You Never Know

Lakebay cruise - 1

I don’t usually publish the actual names of places I visit on this blog, because my goal is to get people to go out and explore the world. I want you, dear reader, to be motivated by the stories, but it feels like cheating to just give it to you. I’m going to be making an exception to that rule because I’m working to save the Lakebay Marina for the everyman. More about that later.

The story that follows (and was originally published in Small Craft Advisor in 2016) is a story about that place.  Enjoy.

The man was sun-baked, with reddish, slightly overcooked skin. I squinted at him there on the rickety dock, clad in a bandana, shorts, and a ratty T-shirt. Behind him, perched on pilings, stood a 1900s-era wooden building with a faded sign reading “Lakebay Marina & Resort.”

Lakebay small - 1

My friends and I had just tied up our boats. “Hey,” said the man, walking toward us. “You wanna buy a motor cruiser?”

He had clearly misjudged his audience.

For the dedicated sail and oarsman, it’s hard to resist the allure of briny seaweed and wide open water. That’s why, each spring, I put the word out to my crew of adventurers: it’s time for our annual Salish Sea expedition. Each year, the trip is a little different; but there’s always good fellowship and the wonders of the marine world to explore. This time it was a member of our own species who made the expedition memorable.

The water was placid and hot, strangely hot, as my crew left the boat ramp that first day. After rowing several miles and ghosting in to a secluded cove, the setting sun’s beams reached the ancient, orange-barked madrone trees covering the hillside behind us, and I felt a sense of contentment at being surrounded by kindred spirits in such a peaceful and beautiful place.

By the second day, the wind had grown, as had the crew, which now numbered four boats. The group decided to make camp at Penrose Point State Park known for its shallow bay—and crowds. I went along warily. Left to my own devices, I avoid sailing or anchoring where I might have to deal with lots of people. I hoped the park would be deserted this early in the season.

When we rounded the point near the park, my fears were realized. The wind that had been building through the afternoon was funneling down the bay in long, strong gusts and the tide was on its way out, narrowing the area we had to sail in. Worst of all, the bay was crowded with boats and swimmers. Still, the tantalizing aroma of deep fried food wafting from the adjacent marina’s restaurant drew us in. We would set up camp at the park later.

The crew assembled at the rickety docks surrounding the resort and tied up. We were nearing the gangway to the restaurant, walking carefully to avoid missing planks and splintery boards, when the sun-baked man appeared and made his offer.

My friends and I glanced at the for-sale sign affixed to a 1960’s-era boat with a small cabin. It had a few graceful lines, but was clearly past its prime—much like the man before us. Was that boat even his? I glanced at my buddies, who were clearly wondering the same thing. As we sat eating French fries and sipping cool beverages, we speculated aloud about the man’s story. Was he for real? Or maybe he had a few too many drinks?

Lakebay cruise - 1 (1)

Later that night at the state park, a cotton candy-colored sky made a spectacular backdrop for after dinner drinks and storytelling. Drifting off to sleep, I thought about that forlorn assemblage of rickety buildings and docks, and the odd man who’d accosted us there. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something off kilter about that place.

Come morning, a damp marine layer had settled in and the tide was on the move. To get back to our starting point, we’d need to ride that tide through a narrow passage between two islands. If we waited too long, an opposing current would be too strong to beat. We’d be forced to wait seven hours, or take a much farther course back to the boat ramp.

We were a little late and the current had started to turn in the wrong direction. The first sailors to reach the passage tacked back and forth and made slow headway, but they made headway, bucking currents and watching for eddies. Perseverance paid off for three of us, who made it through the passage and gathered just out of the current’s reach.

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Only our friend Eric was left behind. His new boat wasn’t tuned well enough to make it through. Using binoculars, we watched him reach a navigation marker and throw a line around its base to wait out the tide.

“Well, I guess there’s nothing we can do,” someone said glumly, and we set sail again.

An hour, later we were surprised to see that Eric had nearly caught up with us. How had he pulled that off? We’d left him early in the tide cycle, without a motor, waiting out a three-knot current that shouldn’t have changed for several hours.

Later, when we gathered at the ramp, Eric explained that a woman in a kayak had paddled out to ask if he wanted a tow from a friend of hers with a motor boat.

“I know you won’t believe this,” he said. “But when the motor boat arrived, guess who was driving it? That sunburned guy from the marina.”

As I drove homeward, I thought about how important it is to treat everyone with dignity, even if you think they’re a little odd. You never know when you may run into them again—or need their help.

A few days later, Eric e-mailed us. He’d exchanged contact information with the sun-baked man, and on the previous day, the guy had called. Busy with something, Eric let it go to voicemail. Moments later, according to the media reports, a man of the same description allegedly fired off a shotgun from a cabin cruiser at the resort, launching a four-hour standoff with the local sheriff.

“I wonder what would have happened, “Eric ended, “if I had only picked up that phone?”

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