You Don't Want to Miss Fourth of July at Roche Harbor This was going to be the best boat trip ever. We are headed to Roche Harbor in the San Juan’s where we will join in the fun celebrating with 1,000’s of boaters from all over the Northwest and beyond. And it really was a great trip, just not the one expected. Roche Harbor (yes, pronounced “Roach”) is a destination resort for boaters and non boaters alike, nestled on a fairly large protected bay on the northwest corner of San Juan Island in Washington State.
Our trip starts in Portland, OR where we live. But our boat, a 28 foot sailboat, is moored for the summer in Anacortes WA. Having done this 275 mile drive many times, we had developed a system and are not in a hurry, after all we are on vacation. We left Portland late in the morning, breezed through Seattle traffic and arrived at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes ready for dinner. The first thing we do is make sure “Windsong” is still floating in our leased slip and that the batteries are fully charged. After checking out the boat and stowing all our "must have" gear and toys we head for one of the many restaurants we have become familiar with. When we first started exploring Anacortes some locals had recommended the bowling alley as the best place to get a good and sizable meal, and I can’t disagree, but we thankfully found that other places deserve our business as well, especially if some sort of ambience is on your menu. It usually takes all day on the road and a meal in a strange city before the kids start realizing we are off on another boat ride and start offering advice about what to stock up on for provisions. Don’t forget coke and chips and trail mix and cookies and hot dogs and everything else. So it’s decided once again, everyone will help with the shopping. After dinner we park in the parking lot at the top of the ramp leading to the boat, and we split up. I haul another load to the boat while the rest of my crew walks across the street to “Safeway.” Having a major grocery store nearby is a great benefit. By the time I get to the store they have filled a cart with a week’s worth of really wonderful great stuff. Where’s the fruit, wine, cheese and M&M’s I want to know. It’s getting dark as we haul our loot across the street and down the long floating walkway to the boat. It’s never boring at a moorage, there is always someone to talk to, some weird strange floating craft to look over, something in the water to check out. We finally get everything packed away, “Windsong” is sitting much lower in the water, the children have staked out their over lapping territories, the moorage has become quiet, and we can hear muted conversation drifting across the calm water. It’s time to open a bottle of wine and relax in the cockpit, “no I say” you can’t have a coke, as I pull out the cork.
Morning comes early for me. As I wake up I think once again of a quote I read that went, “All boats under fifty feet are designed for just two people” and I think to add “and only if the two people are a couple.” I slide the hatch open to see, not sunshine, but fog, which means grab a coat, everything is wet and cold. Hopefully this is the last time I walk up the ramp today. Inside the Safeway is a Starbucks, where I purchase two steaming cups off strong black coffee. I really, really, don’t like Starbucks coffee. A baker’s dozen donuts to go, and I’m back at the boat with breakfast. A quick final check of boat systems and I cast off, Linda is up, Jaiden and Kailey are still asleep; or at least they pretend to be asleep, the idling diesel motor is noisy, bangs, shakes and rattles everything within its reach. Windsong moves effortlessly through the still water leaving no wake, at 1450 rpm the motor is smooth and without vibration, time for coffee and donuts. Roche Harbor is about 26 miles, six or seven hours motoring, even longer, or not even possible if we sail. Today is the 3rd of July and we plan to spend the night at Jones Island Marine Park. Normally sailboat travel in the San Juan’s involves planning your trip around constantly changing tides and currents, which make a big difference in the time it takes to get somewhere and the fuel you use. But for us, this is the second day of our vacation and we’re heading out regardless of current. Almost immediately we are swept into the outgoing tidal current and are whisked along at twice our normal speed. Ah, good planning skipper. The fog is limiting our visibility as we cut across Rosario Strait heading for Thatcher Pass. We don’t have radar and I don’t want to be near any ferries so I take a somewhat northerly course. Of course now the current is pulling us sideways right into where I don’t want to be. More good planning skipper. We have a reliable GPS that will help keep us off the rocks. The fog is pea soup now, visibility is only a hundred feet or less. Just three or four times the length of the boat. We are essentially running blind. As we approach Thatcher Pass I maneuver very close to the invisible shore. Everything is white and I am dripping wet from condensing fog. What a great trip. We are constantly monitoring the depth sounder and GPS, staying in shallow water we work our way further into the pass. The boat is moving slow as we feel our way along. I’m glad the current is against us now or we would be pushed along faster than we could stop or turn should we need to. Our senses are acutely tuned to the situation at hand, I know the ferries can’t come this close to shore, my worry is other nuts like us groping blindly along. If we encounter a boat moving fast we will collide before we can take action. Suddenly the fog begins turning more white and bright, it is hurting our eyes. In a matter of a few feet we slip into a bright sunny day. Visibility is unlimited, we are a few hundred feet offshore. (too close)
The rest of the way to Jones Island is pretty routine. We pass by Friday Harbor, steer clear of several ferries, and lots of boats. All of Jones Island is a Washington State Park, and my favorite place to visit.
The cove is protected, the dock is long enough for six or so boats, and there’s plenty of room to anchor. On shore the deer are friendly and some will let you pet them. There are campsites and fire pits, running water, toilets, trails. Roche Harbor is just a short ways further, we will leave around noon tomorrow, I want to get there in time to claim a good spot to anchor, and then dinghy to shore to visit the sculpture garden. The flag ceremony will be at sundown, for several years I have wanted to be at the flag lowering and watch the color guard. I know they fire a cannon as part of the ceremony. We are in luck, a boat is pulling away from the dock as we enter the cove at Jones, Minutes later, “Windsong” ghosts up to the only spot available and we toss our lines to willing helpers on the dock. We are set for the night. Jaiden and Kailey head for some tide pools still exposed from low water.
Linda and I take off on the trail across the island, we see several deer in the woods. The campground on the other side of the island is used mostly by kayakers because it has no dock and the cove is not very big or protected. Sometimes we see groups huddled behind tarps trying to get out of the wind. We wonder if they know that they can paddle around to the other side where there is no wind at all and lots of great campsites. We pick a hand full of apples from the small orchard and walk back into the woods planning to feed the deer. The apples are not ripe, they are small and very hard. I’m not so sure they like them this early. As we walk back towards the cove we try to hand feed a deer but it shies away. I leave some cut up apple pieces on a log. The next day I see the apple pieces are still untouched, the raccoons must not be fond of tart fruit either. Sorry guys, All I have on the boat are M&M’s and chips. Jaiden and Kailey are busy on shore with some new friends, this is a good time to do some reading. Tonight we have a campfire in one of the empty campsites and then sleep comes easy for everyone, it has been really exhausting doing nothing all day. In the morning I want to sleep in but the desire for our own coffee gets me up and soon we have our drip coffee maker happily sitting on the burner. It seems to take forever for the 12 cups to drip into the pot. At home we have a timer and the coffee is ready when I get up. This camping is cruel. Finally cup in hand I walk down the dock, other boaters are up and about, some are leaving for parts unknown. Some boat campers are on shore in tents. The dock has a spot designated for dinghies, used by boaters that are anchored. Dinghy docks never have enough room so boaters just tie their dinghies as best they can. Windsong is tied up in a 30 minute parking/loading zone between the hours of 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. It’s getting close to 8:30 and one of my crew is nagging me to do something. Luckily the boat in front of us soon prepares to leave and as he pulls away from the dock I simply pull Windsong forward to the newly vacant space. “Happy?” I say to the crew. Now we can park for 14 days.
Today is the fourth of July, Roche Harbor is just a short distance from Jones Island. I’m sure that boats are already arriving at Roche by the hundreds, some will have reservations at the dock made a year in advance. The overnight fee is $1.50 per foot. Windsong would cost $45 per day but there’s not a chance in the world that space is available. Our plan is to anchor as close as possible so rowing the dinghy is not too hard or far. It’s time to go I decide, everyone that needs to go ashore better get going, we need to leave. Suddenly I’m in a rush, the anxiety of not knowing our accommodations at Roche has got me tensed up. This is not why I go boating. I’ve checked my current charts and tide predictions, but once again it doesn’t matter which way the water flows, were on a mission, a quest. Hurry up, lets go. We must get to Roche Harbor and stake out our place to watch the fireworks, then go ashore for the flag ceremony. Soon enough Windsong floats across the shallow short cut on the east side of Pearl Island and we get a full view of the bay at Roche. Wow, what a sight, boats are everywhere. There must be a billion dollars worth of RV’s floating around us. I spot some Ocean Alexander yachts that I think sell for a million. (Years later I find out $15-20 million is more like it)
We see a motorized barge anchored with some warning buoys around it. That must be where the fireworks will be launched after dark tonight. We slowly motor around taking stock of what is before us. I see to the left of the massive rows of docks several lines of boats rafting. There is a raft of about fifteen power boats lashed tight together, several rafts of three or four sailboats. Power boats and sail boats aren’t rafting together, it’s almost as if they don’t like each other. Dinghies are going to and fro, some fast some slow, many are overloaded to the point of ridiculous At the end of one long raft is a gap about one hundred feet wide and then lots of individual boats anchored. It’s perfect for us. All the boats in this tight area are anchored fore and aft to keep them in line and from swinging into each other. We lower our plow anchor about seventy five feet in front of where we want to be and slowly back up in our spot paying out the anchor line as we go.
At the right point I cleat the line hard and keep powering back setting the anchor by forcing the plow point into the bottom. When Windsong shudders to a stop I give the throttle a little boost to make sure were dug in well. While I hold the boat in reverse keeping her in place, Kailey pushes off in the dinghy with a folding grapple anchor and a floating yellow line. I instruct her to paddle to shore and wedge the anchor between some large boulders. We now have secure lines out the front and out the back.
After turning off the motor it’s a simple matter to pull the boat forward with the anchor line until we are in line with all the other boats. And then taking up the slack at the rear to make sure we don’t move sideways. This is how all the boats in the line are anchored, there are so many yellow lines going to shore it would be impossible to paddle a dinghy behind the boats without losing your head. In front of the line of boats is a clear unobstructed passageway with a steady stream of dinghies and yachts moving back and forth from the resort. We have about fifty feet on each side of us to the next boats. I motion a hello gesture to one group and get a resounding “Having a great party, do you need a drink” response. The response from the guy in the stinkpot on the other side isn’t friendly, he acts like we invaded his space and thinks sailboats should be sunk. Kailey ties the dinghy to our swim platform and we are set for another night, or so I think.
On shore at Roche Harbor are restaurants, a well stocked grocery, half a dozen sidewalk booths selling local artist creations, snacks and ice cream. There are hiking trails, a swimming pool, and flower gardens that wedding groups use. A short hike up the hill takes you to the grass airplane landing strip and a forty acre sculpture garden. We all pile into the dinghy and paddle off. The dinghy dock at the main moorage is full so we head for the little dock by the swimming pool. On shore we are just in time to watch the blind dinghy race. I wish we would have been earlier to join in, it looks like a lot of fun. The “Blind Dinghy Race” has two people in each dinghy, the one paddling is blindfolded the other one yells directions. All the racers start at a open stretch of dock and paddle away when the start gun fires. They paddle under an overhead walkway lined with spectators. The racers try to avoid the pilings and then turn around and come back to the start dock. Oars are flying, people are screaming, "left, left no the other left, now right, right" dinghies are colliding. Someone eventually claims the prize. A little later in the afternoon is a children’s only, balloon capture. All the participants and their dinghies are in a small area surrounded by docks and cheering parents. At the start a large quantity of big balloons is dumped into the open water and the children try to collect as many as possible into their boats. The one with the most is the winner, but all the children receive prizes. Pandemonium ensues and the balloon capture quickly deteriorates into a free for all with several kids going over the side trying to get balloons. Even in July only the most hearty and fearless swim in the cold San Juan waters.
Eventually we stock up at the grocery store, buy some ice and head for the boat to have dinner. As daylight begins to slip away we are entertained by three Bald Eagles perched in the trees on shore behind our boats. The Eagles noiselessly glide down and snatch fish from the water and then with a few powerful wing beats are back in the trees. Repeatedly these majestic birds dodge dozens of taut yellow lines to grab a quick bite. Not once did I see an Eagle tangle with a line.
In about thirty minutes the Roche Harbor staff will be lowering the flags and firing the cannon. Several times in past years circumstances or poor planning have caused me to miss the ceremony, finally the stars have aligned for me, and on the fourth of July at that. This is a great trip. The kids will stay on the boat while Linda and I paddle ashore, I’m in the cockpit anxiously waiting to leave. When I look over at the unfriendly boat I sense that it looks different, it is about thirty five feet long and fifteen feet tall at the flying bridge, I’m sure it gives the owner a sense of power looking down on our puny boat. The wind has been steadily increasing for the past hour and I suspect this boat is catching the wind and straining at the anchor lines which would move him a little closer to us. I ask Linda, ”do you think that boat is getting closer?” As I’m watching I become sure it is half the distance it was. Now I know for sure, we have a problem, the boat is only ten feet away. There is nothing I can do. The other boats anchor has broken out and it is dragging into us, the last ten feet closes rapidly and he is against us. I hold him off long enough to grab a fender and place it between us saving us both from damage. I’m banging on his hull with my fist trying to get their attention, but Linda tells me she saw them all leave earlier.
This is not good. Our ground tackle can’t hold a twenty thousand plus pound boat caught sideways in a rising wind. His surface area alone is probably greater than all our sails. I know our 5/8” nylon anchor line will hold, but our 35 pound plow could break out at any second. Then I glance at our braided yellow stern line, oh boy, it is stretched to the breaking point. It is so tight it is only half the diameter it’s supposed to be. The line was never intended to take this kind of load. I had bought an inexpensive floating line for dinghy work, not this. The wind is picking up, if our line parts or anchor breaks free were going to have two boats crashing into the line of rafted boats on the other side of us. I yell over to the rafting good time party people and tell them "I have a serious problem, soon to become their problem too." They immediately jump into a couple inflatable dinghies with outboards and begin pushing against the wayward captainless yacht relieving the tension on Windsong. Kailey gets in our dinghy while I untie our yellow stern line and hand it to her with instructions to paddle towards shore making sure to keep herself and the line out of the way.
I start the motor and weigh anchor when I hear "ka-boom" as the cannon roars and the color guard completes the flag ceremony on shore, Rats, I missed it again.
Meanwhile, the boys in the inflatable dinghies have boarded the runaway wind blown boat and found the ignition keys. They start the engine, raise the useless weed and mud coated anchor and motor away with the dinghies following. Once they clear out, I circle Windsong around and anchor back in the same spot, only this time there is lots more room without the big boat. Kailey rows the stern line over and we are back in business.
The party boys return in their inflatable dinghies minus the big boat. Curious, I ask them, “What did you do with the boat?” They said, "We took it to the customs dock and tied it to the red painted area marked customs only”
We never saw the boat or the less than friendly skipper again. Pretty soon a sailboat anchors in the now vacant space beside us and rows a stern line back to shore. Life has returned to normal, Linda and I decide not to go ashore since we had missed the flag ceremony once again. The fireworks would be starting soon and we didn’t want to miss them, after all we have a front row seat.
FYI, a year or so later, but not on the fourth, I finally was able to watch a flag ceremony, the cannon firing took me by surprise. Later that evening a couple got married and then jumped off the high dock in their wedding clothes. What a great trip again.