Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cruise to Blake Island

Native American carvings adorn the doors of the longhouse at Blake Island

Cruising from an urban lake to an island getaway

My wife, Nola, and I are so lucky to live in the Puget Sound area. Where else can you start a sailboat cruise on an urban, fresh water lake surrounded by commercial shipyards and multi-million dollar floating homes, pass through an industrial ship canal, drop down a set of locks, and cruise out into the saltchuck where dozens of pristine islands and harbors await within a half-day sail?

We started out from Seattle's Lake Union, home of the Duck Dodge sailboat races, and headed out the Lake Washington Ship Canal. As many times as I have gone through the canal, I see something new every time. This time, we saw the classic, 100-foot, fantail motor yacht Thea Foss hauled out in drydock for a refit. Thea Foss was designed by Seattle naval architecht Ted Geary and built in the 1920s for Hollywood star John Barrymore. Thea is now the corporate yacht of Foss Tugs and its parent company, Saltchuck. Nola and I had the pleasure of a dinner cruise aboard her at the invitation of my good friend and former boat partner Jack Martin, a retired officer of a Saltchuck company, Totem Ocean Freight. Elegant is an understatement for this yacht.

M.V. Thea Foss in drydock on the Lake Washington Ship Canal

This Lake is too high. Let's lower it about twenty feet.

Seattle's founders had great vision for their growing city. If they didn't like a major natural landmark, they just changed it. They sluiced Denny Hill into Elliott Bay to form Harbor Island. Then, they decided they wanted to connect the fresh water lakes with Puget Sound, so they dug a ship canal and built a set of locks in 1917. To reduce how much water needs to be pumped out of the locks to lower boats down to the water level of the Sound, they decided to drain Lake Washington about 20 feet. Problem solved!

Modern day boaters sometimes refer to the locks as "divorce alley" because it can be somewhat stressful to maneuver through them. Couples are often heard to be giving unwanted advice to each other at very high decibel levels.

Nola and I have passed through the locks so many times we have it down. We rafted up to a big power boat as the lock doors closed, waited as the water level dropped about 15 feet, then the lockmaster gave us the nod to cast off after the doors opened with a big rush of water.

As soon as we cleared the shallow channel outside the locks in Shilshole Bay, we hoisted our sails and set a course for Blake Island, about ten miles to the south. The wind died, so we motor sailed for a while, making frequent changes of clothing as light rains fell then subsided. The wind picked back up, so we sailed the last half of the trip and were lucky to get one of the last slips at the marina on Blake Island.

Our sailboat Sublime at the Blake Island Marina, dwarfed by the other yachts as usual

So near, yet it feels so far away

Blake Island is a Washington State Park. It is blanketed with lush forests that are criss-crossed by hiking trails. Otters and raccoons play on the sandy beaches. The deer that roam the island have grown indifferent to their two-legged visitors.

Walking on the beach, it seems like the island could be far, far away, until you look to the east and see the skyscrapers in downtown Seattle.

The city seems so far away from the beaches of Blake Island

Tillicum Village

One of the attractions of Blake Island is Tillilcum Village, where visitors from all over the world cross the Sound on tour boats to enjoy a feast of salmon in an Indian longhouse and take in a Native American dance performance.

The dance performance was produced by Greg Thompson, who is better know for his extravagant topless reviews in Las Vegas. In this production, the women remain fully clothed while some of the men bare their chests.

The longhouse and totem poles at Tillicum Village

Nola and I enjoyed a dinner of barbecued bratwurst on our boat, then settle into our comfy cushions in the sunny cockpit to read books with absolutely no socially redeeming qualities. Bliss. It was the solstice, so we had plenty of light to read outside until well after nine o'clock.

We slept like babies that night, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of the boat. After after a breakfast of French toast, we took our cairn terrier Ella for one last walk ashore, and headed back home.

We were able to sail all the way back to the locks, with a gentle tailwind pushing us at a leisurely pace. The sun was peaking out from behind puffy with clouds, and we saw the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east. Mount Rainier was too shy to come out that day.

When we got to the small locks, the boat that entered just ahead of us was a whopping big power catamaran that was just barely able to squeeze in. Had we been in the large locks, the cat would have fit with room to spare. The large locks are the second largest in the world, next to the locks in the Panama canal. Battleships can sail through the locks into Lake Washington.

This power catamaran was so wide it just barely fit into the small locks

Going through the Locks on the way home

Open sesame!

As we motored through the ship canal on our way back to Lake Union, our mast fit under all the bridges except one. We blew one prolonged blast and one short blast on our air horn and the bridge tender raised the Fremont bridge for us. It gives a skipper a feeling of temporary omnipotence to have the power to raise a bridge and stop traffic for several blocks in either direction. Once, I waved politely to the waiting motorists and they responded with a one-fingered salute telling us we were number one.

Sublime passing under the Fremont bridge

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