How to avoid a rock strike


By Linda Newland

The adage about boating in the San Juan Islands goes, “It’s not if you will hit a rock, but when.” For some people the rock strike, as it’s called, comes sooner rather than later.

It happened to us one September day as we headed out to the San Juans from Boat Haven Marina. We left Port Townsend in ideal conditions: calm winds and seas with a slight current push to the north once we were past Point Wilson.

One of the first rules to help avoid a rock strike is never get complacent. With the warm morning sun shining down on the blue world around us, we were definitely complacent. We normally enter through Lopez Pass, and in rougher conditions, we hug Whidbey Island until almost directly east of Lopez Pass before making the turn and crossing Rosario Strait.

That morning we crossed early to the Lopez Island side of Rosario Strait and continued to motor up the coast. We saw some boats anchored in a small bight just south of Lopez Pass and motored in a ways to check it out.

The bight looked crowded and a bit shallow for our 7-foot keel, so we motored out and turned north, staying about 100 yards offshore. While I steered, Dan sat at the through-mounted chart plotter. The Garmin 2006C isn’t easily read from the helm, so Dan sat near it to check out the local bottom and ­obstructions.

Another rule to live by: When in open water, use paper charts, and when making way through a passage, use the chart plotter so you can see details clearly. Even then, keep the paper chart handy as a backup. Although the paper chart was in the cockpit, we didn’t consult it since we were pretty close to shore. As we motored north, I could see a marker ostensibly mounted on an underwater rock up ahead. Dan identified it as Kellet Ledge. I was a few yards away from it on the shore side.

“Check the chart plotter, and let me know if it’s safe water,” I said.

Dan consulted the chart plotter and reported that it looked safe. We were fortunately motoring at about 3 knots when the lead bulb on the bottom of the keel struck solid rock, throwing the boat into a forward lurch and stopping us dead in the water. The boat careened backward a few yards from the forward hit.

We immediately dove below decks to check if we were taking on water. We were not. Pegasus has a lifting keel, which isn’t bolted to the bottom of the hull.

The force of the hit had actually pushed the keel backward and slightly off center. Other than a big dent in the lead bulb, the boat suffered no other damage. Later, with the help of a jack and crowbar, Dan coaxed the keel back into alignment.

People chartering out of Bellingham’s San Juan Charters are warned to zoom in all the way on the chart plotter when navigating in close quarters so they can see every nuance on the electronic chart. That we did not do until after the rock strike.

Once we zoomed in on the chart plotter screen, the underwater “ledge” part of Kellet Ledge became apparent. If we had crosschecked the paper chart, the ledge would have been obvious as well.

P/C Linda Newland, JN, of Point Wilson Sail & Power Squadron/16 lives in Port Hadlock, Washington, and serves as squadron educational officer. An accomplished blue-water sailor, Linda teaches sailing and serves as president of the National Women’s Sailing Association, a program of the Women’s Sailing Foundation.

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