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Uptight Head

The bow eased away from the Friday Harbor dock as I released the stern line and climbed aboard to sheet in the flogging jib. A southwesterly breeze filled the mainsail and we bore away toward the lee of Brown Island and hove to while the ferry passed astern, its passengers waving from the rail. The first mate took bearings off the Reid Rock Light and steered into the channel while a gust, no longer blocked by Brown Island, set Old Hand on her port beam.
“Steady up a few points  Southeast Moppit,” I said, clutching a port shroud. “Give Reid Rock a wide berth. No sense cutting it too fine.”
We had plenty sea room for sailing these lovely Islands during Summer’s final heat wave since most of the holiday boaters had returned to work after Labor Day, leaving ample space for Old Hand’s portly hull. She’s a stout double-ended design of Scandinavian pedigree, the accumulated wisdom of fishermen who shouldered aside the cold, gray seas of the storm-tossed North Atlantic; a style often maligned for sluggish performance, and called, unjustly, Westsnail. For as the wind continued to freshen, I was amazed to see that, despite her ponderous girth and mainsail single reefed to counter weather helm, the GPS reported our speed at nearly eight knots.
Sails were sheeted tight against a backdrop of cerulean blue sky and the mate pointed our bowsprit across San Juan Channel toward Flat Point on the Northwest tip of Lopez Island.
“I say Binky, would you care for a bit of tea and crumpets?”
I don’t know why, but the sterling mate and I have a tendency to lapse into fake King’s English while underway. Perhaps it’s the result of PBS overexposure. But why the devil she insists on calling me by such a ludicrous sobriquet is simply beyond my powers of comprehension.
Moppit descended to the galley while I took the wheel and eased Old Hand toward the south shore of Shaw Island to catch the most of the falling breeze. Indian Cove opened to port. We passed reef net boats anchored above the rocky shoal off Squaw Bay, their rough-cut ladders ascending the sky like some nautical version of Jacob’s dream. Indeed, winged figures appeared to hover in the cirrus-brushed sky above the strange craft, as if about to descend onto this ancient fishing ground to bless the souls of long departed Songhees and bear them aloft once more to the Salish Empyrean harbor.
I recall a previous passage when, nearing the intersection of Harney and Upright Pass, nicely trimmed on a broad reach up channel, the tall face of Upright Head stole our wind and we were becalmed amid bewildering currents as a Shaw-to-Lopez ferry bore down on us.
I went below to start Phyllis, my venerable Sabb 30 horse Diesel. Sure enough, above the reassuring throb of the engine, I heard Moppit’s anxious voice warning of ferries coming from both starboard and port. Again, the fickle wind had fallen to nothing in the lee of dreaded Upright Head.
I take comfort in my ability to learn from experience. But it isn’t difficult to be mindful of such lessons when they are so burned into your inmost being by close encounters with calamity. There’s nothing like the proximity of death looming from the dark north, like the infernal ferry of Hades’ boatman Charon, to make one mindful of the hidden peril that can lurk behind the most benign settings.
Such foresight allowed the crew of Old Hand to resume our passage. I Lowered all but the staysail to steady Old Hand in the steep seas and we steamed south into the peaceful anchorage of Spencer Spit under a lowering sky.
After a supper of the mate’s excellent gypsy stew we toast another fine Passage:   “Good show, Moppit!”

“Simply ripping, old thing.”   And so on…


I am an artist, writer and sailor in the Pacific Northwest.

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