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2024 March 1

Sailing the San Juan Islands brings both joy and challenges to an extended family that finds kindred spirits along the way

What’s better than a secluded cove to anchor in and explore on a paddleboard?
Tor Johnson photo


Sailing is something we have always done as a family. In fact, this season I’d had the entire family­­— my wife and my Japanese stepmother along with my sister and her two kids—aboard for adventures in the San Juan Islands. I visited remote anchorages with my 98-year-old father. I’d even singlehanded with my faithful dog Guinness. 

And now Guinness and I had my brother’s family aboard, working together as a crew in a tense situation.

With a nasty rock shoreline fast approaching, our first priority was to get the sails down. Logan went straight for the reefing lines with a will, throwing himself at the furler on the flailing jib. I stopped him, and slowed him down so as not to damage the delicate furling systems. He then carefully brought in most of the main.

The author grins and bears it through arduous steering with the emergency tiller.
Tor Johnson photo 
I tried the autopilot first. Connected directly to the quadrant, this sometimes works even if a steering cable has snapped. I heard a clunk. The boat did not respond. We were still heading for the rocks, but with less sail, more slowly now.

I started releasing the davits to launch the dinghy, thinking of using the outboard to pull the bow around. Alex looked at me as if to say, “In 25 knots? Could be problematic?” 

I paused. A dinghy might really complicate things.

We pulled up the lazarette to access the steering quadrant, and found the issue: the retaining collar that holds the steering quadrant (wires go from here to the steering wheels) onto the rudder post had snapped in half, leaving the quadrant dangling useless. 

Where had I stowed that emergency tiller, I thought.

After what seemed a long time, but was probably under a minute, I remembered: aft port lazarette. I quickly unearthed the steel beast and fitted it over the rudder post. Then I started the engine.

Steering with the emergency tiller, I discovered, is no fun. The backstay is right in the way, and even under power in a relatively calm sea, the big rudder is a handful in 25 knots of wind.

We limped back to Rosario, where Logan and Brock swiftly snagged a mooring ball, and secured a mooring line. Brock, an intuitive learner, had just learned how to tie a bowline. He seems to do it better with his eyes closed. I was proud of my crew for their quick reactions when the chips were down, and I told them so. It was wonderful to see my family work together to overcome a challenge. None of us is likely to forget the day.

The boat, however, was basically disabled without steering.

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