Long Night in Fossil Bay

Newbies get a rough introduction to cruising the Pacific Northwest — but the rewards prove priceless.

Around 2 a.m., the agitated meowing of our cat, Lotus, woke us. She was not happy with the boat’s motion and the wind’s howling. We found the wind had come up out of the southeast and was funneling into Fossil Bay with a vengeance. Something did not seem quite right. We were tailing off our anchor at a right angle to the way all our friends’ boats were hanging from the mooring balls behind us.

We realized the wind affecting us was entering Snoring Bay, a small inlet just to the north of Fossil Bay, streaming over its shallow headland and then turning to take us on the nose. The action had the effect of pushing us toward the boats on the nearby mooring buoys.

Harndon Island is a much prettier place when the weather is cooperating and one’s anchor isn’t dragging.

We had about 75 feet of chain out to handle the eight-foot depth plus the expected eight feet of additional depth at high tide. Given our five feet of bow over the water, we already had less than 4:1 scope. With the wind rising and the odd angle at which it was hitting us, we were being pushed within about 40 feet of our friends in a 32-foot American Tug on a mooring buoy. They were awake, too, due to the wind, and were flashing lights at us to make sure we knew what was going on.

The situation was chaotic: wind blowing, waves slapping and us in our pajamas moving the boat in the dark of night! Barb started the engines; now, anyone who had been sleeping was awake and wondering what the heck we were doing.

This was not the way we wanted to introduce ourselves to our new yacht club friends.

My wife, Barb, and I had finally made the “jump” and moved aboard Still Waters, a 48-foot aft-cabin cruiser. We planned to live aboard while we explored the Salish Sea, a combination of Puget Sound in the U.S. and the Strait of Georgia and its surrounding waters in Canada. A few months after moving aboard our new floating home, we prepared for our first long cruise, scheduled to begin in Fossil Bay on Sucia Island, part of the beautiful San Juan Islands group in Washington state. We didn’t know we were going to get more than we bargained for right away.
The yacht club we’d recently joined was hosting its annual Shrimp Boil cruising event, with more than 20 boats committed to attend. We planned to be there and then continue north through the Canadian Gulf Islands for another six weeks before returning to our homeport in Blaine, Wash.

Fossil Bay is a small inlet that’s home to two docks in the summer and 16 mooring buoys year round. The bay, though shallow, is a popular cruising destination that fills rapidly on the weekend. Our plan was to arrive early on Thursday, grab a spot at the dock and move out to anchor when our event hosts arrived on Friday afternoon, so they could have the dock spot.

Early Friday morning, as the tide receded, we noticed we could already see the bay’s sand-and-mud bottom. About 10 a.m., we decided we better move off the dock, since only three feet of water was under the keel and a minus three-foot tide was still hours away.

We fired up the twin diesels, moved out about 400 yards and tucked in between Harndon Island and the west finger of Wiggins Head. Once we were comfortable with our set, we took a short dinghy ride back to shore and spent the day hiking the great trails on the south end of Sucia that surround Fossil Bay.

During the course of the day, most of our other club members arrived. Owners with smaller boats took dock space while others grabbed mooring buoys or anchored. As evening arrived, everyone enjoyed “docktails” and engaged in lively conversation. Dinner was scheduled “on our own,” so we shared a meal of mussels and Andouille sausage with friends on the aft deck of Still Waters.

After too much delicious food, we turned in for the night. Calm winds and small ripples on the beautiful waters of Fossil Bay lulled us to sleep. Little did we know we were to enjoy short sleep and endure a long night!

Still Waters and its owners rest easier now with a new 70-pound anchor.

With the engines started after our 2 a.m. feline wakeup call, we were ready for action. As we normally do when moving the boat, we donned our headsets — only to find the batteries were dead. I had not charged them. Luckily we had developed a system of hand signals to help with this type of situation.

The sky was moonless, so we needed some light. I flipped the switch to turn on our bow-mounted spotlight, which I hadn’t tested before we set out, so, of course, it didn’t light. Headsets dead. Spotlight out. We had two strikes against us.

With no working spotlight — I later learned there is a switch on the helm dashboard that needs to be switched on for the spotlight to work — I grabbed a flashlight and headed for the bow to raise the anchor while Barb attempted to keep us away from the rocks. We intended to re-anchor, but the wind, waves and current kept pushing us toward the rocks that surrounded the small island close to our port side. Barb was diligently trying to keep the boat away, but the starboard engine decided it wasn’t warm enough and quit.

She got it restarted right away, but we were precariously close to the rocks. Both of us were getting nervous, which was exacerbated by the low visibility and our lack of experience on a new boat. We decided to get out of there and anchor at the head of the bay where there was more room. I secured the anchor on deck and headed to the helm.

With Barb using the flashlight for visibility, we rotated around — thank goodness for twin engines — and maneuvered through the 10 or more boats anchored between us and deeper water. Once there we had more room; however, we were more exposed to the wind being funneled into the bay and the waves, which were cresting at two feet. Anchoring was a challenge. After two attempts, we felt we had a good hold and shut down the engines. Exhausted, dazed and scared, we marked our spot on the GPS and took visual sightings of shore. After watching anxiously for about 20 minutes, we fell into bed for a restless sleep.

Fossil Bay, while proving a challenge to the Lees the first time, is worth a visit during its more bucolic moments.

About 5 a.m. — the crack of dawn — Lotus (our newly christened “Anchor-Watch” cat) was again letting us know she was not happy. The sound of the waves and wind had not abated; she did not like something else. As Barb looked around, she noticed the boat had moved quite a bit into the bay. She got me out of bed. We surveyed the situation and realized we were definitely dragging anchor. We later discovered our old CQR knockoff plow anchor weighed only 47 pounds. We now have a 70-pound Delta and sleep well at night.

Once again she started the engines as I stumbled to the bow to handle the anchor. As I was bringing in chain, I noticed we were floating past an empty mooring buoy. I made a command decision and yelled through the wind for Barb to grab the buoy. She quickly grabbed the boat hook, made her way to the cockpit and, while hanging over the cockpit in her pajamas, was able to snag the buoy’s ring. I ran to the cockpit and looped a line through the buoy ring. With the line on the buoy, I made my way to the bow.

Barb was thinking, At our first cruising event with the club we didn’t expect to be the main entertainment.

Luckily, the wind was pushing the buoy slowly down the side of the boat; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to control it. I made the line fast on the bow cleats and we were stabilized on the buoy.

Our schedule showed an 8 a.m. breakfast with the group. With only a few hours left of a very long night, we dragged ourselves to the master stateroom and fell into bed. Alas, the sun was coming up and sleep was not possible despite our being totally frazzled by the night’s experiences. We got out of bed, made coffee and watched the sunrise. We missed the 8 a.m. breakfast call but managed to get there an hour later and still get some chow. Obviously, everyone wanted to know what had happened, so we had to relive the night’s embarrassing string of events.
We discovered an important trait about our fellow club members — and boaters in general. Everyone was very understanding and sympathetic because of their own boating experiences. The stories began to flow and soon we were laughing and feeling much better. One member recounted going to bed peacefully in a Jones Island anchorage and waking the next morning adrift off Friday Harbor — a 4-mile drift! That easily topped our story.

We spent a wonderful day with our new friends, getting to know them and learning about cruising experiences that excited us. Even with all the new acquaintances and fun stories, I won’t deny we were still haunted by our ordeal of the previous night.

Later in the day we returned to Still Waters and were preparing for the evening get-together when a park ranger came by and asked how long our boat was. “Forty-eight feet,” I told him, honestly. He told me we would have to move, because the mooring buoys have a 45-foot length limit.

I explained the previous night’s events to the officer and asked if we could have a reprieve. He explained the rule was due to weight and ground-tackle limitations, and the weather was still unsettled. We would have to move. We thanked him and went inside to prepare for the move. Barb was beside herself; I was not far from that. After the experience of the night before, we seriously questioned the sanity of our cruising plans.

Our previous boating experience, albeit somewhat limited, had been incident free and very enjoyable. Some of that could be attributed to good planning and execution, but we knew then that it also had involved a great deal of luck!

However, the job at hand had to be done, so we steeled ourselves as Barb once again started the engines. We dropped the buoy and moved to the mouth of the bay’s deeper water to, once again, set anchor. This time it worked and we had a good hold for the next two days.

We went back to shore for lunch — the last club event for the rendezvous — and said our good-byes. Returning to Still Waters, we prepared for the continuation of our two-month cruise through the Canadian Gulf Islands.

Since our Fossil Bay ordeal we have completed more than 3,000 miles of Pacific Northwest cruising. The waters that comprise the Salish Sea hold many challenges for boaters. Changing weather, downslope winds and large tidal ranges that can create currents faster than 18 knots through narrow channels can surprise the unwary! Even given the adventures we shared in Fossil Bay and others since, we agree that the positives have far outweighed the negatives.

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