Last fall I went for a week long camping trip in the San Juan Islands, in a boat that I designed and built for the purpose. I call the boat the “Loon”, after my favorite bird, with some judgement of myself implied. It’s a camping rowboat, sleeps two, and is light enough to put on your car’s roof rack (though at some speed your car may take flight).

The trip was great fun. It would have been in any boat, but in a boat I personally designed the rewards were immense.

The design process started over a year ago, when I decided our sailboat needed a new dinghy. I wanted a skin on frame dinghy, so that the boat could be lighter than the already light dinghy we had at the time. I designed one from scratch on my computer and had the plywood frame cut by CNC machine.

The dinghy was a complete success, the customer (me) was satisfied on every point: cheap, easy, tough, light, pretty. Pretty comes last for good reason, but at least in the proud papa’s eye the boat is a looker. I called the design the “Owl”, and made a company (Hermit Cove Boats) to sell them to others.

“Insane person poses with his boat” Photo by Michael Truex

A light dinghy, by normal standards, is something like 60 pounds. To stow my dinghy I must lift it out of the water, up on deck, and then maneuver it onto its chocks, which are on the cabin top and below the main boom. Oh, and I have to watch out for the dorade vents and the chimney. It was always a messy affair, with some real chance of back injury. On one occasion, I nearly went for a swim. The Owl, by contrast, can be built at around 35 pounds. The difference is enormous. If you don’t agree, try to hold something weighing 60 pounds at arms length. Try again with 35 pounds… It’s the difference between a 4 year old and a 9 year old child.

Having designed my first boat successfully, drunk on power, I decided I should try to build a camping rowboat, the Loon. It was strongly influenced by Bolger’s recreational rowboat, a boat designed to be comfortable, seaworthy, and slow as hell. And the Loon shares all three characteristics.

If I row the 15 foot Loon at an easy pace she goes 2.5 knots. If I throw my back into it, 3 knots. But in the San Juan Islands if you choose your tide, you can go 3 knots without rowing at all.

So I set out from Anacortes one morning with a long day of flood tide ahead of me. I had to claw my way out of Guemes Channel, which has more current than the current atlas would have you believe. I crossed over to the Guemes Island side and rowed in shallow water. I watched starfish go by beneath me and kept my oar as close to the beach as a I could, rowing in mere inches of water. When I am stuck in an adverse current in my sailboat, I have to tough it out, but with this boat, I could get so close to shore that sometimes the current eddied and was with me. Other times some chaos would send a river of tidal current snaking my way, and I would slow down, nearly to a standstill.

It took an hour to go 2 miles, but once around the corner I was in the grip of a new current flowing north up the Bellingham Channel. I took a break, stood up for a while and did some yoga. The Loon, with room for two to sleep, has a broad base and the primary stability of an island. I fired up the Coleman stove and made some coffee, ate some cereal, and contemplated Cypress Head as I sped by it at 3 knots.

Once I started rowing with the current I was making excellent time, and before the tide turned against me I had dropped my hook in the east harbor off of Matia Island. Some 22 miles covered in comfort.

That night I was feeling pretty smug. The anchorage was all mine. Any big boat that wanted to join me would need to be vigilant to avoid the reef at the entrance of the bay. Any kayaker would need to sleep on land, and the only campsites were at the other end of the island. That was the plan all along: a boat that could take me to the crowded San Juan islands, and find space there for me to be alone.

The next day I walked to the other side of the island, used the world’s most scenic outhouse, and surprised some boaters who couldn’t expect humans to emerge from that side of the island so early. On the trip I would get used to being the strange one in any bay. This was my first taste of the strangeness. “You rowed!” they were incredulous. I smiled.

I spent the next few nights in shallow corners of busy bays on Matia, Sucia, and Patos Islands. These islands lie at the northern end of the San Juans, the northern most US islands until you get up to Alaska. They are smaller and farther from the rest of the San Juan archipelago, and they can feel lonely. This feeling is more acute lying in a small row boat, under a tent, at anchor, as the sun sets.

Isolation has its ups and downs. I think it creates something of a party atmosphere among boaters, they are all together out here, where the isolation actually makes them feel closer together. In the city, they’d bump into each other and not make eye contact. Here, they invite each other over for drinks. I’ve been a member of that club, its wonderful, but now my unusual craft set me apart. I wasn’t ignored, but my answers to the first few questions confused the convivial atmosphere. 

“Where is your boat?” 

“This is my boat”.

“Oh… Well. Where did you row from?”

“Anacortes”

“Oh my!”, looking around, confused, annoyed. A kayak makes sense. A sailboat makes sense. A motorboat makes sense. But this camping aboard a dinghy thing is too new, and people only like the new thing when they already know about it.

I think people worried that I was suffering, but the truth is far from it. When kayaking, strapped in an uncomfortable and inescapable half-coffin, I am always looking forward to getting out of the boat. In the Loon, I would arrive at an island and NOT get out. I could stand up, stretch, move around, cook dinner, read a book, all on softer and more even ground than island campsites provided.

“You must be really strong”

I can’t even do one pull-up. I’m not weak, but if rowing is making you tired, you are doing it wrong. The oars hold themselves up (Kayakers use ultralight paddles, my oars are made from an excess of oak), and the boat moves easily through the water if you don’t try to drive it at hull speed. 2.5 knots is not exactly slow, by displacement boat standards. My big boat goes 6 knots, true, but when sailing it more often goes 3. And I can’t haul it out onto a beach, or onto an island which lacks protection, and I certainly can’t haul it off of the rocks if I make a tragic error of navigation. The stakes are so low in these little boats it is refreshing to a big boat captain. Anchor dragging? About to be set onto the beach? Well, take it as a chance to go for a walk. Dragging onto another boat? Well, its rude of course to hit another boat, but good luck doing any damage in with a craft that weighs 100 pounds and is made from fabric and glue.

On Patos Island I planned for the next day, a big trip riding the ebb tide down Boundary Pass to Stuart Island. I set an alarm so I wouldn’t miss any of the early tide. When the alarm went off the familiar sound confused me. Was I back at home? As I awoke, I adjusted to my surroundings, gently rocking in the wavelets, fog and rocks and Doug Fir drifting by my tent window.

The fog wasn’t too dense, and I would not be in shipping lanes, so I rowed out, using the rising sun as my compass. Its the tragic flaw of rowing: you face the wrong way. Still, there is something contemplative about looking where you have been, instead of where you are going. Just be sure to keep one eye out for logs and other boats now and again.

The anchorage on Stuart was 16 miles away. I made it in a few hours, the tide pushing me along the whole way. Part way across a 10 knot breeze came up on my starboard side. It was fortunate that it came abeam and not from directly ahead. My big lightweight boat does not row into the wind and waves well. The 1 to 2 foot wind waves that were blown up did little to slow my progress. If instead they had come from ahead and crashed into my bow, they may have stopped me completely.

On Stuart Island I was well placed for my next goal: clearing customs in Bedwell Harbor, and rowing around in Canada for a while. But it was not to be. I was in Prevost Harbor, a few short miles from the customs dock in Canada. But those miles were across the Haro strait, and the Haro is thick with tanker traffic. Prevost lies right around the corner from Turn Point, any oncoming traffic would be hidden until it was nearly on top of me. To leave that harbor for Canada was to be a snail on the Autobahn. Still, I had a VHF radio, and AIS information about ship traffic on my phone.

I walked out to the light house at Turn Point to examine the situation. Everyone was out on the Autobahn that day, tankers, tugs, sailboats, even a pod of orcas came roaring by the point.

My plan to reach Canada was finally dashed by a forecast of strong southerly winds and rain for the next few days. The prospect of being confined to the boat, or worse, Canadian bars with overpriced beer, made me choose to head for Roche Harbor to re-provision, and then for home. I was glad to be heading back. I missed my friends.

The bad weather would be on me in two days, and I had two days travel to return to Anacortes. It would be a race, run at 2.5 knots, for no more than 6 hours a day. A pleasant sort of race. I made the most of my tides, enjoyed cozy anchorages on Jones Island and in Obstuction Pass, and continued to be a spectacle for other boaters.

On the last day, I could see the weather coming in. I knew my boat wouldn’t fight any sort of wind or waves, so I rowed a little harder than usual for the shores of Anacortes. I pulled up on the beach in Washington Park, and as I arrived so did the heavy wind and rain. I made it back just in time. I called a friend from town to shuttle my car down. I was too tired to lift the Loon onto my roof rack without help. I had rowed 90 miles in 7 days, witnessed great beauty, and proved to myself that rowing and camping in a small boat was not crazy.

I’ve thought a lot about the design of the boat since then, and worked up a new boat, one that I am calling the Pacific Loon. Like that bird, this one is smaller than its cousin. It only sleeps one. I built it to solve the problems that I found on my camping trip. I’ve just returned from a two week journey in the new boat, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.