Rowing the San Juan Islands in a Drake 17

Exploring new waters in the first Drake 17 kit

As I write this blog update, I look out over the Bay of Fundy off Campobello Island. The water and sky seem to merge into one gray canvas, but as the ebb tide really starts to go the calm waters go from fluid, to rippling, to boiling. The currents create eddies past points, tide rips and carry sea life quickly downstream. It reminds my so much of looking off the west side of San Juan Island, 2 weeks ago, on the opposite corner of the contiguous US. Looking over the Strait of Juan De Fuca on that first night as the sun set I thought about how familiar the waters were, but even more vivacious than Maine's, and that I would need to get very familiar with them and quick. Because I had one plan for the next several days: row and row hard. I had the use of the first kit-built Drake 17 Rowboat beautifully done by Kent Fosnes of Port Angeles, WA. The Drake 17 is my favorite rowboat in my catalog and my first design-build. We've come long way from that winter in 2007 imagining the design of a superior rowboat to take me out into my local Maine waters. Here I am about to splash into the big waters off Washington State.

 Sunset off the west coast of San Juan Island

Sunset off the west coast of San Juan Island

San Juan Island

San Juan Island is the mother of the San Juan Island group in North Puget Sound. To the west, I was able to look out right over at Vancouver Island, Canada. This roughly north-sound oriented stretch is a famous feeding ground for Orca Whales and if there was anywhere I was going to see them in the wild it was here. In fact, that was a large reason for coming out: to row a Drake Rowboat with Orca Whales. I would not take a whale watch tour; I would row my own design out to the feeding grounds and hope to see them. How did it turn out?....

Here are a couple of juveniles approaching just before swimming right under my boat!

Day 1

Today's row took me north along the west side of San Juan. I had planned an easy day rowing about 11 miles over the top of San Juan and returning via Roche Harbor. This row will take me along the west shore of the Island where the currents can be unpredictable, strong, and turbulent. I spent time gathering local knowledge on the waters, studying the chart and confirming my confidence in the boat and my abilities. I took off from a beach below my campsite and was off on my first open water row in a Drake Rowboat in too many years.

It was about 6 miles to the lunch stop when I noticed a pod of Orcas breach the surface in the distance. I ran to the boat, loaded up, and shoved off to where a whale watch boat was hanging out. I'll do what they are doing, I thought. Two large adult whales swam by and two juveniles hung behind. They decided to swim to me and under the boat. 

The Drake 17 Rowboat Experience

I would be remiss not taking a moment to mention how completely, emphatically, and most certainly awesome the Drake Rowboat is to anyone who appreciates or wants to be introduced to truly pleasurable rowing. This particular Drake is the first kit-version I sold. Kent did a fantastic job building it and is a saint for loaning the boat to me. After slipping into the rowing seat that first morning, and rowing for about 15 minutes, I realized that this boat was lighter and faster than mine was. Using a great set of 9'6" length, beautiful, spoon-blade oars is a huge asset. But we were smoking along on that morning. I had made slight tweaks to the hull for the kit version and over the course of the day this row would confirm that I made good changes to the boat. The security and stability of the Drake hull is wonderful when you are in big waters. I felt cradled and safe. Yet, on the waterline she is a long, narrow hull that slips through the water with ease. The oars mount on the gunwales directly via a gorgeous set of Bronze oarlock brackets. The hull will rise and fall with the swells and shed the choppiest water. Airtight tanks in the ends of the boat will allow self-rescue in the event of an emergency. I love this boat and the adventures it has brought to me and is bringing to people worldwide.

Return to Campsite

Midway through the row, I felt great. I was enticed to go further. That is the thing about the Drake Rowboat. It is so easy pulling, you can really go the distance. The other nice thing is that you can row into quite a current with the Drake and that is what I had to do in Roche Harbor. The views were stunning and the Kelp amazing. Exiting the harbor back into open water found me rowing hard into about 10-15kts of wind and a head sea. But the current seemed to switch direction so that helped. As I rowed down the coast, the infamous tide rips of the Straight popped up. I could go around them or right through them. I did a little of both.

As I approached the beach back at the campsite, I could see the pods of Orcas heading south again after their morning feeding. They were breaching and cruising fast. If I hadn't just rowed 14 miles I would have gone out to join the three kayakers enjoying the show. They were so close! But then again, I could just watch from shore as I massaged my hands and felt the rush of a glorious day of rowing course through my veins.

 The Drake 17 Rowboat after a great day.

The Drake 17 Rowboat after a great day.