Riding a gale across the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Porter watching the waves as we sailed north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Porter watching the waves as we sailed north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca

As big, frothing green and white waves passed under and behind Yahtzee, we’d pause and then surf down them with a hoot and holler from the crew. “10.9 knots on that one!” Jill gushed with a smile from the helm. Followed by a shout from Porter, “Mommy, you’re surfing!”

We were about an hour out of Port Townsend and a forecasted gale was delivering on the promise of a stellar sleigh ride northward across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And from beginning to end, the trip brought a lot of positives for our crew.

Shipwrights’ Regatta to Points North

The day before, we’d reveled in beautiful sunny conditions while racing around Port Townsend Bay in the 25th annual Shipwrights’ Regatta. Our buddy Matthew joined us again and with a little less breeze than last year, we were able to fly the spinnaker through much of the course. The competition was also fun and we traded positions with a well-sailed Niagara 31 over the two laps, before finally edging them out at the end.

Saturday's Shipwrights' Regatta on Port Townsend Bay
Saturday’s Shipwrights’ Regatta on Port Townsend Bay

The after party at the Northwest Maritime Center was a good time as always, and on the way back to Yahtzee in Point Hudson Marina, we stumbled upon a party for volunteers of the schooner Adventuress. We know some of the crew, and were invited to join in before heading home. Port Townsend is always a good time!

Before turning in for the night we could feel the wind rising. A gale was predicted to blow out of the southeast all day Sunday and we had plans to go north. We chatted about it being a bumpy ride and prepared the boat for what was to come — just talking through our plan was good mental preparation.

Go Time

Sunday morning dawned blustery and rainy, but patches of blue sky popped up as well, which would set the tone for the day. With the wind blowing steady in the mid to upper 20s and gusting in the 30s, it was difficult to get out of our slip and the marina, but after a little sweat, we made it.

Jill sailing us northward into the Strait
Jill sailing us northward into the Strait

Once clear of the breakwater, Jill and I worked together to get the mainsail up and tucked in two reefs. With the sail up and set, we turned north and Yahtzee quickly gathered speed into the 7 then 8 knot range. The waves were building and our plan to hoist the new staysail was temporarily put off because we simply wouldn’t have been sailing any faster with it up and it would have added an extra layer of work.

The sun was out in full force by now and we put Port Townsend quickly behind us as we sailed out into the Strait. Jill was at the helm while we executed a perfect jibe in waves that were probably in the 6 to 8 foot range and we could have queued up the Dick Dale music, because we started surfing in the building seas. The sustained wind then rose into the 30s for about an hour or so with gusts in the low 40s. But it didn’t last long.

Pictures don't do the wave height justice
Pictures don’t do the wave height justice
This wave crest was just about eye level
This wave crest was just about eye level
Porter practicing his knots as we sailed
Porter practicing his knots as we sailed

When we were about halfway across the Strait, the wind suddenly died, leaving a sloppy mess of a chop to get through. As the crew went green in the unforgiving waves, the engine went on and we motorsailed for a few miles before the wind started to trickle back in, but from the west.

The breeze soon built back into the 20-plus knot range and we sailed fast under staysail and full main. This new wind also brought a different wave direction along with it and as the two sets of waves hit each other, it created some really confused, ugly seas for the rest of the ride north.

As we rounded the western side of San Juan Island, the westerly breeze remained in the 20s and started touching 30 again while we weaved and jibed our way through Mosquito Pass.

Yahtzee's track: 37 miles with and average speed of 6.5 kts and top of 11.5 kts.
Yahtzee’s track: 37 miles with and average speed of 6.5 kts and top of 11.5 kts.


When we reached our destination at Henry Island, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and shared hugs and high fives before cracking open a celebratory beer. It isn’t often that we get out in gale force winds, but we know the experience is good for us.


This trip really boosted our confidence in a few areas: teamwork, preparation, sail and boat handling, and living aboard while underway. Though miles-wise it wasn’t a long passage, and Jill and I have sailed together in bigger waves, it was what we needed to keep gaining experience in heavy wind and seas as a family. Jill and I always work well sailing the boat together and this time was no different.

Porter and Magnus could be on deck for part of the adventure, but when it came to eating, sleeping, reading and playing, it was best done below. Jill was on point when it came to operating below deck with everyone while I kept the boat moving — and if we needed to switch roles, I’m confident we would have been fine.

We prepared Yahtzee and ourselves well for the challenge that we knew was coming. The boat moved around a lot in the wicked wave-action — side to side, forward and back — and though it feels like we’ve really got the preparation part of things down when it comes to these types of passages, we did learn a few things, too.

In the end, we know that if we don’t get out in situations like these, we can’t become more experienced sailors who have full confidence in the boat, our skills and each other. Every time on the water is different, and we learn a lot more about heavy weather sailing by actually getting out in it than re-reading some book on storm tactics.

All in all, it was an exhilarating and wild ride.

11 thoughts on “Riding a gale across the Strait of Juan de Fuca

  1. I’m feeling a little envious reading this post. Some of the best and most fun sailing we have had was crossing the strait in *ahem brisk conditions. We really put our old Cal 34 through her paces. It can get exciting out there, but it’s all good when you have a good boat. How well I remember those uncomfortable mixed seas. We don’t feel them nearly as much with the Olympic 47. A mixed blessing for sure.

  2. We were also out Sunday, just crossing from Eagle Harbor to Elliott Bay Marina, and you did much better than we did. Nice job! Although most of our challenges were from deciding to sail out of the anchorage and beating upwind overcanvassed in 20-25kts while a ferry was overtaking us in a narrow channel. 🙂

  3. Bravo to you and your family. Breaking them in safely and on sunny days a plus. Happy sailing

  4. Haro Strait, the day before Swiftsure, bringing the 70 footer over from Bellingham. Huge wind, probably 30 k plus, and the waves probably six feet but right on the bow when we were beating, so it was that sickening up-and-over chop. One by one each guy got sick. And went below. One by one they would come up, asked me to hold their hat while they wharfed to leeward, then back down. The sails were set, so I steered all the way to Victoria by myself. Oh! I was the only woman on board. The skipper-owner thought the guys brought me along to cook, so he asked me early on to cook something and I tried, but I blew up the stove. Then the guys told him: she doesn’t cook. She steers.

  5. Used to live in PT on board a Cape Gorge that I built. That end of the Straights is a perfect place to create confused seas. Think of it this way—- now you are ready for a November delivery across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda! LOL

    1. Great comparison! I’ve been in the Gulf Stream in November — and various other months — and can attest to the changeable and erratic behavior of it and the Strait!

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