables and always have a plan “B” and “C” in our back pockets. On this September day, however, we messed up.

Boat Pass is a narrow, angular cut on the north shore of Saturna Island, B.C., in the Canadian San Juans. It links to the Strait of Georgia and, because of its narrow width, is subject to turbulent water, eddies and currents when the tide changes. At slack tide it is navigable.

We spent an afternoon and night in Winter Cove — a peaceful harbor adjacent to the passage. There is a beautiful provincial park ashore where we tied up the dinghy and walked the dog through marshes and dark forests. One trail led to a rocky promontory overlooking Boat Pass with a breathtaking view across the Strait of Georgia to the B.C. mainland.

Incoming current at that time of day made the pass churning white water. Small motor boats were hot-rodding back and forth through the cut.

I said to my fearless and much-better-sailor husband, “Why don’t we take the longer route (Plan B) around Saturna to Cabbage Island. We don’t have to take short cuts. We’re retired; we’re not in a hurry. This looks risky. Besides, have you seen any sailboats get through?”

“It’ll be OK. We’ll do it at low, slack tide and go slow.”

I didn’t sleep well that night.

Early morning came and we weighed anchor. Water was calm and the air clear. We motored slowly to Boat Pass, carefully watching the water and all electronics, especially the depth finder. We throttled down and inched through the cut. Dead slow. Made it through! Fist pumps. We whooped triumphantly.

Then we hit the submerged rock.

I’ll never forget the sound. The impact threw me to the cockpit bench, and my husband forward against the gangway door. The dog was terrified and shaking. We were stunned. I was blathering. My husband told me to breathe deeply, and he took charge.

He put the engine in reverse and idled for a moment. The engine was still running, propeller and rudder were working. He checked the bilges. We were not taking on water, but needed to decide quickly what to do.

Cabbage Island was out, as was trying to navigate back through Boat Pass. We decided to motor on and seek help in Friday Harbor.

That three-hour trip was a nail-biter. Adrenalin wore off and, eventually, we talked. That conversation is not included here.

We made it to Friday Harbor and were checked out by a diver and marine mechanic. “You can get home, but you need to haul her out and do repairs.” The rock took a bite out of her lead keel. The impact shattered sections of the inner hull fiberglass.

We are very lucky that things were not worse. Repairs were mostly cosmetic; we were not physically injured; the dog has finally calmed down.

And we have learned. We know now that we could have safely made it through the cut at high, not low, slack tide.

But we don’t need a “do-over” at Boat Passage. That character-building experience is checked off. Once was enough.

University Place resident Maggie McGuire, a hospice volunteer and Tacoma Symphony Orchestra board member, is a former reader columnist. She and her husband just celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary — and still sail.

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