Aeolian: Sailing the Washington Coast with Jamie Swick
Jamie Swick, an outdoor and story-telling photographer specializing in film, calls Oregon home. A sailor, writer, and life-long woodswoman, her ethereal perspective on the natural world aims to capture quiet moments and the curiosity of travel. Balancing her goals of circumnavigation while simultaneously trying to become a better rock climber, her website, Land or Foam, is a visual anthology of living life filled with love and wanderlust, accented by her work with outdoor and lifestyle brands.
It’s seven in the morning and we’re commenting about the heat, a whopping 50°. Outside a burst of light pumps through the Douglas Fir east of the cabin into a diamond shaped window above me and birds wrestle in the leaves. We pack up. Books, charts, gloves, lots of water. Food for later, layers in anticipation. The blustery stereotype of a Northwestern day we hoped for might not be present, but we’re crossing our fingers for wind to keep us cool under the spring sun.
I taught myself to sail after spending a month camping the beaches of Oahu and Kauai, staring out beyond the surf breaks that had drawn me there in the first place, to the sailboats slowly, eagerly, crossing the horizon. Growing up on a lake at the base of the Adirondack Mountains, I learned the magic of harnessing water for joy very young. My sister and I called it “water babies.” That joy lead to life in Raglan, New Zealand where surfing consumed my days, weeks, and months; where I learned about weather and water in different, more intuitive ways. The knowledge generated desire for more connectedness to my environment. What I hadn’t learned yet was harnessing the wind. Returning to Oregon from my camp life, I picked up some books, found a good boat, and taught myself to sail.
It was bumpy and ungraceful at first, but exhilaration (sometimes fear) overwhelms the body when your sails are full. I pressed on, in foul and fair weather. Years passed and before I knew it, my abilities aboard became intuitive. As a lady, I’m proud of this accomplishment as my peers in the maritime community are all men, and I am recognized as an equal. We’re all growing as sailors. Water is within us. Water is home.
“You have the most experience. You’re captain,” my friend says. It’s almost unbelievable. Here we are in the Juan De Fuca Strait and he’s given me the reigns in a place I’d daydreamed about. Light wind pushing across the beam of his unnamed Haida 26, we’re sailing for the first time since we met long ago. Boats united our friendship, making me grateful he’s invited me aboard and honored to be trusted at the helm. In the distance, the San Juan Islands cast their alluring name on our charts, with the tip of Canada in our sights. We set our course to make landfall there, our bow north, and excitedly talk about the vision of secluded lakes on islands we’d heard of where we aim to take dinner at sunset.
Yvon Chouinard, an outdoorsman of great inspiration to many, once said an adventure’s not great ’til something goes wrong. As newly appointed captain of our little ship, an hour into our journey I heard myself repeating this over and over again. Something’d gone wrong. A discombobulating wave took us for a whirl where I landed with wood from the cockpit snapped into my left thigh. Leaving our progress behind to turn around and tend my wound didn’t feel like an option. Above, we’d made the company of seagulls and cormorants, below us harbor seals poked their smiling heads out of the water as if cheering us on. Our progress was valuable, but rationale took over. I couldn’t be a good captain unless I made the hard call: we had to turn back. With reluctance I ran us wing on wing, back for the closest hospital on the Olympic Peninsula.
Laughing at my plight in the emergency room, my focus wasn’t heeded toward the injury or the doctor perplexed by how wood could arrive in such a location to begin with. All I could think of was the seclusion of islands we were missing out on. Would we make it? Did we have time to sail anywhere now? My friend patiently waited with encouragement. “We will!” he’d chime in, reading my mind. A few hours and a tiny surgery to my leg later, this time with dog in tow, we pushed onward for the salt water with my wound bandaged up and orders to “take it easy” from the doctor. A short sail got us far enough away from the buildings on land to a place with room for more lighthearted emotion. The wind had died down, leaving our mainsail luffing in the breeze, but we weren’t in any rush. Having grumbled about the shining sky that morning in our yearning for clouds, we’d not yet given credit to the light we’d find later in the day, reawakening our vigor. Longer shadows were slowly taking shape around us. Quietly we took pride in endless greenery along the shoreline while admiring the tiny sloops turned tall ships by the sun’s angle in the sky.
The Pacific Northwest is stereotyped in the best way. Here, you can make an adventure out of anything, even with an injury. We have coastlines, mountains, islands, valleys, gorges, rocks, deserts, rivers, lakes, and everything in between. It is a land made up of hippies and conservatives, mountaineers and cyclists, sailors and fly fishermen, city slickers and homesteaders. It’s the spirit of the environment that keeps people here and raises a curious eyebrow from others around the globe; the same spirit resonates throughout its inhabitants coaxing them to a life of stewardship for the place they call home. As Haida closed in on a resting place for us, a tiny harbor seal swam underneath the stern to lock her eyes with ours, a perpetual puppy-like grin drawn on her face. The symbolism moved me greatly. We’d strayed from land for sea water, harnessed the wind to move forward, found reward in a fleeting moment connecting the above water world with the mysterious one below. Our marine friend solidified it was all worth it.
While we walked ashore through tall grass, reflections on how much luck the day brought with it surfaced. Had we made it as far as we’d hoped? No, but we’d save our foreign landfall for another trip. And did a trip to the hospital thwart my enthusiasm for the experience? Thankfully it hadn’t. Was it long or tedious without a strong breeze to move us? Sometimes. Were we lucky, then, in the extra time surrounded by a vast landscape while aboard a sailboat? Definitely. In the end, the most important question we asked ourselves about the day was an easy answer.
Was it beautiful? Absolutely.