Sailing From Seattle To Langley

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Mooring the 25 foot sloop Suits Me in Seattle, my two co-owners and I had no problem finding new and interesting places to sail to around Puget Sound. But while we enjoyed sailing many destinations and back within an afternoon’s time, we always wanted to plan an overnight trip together to stretch our time and range together. Alas, we could never align our schedules to make it happen.

When a weekend suddenly opened up for me in September, I saw it as our last chance for the year and pitched it to the co-owners. Of course, both were out of town. Foolishly undeterred, I decided the small town of Langley would be the destination for not only the first overnight overnight outing on Suits Me, but my first time sailing single-handed as well.

S/V Suits Me, at home in Ballard, Seattle

Langley is a town I’d wanted to visit for a long time. Located on the lower limb of tall, skinny Whidbey Island, it faces east across Possession Sound to the city of Everett, about 20 miles north of Seattle. I called the Langley Marina in advance and reserved a slip for the night, planning to be comfortable with just my sleeping bag in the surprisingly roomy 1975 Lancer.

While it’s a short trip, with landmarks guiding you throughout its length, it comes with its share of challenges. The first is passing through the Ballard Locks.

The Hirram M. Chittenden (or just ‘Ballard’) Locks is a century-old locking mechanism, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow ships and running salmon easy transfer between the fresh waters of Lake Union, and the salty body of Puget Sound sitting several meters lower.

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On a good day passing through the Ballard Locks, you experience Seattle’s infrastructure and boating culture from a unique perspective, bantering with the fellow boaters while landing in the photos of any of its one million annual tourists.

On a bad day through ‘Divorce Alley’, you’re swept awash in strong currents and confusion with a flotilla of inexperienced boaters, their panics compounded by the beratements of the lockmasters.

Thankfully, my rainy 6:30 AM passing was too early for tourists and I didn’t spot a single other boat. I also had the help of Rusty, Suits Me’s previous owner, who offered to help me through the locks when I told him about my trip plan.

Once through, we slipped into Shilshole Marina where Rusty’s car was waiting, parted ways, and I set sail north on a starboard tack. The wind was steady and strong, and I was already soaking wet from the heavy rain.

Despite the winds, which I managed by sailing under the jib only, the water wasn’t too choppy and I was still confident in my course and decision. I had a paper cup of cold drip coffee in one hand, tiller in the other, when I got a call from the Langley Marina asking if I still planned to stop in for the night with regard to the incoming weather. In my last confident moment of the day, I assured them that I would arrive in 4-5 hours.

Things took a turn when, in an ill-fated tack, a heavy wind shifted and took over the jib mid-way through the maneuver. My working sheet was off of the winch, and with the wind ruthlessly smacking the jib about, I didn’t have the strength to pull it back in. I had to drop the sail.

Me, when I still thought this was a good idea

Releasing the jib brought its own set of new dangers and decision. Scrambling up to the mast by yourself, in rough weather and with no jackline, is dangerous already. Making matters worse was the rough water brought in by the heavier winds, which quickly rotated the unhelmed vessel and beat against her broadside, sending the boat to a rocking pitch. As quickly as I could, I stuffed the sail into the forward hatch and scrambled back to the tiller.

Once I could recover course, I dropped the outboard and pulled it awake. Still unstable between the waves, the prop would surface between wave hits, the engine belting a dry roar as the impeller gasped for water. When I was able to settle the ballast in the rough seas, I immediately had to scramble away again, this time into the cabin to turn on the bilge pump to expel the inches of water I’d taken on by this point.

While Suits Me kept a stable course for the remainder of the trip, between the still violent weather and the pounding that the boat took, I was shaken up for the rest of the sail. I finally felt relief when I radioed the Langley Marina, and was told they could see my mast coming around the corner.

Langley Marina, Suite Me in the center

The wind stopped just as I entered the marina and tied up Suits Me with the help of the dockmaster. It was 11 AM, exactly four hours after dropping off Rusty. I was tired, bloody, relieved and triumphant.

I walked five minutes to downtown Langley, seeing the gift shops, bakeries, and cafes busy with Saturday morning islander on this now mild afternoon. I stopped into a grocery store and picked up a bottle of wine to take home for my wife and a tall can of pilsner for myself to have at the boat. When I returned to the marina, I took one sip and sailed away again, this time to a three hour nap.

Overlooking Possession Sound from downtown Langley

When I awoke, the marina had a few new boats and people lingering about. I got up and chatted with a nice couple, Elizabeth and Arnie, about our respective experiences getting to Langley.

We made plans to have coffee together the next morning, said goodbye, and I headed back into town for dinner. I sat at the counter at Primo Bistro, where in addition to the conversation with locals, I enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, a slice of pizza, and a prosciutto salad. I headed back to the marina, called my wife, then crashed out on top of my sleeping bag.

Delicious pizza at Primo Bistro

I woke up at 8 AM the next morning to cool, calm air with fog so thick I couldn’t see out of the portlights. After joining Arnie and Elizabeth at their boat for coffee and some conversation, I headed back to pack up and wait for the fog to clear. I set my sights on home, the outboard puttering me all the way back to Seattle on a sunny, windless Sunday.

A foggy start to Sunday

I arrived at the locks single-handed and confident, perhaps hardened by my experience the day before, and passed through with ease to our marina at the other side. Days later, when I texted the co-owners to brief them about my solo trip through a small craft advisory, my friend asked “How many times did you say ‘oh sh*t I’m gonna die’?” I replied “Only once, but it lasted for four hours.”

Coming back through the Ballard Locks

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