In Which Paquita and James Nearly Circumnavigate San Juan Island
Greetings, readers of Paquita’s blog! This is James, writing a guest entry. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the lucky guy who gets to cohabitate with your usual authoress.
We arrived in Anacortes when the charter company opened, and took care of the necessary paperwork to charter the tiny, tiny boat we had reserved. Now, every other time I’ve chartered a sailboat, the company has wanted to see some sort of sailing credential. US Sailing, American Sailing Association, maybe a Captain’s license with a sail endorsement… something to ensure they aren’t handing their expensive boat over to an incompetent boob who will drunkenly run it aground the minute they leave the marina. This time, however, the charter company apparently decided to waive that formality. Possibly because we had brought literally everything but our own boat. We immediately began loading the 22-foot boat with three dock carts full of gear, including (but not limited to): our own charts, current tables, compass, GPS, radio, a leadline, PFDs, foul weather gear, an EIGHT-FOOT INFLATABLE DINGHY WITH OARS, a crab trap, and a propane barbecue grill. Apparently we made an impression?
Paquita at the helm in Rosario Strait
Anacortes to Friday Harbor
We left Anacortes, sailed across Rosario Strait, through Thatcher Pass, skirted the northern tip of Lopez Island, and arrived at the first destination on our itinerary: Friday Harbor. We chose Friday Harbor as our first stop for three reasons: (1) It is the largest town in the San Juans, with the most stores and facilities in case we needed to buy anything we forgot. (2) In the event that we had any problems anchoring the boat, or living on the boat at anchor, Friday Harbor offered the most alternatives. (3) This was the evening of the first Republican primary debate, and if we got there early enough, there was the off-chance that we could find a bar in which to watch the latest developments in the slow-motion train wreck that is Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Sadly, we had mostly light winds during the crossing, forcing us to motorsail for much of the way, and we finally anchored in a little cove at the northern end of the harbor after the debate was already over.
‘Recess’ at anchor in Friday Harbor
Anchoring our tiny boat was an exercise in traditional simplicity. First of all, raising and lowering the anchor was done entirely by hand, no windlass required (+1 for tiny boats, if we’re keeping score). Also, as the boat had no electronic depth sounder (or electronics of any kind, for that matter), we determined the depth of the water the old-fashioned way: by “heaving the lead”. That is, casting a weight on the end of a line into the water until it touched the bottom, and measuring the depth using knots or other marks on the line. I am explaining it here, because based on the looks we received from the other boats at anchor, this procedure is totally unfamiliar to modern boaters. This is the way mariners have “sounded the depths” from antiquity through most of the 20th century. It was once so ubiquitous, its terminology of “marks and deeps” has given us common English expressions like “deep six”, and Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym “Mark Twain”. Now, apparently, a boat using a sounding lead is such a pitiful sight that other boaters would yell out to us what they thought the sounding was. Sorry, friend, I trust my leadline more than your memory. I’ll just be over here, keeping maritime tradition alive.
James inflates the dinghy, after using his leadline to feel smugly superior to other boaters
After setting the anchor, we inflated our dinghy (which, being almost half as big as the sailboat, completely filled the cockpit when inflated), and rowed to the marina’s dinghy dock. Almost everything around the marina was either way too expensive or already closed, so we had dinner at a combined Chinese restaurant/pizza parlor/bar, and then rowed back to the boat to settle in for our first night aboard.
Friday morning in Friday Harbor
In the morning, we decided that our explorations of Friday Harbor the previous evening had not done it justice, and we resolved to row back ashore and look around a bit more. Also, we discovered that the boat didn’t have an anchor light, so we needed to buy a portable lantern at the Friday Harbor West Marine. We explored a good deal more of the town, had breakfast at a little bakery away from the touristy main drag, and bought a few more provisions at a grocery store.
In hindsight, I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to take the dock cart out of the marina
We returned to the boat and weighed anchor, heading south into San Juan Channel. Over the next few days, our plan was to check out the major sites in the San Juan National Historical Park, nearly circumnavigating San Juan Island in the process. Our first stop: American Camp, so named because it was the site of the American military encampment during the joint occupation of the island by the Americans and the British between 1859 and 1872, during a boundary dispute known as the “Pig War”.
Permit me to elaborate. [Pushes glasses up nose, preparing to nerd out]
I think I’m in love with this map. Possibly because I live in the “Disputed Area”, and the Mexican border is just south of Oregon.
First, some background. In 1818, the US and Great Britain agreed to jointly occupy the ‘Oregon Country’—west of the Rocky Mountains, between Mexico (that is, California) to the south and Russian Alaska to the north. In 1844 James K. Polk, ‘Napoleon of the Stump’, was elected president on a platform of annexing the whole goddamned thing (“Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”), but he wussed out and settled for a border along the 49th parallel. He still invaded Mexico, though. Manifest Destiny!
Anyway, the border was established by the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which provided that the border would continue westward along the 49th parallel “to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca’s Straits, to the Pacific Ocean”. Trouble was, the region hadn’t been adequately surveyed, so the framers of the treaty had no idea that there was this great big archipelago—the San Juan Islands—between the mainland and Vancouver Island, forming several possible channels that could be the maritime boundary. When they realized this oversight, the British insisted that Rosario Strait (east of the San Juans) was obviously the channel intended by the treaty, and the Americans maintained that Haro Strait (west of the San Juans) was clearly the intended boundary. This left the San Juan Islands in dispute, but that didn’t stop American settlers from moving there, and the British Hudson’s Bay Company from setting up a sheep ranch.
Blue – American Claim
Red – British Claim
Green – Possible Compromise
They coexisted peacefully for a few years, neither side recognizing the validity of each others’ claims to the islands, until a large black pig caused an international incident. In June 1859, an American farmer became so frustrated by the pig eating the potatoes in his garden that he shot it. The pig was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and British authorities threatened to arrest the farmer. The 18 Americans living on San Juan Island petitioned for military assistance, and Captain George Pickett (best known for his ill-fated charge at Gettysburg a few years later) was dispatched to the Island with a company of infantry. Meanwhile, Governor James Douglas (“Father of British Columbia”) was angered by the presence of the American troops, and sent warships to drive them out. Though the Americans were overwhelmingly outnumbered, Captain Pickett refused to budge, saying he would “make a Bunker Hill of it” if necessary. Captain Geoffrey Hodges, in command of the British ships, recognized that Pickett might be just be crazy, stupid, or ambitious enough to actually do that, and chose not to land his marines.
The Americans reinforced their position over the next two months, landing almost 500 troops, and installing 14 cannons and 8 naval guns in an earthen redoubt designed by 2Lt Henry M. Robert (who later achieved fame for his ‘Rules of Order’). Despite the Governor’s orders, the British chose not to land any troops. The British naval commander, Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, advised Governor Douglas that he simply would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Neither side fired a shot in anger, and before long the officers on both sides were attending church services together on the British warships, and sharing whiskey and cigars in the home of the aggrieved pig-owner.
View from Robert’s Redoubt. It’s a nice fortification, but you can tell his real passion was for parliamentary procedure.
However, when Washington and London received word of the situation, they were horrified that this frontier wackiness had brought them to the brink of war. President Buchanan dispatched General Winfield Scott, ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ himself, to negotiate on behalf of the United States. The two sides agreed to withdraw all of their reinforcements, leaving a garrison of no more than 100 troops apiece. They would jointly occupy the island until the territorial dispute was settled.
In March of the following year, the Royal Marines landed at Garrison Bay on the northwest coast of the Island and began settling in. They were well situated and well supplied, so before long, “English Camp” was a pretty nice place, with a formal garden and elegant hillside houses for the officers. In contrast, for the Americans, maintaining an outpost in the San Juans was a somewhat lower priority than that whole ‘Civil War’ thing we had going on, so it became a hardship post, with inadequate quarters and lousy food. It was a magnificent fighting position, very defensible and with a commanding view of the southern end of the island, but it was kind of a shitty place to live. There were several suicides, and the principal relief from boredom seems to have been visiting the forbidden town of Old San Juan in search of prostitutes and rotgut whiskey.
British ships anchored off San Juan Village, 1859
‘Recess’ anchored in roughly the same place
Friday Harbor to American Camp
We anchored in Griffin Bay, where British warships had anchored during the early days of the standoff, and beached our dinghy next to the Old Town Lagoon. Long since abandoned, only a handful of wooden planks suggest there were ever buildings here, let alone a town with saloons and bordellos. We walked along “4th of July Beach” (so named because the rival military camps would get together for fireworks, sports, and merriment on Independence Day and the Queen’s Birthday), and then hiked along a road up to the site of the American Camp. The view, especially from Robert’s redoubt, is spectacular. But even today, you can tell the place was kind of a windswept shithole.
Pictured: Windswept Shithole
We rowed back to our little boat, and checked our crab trap. To our delight, there were two big Dungeness crabs inside! Unfortunately, they turned out to be female, and were therefore illegal to take. We threw them back, baited the crab trap again, and grilled some sausages for dinner instead.
Sunset in Griffin Bay
Paquita contemplates 19th-century border disputes
I awoke before dawn to find the bay completely shrouded in fog. I had neglected to check the currents the previous evening, and realizing my error, I consulted our current atlas and saw that we needed to weigh anchor and leave IMMEDIATELY in order to avoid a big flood current in Cattle Pass. I roused Paquita and we hastily checked our crab trap, only to find the SAME TWO GODDAMNED FEMALE CRABS from the previous evening. I think female crabs have it figured out, and just raid crab traps with impunity whenever they find them.
We retrieved the anchor and were soon underway in the soupy fog. We couldn’t make out any of the island through the fog, so I manned the GPS and the air horn as Paquita steered by the compass.
Look at her! She’s like a sexy longshoreman
Despite some close calls with a few fishing boats, we made it through Cattle Pass and started working our way north into Haro Strait. The morning sun eventually burned away the fog, and the west side of San Jun Island came into view. This, we were told, was where the whales liked to hang out, but we never saw any. We entered Mosquito Pass (which, fortunately, did not live up to its name), and pulled into Garrison Bay around noon.
American Camp to English Camp, via Haro Strait
To our surprise, it was pretty crowded! American Camp had been nearly deserted, so we were expecting the other historical sites to be lightly trafficked as well. Not so, as it turned out. Maybe it’s because it was Saturday, or maybe it’s because English Camp is objectively a nicer place to visit, but the bay was positively full of boats. However, since our tiny boat had a draft of only 3 feet or so, we were able to drive straight past all the other boats and anchor in the shallows about 100 yards from the dinghy dock (+2 for tiny boats).
They had a dinghy dock!
After setting our crab trap and having lunch, we rowed over to explore.
Don’t move! You’ve got a flag stuck in your eye!
English Camp really is a neat little place. Since the Royal Marines had the luxury of choosing a site for quality of life, as opposed to military necessity, they took the time to find the best spot on the island. It had a deep, sheltered harbor, a beach for landing troops and supplies, a flat area ideal for a parade ground (which had already been cleared of trees by the Indian inhabitants), and a hillside with natural terraces for additional structures. There were two streams for fresh water, a peach orchard, and the bay was teeming with shellfish. Also, since the colonial government was at nearby Fort Victoria, they were well supplied. While the American Camp was a hardship post, English Camp was downright cushy, with officers bringing their families to stay in prim Victorian houses overlooking the formal garden. In the 12 years of joint occupation, the American Camp had 15 different commanders. The English Camp had only 2. No one wanted to leave.
North from Young’s Hill
Paquita and I hiked to the top of Young’s Hill, from which we could see the bay, the surrounding estuary, and across Haro Strait to Vancouver Island. On the way down, we stopped at a small cemetery, where 6 Royal Marines and one British civilian are buried. Even here, the difference between the American and English camps is plain: while the American camp was plagued with illnesses and suicides, 4 of the 6 Royal Marines buried here died by drowning.
After the Civil War, the US and Great Britain resumed negotiating the border dispute, but still could not reach an agreement. In 1871, the issue was put before Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia for arbitration. The Kaiser appointed a commission to study the question, and after a year of deliberation, he sided with the United States and declared that the boundary would be Haro Strait (possibly because it is wider and deeper, or possibly just to spite his cousin, Queen Victoria). In 1872, The Marines withdrew and joint occupation ended, bringing the “Pig War” to a close with only one shooting casualty: the pig.
San Juan Island National Historical Park is actually the only park in the United States commemorating the peaceful resolution of a dispute.
Paquita and I rowed back to our boat in the afternoon, and found 3 crabs in our crab trap: 2 females and a male. We measured the male’s width, and he was just barely above the legal limit for Washington, so into the cookpot he went. Not without a fight, though. He was pretty feisty, and tried to cut the fuel line of our outboard motor with his pincers when we picked him up.
Pictured: Feisty Crab and Fuel Line
We dined on crab meat in one of the most tranquil settings I had ever laid eyes upon.
Holy shit, this photo
The next morning, we were headed north—Way north, up to the Boundary Islands—so we thought it might be a good idea to restock our fuel, food, and ice. On our way out of Garrison Bay, we made a little detour over to the resort town of Roche Harbor.
English camp had been a bit crowded, but Roche Harbor was an absolute madhouse. Boats of all sizes were coming and going, threading their way through the densely packed anchorage. We topped up at the fuel dock, then tied the boat up next to the customs dock to venture ashore. Walking up the dock, it became apparent that a significant fraction of the marina is reserved for enormous multimillion-dollar yachts. I’m not even sure the marina has slips for regular-sized boats (It probably does, but they must be tucked away out of sight somewhere, so the ultra-rich don’t have to look at them). Since the principal industry in Roche Harbor seems to be separating millionaire yachtsmen from their money, we didn’t stay long, and sailed out into President Channel, where a flood current urged us on to our next destination: Sucia Island.
English Camp to Sucia Island, via Roche Harbor
Paquita at the helm yet again.
Stay tuned for Part III!