After our excellent evening in Friday Harbor on Tuesday and the freshest salmon we have ever enjoyed, we had to get to Bellingham on Wednesday. Our new dinghy, which would replace our dearly-departed 10-year-old dinghy, would be delivered on Thursday and all the associated bits-and-pieces would be installed. More on that later. For now, we had to get the boat the thirty miles or so in some snotty weather. A good opportunity to see how she handled. Shakedown, Part 3.
The forecast was for 15 to 25 out of the southeast. Most of the trip would be roughly east-bound, with a variety of course changes as we made our way among the islands, then across Rosario Strait and up Bellingham Bay.
It was pleasant enough to start, with the southeasterly breeze just beginning to fill in. Drizzle as usual, with heavy cloud cover. We ambled out, waving a final thank you to Scott and Ellen who were tied up behind us. Flat water, eight knots of breeze, an easy eight to nine knot cruise speed, and variable current. Ferries going various ways. A few pleasure boats. Even a sea plane.
We had been having some trouble with our autopilot in the previous couple of days. The heading kept getting out of alignment and the steering, under autopilot, would go from relatively normal straight line to unreliably wonky. Today, we started out with a heading line more then 20 degrees right of course. We could tweak this manually as we had on previous days, but today we decided to leave it alone to see what would happen.
The autopilot seemed to figure it out after ten minutes or so and kept us on a straight line for a bit, albeit indicating our bow pointing at least 20 degrees to the right of where it was actually pointing (yes, we know the difference between heading and COG). Then the autopilot pretty much lost it going through Upright Channel, sending us confidently towards the evergreens and rocky shores of Shaw Island. I corrected it manually and got it back on our preferred course line several times.
By the time we got into Lopez Sound, the breeze had picked up significantly and the sea state was getting feisty. The auto-pilot became more and more wonky, drifting as much as 180 feet left or right of the courseline, and steering the wrong way to correct. Very confused. We also started getting error messages for rudder control speed. Finally, about half way across Lopez towards Peavine Pass, I gave up nursing it and started steering manually. The breeze was up to a solid 20 knots on the starboard bow, there was a +/- 2-foot chop, and the current against us increased to more than two knots.
The boat began to get tossed around a bit. We increased the throttle to 10 to 11 knots of boat speed, eight over the bottom. The motion steadied immediately. She plowed right through the chop without hesitation and with very solid, steady feel, but began taking some pretty thick sheets of water over the starboard bow. Windshield wipers, please. Yes, a little faster, please.
We now had the dogs’ full attention. Pepper was staring at me, while Mattie was pacing across the pilot house and beginning to quiver. As we got under the lee of Blakey Island the water flattened out considerably, but the current was swirling and pushing down at us between two and four knots. More throttle, at 12 knots she got through the worst of the eddies and entered the channel itself. There was a uniform flow of three to four knots against us, and very calm. Everything felt strong, confident and capable. (Except the dogs.)
Two good tests were yet to come.
The first was Rosario Strait. As we emerged from Peavine Pass, the wind and seas kicked up significantly. We were soon seeing a solid 30 knots (true) on our wind instruments, and it was essentially on our beam, eventually moving to our quarter as we crossed the Strait. The waves were coming in on the starboard bow, then beam. The charts were telling us to expect a full three knots of ebb current (against the wind). We saw between three and four knots, based on our boat speed vs SOG. Guessing wave height was difficult, as I’m more accustomed to assessing ocean swells than interior waters surface chop, but I’d guess we were looking at three feet, with the occasional four footer. We were glad to have them behind us rather than on the bow.
This is where we really began to play with boat speed. I was hand steering also, as the pilot was unreliable. It seemed to be a matter of matching speed and hull pressure to the height and frequency of the waves. I could generally find a happy place that would keep the boat steady and comfortable for a while. Every now and then a little more or less throttle would help, but for the most part, not a lot of tweaking was necessary. We felt very good about the handling and sea keeping.
Conditions changed as we passed north of Sinclair Island and had to push to weather, south and east around Lummi Island. We had the southeast blow full in our face, with a long fetch down Bellingham Channel and lower Bellingham Bay. The wipers were on high as sheets of water doused the pilot house. Here we had to back off the throttle considerably to keep her from bashing into the chop. She continued to push forward nicely, but at eight to nine knots rather than eleven to twelve. I was still hand steering, and every now and then it was helpful to pull back on the throttle to let an especially large or steep wave slip under her.
Once again, with the right combination of power and angle, the boat simply felt strong and comfortable. The dogs weren’t very happy but there wasn’t any panic. Pepper simply gutted it out, as he tends to do. Mattie tried to dig herself into a dark hole, poor little thing.
We tucked inside Viti Rocks to get a bit of lee, then wrapped around the south end of Lummi Island and inside Eliza to get yet another break. This allowed us more throttle, and we began the final run in to Bellingham.
It was at this last segment that I began to get engine noise fatigue. There was still enough chop crossing Bellingham Bay, running slightly off the wind, that we really wanted throttle, probably 11 to 12 knots of boat speed, to keep the ride civilized. The ride was fine, but the decibels began to chafe. I think we were roughly three hours into the trip at this point, with two hours at over 10 knots of boat speed. This tells me that a running time of two hours in the pilot house at more than 11 knots will induce fatigue. Naturally, on the flybridge in fair weather the margin will expand, but inside, I’m guessing we should try to keep higher-speed runs to three hours or less.
We slipped inside the eastern basin of Squalicom Marina without incident and dropped her easily alongside a transient dock. It had been a successful run. Esmeralde did great. She exceeded our expectations with respect to handling snotty inland stuff. But we were still happy to be securely tied to a protected dock.