Weirdwater is a term of endearment I gave to Shearwater when I first arrived. It is a ‘Hooterville’ sort of outpost manned by unique characters, aberrant personalities and general misfits. I am one of them. I make no apologies for clinging to my individuality. After a few days in a large city I’ve affirmed my refusal to join the vast ranks of the faceless and mindless. As my hero Billy Connolly says, “Feckin’ beigists!”
Despite being involved with hurtling endeavours most of my life, I still have a fascination with the speed we creatures nonchalantly get around on our planet. Yesterday I started out within the nest of a few million people. It took me less than an hour and a half to cover the congested miles from North Vancouver to the airport terminal. There is no way anyone in a car could cover that distance within a multiple of the time and cost. I sat at the very front of the Canada Line Skytrain as we hurtled between stations. Two ladies in the seat behind spoke in loud Arabic. A wonderful language to listen to, both musical and staccato. It sounds as if that language is spoken from the back of the mouth, instead of the front as English is spoken. I need to develop a better grasp of my mother tongue before worrying about anyone else’s. At least today I write without the brain-addling effects of residual hospital medications and the resultant poor grammar. Within the muddle that Vancouver has become, as it morphs into a world-class city, I think it is wonderful to realize the richness of ethnic diversity and how that enhances our collective Canadian identity.
Oddly, contemplating communications, the night before I watched a splendid new movie called ‘Arrival.’ It was largely about learning how to find a common working language with aliens who had dropped in to help us resolve our global issues. No graphic violence or sex but very absorbing and thought-provoking. It was well done and kept me awake, (which may be due in part to a defective theatre furnace.) So now that I’ve survived the adventure of a hospital visit, fondled fresh produce yesterday on Lonsdale Street, watched a movie and savoured various ethnic cuisines I’m back to the blunt reality of being back here and living within parameters that are presently frozen hard. Despite the warnings of global warming it seems we are in the grasp of an advancing ice age.
My flight home was put on a reduced schedule because of a dire weather warning. After a treatment in the deicing station we ascended into the encroaching blizzard and flew north with the front tickling up under the edges of our kilt. We landed in Port Hardy in weather conditions that were on the edge then raced on up the coast with a brisk tailwind. The good old boy up front threw his IFR book out and dove underneath the clag to slap us safely down at Bella Bella in record time. This old pilot always loved flying low and fast. I enjoyed the ride thoroughly and wouldn’t have done a thing differently. (high praise indeed!)
Now here I sit in old ‘Seafire’ trying to stay warm. The forecast is for a long spell of cold weather with temperatures about fifteen degrees below normal. A massive Arctic high is parked in the middle of the continent and outflow winds all the way from Saskatchewan whistle through the rigging. The water supply is frozen, the cabin is sixty degrees inside with a forecast of descending temperatures over the next several days. The dock pops and squeaks in the cold. Well I have complained incessantly about the eternal rain! BBBBugga! Be careful what you wish for.
“ You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” — Amelia Earhart
On my last trip south I learned that I had a tumour in my bladder. Yes, you can call that a “piss-off.” I’m getting used to being sliced and diced in the name of medicine so it’s more of an inconvenience that something to worry about. I went to the lab in the Bella Bella for some routine pre-op samplings and we discovered that once again I have tachycardia. I know I’m a tacky fellow but this is ridiculous. For the second time this year my pulse has set itself up around 140. The cure is a procedure called a Cardioversion. Essentially you are electrocuted and resuscitated successfully. Hopefully the heart rate is reduced to a normal thumpalong and life goes on after the reboot. That’s why I’m sitting in a hotel room in North Vancouver. Actually the Lonsdale Quay Hotel sits atop the public market and is a lovely, affordable hideaway in the heart of the mess which Vancouver has become. It seems weird to be here after sitting in the Bella Bella terminal, such as it is, barely three hours ago. The raucous laughter of the local women working behind the ticket counter surged while really good blues music boomed out of the coffee bar satellite stereo. They’re still there, now I’m here. I was amazed to realize that while I waited in the air terminal of the remote village of Bella Coola I was emailing to and from contacts in Scotland, Arizona, Nanaimo and South Africa, all within seconds. What an amazing world we have in our hands, if only we would learn to be more positive with it.
I’m no city boy. Vancouver has risen from a somewhat quaint city to a sprawlng steel and concrete monster with none of the personality I recall it once having had. Combine that neo-chrominess gleam and harshness with zero-minus temperatures the place has become like a metal dog bone. How people live here amazes me. I’m sure they’d feel the same way about seeing my boat frozen in at the dock in Shearwater. In the three hours of travel from the mid-coast rain forest I’m on a different planet. The flight from Bella Bella arrives at the south terminal of YVR. A direct flight takes less than two hours. My flight was via Campbell River presumably to round up the load with more passengers. For some God-stupid reason everyone flying out of Campbell River has go through airport security. That means get off the plane with all your baggage and be inspected by a squad of geriatric goons wearing latex gloves. Then tyou get back on the same plane. “Ziss ischt ze border to ze real vorld.” WTF? There are no security checks on a direct flight to YVR.
It is the goofiest thing I’ve ever experienced. A flight to Vancouver is in domestic airspace and why US Homeland Insecurity is this far-reaching completely baffles me. One’s person and one’s possessions are x-rayed. Belt buckles and keys, laptops ecetera are fondled, drinking water dumped out, shaving kits swabbed. Geez Louise! I beginning to brace for rectal probes, DNA swabs and a thorough dog-sniffing. This, on previous inspections here, was accomplished by burly Amazons hurling commands in Eastern European accents. If I’m a bit non-plussed, you should hear the indignations from Amurican travellers caught in this foolishness. Some hefty corn and pork-fed hombre, probably named Duane, with an Iowa accent, crossed his arms and whined “Wots with all this shit anyhoww?” Last time I looked, Campbell River is not spiked to the world map anywhere near Islamabad or Kabul. I find it hard to believe that the friendly town is a nest for ISIS, El Quaida or the Taliban. Paranoia and politics have no bounds and I’ve learned not to voice any questions when being processed like a sheep. “Jus’ shaddup Lil’ Pokey and get back on the plane. They ain’t friendly heah!”
All that untrodden pristine vastness! Snow angels and skidoo tracks…it’s all yours. I’m not interested.
A shuttle bus wafts the traveller to the main YVR terminal where one easily finds the Sky Train connection. For a very modest fee you are rocketed into the heart of the city, the train stopping to accumulate more sardines, between high-G accelerations and stops. I found myself disgorged in the old CPR station which is the hub of all lower mainland transit. I made my way to the Seabus (More fishpacking) for the ride across Burrard Inlet. My hotel looks down on the terminal. As I write I reflect on the mass-movement of urbanites.
World-over they have a perpetual need to push and shove and try to be first in any crowd. “Look you old bugger, that seat is going to same place this one is. Just relax!” Almost all have their heads bent to their texting, music plugs wired into each ear. All this density, all this detachment. Eye contact and smiles apparently frighten most people, but because I am a bit burly, and know how to fluff myself out like an old cock owl, I feel safe to conduct my ongoing survey for my amusement and research. Even a geriatric babushka seems to think a smile may be the foreplay for some indecent assault on one of her massive oaky legs. C’mon now! I know better than to smile at children, I might just be one of those!
At the entrance to the hotel there is a Christmas tree lot where young couples painstakingly select the perfect tree. I’ve spent a lot of time in the forest, and being a logger I wax nostalgic to any coniferous smell, but there is something unique about the aroma of all those cut trees in the crisp winter air. It must be the blend of the different species but that fragrance instantly brings up images of Christmas memories warm and good, dark and painful. I move on quickly.
After occasionally sampling the fare of the only restaurant in the Shearwater / Bella Bella community it is a shock to indulge in a wide choice of ethnic restaurants and pubs. Meals are priced quite reasonably (compared to Shearwater) and the food is very good. You are not ignored if you are a single patron (unlike Shearwater) and the only problem is savouring the aromas of other restaurants once out of the one where you just ate a bellyful. I believe that was a simple essay on the merits of competition. Well, home is where the boat is and I must go back…for the time being.
I’m now writing from my hotel room after two visits to the Lion’s Gate Hospital. Yesterday I had to endure a procedure that required me to endure a phallic object being stuffed down my throat in order to do an ECG of the dark side of my heart. I was semi-medicated. Today I was given the treatment; a Cardioversion. Yes, it was indeed the religious experience that it sounds like. Once again having to dress in a bum-flapper I was wired and plumbed like a fighter jet, all the while a geeky little doctor advised me about “THE RULES ” as he plunged and twisted an intravenous needle into the back of my hand. The broohaw was about how I would get home after the procedure. I walked a mile downhill to the hotel yesterday. Today I was wheel-chaired into a bus, hydraulically loaded aboard and driven down that same mile to a corner nearest the hotel. Landed on the sidewalk, I immediately walked three blocks back up the hill to a pharmacy to have a prescription filled. It felt great! What I really needed was a walk.
I’m grateful to all the good folks at the hospital, who work twelve-hour shifts in those windowless beige and puce chambers filled with moaning, groaning patients. Most seemed to enjoy my attempts at stand-up comedy. There’s nothing like a little comic relief to stir the pot.
One nurse asked me to “Wiggle up in my bed,” then “a little more.” I had some fun with that and discovered who did, and did not, have a sense of humour. To me there is nothing more comforting than a care giver with a sense of humour and nothing more frightening than one with none. Finally it was time for my treatment, the dreaded ‘Cardioversion.”
With a large electrode placed on either top and bottom of my heart, and a light dose of La La juice, there was an instant bolt of lightning in my chest. KA BLAM! Wot a buzz dude! All’s well that ends. My pulse rate is back within the speed limit.
Now I’m resting and waiting for the morning when, hopefully, I can return to Weirdwater. There is a snow storm forecast for Vancouver tonight. The windchill factor where ‘Seafire’ is berthed is predicted to be minus fifteen celsius. The adventure continues and getting ‘Seafire’ south never seemed more hopeless. This is the time that something really good might happen. We just have to hang in there.
Out of Bagels! The grim reality sets in on Saturday morning. Seafire is now in Musket Island Marine Park Anchorage. I tiptoed in here in the inky dark, between the rocks, using radar. It is not a thrill I recommend for the end of a long day. There is an ongoing gale warning up and the dinghy davits aren’t doing so well. They are broken and twisted, unfit for more abuse. The dinghy is almost dragging in the water and I’ve got to get it up out of harm’s way. Just before I turned in to this sheltered bay I hit another damned log. A big one! That’s really good for the nerves after a full day on the helm and in a blackness darker than being inside a bear. I’ve travelled all the way from Shoal Bay today, sixty-six miles. It doesn’t sound like much. The wind rose and fell and I kept extending my destination to the next anchorage and then the next. I wanted to beat the line-up of forecast storms.
In the time I was under way yesterday some people travelled half-way around the world. Many have driven the same mileage in an hour. Some boats sailing offshore are using the wind in their favour and will knock of this distance in half a day or less and won’t have to stop for over the next half-day, every day. Boats the size of ‘Seafire’ move along at a little over six knots and that’s the way it is; a very reasonable rate of passage to watch the world go by. You can cover a lot of ground in a day if you don’t have to keep stopping.
I’ve arrived here in one day from Shoal Bay. It was a long haul, having hit the deck at 04:30 to be at the “Devil’s Punchbowl” in Dent Rapids at the precise time. I caught the last of the flood and shot through all three sets of rapids in fine style, well before the tide reversed hard enough to prevent my transit. I passed a log tow on the way into the rapids. The tug was pulling out into the mainstream heading for Mermaid Bay. There they wait six hours to catch the beginning of the next flood tide. The assist tug was on the back of the tow and all eight lights marking the booms burned brightly. Those marker lights are now LEDs and don’t need any attention.
When I was on the tugs we still used kerosene lanterns which needed constant attention. They had to be refilled every few days, the glass chimneys needed to be cleaned, the wicks needed to be trimmed. Then they needed to be re-lit in the wind and rain on an rolling bundle of logs. Then they were refastened to a steel stake driven into a log. To accomplish this you needed to pack an axe, a kerosene jug, dry matches and cleaning supplies all over the bobbing, rolling logs. If a wave splashed a lantern the glass would shatter. It was a real pain in the ass trying to keep those lanterns going and enduring the skipper’s rage when all the lanterns were not burning. If some drunk in a speedboat hit the tow, he always claimed the lanterns must not have been working. He may have been right.
I’m entering the fringes of civilization. I can can get cell service and radio stations, tons of them. With the din most of them broadcast, I actually find comfort in the familiar blither of CBC !. Yes I know, this is after months of bitching about the only station available on the North Coast. At least CBC2 plays music. Now, I’ve discovered, I’ll have to tackle the day without my breakfast bagel. I have some biscuit mix but the last batch I whipped up tasted a bit boaty for some reason. I believe the package has only been aboard for two years.
I wrestled the dinghy aboard, deflated it and lashed it down on the foredeck knowing now I should have done this before I left Shearwater but I wanted the dinghy available should there be a nasty log with my name on it. I’ve decided how to build a davit that will work for offshore sailing after my horror discovering that the stainless steel davit bases had actually begun to tear under their tremendous abuse! There is massive power in a moving lump of water. I weighed anchor at noon and decided to pass behind Nelson Island instead of bashing into the building sou’easter out in Malaspina strait.
Big white horses were galloping in the grey open waters. Those kind of waves are tough enough to run with and dead ugly to fight against. There is an innocuous-looking rock called Cape Cockburn along the way which is a very nasty place to pass in this kind of weather. I have tried it, more than once and have offered up some variations on its name which I’ll leave to your imagination. I’ve actually been driven back twice previously at this cape. I’m not in the mood for more.
Today I took the long way and arrived a few hours later in Pender Harbour. I’m at the Madeira Park wharf and it’s a good thing. I’ve done well to be here in this persistent string of storms. I’m content. The barometer is dropping again, slowly. That means there’s a big system coming which may not be just a passing blow. I’ve only got fifty miles to go and still dare not expect to be home for Christmas! I’m at a dock with properly functioning electrical service, good wifi, showers and nearby shopping. Such decadence! A visit to the grocery store had me almost gasping. It is not a grand store by down-south standards but there was a choice of fresh produce, fresh unfrozen meat and selections of everything imaginable at what seem to be reasonable prices. I’m sure I can find locals who feel otherwise. It is amazing how we adjust our expectations. Suddenly the value of the last six months in a remote community is clear.
It is has been several years since I’ve travelled these waters and I’m stunned at what I see has changed. There have always been cabins, some vacation homes, a few full time abodes, ghost communities. Now, nearly everywhere you look, there are monstrous edifices which I can see are merely summer retreats. With the cost of importing labour and material, many houses have clearly cost well over a million dollars. They sit empty, cold and austere. In Pender Harbour the housing developments are overwhelming. Their presence has stolen the whole charm of the harbour. There is a famous old hospital here, now a hotel and resort. Some of these new homes make the old landmark seem tiny. It is stupefying to me. I’ll confess a certain degree of jealousy but what is the source of wealth which defies any question about need and greed? C’mon guys! I suspect that many of the barefoot draft-dodger hippies who came here begging “Peace man. C’mon share the wealth man,” have inherited well and invested cleverly. Now they own these edifices which represent exactly what they once claimed to despise. It’s true, a capitalist is just a socialist who has found an opportunity. Isn’t it interesting how we are all capable of corrupting ourselves?
I live in this boat which has a floorspace of less than three hundred square feet. I have plenty of space for all my stuff and even have some extra sleeping space for guests. I can stand up, lay down, sit and write, cook, bath, use a toilet and usually stay warm and dry. It’s all I need.
In many places up the coast an old house has stood alone for years, once a small home for a family. Then it is rebuilt and extended or torn down and replaced. The bush is cleared back and a second house is built. Soon a tiny community springs up but it always seems unoccupied. I don’t understand the need to own more than you can use. Likewise seafood farms are springing up in nearly every good anchorage like some sort of virus. I prefer eating wild protein but I understand the need for farmed food when people are so determined to live like farmed fish themselves. An old friend, Allen Farrel, once commented on people’s frantic lifestyle and how many chose to spend a few weeks a year trying to find themselves by sleeping on the ground in a tent. “Don’t they understand,” he wondered, “that they can live in a tent all year if that’s what they really want?” There’s a balance somewhere. I’m not sure I have an answer but the idea of a monster investment somewhere out of town on the edge of the idea of wilderness just doesn’t make sense to me if I can’t enjoy it in real time out of the mainstream.. I suppose if the apocalypse does come, there’ll be a lot of free housing available out of the mainstream.
On day eight, Sunday morning the “Marine Weather Statement” was as confusing. Finally I decided that forecasts be damned, I’d go have a look. I could see home and steeled myself for one last bashing while crossing the Strait Of Georgia. At Merry Island the wind and seas were coming from all directions and I felt like a bug in a washing machine. A prevailing south wind was building along the mainland shore but the smoke from the Nanaimo pulp mill showed a strong northerly wind on Vancouver Island. Amazingly, the seas calmed as I crossed. More logs, one more tidal narrows, more darkness (although there is an extra hour of daylight already these few degrees further south) and I arrived at the Ladysmith Maritime Society docks. I was piped onto the dock with the wail of sirens on the highway. Civilization!
A final wish for a happy Christmas.
“Having too many things, Americans spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”
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!”
Saturday morning I awake in my bunk which I soon realize is dripping with condensation. It is winter time on the Northcoast and my boat was built for more southerly latitudes. There are puddles under the mattress and all the efforts I’ve made to insulate and keep a dry bed are in vain. I’ll rip the forepeak apart in the spring and rebuild it but I realize I must move the boat south even before I arise. Enough! Neither of us can endure this sort of winter climate my old bones scream in protest. I’ll sleep in the main cabin for the duration of my tenure here.
I get up, put the kettle on for coffee, wipe thick condensation from the windows and see soggy heaps of hail on the dock. There is snow low-down on the not-so-distant mountains. I can smell it in the air. There was a time when I would have revelled in this on-the-edge living but the romance went out of that a long time ago and I’ve decided being warm and dry has certain acceptable nuances as well.
Coffee made, I check my e-mail and open one from Twisted Sifter which has a video-clip of a pianist playing “Imagine” on the sidewalk in front of a concert hall in Paris, France. It is only then that I learn of the multiple horrific terrorist attacks the night before. At the hour those dark events were unfolding I sat in this boat watching a movie about a Buddhist monk and his novice who live on a floating temple in the middle of a lake. The ironic contrast of that overwhelms me. So I write this:
Eight AM. It was pitch dark fifteen minutes ago. Now the day is taking on a reluctant grey hue. The sky monkey is tinkering with the switch, give him a banana. The rain monkey doesn’t get a damned thing though and don’t even think about the snow monkey. And now we have a fog ape who’s come to visit. It’s all in the forecast at once. I torture myself daily with a visit to the web cam on the beach in La Manzanilla. I swear at times that I can smell the lime and fried fish aroma from Pedro’s Cantina. It’s January and some days I imagine that our daylight minutes are getting longer. It is not my favourite time of year.
Thus inspired I toil on at turning my small trailer into a grand little home for the road. Mexico or anywhere south seems very far off at the moment from that back-alley work site. I’m braced for an unfriendly encounter with a neighbour. Every time I need to make some noise with a saw or a router I first have to fire up my Honda generator. It has a nerve grating clatter and I feel like the bane of suburbia. Then I plug in my compressor to add to the din. Fortunately for the folks living close around there are only about six hours of useful daylight at the moment so they get the evenings off. As the noisy work comes to completion a couple of neighbours have dropped by to see if I’m OK. Nice folks!
I’ve resolved my technical issues on the boat. “Ships and men rot in port” is a line attributed to Lord Nelson and it’s as good an explanation as any. I find that as soon as a boat is left to sit it begins to rebel by revealing various weaknesses. I discovered that the circuit breaker originally installed for the auto helm has only half the rating called for, a great discovery before heading out on a long trip. Often sailing alone, I use that little black box to steer the boat. It is a much better helmsman than any human and allows me the luxury of tending to other ship’s duties while underway. It does not however, have eyes. Maintaining a constant vigil is always required. Radar is not to be relied on for objects just afloat on the surface. It is amazing how quickly junk in the water, as well as other boats, can materialize if your look-out is interrupted. You too can become junk in the water!
The fuel issue was embarrassingly simple. Once in a while you have to put fuel in the tank! Diesel engines will not run with even a miniscule amount of air in the fuel lines. One tank tends to run down before the other and the level was lower than I had assumed. To assume anything is often dangerous as I’ve once again proven. It is no big deal so long as I keep some fuel in that tank but I need to rebuild the entire fuel supply and filtering system. It has been on my must-do list. The horrific cost of a bank of new filters has held me back but having an unreliable fuel supply can be much more expensive. Procrastination can be yet another deadly sin. It was drummed into my brain early in my flying carer to never, ever, trust a fuel gauge. The port tank gauge was showing a quarter tank when it was actually low enough to let air into the lines. Most of the boats I repair are ones which seldom leave the dock. Now, my boat is one of those!
The shore power matter is resolved now that the breaker for my slip has been turned on. My batteries need to be replaced which I want to leave until just before the boat heads south. Fortunately the inverter/charger is unharmed, a major expense avoided. All’s well that ends and I’m confident that the old prune barge is in a state of full seaworthiness.
All of this is going on in Ladysmith, a picturesque little town with a vaguely English, or perhaps East Coast, feel to it. Built on a steep hillside it has magnificent views to the East, The best views are on the streets which run straight down the grades to the main street. Sensibly, they’re closed on slippery days but on any day it’s easy to get a vehicle airborne without the prudent early use of brakes.
Some communities spend millions to build an Olympic-class ski jump, we have one downtown. I have visions of a blue-haired wide-eyed senior flinging themselves in their little Asian car into footless halls of air and landing grill-first into someone’s roof or at least, front yard shrubbery. Of course that could also be a baggy-panted, hat-on-backwards dufus on a skateboard. I can see the sign ‘Welcome to Ladysmith, home of Head-Smashed-In-Skateboard-Jump’. Just past Him Tortons (I love dyslexic humour) look up, way up.
I know some of my imaginings are sick but it is fun to visualize. So far as I know there have not been any runaway vehicle events and I hope everyone stays safe but some days I think there’s just not enough chlorine in the gene pool. Town workmen had a project half-way down the steepest street so they correctly put up a barricade at the top. This happens to be at an intersection which is a four-way stop. At the bottom of the very steep grade, complete with two level bumps at more intersections, is a lovely traffic circle with a fountain and a huge old ship’s anchor in the middle. It would not make a happy ending for a failed brake story. Twice within a minute I watched vehicles stop then turn to go down the hill despite the very obvious fluorescent obstacles erected immediately at the edge of the street. Each driver lurched to a halt at the barrier and sat pondering what was wrong with the picture. It would have been great fun to set up a video camera. If a motorist cannot plan fifty feet ahead while sitting at a stop sign one can only wonder what their awareness is when hurtling down the highway. And some folks think a life at sea is scary! It is. The dangerous part is the drive to the docks.
Meanwhile I sit here tying up loose ends and dreaming and scheming and waiting for the phone to ring. A job I committed to finishing before Christmas has twice been pushed back for various reasons. While I wait I work on the trailer and the boat and the writing.
On the subject of writing, I am sadly interrupted, at least in spirit, by the grim news of the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris against the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I had not ever heard of this publication but I’m wiser now. Just Google it up and see for yourself. If you’ve read some of my blogs you know I’m not afraid to speak my mind, and that I indulge in stirring the pot to deliberately inspire criticism and dialogue. I certainly cherish the right to freedom of speech and expression but I certainly do not condone violence; it only leads to more. That vicious circle never ends. So, if you discover a hornet’s nest would you escalate the situation by repeatedly mooning it? Chances are, every pun intended, that you and your silly arse will realize a very bitter end.
I am sceptical of any religion yet I cannot condone categorical denigration. There are plenty of nasty Muslim people just as there are copious numbers of evil folks calling themselves Christian. There are also a great many human beings who are compassionate, gentle and peace-loving regardless of their religious persuasion. Charlie Hebdo, under the guise of “Journalistic Satire”, claims to be anti-racist yet it certainly appears to antagonize all religions and politicians blatantly and consistently. It produces vulgar and deliberately offensive images which unsettle even my rough blue collared sensitivities. I cannot get past their incredibly offensive cover pages to want to explore the content. To persistently insult people, and knowingly promote division which exacerbates hatred, bigotry and fear, is not journalism in any sense. It is an incitement to indignation and violence. Ultimately hate literature is as deadly as any bomber or gunman. Wars have begun over less. Surely France has endured plenty enough bloodshed in the past few centuries to not understand cause and effect.
Here, in Canada, we have laws against hate-mongering. Most of us abhor legislation but while freedom of the press is a sacred right, the price of any freedom is responsibility. Unfortunately Charlie Hebdo has consistently written a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy. They have paid a high price for their indulgence in irresponsible liberty and the business of creasting enemies. Their next publication will appear again next week. There is apparently a healthy market for more of the pathetic innuendo they produce. Sales figures will now leap. How thoughtless and selfish we humans are! Meanwhile all our information is via the global media machine which I hope no-one is naive enough to swallow whole. And with all that intense media focus and speculation, guess how many other nutters are scheming as I write to go out in a blaze of limelight.
Well, this blog is supposed to be for dreamers who call themselves sailors. “Into the ocean are all things resolved.” We have our own ways of distancing ourselves from the world. I spent today scrubbing mid-winter verdigris from the boat, hoping to placate the old girl and show her that she is still much loved. Thin sunlight broke through the fog for a few minutes but the distant howl and throb of foghorns rang out all day. Still, I swear, there were moments with a sniff of spring in the air. Soon baby, soon we’ll sail south toward the arc of the sun’s daily transit until it passes directly overhead. Meanwhile I scrub, I ponder, I dream.
We’re just entering the second week of January and I’ve already seen two incredible films of this new year. One film is ‘The Theory Of Everything’ and the second is also a marvellous multi-layered comment on many issues and is also brilliantly acted and directed. I recommend them both. Heartily. Here are two quotes from the second film ‘The Imitation Game’.
“Do you know why people like violence? It’s because it feels good. But remove the satisfaction and the act becomes hollow.”
“It’s often the people that no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
The sun finally rises above Tugboat Island. It will transit a low arc in the Southern sky and disappear below the trees in the Southwest by 15:30. Darkness will return by 16:30. We have sun and a clear, calm sky. The sea is like glass and steams in the cold air.
In the ‘Tao Of Sailing’ by Ray Grigg, there is a description of fog:
“The air silently becoming water,
water silently becoming air.”
Every minute this morning seems especially precious.
The docks are empty and silent. Surfaces glitter with frost. There is clarity everywhere. The chaos of summer gringos in garish clothing and their selfish acrimony seems a distant memory.
Jack indulges in the plethora of scents borne on the crisp air. Even I can smell a tang of fish and there is a faint perfume of alder smoke. Millions of herring and needle fish dart and flash beneath the docks. Horned grebes dive after them, filling themselves until they can barely fly. Sea lions bark far in the distance. Everything and everyone else have gone south, or are about to leave. I think of friends on their boats much nearer the equator and wonder about their weather this morning. But, I am alone here and I savour the moment.
Two nights ago, the darkness seemed eternal. Buffeting rain and vicious wind slammed the boat all night. The rigging moaned and shivered. Jack crushed himself in my arms and shared my sleeplessness. Now I bath in the crisp golden peace of perfection and serenity. For now, there is no other place I’d rather be. The day is mine!