Daily Log – from Barkley Sound to Victoria Harbour

Please note the pictures here don’t go with the text.  Just some of the endearing sights of British Columbia.

World food under one roof in Ucluelet

July 19    Known as the Broken Group, the islands at the mouth of Barkley Sound look like crumbs someone spilled on the chart – a mess of rocks, reefs, tiny islets with five trees and larger islands with pocket coves big enough for a fishing boat and beaches used by kayakers. Sailboats head through Clarke Benson passage for Effingham Bay, which offers good protection and ground and a trail that leads to former native settlements. Barkley Sound has been heavily inhabited since early times. The long narrow Alberni Inlet leads to the largest and easternmost of the West Coast cities – Port Alberni. We didn’t go there because it sounds like a winter car trip. Does the place really get 300 inches of rain a year as one of our books suggests? Need to check.

July 20   Lazy day working through the books we bought at Mermaid Tales Books in Tofino while nursing my back. I read Terry Galvin’s The Last Great Sea: A Voyage through the Human History of the North Pacific Ocean. A sweeping narrative meticulously documented.

Moving house means literally moving house.

July 21  Reading a great book about the North Pacific rather than trying to explore its 25,000 miles of squiggled and jagged coastline makes sense. Refreshed with a new sense of understanding of our surroundings, we pull out of Effingham Bay and head west uneventfully past a lazy haul out of sea lions. We pull into the pretty, interesting village of Bamfield, whose main street is the Inlet. There’s a water taxi to cross the 250 residents from east to west, where’s there’s a marine sciences research facility run by a university consortium. I’m not sure what months of the year Bamfield is reachable by the forest road from Port Alberni but passengers and supplies are delivered a couple of time a week by the old steel hulled the Frances Barkley.

We tie up at the public dock where we’re greeted by Harbourmaster Sheryl, who fills us in on the place. It’s a wonderful dock with every conceivable kind of boat, all snuggled up no more than two feet between us. This proximity creates community as early arrivals catch thrown docking lines and tie up the later arrivals. There’s no pub on the west side so folks gather on the docks, having already broken out their eight-packs on the boardwalk in front of the general store. Supper is fresh prawns from the boat next to us, seasoned with some First Nation’s smokey salt from the boat across.

July 22  With an alert eye for the ardent pre-dawn sports fishermen who don’t light their boats, get and early start. is the north end of the West Coast Trail, built just over a hundred years ago to rescue shipwrecked sailors. Today it’s maintained for hikers, five of which start at each end. We’re on our way to the other end, Port San Juan. Seven hours of georgeous coastline later we pull into the small inlet which is humming with trailerable boats from Victoria. Our cursing books have not really prepared us for the lack of good anchorage but we put down the hook not far from the public dock, which has no floats and is busy with large fishing boats. The open ocean lies to one side and we rock and roll but we hold. We’re joined by a cruising sailboat, Xi from Bellingham, and they hold, too.

July 23  After I bring up 200 feet of chain, the anchor appears with a foot of seaweed on it and won’t slip back in the cradle. I start to pick off the many layers of long, wide fronds but they break. So I go down and get the breadknife and in 30 seconds have sawed everything off in a couple of great chunks. The sun is breaking hard over the low hills to our east so that by the time we reach open water the bay is bathed in light and color and the beach campers are up and off fishing in their little outboards.

Unfortunately, the pretty pink and blue patches of fog close in and turn to solid grey within as soon as we’re out into the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. For the next seven hours we experience the worst fog we’ve ever been in. Fog is generally a temporary, morning thing that you just tough out until it burns off. So this hope nourished our passage even though the fog did not give us a glimpse of blue even overhead until we were off Race Rocks heading into Victoria! Ninety percent of the time we had one to five boat lengths of visibility. We were headed southeast straight into the sun which further compromised visibility beyond the bow.

So this was the second or third most challenging day of our trip. The good news was that we were in the best possible place: the clean, deep, regular northeast shore of the Strait far from the shipping lanes which carry the largest ships in the world. The bad news was the tiny ships. We could do real damage to an 18 foot aluminum fishing boat. And we’d seen dozens of them leave Port San Juan before 6 am, driven by the splendid warmth of the day and the lack of wind.

Herons where you expect bald eagles.

So we spent the day like this. We put up the mainsail so we could be better seen. We slowed to just a couple of knots. Jack stayed at the helm so we could act quickly if necessary. I spent most of my time right in the prow where I could hear and see better but had to make occasional sprints to the cockpit to check the radar at the top of the companionway, where the screen is more easily read out of bright light.

Every minute or two I blew the fog horn. The Xi was slightly ahead of us and responded reassuringly for nearly the first hour. After getting dizzy blowing the metal cone, I moved to compressed air and used up the first bottle in a couple of hours. We’d remembered that one long and two short blasts were for a boat under sail and not able to recollect more than that used that signal. Now if I’d been sitting at my desk in Portland and heard a fog horn blast out on the Willamette, it would have taken me less than a minute to google up “fog horn signals” and identify it. But out here we are left to our under-exercised memories. Lesson learned: load the boat with intelligently organized binders of paper instructions and the computer with useful pfds, and every year re-read basics like the Rules of the Road and Nigel Calder’s How to Read a Nautical Chart. Being surrounded by instant how to information ultimately de-skills sailors. We need to constantly be ready and be hands on with all concentration on the task.

The trouble with fog horns is that fishing families with trailerable boats don’t carry them. So my ears had to be really good. In our only really close encounter, I suddenly heard a whistle and voila on our port beam, not two boat lengths away were two guys standing in a little aluminum skiff. I asked them how the fishing was, they said great. Whew!

Of course we had not taken the precaution of having breakfast so by lunch time I made a mad dash to the galley for bread, cheese, sausage, knife and cutting board and constructed our sandwiches in the bow. From time to time we’d see a brighter circular disk and thought the sun might be dispelling the fog but again and again it just closed in again. It was getting hot. We’d never expected the fog to stay with us until Sooke, a sizable town 15 miles from Victoria, but it did. Since the harbor is tricky to enter we knew we’d be better off just going on. But since a Saturday morning in July, the first warm one in nearly a year, was likely to draw everyone and his brother out fishing, we moved further off shore. But of course without the usual hazards of wind and swell, so did they. Off Sooke we saw a ghostly dark shadow pass in front of us and several small white apparitions off to the sides. We have no idea whether or not they saw us.

One we got out of range of Sooke’s boats and not yet in the range of Victoria shipping, the blue sky started to show overhead and then the bright green hills of Vancouver Island. And then the blue of the Strait. And finally, above the clouds, the snow-capped peaks of the Olympics. And within a half an hour everything was perfectly clear.

We radioed Victoria Harbour and went on in past the fishing port, float planes and large ships coming and going in the lane immediately adjacent to ours, little puts taxis crossing our paths. We motored past Parliament and the Empress Hotel to the float the slip of our dreams. We tied up right next to Wharf Street at the foot of Bastion Square, on the edge of Victoria’s Old Town, with Chinatown just beyond. As the thousands of people wandering along the waterfront, listening to buskers, jamming the caddis and pubs, lounging on the Empress’ vast lawn (making it look like Woodstock) would all agree, summer had finally – FINALLY – started!


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