Sunsettours hits the bay

Published on Thu, May 20, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Sunset tours hits the bay

By Jack Kintner

Dale and Tanya Johnson’s Sunset Sailing Charters are back for their ninth season in Blaine with a new location, added crew and, as always, more stories from their off-season work running airboat tours in the Florida Everglades.

This year the couple will run their business out of Blaine’s newly refurbished public pier at the west end of Marine Drive, but will also take charters from Semiahmoo, picking up passengers at the resort’s dock where their charter business was located until moving to Blaine Harbor two years ago.

They have also added 22-year-old Sarah Toney as crew. Toney has eight year’s experience sailing as well as an extensive background in boat maintenance working at San Juan Sailing in Bellingham. “Because of her I can be freed up to do a lot of other things that need attention as our business grows,” said Tanya Johnson, “and her enthusiasm for sailing helps set a nice tone on the boat.”

The gregarious couple has seen their chartering business grow a little in each of its nine years. Dale Johnson, 45, said they initially chose Blaine “because we were just starting out and needed a place where a few business mistakes wouldn’t kill us.” Now that the local economy is beginning to strengthen in reaction to area growth, he said they feel like both Blaine and their business are hitting their stride.

Johnson graduated from Ferndale high school in 1977 and spent several seasons fishing with his uncle Bert Brock here and in Alaska. He was drawn to sailing after spending some time ashore in construction jobs and finding that he missed being on the water.

“I saw an ad for a 13-foot sailboat with two sails for $150, so we got it,” he laughed. “It was just a little plastic thing with no stays that we sailed on Lake Padden and sometimes on Samish or Whatcom.”

But as sailors know, learning to handle small boats well is the best way to learn how to handle bigger boats safely. “Everything happens the same way,” Johnson said, “only in a little boat it’s a lot faster. In a big one the forces are bigger but things happen much more slowly.” What happens more slowly, he explained, is the way in which lines and sails are set when heading in various directions.

The Johnsons began chartering larger boats before eventually buying Daedalus in 1991.

After five years chartering passengers after work and on weekends they quit their day jobs, he as a construction worker and she as an office manager, and went into the chartering business full time. Three seasons ago they began doing airboat tours on a private reserve adjacent to Everglades National Park and now spend Thanksgiving to Easter in Florida, and the rest of the year in Whatcom County.

“Florida’s a completely different kind of place,” laughed Dale Johnson, “and it’s always nice to get back here, but it’s also nice to be there in the winter. No bugs and no heat.”

While Tanya manages the office at Windancer Airboat Tours, Dale takes up to 11 passengers at a time whisking over water as shallow as an inch deep at speeds up to 50 m.p.h. “We’ll even find them an alligator if they want,” he said, “up close and personal.”

If one gets too close then “there’s always the standard good ol’ boy remedy,” he laughed, “which is basically a knuckle sandwich on the nose.” Like here, Johnson emphasized, the attraction is both the beauty of the setting and the wildlife that can be seen. “In Semiahmoo Bay it’s mostly porpoises and seals, sea birds and eagles,” Johnson said, “but with the quiet ride a sailboat gives, you see, hear and smell a lot more.”

The couple’s two boys, Josh and Tyler, are in their 20s. “They figured that when the food was gone they’d leave,” kidded Dale Johnson. His three grandsons are turning out to be good sailors too, he claims, though he did report one family rift over his method of turning his family into potential crew members.

“Before our newest grandson Zane was born,” Johnson said with a grin, “everybody else in the family said the baby should be a girl, but I said I wanted a big strapping boy to be on my crew. He turned out to be not only a boy but weighed over nine and a half pounds, and I caught hell from everyone.”

Sunset Sailing Charters makes four daily departures in Daedalus, at noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and at sunset, which varies. Rates are $35 per person for a one hour ride, “one lap around the bay,” as Johnson puts it. Their phone number is 319-2695.