Rat Island Small Boat Adventure – Oh Deer!

Two small sail boats on trailers.
Getting ready to launch for our Rat Island day.
Black double ended sailboat Sparkle.
Stunning double-ender Sparkle in the PT marina.

Boating friend Kirk and I met up at the Boat Haven Marina in Port Townsend, Washington, for an adventure out to Rat Island. It was a gorgeous sunny day, late in the winter, just as the weather was hinting at spring; daylight getting noticeably longer, happy bird chirping, a few lawnmowers roaring away, and buds starting to pop on the trees. Although, walking the dog earlier that morning it was still 29 degrees, so I was hoping the sun would warm things up.

My 15′ CLC Skerry dinghy only takes a couple of minutes to put in the water from a trailer. So while my friend rigged and launched his Crawford Melonseed Skiff, I rowed around the marina a bit, on mirror calm water. There is one entire section of Port Townsend Boat Haven Marina that is nearly all 26′ Thunderbirds, a sailboat I used to own and love, so I enjoyed leering at some transoms. I also noticed that Sparkle was for sale, a stunningly beautiful and fast PT sailboat. I was also testing out a new suction cup camera mount for videos, stuck to my stern hook. It seemed solid, but 2-3 minutes later it would just fall off. It is actually pretty funny to watch on the video playback, like a passing out drunk. Fortunately I had a lanyard on it. I have lost enough camera stuff overboard.

Since there was not a wisp of wind we rowed out of the marina and started our little two mile journey to Rat Island across Port Townsend Bay. I was rowing slightly behind and turned to check our course, and had to call out a very unique warning to my friend Kirk; “Hey there is a deer swimming right in front of you”. Port Townsend is packed with deer, who constantly stop traffic, but this was the first time I had experienced it on the water. The place is going to hell.

Deer swimming in Port Townsend Bay with two waterfowl behind.
Deer swimming across Port Townsend Bay.

I really wanted to row closer for a better picture. But I recalled the history of the Adirondack Guideboats in Durant’s book, which said that one reason guides and hunters valued speed in their craft was for the craven act of running down swimming deer so they could be knocked over the head and dragged into the boat. I decided to give this unique sea life some room. It looked like it was heading a good long distance in this very cold water, and making good time too.

Man rowing small sailboat, with snowy mountains in the background.
Boat buddy Kirk rowing his beautiful Melonseed Skiff, with the Olympic Mountains in the background.

After watching the deer for awhile we immediately started trading stories of other unusual land animals we had seen swimming. He had seen a few deer, and a black bear. I had seen deer swimming in the San Juan Islands, but it was many years ago. And I once had a grizzly bear mama and her cubs swim right up to my lakeside camp in the Bowron Lakes in BC Canada, prompting an immediate climb up a tree by me and my canoeing partner.

We continued a very enjoyable and leisurely row out across the bay, the only wind we created ourselves, rowing, and out of our talk holes, sharing life stories. Midway across the bay I noticed a few Harbor Porpoise performing a quick arc, piercing the surface with their black fins. There were also a few large loons. As we got closer to Rat Island large Harbor Seal heads started to pop up in our wake, looking at us with their curious, intelligent eyes, seemingly wondering what we were doing.

We ended up crossing the bay fully under oar, chatting most of the way. It normally takes me about 30 minutes to row that stretch, but we took longer, enjoying the leisure.

The tide was ebbing strongly the entire morning, so we decided to enter the main channel on the south end of Rat Island, instead of trying to cross the shallow bar on the northeast side. It was likely too shallow. The current was moving strongly at probably 2-3 knots, and it was about all we could do to buck the current, rowing somewhat madly, trying not to let the current broach us into each other, before cutting quickly in and beaching our boats on the other side of Rat Island. Sometimes the current is so strong you have to beach it outside of the channel, and walk your boat long the shore to get inside. I once had a fun time attempting to sail my dinghy in against the current and getting repeatedly flushed back out.

Two small sailboats on the beach at Rat Island.
Rat Island’s beautiful sandy beach, with Fort Flagler and Mount Baker in the background.

We dragged our boats up the beach a bit, and put out some anchors in the sand. Even though the tide was was dropping until after we planned to leave, you never know what might happen. A power boat wake could put your boat in the water, and with the strong current right next to shore, you suddenly are stranded. As we walked up the steep sandy beach to the scrub grasses on the flat top of the island, we were met with a raucous bunch of honking from nesting Canada Geese.

Three Canada Geese on a beach shoreline.
Canada Geese

The island is a bird nesting area and wildlife preserve, so we did not leave the beach, and gave the birds lots of room. Still, when walking down the beach the geese and seagulls did not appreciate my presence, making an unholy racket. Besides Canada Geese, seagulls and terns also nest here. Another sailing friend who lives in Mystery Bay and frequents Rat Island said that the different bird clans each have their territories staked out and defended, and that she had seen baby gulls on the beach. She nearly stepped on a goose egg once. It is best to just stay on the beach, and leave the birds and their nests alone.

Four Canada Geese nesting on Rat Island
Canada Geese nesting. I had a 600mm lens, so I am a long ways away from the birds.

Curious about the Canada Geese nesting on Rat Island, I asked an avid birding friend and learned some interesting things. The majority of Canada Geese used to migrated north. But over the last number of decades they have become more sedentary, and are instead nesting around towns and city parks, which I imagine provides them with some predator protection. I learned that migration is an instinct for most birds, but with geese and a few others the nesting behaviors are a learned behavior from parents and flocks.

Mount Baker behind Fort Flagler.
Mount Baker behind Fort Flagler State Park, looking unnaturally big because of a long lens.

We each ate a quick packed lunch sitting on beach logs. And then I walked the length of the beach, while my friend enjoyed some solitude back with the boats. I wanted to get some pictures of the birds and seals, and to take a picture showing how much land appears at low tide between Rat Island and Marrowstone. While I walked three eagles cruised by. They have many nests on the cliffs just to the south on Indian Island. And snowy Mount Baker was looking pretty behind Fort Flagler State Park, which is just across the water from Rat Island.

More often than not I am out boating by myself. While I thoroughly enjoyed cruising across the bay in company, and getting to know my friend Kirk better, my experience of the natural world is different when I am alone. On my walk down the beach I reflected on just how much bird and sea life we had experienced in a mere 2-3 hours on this little adventure. Because of the strong currents and the shallow channels around Rat Island it attracts a lot of feeding on fish by seals and eagles. It is not unusual to have dozens of seals and sea lions poking their heads out in the midst of the strong current. It’s nice to have a mix of comradery and solitude when exploring the world.

Trudging down the beach in my rubber boots with camera and tripod, appreciating the sunny winter day, I was in heaven. This day was the perfect expression of everything I love about small boating adventures, good company, beautiful little boats, interactions with nature, some bit of excitement, and new experiences. Sure, you could sail a larger boat into the channel, and then try and find an anchorage for it over by Fort Flagler, and then motor your dinghy across to Rat Island to have a similar experience. But I will take a little sail/oar boat any day for local fun.

Melonseed skiff sailing with an bluff behind.
Sailing out of the channel from Rat Island with Indian Island in the background.
Two small sailboats sailing.

After my walk I returned to find the tide had dropped another six inches or so, and our boats completely on the dry. The breeze had started to pick up, and we both got an itch to sail. Fortunately our boats are so small and lightweight that we did not even need to help each other to get them back in the water. I pushed off under oars, and drifted quickly through the still flowing current out the channel, before putting up sail on the other side.

Kirk already had his rig up so he came out under sail. There was a perfect southeast breeze at about five knots, and we quickly made our way back to Port Townsend, occasionally circling around taking pictures of each other’s boats, each proud of our little craft. They are both quick little boats that can handle a bit of weather.

Double ended dinghy sailing.
My CLC Skerry with custom balanced lug rig under sail.

After a little dodging with the Washington State Ferry we headed back to the marina and parted company. I loaded up my dinghy on the trailer, sprayed it all off with the marina wash down hose, and was home in about 15 minutes. My face felt a little weathered, from sun and wind. My back and arms ached from the bit of rowing. And I was very happy. Little boating adventures just set my head and heart right.

I played around with a little bit of video on this trip, with a little GoPro-like wide angle action camera, and some from my larger camera. I learned a good bit about what placements work and don’t work on the camera, and that I needed a new type of mount to attach the little camera to the boat.

Melonseed skiff sailing downwind, in Puget Sound, WA.

Comments or questions? Click here.


Please do share this webpage URL anywhere you like. Do not copy any pictures or content though, unless you enjoy copyright lawsuits.