Living and Boating in the Pacific Northwest
After Growing Up in Georgia. (What a Difference!)
By Missy Watts
If you want to be appreciated as a thunderstorm you just need to be a thunderstorm in the south Puget Sound. I was spending the night on my boat in the marina the other night when a thunderstorm blew through. My fellow boaters at the marina were hooting and hollering and celebrating with each lightning flash and clap of thunder like it was the Fourth of July. I have never in my life seen people so enjoy a storm. And why not? Here in the southern reaches of Puget Sound we hardly ever experience thunder and lightning. There is no worry of a hurricane taking shape behind the storm clouds. Unlike the coast of Georgia where I grew up, heavy rain, lightning and even high wind is somewhat benign in that way. I sat back comfortably on my deck and watched it all unfold. Thirty minutes after the rain came, I heard an intermittent tapping on the shed roof over my boat. It seemed odd that the gulls had resumed their clam-cracking so soon after the rain abated. Soon… hail the size of the small gumballs you used to get from vending machines! Boaters were staring from under the covered docks with their mouths open, hail is an odd occurrence in July.
When my husband and I moved to Olympia, Washington about 15 years ago, we based our decision to relocate here on a laundry list of lifestyle requirements. For me, being proximal to saltwater was number one on that list. Having grown up on the coast of Georgia, I was used to the smell and the feel of a saltwater community. And though I had not yet owned a boat of my own when we moved here, it was in my short-range plans. We settled in here and were able to enjoy boating, though infrequently, with friends who owned boats. I don't remember my reaction to my first boat outing on the Puget Sound. I don't remember if it was made by ferry or private vessel. I do know this: boating here in the Puget Sound is completely different than boating I experienced in Georgia, Louisiana or Florida. This part of the interior Northwest offers protected waters, mild weather, and most notably, very little sun.
I grew up in the Golden Isles of Georgia, in the very flat salt marshes and rivers that wind through the barrier islands and mainland. As a child I fished with my dad in the inlets between the islands, wading chest high with a string of caught fish tied to my waist, fearlessly fending off the occasional tiny sand shark that would try to snack on my catch. As a teen I skied in the brackish rivers watching my friends on the boat for the international alligator sign, which involves using one's arms to imitate snapping alligator jaws--a sign to remain upright, no matter what. After school each day my friends and I would head to the beach club for some afternoon sailing on borrowed catamarans. Sometimes we would capsize, landing in the sail or in the warm but murky Atlantic. I grew up swimming in these waters, always a little nervous about what I couldn't see under the water, but being chased out only by the afternoon thunderstorm, jellyfish, or very rarely a gray fin (which always turned out to be a dolphin).
Swimming here in Puget Sound is pretty much out of the question. The few times we have attempted a dunk were only in desperation to escape the heat of a freakishly hot summer day. The water here stays cold all year and is about as clear as a cup of coffee most days. The temperature in the summer months rarely reaches into the upper 80's. Because of the constant rain, power washers are standard equipment for both boat and home owners. Not kept undercover, a boat grows a furry coat of moss and mildew within a couple of months if left to nature. If you keep your boat in a boathouse, it is not unusual to arrive and find a weasel on board. Harbor seals abound and can be seen following boats, especially kayaks, around in coves and sunning themselves on any hard surface near the water, to include swim steps, kayaks and floating docks. Sea otters are our most amusing but infrequent visiting marine life, lolling on their backs or endlessly performing barrel rolls. There is no beaching of your craft for a short picnic, unless you don't mind gouging the bottom on the rocky shore, or being sucked into mud up to your thighs. That's if you can find a level shore, many times the shores are a vertical cliff offering no hope of a landing. Tidelands can be privately owned here in Washington, unlike other coastal states, which means you can't just bring your dinghy ashore on any old beach, or you could be trespassing on private land. But Washington likes its parks, so we have several along the water, and a state-owned island or two thrown in.
Boating culture is different here in the northwest too. In the Southeast there is a definite boater "look". My dad embodied it; Columbia shirt, khaki shorts, nautical alphabet web belt, deck shoes with no socks, a deep tan all year, and a baseball cap sporting the logo of a local marina or a golf club. Here your dock neighbor is likely to have dreadlocks and wear shorts year 'round with Teva sandals and socks. There is little of the marina culture I am used to from the South, at least down here in the bottom of Puget Sound. Perhaps up north in Bellevue and Seattle they have fancier marinas, but my marina hosts more live-aboards than not. Missing are the hearty hellos, unsolicited advice, and chatty fellow boaters/helpers I was accustomed to as a child, crusty old boat guys were my favorite. Seldom have people come running to help me dock, but I take that as a good sign. Though people tend to be more courteous in the Southeast, so are they possibly fewer endorse the idea that women should be boating about by themselves.
The weather here is extremely different from the Southeast, yet it is one of the reasons we settled here. There is a perpetual damp and drippy gloom for ten months out of the year, it’s true. But somehow that mild, gray pall becomes comforting. When the sun arrives in the late summer it is almost intimidating. It demands that you must immediately proceed outside and not come back in until it rains again. Its hard to work, to concentrate on anything other than the sun and how you can get out into it. Here the magical time to go boating is in June, if we get sun that early, when the snow is still on the Olympic mountains, which stand like a row of sharp teeth surrounding the sound to the northwest. The joke goes that the sun will start shining on the 5th of July, and that has proven true most years that we have lived here. In Northwest parlance a very clear day is one on which the mountain is "out". That's Mt. Rainier, shockingly huge and covered with snow almost all year and strangely visible from most everywhere. Yes I miss being able to boat and be on the water for 11 of 12 months as is possible in Georgia. But, I don't miss the stifling heat, steam-room humidity, mosquitoes, hurricanes, or even the sun of the South. My family in the South disagrees. My grandmother from Georgia joined us for a holiday one May. We took her to the coast and I remember her horror at what we described as "the beach." She sat huddled in blankets in her chair in the gloom on the rocky beach while my acclimated children dug about in the muddy sand and chased each other with clammy sea whips. "Why would you EVER want to live here?" she implored.
I bought my first boat in remembrance of my father after he passed away two years ago. It was a long and arduous process that I did not enjoy. After an impulse purchase of a charming, locally made wooden boat that went terribly wrong, I zeroed in on vintage fiberglass boats. Ending the long search, I finally purchased a 27' 1967 Chris Craft Commander that was perfect in every way and 99% original. I quickly joined the Chris Craft Commander Club (CCCC) forum online and introduced my boat to the group, largely populated by owners in the Great Lakes region. They celebrated with me as I brought my little boat out of freshwater in Lake Washington near Seattle, to the salty brine of Puget Sound through the Ballard locks. Several commented on my misfortune of being a saltwater boater. The growth! The unrelenting salt air! What a terrible thing to treat a vintage boat to! Several also quietly mentioned their jealousy of the Northwest's temperate waters, abundant covered moorage and lessened UV damage. I had never thought of that… these guys are having to haul their boats in the winter or install bubblers to keep them from freezing in the frigid winters. My little boat sits snugly in her covered berth all year with hardly a worry about storms, hurricanes or freezing temperatures. There are Tsunamis I suppose…
My best Northwest boating experience so far happened last September. My best friend Pam and I had just returned from a cruise up Alaska's inside passage/ We were excited to see whales… tons of them, but from fourteen floors up on this ship they were only recognizable as whales by their spouting. We commented several times that the scenery was the same as Washington's, but with glaciers. Upon our return Pam and I set out for an overnight on the boat with my two teenagers. We caught a buoy off of state-owned Hope Island at the tip of the Steamboat Island peninsula. I was sitting on the deck having a glass of wine as the sun set, Pam was in the cabin playing cards with the kids. I heard a distinctive snorting-blowing noise in the water off the stern. "Hey! You guys get up here! I think there are whales breaching, or something!" One replied, "Sure Mom, have another glass of wine." I insisted they come up and not a second later we watched as several whales breached in unison, the moonlight shining on their backs, not 100 feet off the stern. It was silent but for the sound of their blowing, intimate and absolutely magical, just us and these huge animals in their natural habitat.
The next day found us headed north around the coast of Harstine Island through Pickering Passage. We saw a clutch of boats stopped near the tip of the island and I slowed and began charting a course through the boats. Pam wondered if they were all watching for the whales, which having ventured into this part of the Sound would have to turn around at some point and head back out. One woman in a small boat was wildly waving her arms at us. I cut the engine and not a moment later a huge Orca surfaced so close to the starboard side of the stern I could have reached out and touched it. I saw its eyeball, the size of a saucer. It LOOKED at me. We watched in awe as a pod of nine whales dove under our boat and breached just on the other side in a perfect symphony. We stood motionless and silent for several seconds after the encounter, the silence only broken by the woman in the near boat yelling and asking if we were OK and saying that she thought the whales were going to jump into the boat. And to think I had taken Pam out in the boat to take her mind off of her ex-husband's remarriage that day. I think we will both go to our graves thinking that was one of the best days of our life.
The South is beautiful, but the Northwest has amazed me with its hugeness, its greenness, its water, mountains and weather. The trees are towering, the ferns are the size of my car, the crabs are the size of my head, the shrimp are prawns, the whole of the coast reminiscent of the megafauna Pleistocene period even today. Its my home now, but my breath still catches at the scenery some days. I love it here and hope that everyone gets to experience it here once in their lives. I recently emailed the photos and videos of the whale encounter to my fellow Commander owners via the club website. Even from one of the more dedicated lake boaters I received an email, "Well, we don't get that in the lake!"