A perfect day for sailing my Joel White Pooduck Skiff, Annabel Lee, from West Point in Seattle to Blake Island.
While walking along the north end of Lake Union last night Katya and I ran into a couple assembling a homemade sectional plywood sailboat. The builder has a background in engineering and designed the boat to be able to store it in a small space, such as a condominium storage unit. He lives nearby and transports the boat on a cart.
The construction is marine grade plywood with fiberglass tape/epoxy along the joints, and metal strips along the sheerline. Metal plates and bolts are used to join the sections together at the sheer. Two cables run from the bow to the stern under the hull to hold the sections together. Each section is constructed with air chambers outfitted with plastic plugs for draining/decompressing. The bow is split into two sections so that it can nest into the forward (daggerboard) section. Note the rubber insulation strips at the corners of the forward section to protect the corners when the bow sections are nested.
The length overall is 15 feet. The mast and sails were salvaged from a smaller 11 ft sailboat that the builder found on CraigsList. Katya and I were on our way to watch A Clockwork Orange at the Fremont Outdoor Theatre so, unfortunately, we couldn't stick around to see the boat complete. Apparently, it takes at least 30 minutes to put together.
Home-built sectional boats have been around for quite a while. Check out this catalog of plans from the April 1940 issue of Popular Science. For a couple very interesting sectional kayak designs, check out Dick Mahler's stitch and glue plywood 3-piece Pygmy Arctic Tern 14 and sectional skin-on-frame Greenland kayak built by Lodro Dawa of Monkcraft Kayaks.
Point Robinson is located on the eastern tip of Maury Island on the East Passage and, along with Lisabeula and Blake Island, has one of the few Cascadia Marine Trail campsites I know of located between Seattle and Tacoma. I wanted to point it out because the campsite is actually very nice but difficult to find. I got there after sunset and hiked around with trying to find it, and had to pull out the guidebook for reference. The trail head leading from the beach to the campsite is hidden in the trees west of the point and is very easy to miss. You have to look for the wooden kayak rack. The reason there's a kayak rack is because at high tide the beach is completely waterlogged. The trail leads to steep steps that will take you into a large grassy space with boulders, picnic tables and an interesting concrete sculpture that at first I thought were the ruins of a house. It is close to the parking lot for the lighthouse park but still seemed very private. I don’t know if it ever gets busy −− I was the only one there that night. Camping there is free but there is no water. Chemical toilets are located on the point by the lighthouse. The beach by the lighthouse is a nice place to hangout and has a beautiful view of Mt Rainier across the passage.
Even though I arrived late, I got a great spot for by boat at the Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival. When I arrived Sunday morning and called in on my VHF radio, they directed me to a spot behind the boathouse, right in front of a bench. Nestled between large powerboats, Annabel Lee looked tiny, like a toy. I left my duffel bag, cooler and backpack inside −− evidence of my journey. I loved being able to tell people that I sailed her up from Tacoma. That seemed to impress them. Also that I built her by myself in my garage. Someone asked me if I kept to mostly sheltered waters. I said that as far as I was concerned, all of Puget Sound is sheltered water. It's really more or less equally hazardous everywhere, the main risks being wind, currents, and boat traffic.
This was the first time I was an exhibitor at any wooden boat festival. Since registration didn’t cost a dime, I figured I might as well sign up and try sailing to Seattle. I gave myself two days to get there, since with sailing you can’t really tell when or if you will actually get anywhere. If I couldn’t sail I thought I could at least row and make around 3 knots. And if I didn’t make it at all I didn’t lose anything.
After spending Friday night making last minute preparations, I launched around 8:30 AM on a sunny Saturday morning and made it to Blake Island by midafternoon. Blake Island was crowded and I thought I might not find a camping site. I took a nap on the lawn under the shadow of a tree by the Longhouse. There was still plenty of time left in the day to continue on and camp on Bainbridge Island at Faye Bainbridge State Park, or even maybe make it to Lake Union, so I sailed on. I beat upwind but also struggled against a flood current. For about 45 minutes I was stuck at the South end of Bainbridge Island by Point Restoration. Then the wind picked up and as the waves grew bigger. I remember looking around and realizing that while there were quite a few boats out before everyone seemed to have disappeared. I started to feel very alone out there. I abandoned the plan to go north, dropped my jib to reduce sail, pulled up the centerboard and fell off into a run back to Blake Island to find a campsite. Fortunately, I found a spot right on the beach on the sheltered west side. They charged $22 dollars for a campsite but they had running water and flush toilets and large garbage can−sized plastic containers to keep your food secure from animals. And on the other side of the Island they sell ice cream out of a window in the Longhouse. In the safety of camp I checked the Marine Forecast on my phone. It had turned out that a Small Craft Advisory had been posted for that afternoon.
A couple I met camping on the island had taken the Argosy Cruise line to the island to camp. I discovered that if you are ever stuck on the island for whatever reason (because of injury, conditions, or losing your kayak for instance) you could call Argosy Cruise Lines and buy a one−way ticket back to Seattle for $20.50, depending on availability.
At night the wind blew harder and shifted. I lay awake listening to it blow through the trees. I woke up around 5:30 AM, packed and lauched off the beach at 6:15 AM. I wanted to take advantage of the high tide for launching and the building ebb current. I was also concerned about the 20 knot winds that were predicted for later in the day. I wished I had a GPS to record my track and speed (my last unit corroded and died long ago), because it felt like I was just screaming across Elliot Bay, a couple times surfing down the face of the larger waves in the middle of the channel. I pulled up into the shelter behind West Point in no time, feeling very happy to successfully make the crossing, and rowed my way through the Hiram Chittenden Locks, and occasionally sailing through the ship canal to Lake Union.
I’ve posted my pictures from the Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival Gallery here. Please also check out my friend Katya Palladina’s wonderful photos (including the two above) in her galleries here, and here.
I was really impressed with the skin−on−frame surf kayak. The construction is fairly traditional (steam bent ribs rather than plywood frames). I like the use of outwardly bent ribs and the external stringer to achieve the concave surface. The other thing that impressed me was the Salish Canoe which was carved out of a cedar log. The canoe was partly filled with water and large rocks that had been heated in a fire were used to get it hot, then the whole thing was covered with a thick plastic tarp. The steam softened the sides of the canoe enough to get them to flare apart.
Wooden boat people in general tend to be a pretty good crowd and will talk your ear off about their boats if you let them. Once in a while you will run in to a genuine prick though, like the Captain of Industry type I was parked next to. People who own really expensive classic powerboats aren't like you and me, even the wooden boat owners. For one thing, they can't be bothered to make boats −− they just buy them. He was so paranoid I was going to scratch his sparkling white hull while I was trying to maneuver through the narrow space around his boat. “Don’t scratch my boat,” he said. “I just paid $30,000 for this paint job!” “Sorry," I said, and he replied with, “'SORRY' doesn’t cut it, buddy!” Well, if you want me to stay away from your boat why don’t you help me get passed you instead of waving that damn boat hook in my face, asshole!
Why explore Puget Sound in a kayak when you could sail in a small open boat? You can take advantage of the wind and row when there isn’t any. Like a kayak, a 13 ft centerboard boat is small enough to land on a beach and tie up to shore. You have a lot more room for camping gear than in a kayak. That’s the idea anyway. I built Annabel Lee with camping in mind but didn’t try it until this week and it worked out beautifully. Here are few things I learned so far:
AVOID ROWING AGAINST TIDAL CURRENTS
A 13 ft boat is going to be slower and the wetted surface area much greater than a 17 ft sea kayak. It’s much harder to row against a 4.0 knot current. Early on my first day after I launched from the Point Defiance boathouse I rowed against a current for some distance in order to get to Colvos Passage, where the ebb current would take me north. I hugged the shore to take advantage of small eddies but eventually had to actually get out of the boat and tow her behind me, walking in knee deep water. Even in July the water is very cold. I recommend waders.
SPEND TIME ROWING INSTEAD OF WAITING FOR THE WIND
Anyone who has spent time sailing in Puget Sound knows that you can waste a lot of time waiting for the wind to pick up. It takes some effort to put the sails up so that one is reluctant to take them down right away. This is why it will take longer to get anywhere in a little sailboat than in a sea kayak. That, along with having to beat upwind.
THE CENTERBOARD IMPROVES TRACKING WHILE ROWING
I usually keep the centerboard up to reduce the drag when rowing but dropping it down really improved tracking in a strong wind. I usually keep the rudder down too. It was fixed in the central position with rope but I would tap it one direction or the other to fine tune my tracking.
THE ELECTRIC PADDLE IS COOL
I bought my Electric Paddle motor last year and find it very useful. The Electric Paddle is a lightweight, portable motor optimized for small boats. “Portable motors for portable boats” is their slogan. The entire unit including the battery only weighs 16 pounds. I keep the motor locked onto my boat and take the battery pack home to recharge it. At full speed (about 3.5 knots, depending on the size of your boat) a fully−charged battery will last 2 hours. At half speed or about 2 knots it will last 4 hours. If you want to go faster you can row at the same time.
The Electric Paddle is manufactured locally. The founder of Electric Paddle, Joe Grez, is a physicist by training, the inventor of many US patents, and is passionate about well-designed marine products. When I ordered an Electric Paddle Joe even delivered it to me personally! There is something very satisfying about buying a well−made product from a local manufacturer, and also to have met the inventor face to face.
The situations in which it really helped me were when I was rowing against a tidal current, rowing against a strong headwind, maneuvering among other boats in the Ballard Locks, maneuvering among other boats trying to dock at the Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival, and avoiding being run over by a large container ship while crossing traffic lanes in Commencement Bay.
YOU DON'T NEED AN ANCHOR
My friend Ricardo likes to use a Bruce anchor with a 15 ft of chain rode for his small sailboat. Because his boat is skin−on−frame, he prefers to keep her in the water, and to drop anchor and walk on and off at low tide. So far I haven’t bothered with an anchor. I have been simply running my boat on the beach at high tide and tying her up to large driftwood logs. In order to launch I need to wait until high tide again, or gradually pull her out into the water as the water level decreases so she isn’t left high and dry. It would be nearly impossible to pull her across a rocky beach into the water by myself. At the very least that would really scratch up the bottom.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF GOOD SAILING CONDITIONS
If you are lucky enough to have a strong breeze that will take you where you want to go, take advantage of it as long as possible. On my return trip from Seattle, I enjoyed a sustained 15 knot wind from the north and was able to run south for hours. I originally thought I would stay the night at Blake Island 7 nm away but instead pulled into the shelter of Point Robinson 18 nm away around sunset. Although I was eating dinner and setting up my tent in the dark, it turned out to be a good decision because the next day the wind died down to almost nothing.
IMMERSION WEAR, MANAGING CAPSIZE AND SELF−RESCUE
I don’t always dress for immersion on a sailboat. Usually I just wear shorts and a t-shirt. Realistically though, the risk of capsize and prolonged immersion is probably greater for me when sailing than it is when kayaking. I sometimes wear my Kokatat Whirlpool bibs to keep the lower half of my body dry. In a boat you could easily slip on a drytop if you think things will get rough.
I also haven’t practiced a capsize recovery in my boat. I should do that sometime. There were times on this trip when capsize was definitely a risk, and under those conditions would have been a disaster, with unsecured bags of gear sinking or blowing away and prolonged cold−water immersion a possibility. Just as when kayaking, self-rescue should be reliable enough so that capsize will not be an event where you need to call 911.
Yesterday Ricardo and I moved my Pooduck Skiff Annabel Lee from Dash Point into her new home at the historic Point Defiance Marina Boathouse. Tacoma has been called the "salmon capital of the Puget Sound", and the Boathouse serves primarily fishermen who store their small power boats in the boat lockers. It dates back to 1944, when it replaced the original boathouse pavilion of the early 1900s. Keeping Annabel Lee at Point Defiance will make it easier for me to put her in the water by myself. It also will give me easier access to Gig Harbor, Vashon Island and the Tacoma waterfront. I'm probably the only person who keeps a wooden sailboat there and who doesn't fish.
It turned out to be a perfect day for sailing: 90 degrees with a refreshing breeze blowing from the north. We sailed in a broad reach all the way, probably making about 4 knots even against a strengthening ebb current. We even sailed passed the Boathouse and played around the channel just off Owen Beach before heading back to take Annabel Lee out of the water. The wind was still blowing and it seemed a shame to leave such perfect sailing conditions.
There are a couple of elevators that take boats in and out of the water at the Boathouse. When you approach the elevator with your boat, the crew in a control tower will lower an elevator for you to let you motor (in our case, row) your boat into the elevator. When you are ready they will take you up to the first or second floor, depending on where your locker is. I asked for a locker on the first floor so I could also keep a kayak or two in it and not have to carry it up and down stairs. Once you have arrived at your floor you slide your boat onto a dolly that you provide yourself and wheel it into your locker.
I'm renting half of a double locker. The fishermen store all of their gear in these lockers, hanging their crabpots from the ceiling and putting their rods and other gear on racks on the wall. Some of these guys have even furnished their lockers with small refrigerators full of beer, easy chairs and camp stoves. I've even seen one with an elk head mounted on the wall. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it's against the fire code to operate a propane stove around an area where people keep boats and containers of gasoline around. It sure makes for a very cool man cave!
September may be my favorite month to be out on the water in the Pacific Northwest. The temperature at midday reaches into the high 70s while the nights are cool and crisp. The days are consistently clear and dry, except for the occasional morning fog. And yet everyone seems to think that summer is over: no one else is on the water.
I'm finally entering the 21st century when it comes to navigation tools and figured out how to download tracks from my GPS and import them into Google Earth. Mac users can be a little slow on the uptake regarding these things, you know. After all, it wasn't until 2006 that Garmin finally announced support for the Mac and I had given up long before then. Well now I've discovered that you can download a lot of awesome data from your handheld!
I turned on my GPS a while after I had launched and drifted west of Dash Point. There was a nice breeze from the north so I had a good run south toward Browns Point (yellow path), then I turned around and headed back, beating to windward (blue path). As you can see, she doesn't sail too close to the wind, so going upwind can be a real slog.
It turned out to be a great afternoon for sailing so I put Annabel Lee in the water. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pics of her under sail from land but I did make a little video. Check it out -- I'm really moving. I think I was making 4.6 knots! (The music is Heave Away Me Johnnys from an album called The Wind in the Rigging.)