A few weeks back, I shared a story called Lee Night that was, in part, about spending an evening watching boats go by our house. I wrote:
As boats float by the house, I can’t help but feel like I’m the creepy guy on the beach watching girls walk by. Every boat is different and interesting in myriad ways.
Now that Labor Day has passed and boating season is winding down, I’m taking an inventory of the interesting boats I’ve seen over the summer. After Lee Night, I admit I became a full-on boat creep, watching from my deck as they float by, unaware of my peering lens. I collected a tiny fraction of what passed, but still captured an interesting group of boats.
This summer saw heavy traffic from boats full of tourists, usually going to watch whales. The “whaleboats” as we call them are always noticeable because of their size and speed. Few recreational boaters choose to burn as much fuel.
One that always stands out is Blackfish (which is an old name for killer whales).
Another is the Western Explorer.
Sometimes the whales end up in the water in front of our house and the big whaleboats show up.
If you crop a photo just right, you can pretend that a friendly sailboat is the only boat watching the killer whales.
Tourists are also ferried around on other boats that are more focused on destinations. This is the Puget Sound Express.
The Salish Sea is a commercial waterway used by all kinds of boats, both local and international. In the distance, there are almost always huge ships traveling in Canadian waters to Canada.
We don’t see these behemoths in US waters our side of Orcas Island, but we see many barges and other large boats used for transporting items to the islands that don’t have ferry service.
You find the strangest things on barges. That’s a two-story house.
Lindsey Foss is a fire-fighting vessel.
A local service will tow you if your boat has a problem.
An sometimes a Canadian Warship goes by.
The vast majority of boats that pass our house are recreational or privately owned. Cabin cruisers are a dime a dozen, but sometimes more impressive boats pass by.
M/V Pelican is a 1930 78ft Classic wooden fisheries research vessel that recently started doing charters.
Our friends Mahlon and Deb live on this 65′ boat called Salish Song. Yes, that’s a lovely palm tree adorning their rear deck.
New Pacific is a 97′ expedition yacht that was recently refitted to have a 60kwh hybrid energy system that reduces the use of the boat’s generators.
This caravel style sailboat is one of the biggest we’ve seen.
Like cabin cruisers, sailboats are very common in all shapes and sizes.
And of course, small crafts like kayaks. Sea kayaking is one of the most popular activities in the San Juans. Jet Skis are prohibited, thankfully.
Not a boat. Or is it?
I’ll miss boating season and being on the lookout for interesting boats. They’ll be back before we know it.
When I was a kid, we’d load up the family RV and head to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, about four hours away. Often these trips were quick getaways that were less about sand castles and more about fishing.
We sometimes fished from the beach, but our main fishing happened from piers that stretched up to 1000 feet into the Atlantic. I have fond memories of parking the RV at the Indian Beach pier, which also served as a campground. If the fish were biting, we’d be out on the pier for hours at a time, casting lines with two hooks and a sinker as far as we could. Sadly, Indian Beach pier eventually crumbled in the wave of hurricanes in the late 90s.
Our bait was usually limited to bloodworms and raw shrimp. I thought little of it at the time, but bloodworms are frightful little creatures that bleed profusely when you cut into them. They are venomous carnivores that are capable of biting humans. I have been bitten by a bloodworm and it’s not fun. But, the fish love them. We mostly caught spot, and occasionally pompano, sheepshead, puffers, and more. I also set basket traps for blue crab.
Those days and nights on fishing piers were fun for a kid like me, and exposed me to a lifestyle of sport and self-sufficiency. On a good trip, we’d be able to fill the freezer with fish and give them to friends and family. My mom was the most gifted fisher and always seemed to catch fish when no one else could. Over the course of an afternoon, you’d notice other fishers sidle up to try to get in on the action. Those salty characters who now live in my memory as the shark hunting character, Quint, in the movie Jaws.
One of my clearest memories is fishing with raw shrimp as bait when I was about ten years old. Over the course of the evening, my face seemed to explode with a reaction to something. My eyes got red, puffy, and itchy. I sneezed and wheezed and tried to contain what felt like a bad cold. I washed my face and hands and it passed, but remained a mystery.
As an adult, I became a fan of sushi and noticed something odd. When I ate raw shrimp, my mouth would feel anesthetized and my throat would feel swollen. Sometimes my lips would puff. It didn’t take long to realize that I was allergic to raw shrimp. Thinking back to those childhood fishing trips, I remembered that I was baiting hooks with shrimp and then touching my face. Thankfully, the reaction only occurs from raw shrimp and I have no problems with cooked shrimp or any other shellfish.
And that’s a good thing because shrimp, or “spot prawns” to be precise, are a recent entrant on our list of foods we pull from the Salish Sea around Orcas Island.
Despite living in the area for so long, I never knew much about spot prawns. Our Canadian friends to the north always raved about them and got excited for spot prawn season. On visits to Vancouver we would pick up spot prawns for dinner. It seemed odd to me that this prized seafood was not well-known in Seattle, which shares the same waters. I still can’t explain why this is the case, but we now count ourselves as spot prawn enthusiasts.
It didn’t take long to hear about spot prawns after moving to Orcas Island. Like the fishers at Emerald Isle, islanders here are always aware of what’s in season and how to catch them. Our contractor, Drew, took us out for our first spot prawn experience, which involved dropping a few hockey puck-shaped pots in 400 feet of water, waiting an hour, and then pulling them up with a battery powered pulley. It was like magic and we wanted to do it ourselves.
Unfortunately, our little boat didn’t seem like a candidate for an automatic “puller” and the idea of pulling shrimp pots by hand from 400 ft deep seemed daunting. That all changed when we met a neighbor at our marina who hand-pulled small pots at a depth of 250 feet with great success. His bounty influenced our decision to invest in a single shrimp pot, 400 feet of line, two buoys, and shrimp bait. We were set for the 2021 shrimping season.
Perhaps the reason spot prawns are not well known in Seattle is that they are a protected resource. This year’s season lasts a total of twelve days, split between three long weekends. During these times, each licensed shrimper can use two pots and bring home 80 prawns per day. A productive and law abiding shrimper could bring home a maximum of 1,280 prawns in a year. A couple like us could keep over 2,500. The lesson: get while the getting is good.
Last week was our inaugural shrimping trip and our friend graciously allowed us to follow him to his coveted shrimping spot. Spot prawns, conventional wisdom tells us, like to feed in the short period of time when the tides change known as the “slack tide”. This means that within a limited number of days in a season, there are only a few hours a day when the shrimp feed. For our first trip, that meant leaving the marina at 6:30 am.
By 7:00 am our little shrimp pot was baited with cat food, shrimp pellets, and sardines and lowered to the bottom. To wait out the trapping, we tied our boat to our friend’s boat and hoped for Camelot. He bottom fished for lingcod until his giant hook snagged something on the bottom and had to be cut free. We drank coffee and talked story.
On our first pull, we got about 40 spot prawns, which felt like a victory. Because the slack tide was longer than usual, we stayed for another round and came home with just over 80 prawns. The next day we went out twice and came home with a similar amount.
After that, the weather turned and made shrimping more difficult. We stayed home and filled our bellies with those sweet buttery little crustaceans. They are the best-tasting shrimp I’ve ever had. The Canadians are onto something.
The final opening of the season is in the middle of June and we plan to take advantage. Like every shrimper, our goal is to “limit out” which means catching the legal limit in a day. With two people and a second pot, we may be able to do it. Maybe next year we’ll get an electric puller.
For now, pulling one small pot and 400 feet of line is part of the fun and a reliable form of exercise. Instead of using teamwork, we challenge each other to pull the entire thing in one shot. It’s harder than it sounds and highlights why everyone thinks we’re crazy for not using a machine.
Sachi, of course, is our head shrimper and I’m the navigator and alternate puller. She baits the pots, removes the prawns from the trap and de-heads them on the way home.
If the prawns die with their head on, they release an enzyme that softens the meat. Once we’re home, she prepares them for the BBQ or a boil. I supervise, as I’ve learned my lesson with raw shrimp. No one wants my face to explode again.
In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.
When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.
Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise.
The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:
Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out.
Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.
Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it.
Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.
Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.
I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water.
With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe.
As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions.
Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG.
I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway.
I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.
As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying.
There comes a time in every vehicle owner’s life when they are forced to test just how far a tank of gas will go. We see the gauge point to the upper case “E” and say it’s arbitrary; just a label. What matters is what’s inside the tank. We can push it a little farther.
Last week, we found ourselves in a similar situation. We let the gauge creep uncomfortably close to the “E” and backed out of our slip to get gas. As we approached the marina, which is a short hop from where moor the boar, Sachi asked if I had my wallet. As usual, I didn’t. This has been one of the adjustments to our island and COVID lifestyle. Wallets, to me at least, seem less important; another thing to lose while on the boat. Thankfully, Sachi had our back.
As we parked the boat by the pumps, we saw signs on the pumps that said “Temporarily Out of Order”. Assuming it was a short-term issue, we pushed the gas lower. One more trip out to catch crab.
Soon the gauge became an obsession. I found myself glancing down every minute as we made our way back to the marina. We couldn’t repeat this trip without more gas.
The next day, the pumps were still out of order. I called the marina office and asked about a timeline. The person said, apologetically, their gas line was “busted” and it might be two weeks before it was fixed. If I’ve learned anything on Orcas Island, it’s that two weeks could, and probably will, mean two months. We had to make a call. Do we dock the boat and wait for the repairs, or do we try to make it to the next closest marina in West Sound? I called the West Sound Marina to be sure their gas was working. It was.
As the boat planed-off and we left Deer Harbor, I looked at Sachi and said, “Well, here we go!” We were on an adventure and neither of us knew what was to come. The chance of running out of gas was small, but still worrisome. I watched the gauge the whole way and tried to estimate how low it was. A 16th of a tank? A 32nd? It didn’t matter, we were committed.
We had never needed to buy gas at West Sound Marina, but quickly found the solitary pump on the dock. Unlike your average gas station with a credit card interface, dock pumps are often guessing games. Sometimes there is an intercom you can use to talk to the office and ask questions. Other times they see you and turn on the gas. In this case, I said “Hello, is anyone here?”, thinking an intercom might pick up my voice. After a bit of silence, I pulled the handle off the pump and flipped the lever to turn it on. It cranked up and I was sure we were on our way. After an initial splash of gas, it stopped flowing and I worried we’d used the last drop and would be stranded.
I called the office on my phone and asked if they were out of gas. He sighed and told me “No, we have plenty of gas. It’s on a timer that stops the flow. If you’d read the sign on the pump, you’d know to call first so we can turn it on.” Then he added, with a bit of admonishment, “Try again, hopefully you didn’t lock it up.”
I glanced at the pump and saw that there was a small sign. It was easy to miss, probably because it looked like the kind of regulatory sign that tells you not to smoke while pumping gas. In Orcas Island terms, it was far too official looking to be noticed. There was no handwriting, highlighter marker, or tattered edges.
Feeling a little sheepish, I tucked my phone into an external breast pocket that zips vertically and stepped into the boat. Just as I bent over, I heard a thud and than a gasp. Not knowing what happened, I turned to Sachi, who was reaching down with a helpless look on her face. I said, “Was… was that my phone?” Yes. It was. Dammit. I felt so embarrassed. I glanced at my unzipped breast pocket, which should have held it safely.
There was an awkward silence as we both reckoned with the event. For Sachi, this was another in a long line of instances where my clumsiness or carelessness cost us time and money. She didn’t have to say anything and she didn’t. We both knew exactly what had happened and why. We have learned that the only path out of these situations is problem solving, and having a backup plan.
My phone is an iPhone X that was recently returned to me with a new $300 screen after I dropped it on gravel and shattered the screen. Now that $300 and the rest of the phone were at the bottom of the sea. The phone is supposed to be waterproof. There was hope.
We started to consider what could be done. I have retrieved things like sunglasses from the bottom of lakes in the past, but this was different. It was cold and I didn’t have a wet suit. But, just up the street from the marina is an organization called SeaDoc Society that is focused on ocean health. Our friends work there and we knew they had dive equipment. Maybe just a snorkel, fins and a towel would be sufficient? Sachi texted our friend, Erika, to ask if there was any chance they could lend a hand. They were just about to leave the office. No dice.
The good news was that our tank was full with gas. That problem was solved and I needed to pay in the marina office. I made my way up two catwalks and across a driveway to the entrance of the office, where I was met with someone wearing a mask. I checked my pockets. No mask. So, I walked back across the driveway, down the catwalks and got a mask from Sachi before turning around and walking back. Once again, Sachi had our back.
As I walked up, a salty older man was pushing a cart with a gas can toward the pump and he courteously moved the cart aside to let me go by. On this trip, I made it into the office, where I could finally finish the process. Then the person behind the counter asked a question I didn’t expect, “How many gallons did you get?” I said, “What? I have no idea.” He lowered his head. The same sign I missed before also said to record and report the gallons. More embarrassment.
I asked if I could use his phone to call Sachi and ask about the gallons. He said, “No,” as he motioned to his co-worker. She was on a call, because, of course she was. As he looked over toward her, he saw an event about to unfold on the dock. The salty guy was just about the turn on the pump, which would have wiped the number of gallons he needed for my transaction. He dropped everything and ran to a window facing the dock and yelled from the office “STOP! STOP! DON’T TURN IT ON!!!” His efforts caught Sachi’s attention, and she stopped the man just in time. Then, Sachi was able to read the gallon count and yell it to me on the catwalk.
For the third time, I walked back to the office to finally buy the gas. As he was running our card, I told him I had just dropped my phone in the water by the pump. He thought for a second, and said, “I wonder if Gavin is around? He’s a diver and was just in his wetsuit. Maybe he could help you get it.” I couldn’t believe my ears. He handed me a post-it note with Gavin’s name and number. A sliver of hope appeared on the horizon.
After getting back to the boat, I called Gavin on Sachi’s phone and left a voicemail. He didn’t call back for 15 minutes or so and it felt like an eternity. We wandered around the dock and I chatted up a lady refinishing wood trim on a Chris Craft Corsair. It wasn’t hers and we both agreed it was not a practical boat for the San Juans. Beautiful, but more of a lake boat.
I called Gavin again and spent time looking down into the water between the dock and boat to see if I could see it. I saw a crab and some shells, but no phone. Then, just as I was writing a text to him, Sachi’s phone vibrated in my hand. It was Gavin. He was working on his boat in the same marina and said he could come take a look.
Within a few minutes a young guy appeared on the catwalks and we got down to business. He’s hired as a diver for cleaning boats and other underwater duties. He told us his hourly rate and added that it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. The water was probably about fifteen feet deep, with good visibility. After assuming the phone was gone, we were prepared to pay him for multiple hours to get the phone back.
In a moment of awkwardness, we negotiated the cost of the retrieval, which was limited by the cash that Sachi and I had with us. This time, I had my wallet and we settled on $100, which was close to everything we had. Within 30 minutes he returned in full diving gear. The water in our area remains in the 50s(f) year-round and we both watched as he added gloves and a hoodie to his wet suit before slipping into the water.
I probably could hold my breath for the time it took Gavin to retrieve the phone, but not in that water. Within a minute, he returned to the surface, with my phone in hand. It was working just as it was when it left my pocket. Man, the relief. We were all amazed.
We paid Gavin for his time, boarded Short Story and headed back to Deer Harbor to check the traps. We brought home three Dungeness crab. If you consider the market price for crab, they helped pay for the return of my phone, so we couldn’t complain.
Despite all the embarrassing mishaps and miscommunications, we felt so fortunate. We made it to the marina. My phone was waterproof. Gavin answered my voicemail. We retrieved the phone from the bottom of the freaking ocean. It all felt so quaint; a small town network of divers and boaters, who are also neighbors, looking out for one another. And of course, there’s always Sachi with our backup plan.
The next time I go to West Sound Marina, I’ll read the signs and record the gallons. But I’ll also wonder why it works the way it does. Why don’t they have an intercom, or the ability to track the gallons from the office? The best answer and one that will suffice for now is this: Welcome to Orcas Island.
This story originally appeared in my weekly newsletter Ready for Rain. You can get stories like this in your inbox each week by subscribing to my newsletter.
This time of year is known for warm weather, being outside, backyard fire pits, and for the last few years at our place, the smell of rotting flesh. Let me explain.
In the Salish Sea waters off Orcas Island there are Dungeness crabs and each summer crab season begins in July, offering a source of fun and delicious protein. We both enjoy the crabbing, but Sachi is the driving force behind it all.
It is said that the challenge of crabbing for some people isn’t the crabs, but the bait. The crustaceans will eat almost anything and most people use raw chicken, turkey, fish and sometimes cans of cat food that serves as an attractant. For us, it comes down to cost-effectiveness. Our local grocery store has a “crab bait” freezer this time of year, often filled with deeply discounted packs of expired meat. When that’s not available, we opt for drumsticks from Costco.
Recently, our contractor, Drew, said that he had a big pack of frozen crab bait on his boat in the form of herring, a bait fish. All we had to do was grab it from his freezer, thaw it, and use it as our crab bait. It’s rare to have fish as bait because of the expense, so this was a treat.
I was out of town for a couple of days, so Sachi left a gift bottle for Drew, grabbed the bait, and came home with a 35lb pack of frozen herring. As she discovered, thawing the herring created a problem. Where do you thaw a huge block of dead fish? If placed outside it would attract critters, so she opted for a spot just inside our front door, which is downstairs from our main living area. It was a solid plan, given the circumstances.
Sachi and the dogs went to bed that evening with dreams of crab dipped in butter. The next morning, Sachi was awakened by the dogs licking her in the face, which isn’t odd. But this time it was different. They had a wild look in their eyes, like it was Christmas morning for dogs. Then she realized that those licks were infused with the unmistakeable stench of dead fish. Within seconds, it all became clear.
Sometime in the early morning, the dogs had discovered the pack of herring by the front door and decided that it was breakfast, nicely laid out for them. Thankfully, it was still frozen, so the bulk of the bait was safe. But they got to lick it for as long as they wanted. And the smell, despite multiple washes, lingered on their muzzles for days. I suppose that smell is what the crabs like, too.
It seems logical that smelly bait would attract crab and this is a strategy we’ve taken to heart in the form of “ripening” the bait. This means leaving it out so that it can get a little funky. While we don’t have empirical proof that it works, we have taken notes from many old timers on the island.
A few days ago, Sachi filled a ziploc bag with 12 frozen drumsticks and placed them on a table in our main living area in a glass container. They were not yet ripe, but on their way. Before leaving home that day, we placed the container on the back corner of the table, surrounded by other containers, to prevent the dogs from getting it. The guest house is essentially one room, so there are few options for hiding anything.
When we arrive home it’s always the same. The dogs come to the door, bark and wag, and run up the stairs before us. When we returned this time, it was obvious that something was amiss and we both noticed. The dogs stayed at the bottom of the stairs as we ascended. We shot a knowing glance at one another. What would we find?
I was the first into the room and was relieved to find a ziploc bag torn to shreds. This happens sometimes. No big deal. Then Sachi arrived in the room and looked closer. What we thought were small pieces of wood from outside were actually shards of bone. Chicken bone. Sachi said, “oh my god” as she turned toward the table where we so carefully placed the chicken. The glass dish was on the floor and the chicken was nowhere to be found. The damn dogs had deftly removed the chicken from the table and devoured a dozen drumsticks between them. That’s why they were at the bottom of the stairs: consciousness of guilt.
After some scolding, I looked up the potential health issues. Raw chicken, I learned, is not often harmful to dogs and reflects what they evolved to eat. It’s the cooked version of chicken bones that can cause problems because the bones can splinter more easily. We were relieved and reminded ourselves not to feed them for the rest of the day. They were fine. We, however, were out of drumsticks.
Thankfully we still had 30lbs of herring, in a sealed box, ripening by our front door. It smells terrible, but it’s a small price to pay for pulling crab out of the Salish Sea. So far, we’ve brought home and shared over 30 of them.
Links from the Blog
I’ve continued to write consistently on the blog at leelefever.com. As you’ll see, I’m focused on the process of publishing Big Enough and all that goes with it.
📖 Pre-order the Big Enough eBook – The paperback and ebook versions of the book are now available for pre-orders. If you’re interested, pre-ordering the book is helpful.
Here are a few things I shared over the last week:
From the Blog
The Big Enough ebook (along with the paperback) is now available for pre-order on all the major book websites. The audiobook is also complete, but won’t be available until after the book is published on September 15th.
It would mean a lot to me if you’d consider pre-ordering Big Enough because pre-orders can help the book get attention when it comes out.
I shared the book project on Facebook for the first time yesterday and was heartened by the response. I need and want to feel more comfortable promoting it and it helped to see friends be excited with me.
The House Project
Sachi and I spent the weekend on sweat equity. One of the early design decisions was to use western red cedar for some of our ceiling and soffits under the eaves of the house. It’s a tree that’s abundant on the island and comes in boards that are knot-free, or “clear”, with beautiful color variations and straight grains. The construction team was excited about the quality of the wood. I am still learning how to judge such things.
Before the cedar can be installed, it needs to be stained so it’s protected from UV rays and weather. This became our job. We used a transparent, satin finish. The boards needed to be stained on both sides, sanded on the front side, and then stained once more on the front.
To make it easier, Casey, one of Drew’s guys, made these “paint trees” that are racks for staining and drying multiple boards at once. So much easier!
We probably got through about 40% of the boards that need staining, mainly because the rack can only hold so many. Once they get installed, we will go back and stain more.
Crabs and Boats
Crab season started on Thursday and we were ready to be back on the water with our little boat, Short Story. After a slow start, we’re finding our rhythm.
The longer I live on the island, the more fascinated I become with boats of all shapes and sizes. A side effect of COVID is an increase in boating because it’s a safe vacation for many. Those vacationers end up in places like Deer Harbor, where we keep our boat and I love keeping a mental inventory of the boats I see. Someday we want to have a boat we can sleep on but for now, we’re just dreaming.
Speaking of dreams, a superyacht appeared in Deer Harbor recently that was bigger than anyone had ever seen in the area. It was the Attessa IV, owned by Dennis Washington. 332 feet long, a crew of 22, and recently rebuilt. Amazing.
Like the cedar, I’m learning to notice and appreciate boat design and lately, loving the classics. There are a couple of classic wooden yachts in Deer Harbor that date back to the 50s and 60s and are immaculately kept. I believe they are both Chris Crafts. You can just imagine Frank Sinatra on the bow with a cocktail.
On the second day of crabbing, this boat (with 900 horsepower across three motors) came screaming up to us. It was the Washington Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, stopping to make sure we were in full compliance. We were and they were very nice.
As much as I love watching these boats, I am very satisfied with our little 15’ Short Story. She does the job!
Just outside the guest house where we live, Short Story, our little boat, sits all buttoned up for the winter. Pulling her out of the water was a momentous occasion because it marked a seasonal transition in our lives from the warm fun of summer to the chill and rain of fall.
The transition also means that we lose an amazing source of protein and a hobby that adds excitement to summer days. You see, Short Story, for us, is a working boat. Its hard fiberglass deck can take a beating and throughout the last two summers, it performed admirably as we became dedicated to catching as many Dungeness crabs as possible.
How this works is best told through a couple of summer days.
The process starts at Costco, where it’s possible to find chicken at the lowest price per pound. We load pounds and pounds of drumsticks into our cart to use as bait for the crab. Upon returning home, some of it goes in the freezer, some the fridge and some into a cooler without ice. This is where our dedication to crabbing is tested.
We’ve heard that crab may be more attracted to smelly meat, so Sachi started her own chicken spoiling project. The basic idea is to throw raw chicken into a cooler and let sit for a few days. Once it’s nice and ripe, it becomes the bait. This process is a reflection of Sachi’s personal dedication to crabbing. I am willing to take my chances on fresh chicken.
This year crab season started on July 12th in our area and we put traps out the first morning we could. That morning we got up and gathered all our boat things, like a dry bag, a bucket with crab tools and our four crab traps. It all barely fits in our car, which quickly becomes filled with the smell of rotting chicken. The crabs better love that stuff, I think to myself.
The marina is only a couple of minutes away and it’s a minor trial to get everything to the boat because the traps, which are metal cages shaped like big hockey pucks, are heavy and unwieldy.
The crab traps, or “crab pots”, are designed to sit on the bottom in 50-70 feet of water and we’ve weighted them with rebar to keep them in place. Leading up from the trap is a line attached to a buoy that has our name and address on it. As long as we’re in regulation, we can throw the traps into the sea almost anywhere we want. And that is the real challenge in crabbing: location.
Sitting inside the metal cage is a box that contains, in our case, radioactive chicken that acts as a beacon, inviting crab to enter the trap via little ramps which lead to trap doors. The traps are designed to catch not just crab, but the right crab. Small ones should be able to get in and out with ease. We want those little guys to grow big and strong and feeding them is a cost of doing business.
Once we have everything loaded onto the boat, we putter out of the marina and into Deer Harbor, which is well known for crabbing and only a few minutes away from the dock.
On the way, Sachi stands at the front of the boat with a stack of crab pots. Each one needs to be inspected and baited. Being downwind at the helm of the boat, I get assaulted by chicken smell, which you can almost see in the air. Sachi is undeterred. Using tongs, she loads the off-color flesh into the traps one-by-one and arranges the lines on the deck to reduce tangles.
Then the challenge begins. Where do we drop the pots? Dungeness crab live in eelgrass and usually, the best crabbing is in areas where it grows. The problem, as with a lot of fishing, is the well known places see a lot of competition. Over time, we’ve tried to forge our own way and have seen success off the beaten path. By the end of the season, I’m willing to try just about anywhere.
I read once that you should hold the line as the pot sinks so you can be sure it lands on the bottom correctly, which is right side up. Once it hits, you can feel the tension lax, and I give it two or three tugs to stir up the detritus on the bottom. This practice is another bit of tribal crab knowledge with unknown benefits. Why not? We are learning and always open to new tactics.
With the crab pots in the water and locations marked with GPS, we putter back to the marina and drive home. It usually takes about 45 minutes, door-to-door, and our anticipation can begin. We both hope the crabs are appreciating the effort we put into the chicken. It’s surely a delicacy.
On this day, we return to the boat in the afternoon once work is done. The pots have been in the water or “soaking” for about 8 hours and this trip is different. Our goal is to remove crab from the pots, refill the bait and put them right back into the water. This is a cycle we repeat every day, five days a week. Crabbing is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Usually, the buoys are easy to find and I’ve learned to approach them at just the right angle for Sachi to grab the line with a paddle handle. This is when I get to work. The line is 100 feet long and that works out to about 55 hand-over-hand pulls to get the trap to the surface. If you’re wondering, that’s 220 pulls, often twice a day. Over the summer, I become stronger in very specific ways.
As the crab pot approaches the surface, it feels a little like Christmas. What is the gift that nature bestowed on us today? I’ve become quite good, on the 53rd or 54th pull, at peering into the water and judging the catch. Some days, it’s possible to tell from weight alone.
I pull the trap into the boat and slide it across the metal rail to Sachi, who opens the trap from the top. Because I already have gloves on, I am usually the one who removes the crab, which can do damage to your fingers if they get ahold of one. So far my fingers remain intact.
Across the four traps on this day, we caught 10 Dungeness crabs and could keep four. That’s because females and small crabs must be returned to the water. We measure male crabs to be sure they meet regulations. The traps also catch many red rock crabs, which are smaller and less meaty, but still delicious. They can grow huge claws and we often keep them when they’re big enough.
Each pot is emptied, restocked with chicken and placed back into the water with intention and hope. We putter back to the marina and tie Short Story to the dock.
These days, I clean the crab on the pier beside our boat. The process is simple and quick. I hold the legs of the crab to the deck and use my other hand to rip off the shell. Then I split the crab down the middle with my hands or a cleat and shake out the innards. Most of the waste ends up back in the water, where it would end up anyway. This has been a huge improvement in our crab process.
When the crabbing is good, we have fresh crab for weeks at a time and it becomes a substantial and delicious source of protein. Once we get home, Sachi boils them in a big pot and places them in the fridge to cool.
Then, she sits at our dining room table and shells them in what I consider a state of zen. The product is a big bowl of delicious crabmeat that, in a restaurant, would cost at least $40 per serving, and a big bowl of shells to dump into the water on the next trip.
When the crabbing is fruitful, we share cooked crab with friends and neighbors. It feels like we’re living off the land, or water. It can be frozen, but there is no replacement for fresh crab.
This summer, we brought home 86 keepers and a few dozen red rocks. That beat last year’s total by about 20. I’m sure that next year, we’ll continue to hone our skills and strategies a bit further and shoot for 100.
It seemed like everywhere we went on Orcas Island, people who learned we were new residents asked the same question: Do you have a boat yet? For a while we just smiled and said that we hoped to someday. With so many plans for the house project, a boat seemed out of reach.
These questions mostly came from long time residents who saw, in us, an opportunity to share something they valued about living on Orcas. Not having a boat in the San Juans was akin to living at a ski resort and not having skis, they seemed to say. People come from all over to boat and sail the San Juans in the summer, why not us?
Like so many experiences we’ve had here, boating found us. Our neighbor, Grant, (of potluck fame) texted me during our first summer on the island with an idea. He had recently purchased two boats, an older, smaller one and a larger, newer one and didn’t want both. He said that if we were interested, he’d sell us the smaller one, a 25 year old Boston Whaler, for what he paid.
It seemed like an amazing offer, but at first, it didn’t seem possible. We had other priorities. But the more we talked about it, the more it seemed like a gift. We didn’t have to shop, or haggle. We could work with a person we trusted and it seemed the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. Our minds opened, just a bit more.
The idea of having a boat reminded me of a sign that used to hang at our family lake house in North Carolina. It said “A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.” The expense of having a boat doesn’t stop when you acquire it. It requires gas, moorage, maintenance and more. Did we really want to take on that expense?
Within a couple of days we met Grant and took our first look at the boat. The first thing we noticed was the name. Emblazoned on both sides of the boat, in a design we’d never choose, were the words “Short Story”, and we both couldn’t believe how apt it was. For over a decade, short stories, in the form of educational videos, have been how we supported ourselves. It was kismet.
Short Story was 15 feet long, with a center console, bench seat for two and enough room for two additional people. It had an older 55hp Suzuki outboard engine and a gas tank that held 12 gallons of gas. It wore it’s age with grace and seemed to be in working order, unless you needed a working gas gauge, horn, running lights, etc.
Grant, always a helpful soul, took it upon himself to install a new battery and do some other maintenance before handing it over. For us, it was perfect and easy to get up to coast guard standards. Within a couple of weeks, it was ours.
What made the idea work was our proximity to two marinas, only minutes away, in Deer Harbor. Most people moor boats in the summer and store them in the winter and that was our plan. By the end of July in our first summer, Short Story had a spot in a marina and we became slightly more seafaring people.
Having grown up around ski boats, I was comfortable on Short Story and ready for exploration. It was small and easy to drive. What I discovered is that Sachi and I were not on the same page when it came to where we could go and what we could do on the boat. Having grown up in Hawaii, a respect for the ocean was drilled into her from a young age. Her love of being on the water and exploring with Short Story was balanced with a consciousness of the very real risks.
Boating in the San Juans is notoriously dangerous. While it may sometimes look like a lake from the surface, danger lurks below in the form of reefs and sea mounts that come out of nowhere. Without proper equipment and/or tide charts, it’s easy to run aground. Further, the water is cold enough to cause hypothermia any time of year and the currents can be strong enough to overcome small engines. Boating in the San Juans is not to be taken lightly.
On one of our first trips out on the boat, we were with our friends, Darren and Julie. Prior to striking out, we didn’t discuss where we’d go. I figured we’d just explore and make it up as we went along; I was in lake mode.
After leaving the harbor, we entered the wide and rough channel to get a water view of the Yurt before crossing the channel to get a closer look at Waldron Island. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a formative experience for Sachi. From her perspective, I was being reckless. She saw risk in my careless attitude and looking back, I can see why. We didn’t have a plan. We didn’t know the area. The waves tossed Short Story around more than expected.
We made it back across the channel safely, but that trip set the tone for the rest of our boating and specifically, my perspective. For us to be a team, I needed to show more respect for the situation and surroundings. I needed to account for weather and tides and charts. I needed to listen more and work with Sachi to understand how our seafaring adventures could be more fun and less stressful.
The biggest risk is not knowing what’s happening below the surface. In the best scenario, boaters use radar/GPS in combination with a map of the seafloor to navigate around reefs, rocks, and obstacles. These systems can be very expensive and we figured there must be a more affordable way to solve the problem. Surely, I thought, there’s an app for that.
I eventually found a $15 app called Navionics that worked on a used iPad. For very little money, we had a way to navigate, via GPS, anywhere that 12 gallons of gas could take us and more than that, have confidence that we weren’t going to run aground. The iPad and app became essential parts of our boating experience.
By the end of the summer, I was feeling more comfortable and itching to explore. The San Juans have 128 named islands and a number of them are preserves or parks. There are countless bays and harbors to visit. Our little boat could only take us on a limited radius, but from my perspective, we were missing out by not exploring more. My FOMO was in full effect.
In talking through it one evening, I learned more about Sachi’s perspective. Short Story is not a boat that can handle bigger waves and Sachi kept referring to swells and the fear of waves swamping the boat.
This is obviously a legitimate fear, but the reality of the Salish Sea is that it’s an inland sea and unlike the open ocean surrounding Hawaii, there are no swells. The waves we encounter are mostly from large boats. They can be treacherous for boats like Short Story, but they come and go. The other factor is the weather, as wind can create dangerous conditions.
At the end of the conversation, we came to an agreement that set the stage for our seafaring future. We agreed to make fair weather a priority and always have a plan for our exploration. Further, we agreed that waves are a part of the experience.
Slowly but surely, we both became more confident and started to understand why people on the island feel so strongly about boating in the San Juans. It’s not simply a mode of transport, but means of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and exploration. It’s a chance to catch dinner, visit neighboring towns, hang out with harbor seals and see whales in the wild. As much as Orcas Island has to offer, there’s a whole other world just off shore.
The story of Short Story is still being written. We have a lot to learn and explore. But one thing is probably settled. Some day, we hope to have a bigger boat, with GPS and radar, that we can take out for weekends and cruise to more distant locations. That boat will need a name and naming it anything other than Long Story seems like a missed opportunity.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.