East of Whidbey Island, Washington, the Swinomish Slough (pronounced “sloo”) connects inner Puget Sound to Anacortes, one of the final mainland stops if you’re heading to the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands. To locals, it’s referred to simply as “The Slough” since it’s the only useful one around. It’s purpose in my mind: offering protected passage to these northern destinations when weather and current can stir up unpleasant conditions across the 18-mile-wide Strait of Juan de Fuca, the slough’s open-water alternative.
In order to make it passable, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged and diked the slough in 1937. Its southwestern entrance requires some careful navigating to ensure your bottom stays clean, but luckily the Corps also installed a handy cheat for captains: A Lineup of large sight markers. In order to keep the deepest water on your centerline, simply keep those markers aligned until the channel bends them out of sight. At the northern end of the five-mile-long trench, passage is decidedly easier, with the exit marked by a rusty swing bridge that resembles an always-open electrical circuit.
Mid-way through, boaters pass the oft-visited town of La Conner, a destination known as much for its nearby Tulip Festival as for its antique shopping and tasty brew-pub. La Conner has a first-class box seat to the ebb and flow of marine traffic, and its houses, lined up one after another, enjoy the constant stream of fishing boats, sailboats, and cruisers chugging by.
La Conner is where we find ourselves on day two of our trip: my dad—serving as fender and line jockey, navigator (or so he believes), chief sandwich maker, philosopher—and me. Skipping by La Conner, with fair weather on a cool, sunny day in late September, we decide to push forth in our newly minted Ranger 29. Our goal was to take a few days, cruise northward, and deliver this boat-on-loan to the people amassed at the Tugnuts Rendezvous in Roche Harbor. By any measure a perk of the job.
The idea of this cruise evolved after a conversation with Jeff Messmer, Ranger’s head guy, during the 2015 TrawlerFest in Anacortes. Walking away, I thought it would be a curious experiment to get my dad—a lifelong sailing devotee and avowed curser of power cruisers—to experience life aboard a powerboat.
What would it be like for him to operate a boat in comfort and warmth? What would he think about the boat’s ability to go substantially faster than his sailboat’s 6-knot hull speed? Would he complain about the noise? These are questions that required answers.
We were set to board the boat at the closing of Seattle’s September in-water boat show, but first we needed a run-down on her operation. Ranger obliged with service specialist Ronnie Gonzales, who patiently showed us the ropes of this Ferrari-red 29-footer. I hesitate to call the 29 a “tug” as she sports a markedly different DNA from the rest of Ranger’s line.
After we graduated from Ronnie’s training course, the Volvo fired up and we set off to lock out to Puget Sound. When the locks opened, we settled into the first station on the wall, tied off without incident, and then I noticed two guys on a Sea Ray next to us who kept staring. At first I thought it rude to stare, and then I thought perhaps that I had erred in my seamanship etiquette. Turns out, they were simply admiring our ride and wanted to know more about it. Nothing helps the ego like scoring cool points with fellow boaters.
Lines and fenders stowed, we set off on a north-northeast course into ten-knot winds and light chop. An hour in, I wondered if my crew missed his en plein aire sailing vibe, so we took her out of gear and assumed control at the upper helm. That lasted about ten minutes before my crew got too cold and we ventured back inside.
Despite the nice weather, we would avoid crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and instead assume a leisurely pace up the “inside,” stop for the night before entering the slough, and then head to the San Juans from there.
SLIGHTLY OFF THE BEATEN PATH
My crew and I pre-agreed to stray from the usual destinations, so for the first night, we pointed towards the northeastern side of Whidbey Island. Wanting to avoid the larger Oak Harbor and famous Penn Cove (for the mussels), we settled on the 1.23-square-mile village of Coupeville, possibly the only town in existence whose square footage is dwarfed by its pier.
We approached Coupeville late enough that the afternoon light was fading fast. Docking was a cinch, having to contend with little wind or current. Even though the 29 comes standard with luxurious thrusters at bow and stern, I tried to use them sparingly so to avoid the ire of my crew, who scoffs at such conveniences. Coupeville had no trouble with us at this time of year. We tied up—two taut spring lines—and sauntered down the 400-foot pier that extends over mud flats. We were guided to dine on mussels, but we were hunting the best burger in town at the aptly named Front Street Grill. We found good seats—every seat is good, truth be told—complete with a watery view of our Ranger, dwarfed at the dock by a Krogen 48 and an even larger sailboat.
The conditions at Coupeville’s marina were great, but it is not hard to imagine spending a lumpy night at the dock in a blow. With 30-Amp power (we turned down shore power for our entire trip), a convenience store complete with espresso, kayak rental, a minuscule maritime museum, and shower facilities, Coupeville defines small-town charm. After dinner, we retired for the evening to our respective novels. Bucking convention, I awarded my crew the forward cabin, as I elected to sleep in the double berth that resides under the saloon table, in what Ranger calls the mid-berth. As a former sailor, I stubbornly refer to it as the quarter berth.
FISHERMAN’S BAY, LOPEZ ISLAND
The next morning brought more calm conditions, with a possible threat of fog that never settled, hot coffee, and what would become a staple of the trip, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After worrying for three days about dripping even a hint of jelly anywhere on the new boat’s interior, I am proud to say we kept her spotless.
We set off from Coupeville, eased by La Conner, and motored past the least pleasing part of our adventure: the factories that dominate the landscape heading into Anacortes from the south. Our usual cruising speed wasn’t anywhere near the 29’s advertised 18-knot capabilities, but through this stretch and a few other places en route, my crew decided he’d had it with 7 knots, and leaned commensurately on the throttle. Fair to say that neither one of us is an accomplished planer of boats, so 13 or 14 knots seemed like it would do, though we only spent a few hours of our adventure with the boat up on step.
Our next stop was Fisherman’s Bay on the northwestern side of Lopez Island. Our plan was to spend one night there and then a second night on Sucia, but our plans changed when we realized we were sent off without registration numbers. Ronnie was on his way up with our official numbers, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we were happy to explore friendly Lopez.
For the remainder of the trip, my crew and I spent doing as close to nothing as possible. We read, wrote, tinkered with our camera’s settings, walked around Lopez in search of pastries. But the best times were had catching up on life while enjoying the Ranger’s outdoor spaces, something surprisingly abundant on a boat of this size.
What I first thought of as gimmicky designs onboard our ship—seats that transform one area to another, and back again—I soon came to see as brilliant uses of space. The main helm, upper helm, and transom seating, all convert to serve dual purposes.
The command bridge option isn’t necessarily a graceful addition to the boat’s aesthetic, but it is useful. On our final evening, we took our Elijah Craig 12-year (and classed it up a bit with a bag of chips and salsa) to the command bridge, flipped the helm seat over, and within seconds we had a four-top dinette with unobstructed harbor views. Not bad.
The next day, with our proper numbers in-hand, we set off on the short run to Roche Harbor. Again, dead calm conditions in pure autumn sunshine. We toasted up our English muffins and dined on our PB&J and coffee. Arriving in Roche Harbor, we tied up without a scratch or a jelly stain on the carpet.
As for my crew buying a mast-less boat anytime soon? Well, that remains a mystery.
Grab the March 2016 edition of PassageMaker to read this same delivery from the sailor’s point of view. Can we convert my father? Find out in “A tale of two rangers” which hits newsstands February 9th, 2016.