Though we’re approaching winter here in the Pacific Northwest, I felt it was prudent to go on an overnight sailing adventure to somewhere. What’s the point of living on a sailboat, I said, if one doesn’t sail it anywhere to stay the night? I couldn’t have had this spurring thought in early September, when the sun shone warmly–no, no, I had to get the cruising bug well after the cold temperatures had caught hold. I have a propensity to make life a little harder for myself. Oh well.

blake island
Blake Island State Park

The destination decided upon was Blake Island. The entire island is a state park, and resides east of Manchester, north of Vashon Island, and west of Seattle. One can only visit Blake Island by boat, so it was fitting that we decided to go there. Since it gets into the thirties at night, and because Libby is not yet equipped with a bulkhead heater, I decided to dock for the night rather than hook onto a mooring buoy or even drop anchor. I love not freezing, and needed the electricity for my small but mighty space heater.

Our goal was to head out at 9:30 a.m. to beat the rushing tides and currents that flood through Rich Pass. I was up early to get everything ready, secure all my belongings in the main cabin, attach my genoa, remove the sail cover for the main, route my sheets to the cockpit, put a few gallons of diesel into the tank, and check the oil for my engine. A note on that: why is it so flipping hard to reinsert the dipstick? Man alive. I have three ways to access my engine (a fact I flaunt whenever the opportunity arises), yet checking the oil is so annoying because of where the dipstick resides. Took me about ten minutes! Anyway. Oil checked out, and I stared my engine, untied the dock lines, and away we went.

Jonathan was well ahead of me, but visible in the distance. The wind was minimal, if there was any at all, which was expected but still disappointing. When the wind was light, I decided to go ahead and raise the main. Unfortunately I have to raise it from the mast, which is usually not a big deal, but would later make things dangerous (keep reading for more on that). It’s super easy to raise the main in light winds, and since I didn’t have a working autopilot, I kept the tiller in a straight path with bunji cords. When motoring, the boat wants to drift, so the tiller has to be tied to prevent it from going around and around.

puget sound sailing
Calm winds, and a gorgeous morning.
sheltie life vest
My first mate!

It was a cold and gorgeous morning. The sky was more silver than gray, and the glassy water reflected it. Since there was no wind, Libby maintained a straight line, and I sat up in the cockpit and did the occasional steering with my foot (I kept the bunji cords on so I didn’t have to hold the tiller for hours). Riley, who I usually keep in the cabin when I sail–because he has no fear and may fall out when heeling–got to join me in the cockpit. He hates his life vest, but it’s a rule if he wants to hang with me.

I started gaining on Jonathan when we rounded the south side of Bainbridge Island and approached Rich Pass. For a while, I was certain Jonathan and his boat had run aground: they didn’t appear to be moving. When I reached the pass I knew why. Though I’d been maintaining a consistent speed of 4.5 to 5 knots, I suddenly slowed to about 2 knots. The current was wicked strong. For bonuses, Rich Pass is heavy with ferry traffic, and ferry boats are big, fast movers. I saw one to my starboard side, coming from Bremerton and heading to Seattle. Though it was still far from me, I knew it would reach me much sooner than I’d expect, especially at my snail’s pace. Not wanting to be crashed into or ticketed by the Coast Guard for getting in the way of a ferry, I tried going straight across the pass and motor closer to the shore.

The engine was almost at full throttle. Because the main was raised and tight, the wind helped by pulling me through the turbulent little channel. The ferry passed on the port side, and I turned to take on the wake at 45 degrees, hopped and splashed, then resumed course.

big ship puget sound
I have no idea what this ship is, but it was enormous and I took a picture of it as I was bobbing along in light winds.

Finally we were clear of the pass and into the wind! I’m not sure how far away he was, but I watched Jonathan raise his jib, and I got a bit overly excited. Rather than motor to where he raised his sail, I decided to raise mine too. This was a mistake, as the wind really wasn’t strong enough to give me any forward motion. So Jonathan sailed off and I bobbed around for a bit, waiting for the wind to grab me. When it did, I sailed into a beam reach, got up to about 4.5 knots on average, and headed to Blake Island.

blake island
Approaching Blake Island!

I was just getting into my sailing groove when I saw Jonathan had already dropped his sails at the entrance to Blake Island’s docks. I admit annoyance, but think it was a good idea to be done for the day, as breakfast had been hours ago and my stomach was anxious to be filled again. I dropped my sails and we headed for the docks.

Blake Island is pretty cool. Since we sailed there after prime season, the island was almost empty; except for the volunteer ranger, who lived aboard his Beneteau, it was just Jonathan and I docked there. Until evening, that is, when two guys in a ghetto powerboat docked next to me. They were hippies (did some weed later in the evening as they played some music…you can’t make this stuff up).

islander 30
Libby docked, before the weed-smoking power boaters came.

There were three deer eating grass, a huge flock of Canadian geese roaming around, Bald Eagles soaring above. The air was brisk and fall like, but still gorgeous. I’m not sure we could’ve asked for anything better. We walked around the island, admiring its beauty, and watching Riley have the absolute time of his life. I must say it again: Riley is such a good dog. Now that he’s two and out of his puppy stage, he’s as loyal as they come and can be trusted off leash. My Jack Russell would’ve been gone in three seconds off leash. Not Riley. He was with us the entire time, playing fetch, climbing cliffs, jumping logs, elated to be in the company of good people. So if you’re wondering what kind of dog to get next, I recommend a Sheltie!

Riley sailing over a log, a stick in his mouth, happy as he could be.

The wind died down during the night, but in morning the sky was inked pink. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning. After a delightful breakfast of egg tacos with bacon and cheese (prepared by Jonathan), Riley went out for his final romp and we prepped the girls (boats) for their sail back home. The wind was light, but I wondered if I should trade my 150 genoa for a smaller jib, say a 110 or even smaller. I looked at the weak wind in the Sound and decided to keep the 150. Big mistake. Word to the wise: always go with your gut. If you think you should use a smaller sail, do.

cascade 36
Jonathan to my port side.

We motored out of the docks and headed to the leeward side of Blake Island to raise our sails. Once we rounded a corner, I was briefly overpowered and heeled suddenly, taking me by surprise. What’s really nice about sailing is, if I’m overpowered, and heeling more than I’m comfortable with, all I do is release the tiller and the boat heads up into the wind, loses power, and levels. I’ve had Libby heeled over a lot and at steep angles (due mainly to the genoa), but this was so sudden and I wasn’t expecting it, it gave me a bit of a fright. So I let go and headed up. Then the wind died a bit and we bobbed around in the water, close enough to carry on a conversation until the wind picked up again. Lighter, smaller, with more canvas, Libby sped ahead (as she usually does 😉 ).

The wind built and the currents were with us. Where the day before we had to motor through the pass, this time we glided through with no problems. The wind was blowing at weird angles through Rich Pass, and I had to close haul through the narrow channel. A ferry boat was approaching from Bremerton, getting closer (and if you’ve ever traveled by ferry, you know those babies can move!), and I knew I wasn’t going to make the corner and would have to make a quick tack and briefly cross the pass, then tack back over to make it around the bend.

And so I did. Usually I’m a textbook tacker. Seriously. On that day, though, I had neglected to untie a fender, and had simply raised it and put it up on the gunwale (such laziness!). Well, as I was tacking from one side to the next, the sheet got caught on the fender’s line and wouldn’t release, thus I couldn’t get the genoa over to the other side of the boat and sheeted all the way in! Meanwhile, a ferry was coming and I was getting nervous. The wind was strong enough to grab me and pull the boat. In fact, I was heeling over hard because the genoa wasn’t sheeted all the way in. Ferry getting closer, I said to heck with it, released the genoa, pulled it back to where it was before, shoved the tiller away from me, and snapped around the Bainbridge Island and out of Rich Pass.

The wind was coming from the south, and since I was out of any kind of boat traffic, decided to untie that troublesome fender while running downwind.

But the fender was the least of my troubles. The wind was building. Big waves were throwing whitecaps, and Libby was rocking from side to side, despite us running completely downwind. She was trimmed wing-on-wing, the mainsail on the starboard side, 150 genoa on the port side. My handy-dandy GPS told me I was going 6 knots, which is quick by any standards, and blazing for downwind sailing.

Sailing downwind has some pros and cons. On the pro side, it’s usually an easy ride, as the wind is pushing the boat from behind, so the boat is level. On the con side, the sails are sheeted all the way out, the mainsail let out loose so as to catch the most wind, and if the wind changes direction (which it often does), there’s a chance for an accidental jibe, which can cause a lot of damage to the boat. The boom at its lowest is just a few inches above my head, so it wouldn’t hit me in an accidental jibe, but I don’t want to damage my boat.

Fortunately the boom didn’t jibe at all, mostly because I was watching the wind very closely, adjusting my heading every minute, so as to keep the wind directly behind me. When I wasn’t watching the wind, I checked my speed. I was heading up into the 7 knot territory, which is Way. Too. Fast.

I brought my main in just a bit, to take some power out of my boat. But that wasn’t enough. The wind was howling, gusting at at least 30 knots. The waves were massive. As anyone who’s sailed can tell you, the wind doesn’t blow consistently. It has gusts, lulls, puffs. Every once in a while, the wind would move quickly, loose momentum for a bit, then gust, which tweaked with my genoa, causing it to briefly luff. Then when the wind got behind it, the genoa snapped and filled, yanking on the sail’s shanks and my forestay–it was loud even in the howling wind.

The GPS read 7.3 knots. The boat rocked from side to side. Waves higher than I’d ever sailed in, rolled on either side of me. Behind me, Jonathan was also running wing-on-wing. There were no other boats in the bay. On the radio (which the oh-so-handy Jonathan had installed for me!), the Coast Guard issued a small craft advisory. Libby is 30 feet. She’s is certainly a small craft.

Even though our destination was coming up fast (we were booking it), I decided I’d had enough. 7.3 knots is beyond dangerous for a boat my size and for a sailor with very little high-wind sailing experience. I was already well into the dangerous, and it was time for me to drop everything and motor home.

I turned the boat into the wind and released the genoa. It flapped violently against the mast and the shrouds but would not come down. I didn’t expect it to. In any kind of wind, it won’t drop on its own–I’ve always had to go forward and pull it down. Meanwhile, the wind kept picking up the boat and spinning it. The heeling was incredible, and I’m sure if anyone on shore was watching my little boat being tossed about in all that wind, they were worried for me. At best they were saying prayers, at worst they were nuking popcorn and taking bets for how long it would take me to fix the situation.

I turned on my engine and drove the boat forward into the wind, the sails were loud as they flapped about. The genoa still wouldn’t drop, despite my prayers and wishes. I knew I had to go forward, there was no other way to bring it down. I pulled in the main sheet as tight as I could get it (which I knew would make for trouble later, but the last thing I needed was for me to be running back to the cockpit after pulling down the genoa, and get smacked in the head by the boom jibing) and psyched myself up. I was alarmingly calm. I knew what had to be done, there was no other option. I said two Hail Mary prayers aloud, took a deep breath, and ran forward to the bow.

Remember, I don’t have a working autopilot. To keep the tiller in a straight line, I use bunji cords, which work okay in moderate winds, but these winds were not moderate. As soon as I’d let go of the tiller, the boat started to turn. But there was nothing else I could do. The genoa had to come down.

I stayed low on deck, crawling when I could, grabbing onto the stanchions, the toe rails. At the bow, I grabbed the genoa and started pulling. But the wind had grabbed the tight mainsail and started turning us. The wind took the genoa and pushed it into me, and the boat started to heel. It’s amazing how quickly the mind works, and in that fraction of a second, I remembered how I’d tried to save part of a roof to our horse’s shed in big gusts of wind, years ago, and me losing control and flying into a fence as I held onto the roof. You can’t fight nature, she’s too strong. In one fluid motion, I picked up the genoa and tossed it over me before it could throw me into the water. Then I grabbed the sail again, and pulled like I never had before, yanking that sail as quickly as possible. The difference in the boat’s heel, once the genoa came down, was immediate. Though the boat was still torqued, it was manageable. I unclipped the halyard from the sail, clipped it to the bowsprit, then crawled back to the cockpit.

The wind loves to blow the boat sideways, and of course I had to pick an approaching shallow shore as my location to spin around while I dropped sails. Remember, I love to make things harder on myself. Anyway, I slowly turned the boat into the wind, took another deep breath, released the tiller, and ran to the mast. I dropped down low again, wrapped my legs around the mast, held on with an arm, undid the line, unwrapped the coils from the winch, and released the main. The wind, as it always does, caught the boat and started pushing her about. But I pulled down on that mainsail despite that. Thank God I have long arms, and I was able to remain seated and balanced as I pulled the mainsail all the way down.

The boat leveled out.

Sighing, I crawled back to the cockpit and sat down to grab the tiller. I was still alive, hadn’t gotten hurt, hadn’t been tossed into the water. I turned the boat downwind toward our destination. I didn’t care that the mainsail was all over the cabin and not neatly tied to the boom. I was simply happy to motor with the waves, bobbing slightly and comfortably.

To my port side, Jonathan had also dropped his sails and had them neatly tied and bundled away. His boat is bigger and heavier and can withstand much more weather than little Libby can. And, of course, Jonathan has much more sailing experience and expertise than I do, and I admired what appeared to be a calm demeanor as he tied up his sails. We were now motoring in together. I pulled my iPhone from my coat pocket and saw he’d sent me a brief text: “Ok?”

“Yep,” I texted back, then slipped the phone into my pocket.

The rest of the journey home was blessedly unremarkable. When we made a turn, the wind died as it couldn’t quite make it around land. I took the opportunity to put the boat into neutral, then ran forward to drop my fenders, bundle up the genoa, strap down the main so it was out of my face, and motor back to port.

Jonathan had pulled ahead of me again, after we’d been side by side for a while, but that was a good thing. We’d need help docking our boats, and two coming in at once would be dangerous. We’d have to dock going downwind, something I’d never done before (as you should always dock into the wind), but both our slips are on the south side, and the wind was howling from the south.

I throttled back to as slow as I could go as I came into port. The wind was blowing from the south southeast, which helped me figure out my angle of approach. Judy II was tied when I was coming in, and two other liveaboards, in addition to Jonathan, were ready to catch Libby as she came closer. I killed the power when I knew I had enough momentum to slide into my slip. I pushed the tiller over and came in steep, knowing the direction of the wind would push me into position.

“Perfect line!” said Al, and I coasted in. The wind was pushing me, so as Al and Becca grabbed my stanchions, I was told to throw it into reverse. I did so, the engine howling with power, and the boat stopped. “Good job, Courtney!” Becca yelled. I must admit, docking in that kind of wind, and docking downwind, is tough, but my technique was a thing of beauty. Perhaps my next book will be about docking a boat… 😉

When my helpful helpers had her steady, I killed the engine, stood up, and listened to the screaming wind. It was still building, and I was glad/excited to be out of it and have a boat in one piece (as well as my body in one piece). I tied my spring line then started cleaning up my cockpit when Jonathan came over.

“We’re such badasses,” I said. It’s funny, after you’ve survived a dangerous situation, your adrenaline tops off and you’re hit with a sudden sense of superhuman ability. I didn’t feel like a badass as I was running up and down my boat in 30+ knot gusts, trying to bring down my genoa and mainsail, but once I was safe, oh man: Bad assery was me.

“We are badasses!” he confirmed.

We were gods on that dock. We Had Survived. We had sailed in high winds, without reefing our mains, running downwind at over 7 knots. If we walked through puddles, they’d turn to steam from the sheer hotness of our steps. We’d have to stop the citizens of our little town from worshiping us and building altars to our names, for though we were Great Sailors of the Northwest, we were still human, just like the rest of them. We were rock stars, two super amazing people who had just redefined cool.

All in a Name

I know it’s silly, but part of my believes that the reason Libby and I handled that danger so calmly and effectively is because I named her “Libby.” Those of you who have read my novel (you people are otherwise known as “my favorite people in the entire world”) know that Libby the character not only remains calm in the face of danger, she actually cracks jokes or issues witty/clever comments without planning. As I was writing the novel, I admit being highly annoyed with Libby, as she was ruining the tension I had so delicately crafted with her repartee, but it was also endearing. Humor is how she deals with awkward situations, stress, and danger. It’s only when she thinks there’s no possible way out of a bad situation that she refrains from joking. But as soon as hope re-enters the picture, there she is, being funny. She can’t help it, it’s just who she is.

So the S/V Libby handles danger with calmness. She takes after her namesake, and keeps her captain safe, then later, when hope has emerged, brings the humor.

Won’t Do it Again

lazy jacks
These would've been handy.

Though I was crowned a goddess that day (I can crown myself, right?), I will never sail in those kinds of winds again, unless I’m prepared. It wasn’t the wind or the waves that was so dangerous–it was moving forward out of my safe cockpit and onto the deck, where I could easily have been knocked overboard and into the water, that was the real source of peril. Fortunately there are a few simple things that can be done so I never have to leave the cockpit. I can route the main line back to the cockpit using existing hardware, as I have an unused winch there, which was meant for the spinnaker (which I cannot single-hand). I can also modify the jib line so that it can not only be raised, but lowered by force, not gravity or by me pulling on the sail directly. I’m not totally clear on how this can be executed, but Al and Jonathan know how to get this done. Thank goodness. Finally, lazy jacks would be great, as then the mainsail wouldn’t get into my way after it’s been dropped.

Most importantly though, I need to learn a few more sailing maneuvers like how to reef my mainsail, and heaving to. Both simple tactics that will keep me safe during high winds.

Cruising Bug

What I do want to do again is sail away. I cannot wait for next summer, when I can take my home to the San Juan Islands, Vancouver, BC, or even just a quick stay in Downtown Seattle. It’s really a neat thing to live in such a small, moveable space. I can travel with my home, and experience adventure anywhere.


  1. Tate November 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Awesome story! I’ll chime in on something that you might be interested in. We’re new sailors too but the boat we purchased was sailed by some very experienced sailors. As such, they fitted out the boat and we’re just maintaining what they’ve done. This has been beneficial to us because there are modifications we’d have never thought of. I’ll share a few with you.

    1) Our jib has a downhaul. It looks super easy to rig if you don’t have one. Essentially you just add a line to the jib halyard right where it connects to the top of the jib. This line passes through a block at the bow of the boat (you’d have to add one) and then runs back to the cockpit. If you need to take down the jib all you have to do is release the jib halyard and then from the cockpit pull on the downhaul. It will pull the sail from the top most point downwards. Easy peasy.

    2) If you’re worried about gybes while running downwind in nasty conditions… You can rig a boom preventer. Its just a line that goes from the end of the boom to the bow on the leeward side of the boat. If the boom tries to gybe it will hit the end of the line and not be able to go past. You want the line at the end of the boom because it is strongest there and to the bow since you’ll give the line the best angle to hold it in place. You’d use a strong but stretchy line for that. Makes going forward much less scary knowing you’re not going to be knocked on the noggin!

    Peace and fair winds,

    1. Courtney November 2, 2011 at 11:30 am

      A downhaul! That’s what Al was talking about for the jib. Yes, I’m SOOOOO getting one of those. A boom preventer sounds good as well, thanks for that Tate!

  2. Jonathan November 2, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Great Story! I am glad I was there first hand for it too. Had an awesome time.You are quite the sailor, and I can confirm your rockstar status!! Jonathan

    1. Courtney November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      It was an amazing time, probably due to our amazingness. Thanks for helping me redefine cool!

  3. Jaye November 5, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Great story! And I second the boom preventer and downhaul idea.

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  7. Stuart March 15, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Nice story, Courtney. You write for non-sailors as well as sailors, which is in itself a “Nice job, Courtney.” I sail your waters, and my wife and I are friends of Al and Becca’s, so the finale was a bit of a recognition as well as an apotheosis. I’m in the beginnings of Jaden Baker, and enjoying it. Keep sailing for yourself, and writing about it for us.

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