Looking back: One need not run aground to find the muck of life…

I once read, “There are two types of sailors ~ those who have run aground and those who are going to”…

To join the first group of sailors mentioned above one need not always to ‘run aground’ sometimes the ground finds you. Such was the case on the first night of an early spring cruise with my good friend Esther back in the mid 90’s. We were aboard Panda Rand, her Cal 25 and I had agreed to sign up as skipper for a week long cruise together. Esther had recently purchased the vessel and, although an experienced offshore sailor (crew), she was uncertain about her piloting skills. At the time she kept Panda Rand berthed in the Port of Everett Marina in Possession Sound. Our rough plan was to work the vessel up Saratoga Passage and out either Deception Pass or the Swinomish Channel for a jaunt through the San Juan Islands. A decision that would be made in the following morning based on tides and weather. With me throwing my duffle aboard near the noon hour and the last minute details of prepping for a week long cruise, our first day out we were a tad bit slow getting off the docks, starting out late in the day.

Early spring in the Pacific NW gives rise to occasions where the Cascade Mountain snow pack becomes inundated with heavy, rainfalls. This precipitation can cause rapid snow melt. The quick release of water causes flooding in the steep rivers falling off the mountains and into the Salish Sea. The result, at tide level, can be a massive influx of forest debris carried by the rivers into the saltchuck. Branches, treetops, limbs, logs, in some cases full trees with huge rootwads afloat. Add the effect of the tides and an unusual occurrence of compressed, floating log jams of woody debris stretching like thick flotsam belts appear on the waters surface. We found ourselves on a near windless day occasionally having to idle forward using the boathook like a pike pole and pushing logs aside to make our way thru a series of these 20 yard thick, mile long debris choked tidebelts. All told our first day drew to a close far too early leaving. The debris chocked waters restricting our ability to travel at night, we chose to anchor out. With a gentle norwesterly forecast the nearby south facing Elger Bay inside of Lowell Point on Camano Island looked provide a good overnight anchorage.

Of gear and used boats; while I had brought my Marine Atlas, a small nav-kit, and a handheld GPS there wasn’t much navigation gear on Esther’s new boat. In fact what little there was appears to have been brought aboard when the vessel was first commissioned in the mid 1970’s, including a fathometer manufactured in Britain of which I had seen the likes but never used. I clearly recall the mimeographed manual booklet instructing the would-be used (me) to dial in the bottom until the signal showed a bit “wooley”. I interpreted this to mean the bank of red lights circling the face of the instrument would somewhat flutter rather than sequentially illuminate as it was tending to do. Needless to say as the twilight turned to dark and I circled the vessel in a likely place to drop anchor Esther and I were busily scanning manual and trying to dial in the fathometer to get soundings over our chosen spot. Fortunately the chart showed a sand and mud bottom throughout most of the bay and an apparent good depth of water below our keel. Finally I committed to dropping the hook and managed to set the anchor quite well in what was a high tide, playing out plenty of scope in case of a wind change. Using the chart and the archaic depth sounder I reckoned we were sitting in fair depths for the night. Esther agreed. And so we settled into the cozy cabin below decks to share a meal, listen to the radio and settle in for a night on the hook. Hind-sight tells me I should have rigged a lead-line to check the depth. Sleeping arrangements put me in the V-berth while Esther took the quarter berth. Just before tucking in I stepped above decks about 2200:hours to check our anchorage. The light wind out of the norwest, the lights from homes surrounding the bay shimmering across the water and a general feeling of ‘alls well’ to end the day on.

Having been up many hours, rising well before dawn, driven 300 miles across the Cascades, boarded the vessel, done a cursory inspection of her systems, and piloted us out of Everett and through the tidal log-jams and ready for sleep. And deep I fell as the wavelets whispered down the hull, the vessel kindly rocked and a cool air came in thru the partially open hatch. Deep it was until later I heard a strange sound accompanied by a strange feeling. As synapses returned to my muscles I involuntarily rolled to port. “What the…?” I started to ask when another sound from the galley caught my attention – dinnerware was rattling against itself.
“Something’s wrong,” I heard Esther say as I arose.
“Were aground,” I called out, kneeling up and opening the hatch above my head. “Hard aground from the feel of it.” I continued, the vessel not responding to the movement of my 250 pounds.
Indeed the light breeze had veered around to the souwest and blown us a bit toward the shore. That combined with my misread on the old fathometer had allowed our keel to settle into the mud bottom of Elger Bay as the tide dropped. A few moments later found me fully dressed, and on deck with a flashlight. Panda Rand was still buoyant but heeling at a 20 degree angle, her keel firmly in the rich mud bottom. There was around four feet of water surrounding us and no sign of rocks anywhere.
“Check the tide table again and confirm the time of low water,” I called down to Esther who had done a quick inspection of the engine compartment and bilge to assure we were not taking on water.
“0400:” she called back to me as I finished my rock inspection.
I climbed the tilted companionway down into the cabin and pulled the hatch shut behind me. “Over two hours away,” I said. “This isn’t going to be pretty.”
Esther looked me with a smile and said, “Well, it’s going to be a first.”
“Good,” I replied, “under my 1st command of your vessel I’m going to provide you with a unique nautical experience.”
“Well, it could be worse,” she said, “we could be on a rock.” That was Esther. Unfazed that we were sitting here in the middle of the night solidly aground with the only option to sit it out and await the incoming side to float us off again.
We quickly developed a list of chores to be managed before the vessel angle of heel worsened.
  • Check the battery straps and assure they’d stay in place
  • Close all the petcocks
  • Stow all the loose gear
  • Move loose Starboard books to the Portside bookshelf
I went on deck several times but there was nothing new and nothing to be done. In the end we both gathered up sleeping bags and sat on the main cabin sole between the settees. Kind of like sitting in the cockpit of a very over canvassed vessel beating to windward, although there was no beating involved only a steep angle of heel slowly getting steeper. I was still a bit grumbly at myself for getting us into this and wasn’t very talkative. Esther and I were sitting in the near dark, snuggled down in individual bags, shoulder to shoulder, feet braced against the opposing settee to hold ourselves in place as Panda Rand heeled over 50 degrees. The silence had held for quite sometime when she said in a rather sober voice, “I feel like an astronaut awaiting countdown.”
I tried to hold on to my gruff mood but my sailing companions comment broke up me.
“Oh, thats great,” I said attempting to maintain the sour demeanor but failing. Then we both burst out laughing. That was right about the time the tide turned, although it took another two hours to ‘float the boat’ so to speak. The water had dropped to less then three feet of depth surrounding Panda Rand. Thankfully enough to prevent the hull from settling into the muck and creating a suction to hold us there. By the time Panda Rand’s mast was pointing skyward again daylight was a hint in the morning sky and I was in nothing short of a hurry to have the boat back on her feet, complete a safety check and have her underway once again. For some reason I really wasn’t into facing that halfmoon bay full of houses awakening and looking down at a vessel laying partially on it’s side in the growing light. An hour later we were ‘all systems go’ and had the diesel running as I hauled up the chain and hook in the dawning of a clear spring morning.
As we began our departure from Elger Bay with morning light filling the shadows I looked to the east and could see the top of a big, barnacle encrusted rock the size of a Volkswagen and knew Esther had been right ~ it could have been worse… 
S/V Panda Rand off Portland Island, Canadian Gulf Islands, about a week after her Elger Bay grounding. Photo J. Foster Fanning
“Only two sailors, in my experience, never ran aground. One never left port and the other was an atrocious liar.”
– Don Bamford

About J. Foster Fanning

Photographer, Fire Chief, Commodore of RPSC Sail Club, Skier, Biker, Hiker, Wanna'be beach bum, Writer, Father, Grandfather and a bit more... 1st mate Catherine Brown & I spend about 70 days a year board, which includes one month long cruise annually. Our vessel is transportable and while we maintain a permanent buoy on Lake Roosevelt, near Kettle Falls extended cruises on the Salish Sea are part of our cruising grounds.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *