THANK YOU! My little eight-day odyssey is over, I’ve arrived in Ladysmith. Many of you sent notes of concern and well wishes. I am very touched and thank you all. The next two blogs will describe my little adventure.
Sunday morning, December 13th, 06:30. Viscous dark, flat calm, barometer steady. I’ve spent the whole night in my bunk sleeping fitfully, waiting for a forecast wind which hasn’t come. As soon as my coffee is finished, I’ll tidy the decks and cast off. Six months of my life in Shearwater are now in the rear-view mirror. I’m just as broke as when I arrived but richer for having made some fine friends and the intimacy one achieves by staying long enough to know a place and its people. It is time to move on, my aching bones demand release from the dampness here. I swear some days you can wring moisture from any handful of air. I’m hot feeling good about any of this, going or staying, but the die is cast. I think I’m getting a cold but I can be just as sick down there somewhere as I can hanging around here. I’m on my way.
At first the autohelm won’t work properly. I’ve been concerned about the massive load of steel tools stowed near the autohelm flux compass. I’m dreading to have to hand-steer the whole trip. The further we go the better the device works and I’m beginning to suspect there may be some magnetic anomaly in the area. An hour south everything is fine. The day begins to brighten, despite windy-looking clouds. There is just enough breeze for me to run out the jib. I keep an eye on the barometer. It climbs rapidly, a few millibars each hour. The rate of change is alarming, a harbinger of sudden high winds. It comes from the northwest, cold and damp, clean air from Siberia perhaps. I retreat into the warmth of the cabin where the little furnace chuffs out a steady supply of toasty air. I once scoffed at such decadence, stoically enduring endless hours in an open cockpit bundled up like a pile of wet laundry. Now I have these achy bones and joints to show for all that manliness. I guess it’s my English blood that demanded such masochism but I’ve decided the romance of the sea doesn’t always have to be something that feels good only when you stop.
I began to contemplate raising more sails, but there is a storm warning posted. It will come quickly. Sure enough the wind picks up as the tide turns against it. I take a quick turn through Namu, the abandoned fish plant so nostalgically famous to many commercial fishermen. The whole site is in ruins and I hurry on my way. I’m not staying here, it’s eerie and depressing. The endless miles of untouched forest are far less lonely than these ghost communities. I wonder at the tremendous investment so hurriedly left behind. Tongue in cheek I observe that many of the buildings seem in reasonable condition. Perhaps this would make a great rehab location. Refurbishing the housing could be part of the process. Yeah right!
A few miles down the coast is a spot called Koeye Bay, a revered location at the mouth of a beautiful river where the Heiltsuk have built a new “Big House.” The tiny bay is now on an exposed lee shore and the minutes of remaining daylight are roaring by. Sadly, I go past after planning all summer to visit. Next year! Soon the wind is blowing storm force and gusting over fifty. Some waves are four metres tall and almost that close together. It is always stunning to see how quickly the seas can build. All that energy!
Foolishly, I have left my inflatable boat hanging in it’s davits with the outboard mounted and the little boat full of gear. I constantly admonish other people not to do this. A stern-slung dinghy is susceptible to being caught and filled with water, or torn off the mother vessel and inflicting serious damage in the process. Now here I am with no place to go except straight downwind. Fool! The only places to seek shelter have very narrow entrances. I’m not going to charge through a line of building beach surf attempting an unknown entrance. By now a rogue wave has flipped my beautiful Achilles dinghy out of one of its slings. I’m dragging the bow of the inflatable sideways through the foaming sea. I fear the rest of the davit system is going to snap at any moment and I’m about to lose a very valuable hypalon boat and my outboard motor. I managed to rig a temporary sling with the dinghy’s painter. Somehow that held for the next ten miles and tonight I’m sitting in a placid anchorage with everything put right. All’s well that ends. I did lose some gear from the dinghy, a small price to pay for my stupidity. The joy of the day was to experience how old ‘Seafire’ held her own in the nastiest seas I’ve ever had her in. She rode and handled like a magic carpet. This vessel is a superb sea boat. I am thrilled. The autohelm performed flawlessly even in the big following seas, an ultimate test.
Monday morning arrives with the sky beginning to brighten by eight o’clock. The anchorage I chose is tucked into the side of Illahie Inlet; it was as calm as cream. The sky is cloudless. Last night’s stars burned brilliantly and everything is coated with a heavy frost. Now it is time to sneak out of one of the narrow entrances. I’m hoping for the safety of Port Hardy tonight. We’ll see what fortunes the gods have in store.
Happiness is Cape Caution in the rear view mirror. The barometer sprang up and then down as a warm high pushed its way ashore. The straight edge of the warmer overcast passed by overhead at a phenomenal speed. Entering Queen Charlotte Strait from Queen Charlotte Sound can leave a person feeling like a bug in a washing machine. Water from the open North Pacific has been moving this way for thousands of miles. Now that energy has to dissipate on our rocky shores. Tide and wind have been moving other bodies of water up and down Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, Fitz Hugh Channel and the many deep inlets which penetrate far into the mainland. Billions of tons of water are constantly colliding and mixing as the world goes on spinning around. It is not a place for the timid or for landlubbers. However without humility and respect for mother ocean she’ll administer some indelible slap therapy to the careless and insolent.
The coast mountains were crusted with a thick mantle of fresh snow, as brilliant as the exploding surf on the black rock foreshore. Mount Buxton, on Calvert Island, only 3325 feet above sea level was spectacular. The miles and landmarks crawled past. Opening my fridge is an old skill learned in my tug boat days. Open the door when that side of the boat is rolling away. Grab, slam and lock before the boat begins to roll back. If the door isn’t closed in time, the fridge projectile-vomits its shattering splattering contents at your feet.
Tonight finds me in another placid anchorage. This time it is on the side of Slingsby Channel, near the world- famous Nakwakto Rapids. They are second only in ferocity to the Maelstrom in Norway. The maximum velocity in today’s tide book is 13.5 knots! Even in this secure bay, a few miles from the narrows, a boil of tide reaches in occasionally and spins the boat on its anchor I awake each time to the rumble of the anchor chain on the rocky bottom below.
I’ve chosen the mainland side of Queen Charlotte Strait instead of crossing to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island as I’d first planned. The weather is forecast to bring a series of strong southeasterly winds. Hopefully I can tip-toe southward along the old log-towing routes that twist and meander along a labyrinth of mainland channels and inlets. It is a tortuous route but certainly beats sitting and waiting for favourable weather which may not come. I once sat for nearly three weeks aboard a tugboat with four other restless rednecks waiting for the wind to drop enough to make towing logs possible. It is fine to talk to yourself, it is even alright to answer; so long as you remain aware of who it is answering. Now then, if only that invisible dog would stop barking.
December 15th, Tuesday morning, 06:00. This was to be my last day of work at Shearwater, but here I am well below Cape Caution with one last leg on the open sea before dodging into the shelter of interconnecting waterways and inlets which will take me south to the Strait Of Georgia. There is one short stretch in Johnstone Strait and, of course, a few tidal bores, but I’m back in home waters. With a quick transit down the tidal ditch that is called Schooner Channel I found myself back out on the rock ‘n roll of Queen Charlotte Strait. I love the feel of the open water. These are swells with a feel of the shore to them. Further off the coast they become more rhythmic. There is a lovely cadence of climb, glide and surf and it can carry one all the way to Hawaii or Mexico or anywhere beyond. Fresh coconuts anyone? Instead I’m heading southward for the shelter of Wells Passage. The forecast is for sou’east gales so I’ll forgo Port Hardy and stick to the mainland side. I pass within 12 miles of the town and can actually grab a bar of cell service but opt for my solitude and frugality. I know that if I go to Port “Hardly” money will vaporize right out of my pocket. The only money-management scheme this sailor seems to understand is to stay at sea.
If I were to find myself weather-bound there for several days, the moorage alone could be horrific. Besides, it is a glorious day to be out here. Such a wonderful thing to want to be no other place than right where you are at the moment. I‘m savouring it, the days ahead may not be so pleasant. The seas gently ease, and as always, the light in this region is incredible. Even with a lowering overcast the sun has the whole world glowing. My cameras whirred. Because of the blur of the boat’s motion in this low light, only one photo in ten will survive editing. In early afternoon I pass Numas Islands, I often referred to it while on the tugs as “Numb Ass.” Take that as you will. It seems an old friend today.
Eventually I sneak into Monday Anchorage on Mars Island, just one tiny piece in the jigsaw puzzle of islands and waterways. I’m greeted by a pod of Orcas. A perfect end to a perfect day. The boat has once again performed flawlessly, even when bonking the ubiquitous wood debris in the water. I marvel how there aren’t more strikes. Somehow my worries about what lays ahead ease for the moment. I’m at sea, I’m at peace. There are subtle changes to the forest and the shoreline as the journey progresses southward. I can never exactly define the evolution of topography and forest but it is indeed an incredible trip. Everyone should undertake this at least once in their lifetime. It leaves one fully aware of how tiny we are.
Wednesday morning, day four, finds me up long before dawn pecking away at this laptop while I savour a mug of hot, thick black coffee. Again the stars burn and throb in a cloudless sky. The forecast is indeed for prolonged strong southeast winds. I’ve made the right choice. I’d as soon stay here, I love the tranquillity and the sense of being embraced by both the emerald sea and forest but in a few minutes the engine will shudder to life, the anchor chain will rattle aboard, and off this old boat and its skipper will go to see what’s around the next corner, and the next. There are plenty of those ahead.
Dozens of corners later finds me in Port Neville, on the edge of Johnstone Strait. I ran out of daylight here, only 5 miles short of being able to turn out of the Strait into the next Labyrinth which will provide reasonably sheltered water all the way to the Strait of Georgia. I travel the routes I’ve know as a tug boater and realize how much I love this particular part of the coast. It is a transition zone where the thick cedar jungle becomes predominantly fir, the rocks have a different colour, the light is different, there are a few more moments of daylight. There’s always a delight. Today it was a pod of dolphins who joined the boat on and off for several hours. Always a good omen, they cheered me immensely. Earlier, as I passed Gilford, a remote first nations village, a crow landed on the foredeck and then peered intently in through the windshield at me. He then hopped along the side deck, turned his back to me and leisurely surveyed his kingdom from his royal barge. Parochial superstition often indicts crows as souls of the dead, and generally regards them as harbingers of darkness. I was happy to accept this character’s trust and disregard. Usually crows never take their eyes off you, ever! And so I passed on through the kingdom of underwater angels, the dolphins. I’ll accept whatever blessing comes my way.
I once passed Gilford almost daily. Cramer Pass was part of our route back and forth to the fish plant. I was engineer on a fish packer. The rest of the crew were all first nations. Gully, a fellow from Alert Bay, was a wealth of local native lore and knowledge. He was delighted in my interest. I learned a lot about fishing techniques, burial islands, pictographs, dugout canoes, fishing boats native legends and who was who. His mentor had been an elder he respectfully called Jimmy Seaweed. As we passed Gilford one day, he told a story about a young boy being snatched from that dock by a large octopus. He insisted this was God’s truth and even showed me a headstone at the waterline which was allegedly for the child. I may never digest that story, but I’ll certainly never forget it. I have since learned that some of these amazing creatures will actually come out of the water to stalk prey. Soooo? Today, as I passed, I also recalled Gully’s car. It was a very large rock, visible at low tide, and to Gully’s eye looked like a car. Each time we passed I also began to see it. Eventually it did look remarkably like a small boxy-looking car. Today, with enough tide, there was a large white seal sitting on the roof of Gully’s car. Damn it Gully! I miss you old pal.
Tonight, in Port Neville, the boat is bobbing her bow in a residual swell that works its way in from the Strait. There is a gale warning up, tomorrow could be a long day.
Thursday morning, day five of the trip. It took me seven days to get to Shearwater in the spring. With the short winter daylight, and the adverse weather, I’m delighted with my progress homeward. The continuing forecast is for southeasterly gales of 30 to 40 knots. Johnstone Strait is no place to be in those conditions. It’s a monstrous wind tunnel. With only five miles to go I’m going to give it a try. I can always turn back. I’d hate be stuck here for days when a couple of hours of slogging would see me into more sheltered waters. The day is so dark I turn the illumination down on my plotter, it’s just too bright this day.
With great relief I slid in behind the shelter of Yorke Island, hoping the worst is over. Sunderland Channel leads to the first of the big rapids on the back route. Sometimes Sunderland is as vicious as Johnstone Strait but today it is only moderately adverse. The rain is pelting down and then come the snowflakes. Thick, sticky numbers, like blobs of mashed potato. They coat the windscreen but the sea spray coming over the bow washes it clean.
Plunge, sploosh, splat. I arrive in Wellbore Channel about four hours too late for slack water. The tide is ebbing and my choice is to wait another few hours or try to buck through. It is past maximum flow so the current will be easing and I dive in. My bottom speed is down to two knots which means I’m fighting a current of over four knots. I jig and jake around the whirlpools and finally break out at the far end. It takes two hours to crawl the four mile length of the channel but now I can tackle the next set of rapids just as they turn in a favourable direction. At the end of this pass is a solitary arbutus tree. Still hanging its beautiful flesh-coloured limbs over the water, it has been a monument to those with eyes for it as long as I know. As far as anyone can tell, it is the most northerly arbutus growing on the coast.
The tide is slow to turn today, probably because of the added push of the southeast storm winds. It impedes my progress all the way through the Green Point Rapids and my faint hope fades of making it all the way to Dent Rapids in time to catch the next flood. I know I could still be sitting in Port Neville waiting for a better forecast. I’ve done well. Years travelling these waters on the tugs have me given me instincts which only experience can bring. I offer a note of thanks to those crusty old skippers who passed on what they knew.
The snow on the slopes is thick and nearly comes down to the water. This weather is great for deer hunting and I think of days like this when I’ve clambered about looking for fresh tracks under the quiet cover of blanketing fresh snow. The smell of the forest on such as day is magic and taking a deer was never the real objective. My musings wander over the topography of the passing islands. I find my finger tracing the contours of West Thurlow Island. On it’s ridge there is a lake named Woolloomooloo. It has amused me for decades. Who in the hell would hang a small remote lake with a handle like that? It would be a hell of a hike. The word conjures an image for me of a short swarthy ugly fellow in a loincloth with a bone in his nose pointing a knobby blood-stained stick at me and angrily uttering, “Woolloomooloo!” “Sorry chief! I’ll never point my camera at your goat again.”
Day five ends with ‘Seafire’ anchored in Shoal Bay. It is the closest safe anchorage to the final three sets of rapids. Dent, Gillard and the Yuculta rapids are notoriously fierce. In a slow boat like mine they must be run close to slack water (When the tidal current eases then reverses direction) but early enough to be safely through when the current begins to build the opposite way. Even big tugs wait for slack water. I’ve ridden log bundles here through the sucking whirlpools when a log tow breaks apart. There’s no romance of the sea in any of this. I’ve great respect for this body of water. After the rapids I’m almost in home waters. Only a day or two to go, if the weather eases. “Woolloomooloo!”
“hark, now hear the sailors cry
smell the sea, and feel the sky
let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic…”