Stern ties are the wilderness equivalent of Mediterranean moorage. Both are ways to secure boats in crowded waters. Both are awkward and difficult, unfamiliar to most American cruisers. And both usually provide entertainment for the crews of neighboring boats that are already in place.
We have never practiced Mediterranean moorage because we’ve never sailed in the Mediterranean. In the Med, boats are tied up parallel to one another with their sterns bumped up against the dock, rather than parallel parked it as we do here. Comical accounts and blog posts abound on the terror and humiliation of having to back one’s boat into the dock stern first under the eyes of earlier arrivals who are now calmly drinking wine over lunch in the dockside bistro. While Mediterranean mooring makes available precious space in quaint historic ports, it’s also a cultural phenomenon that puts Americans at an uncomfortable disadvantage.
Stern ties are used in the lovely anchorages of Desolation Sound during the summer months when hundreds of families from Vancouver and Victoria make their annual holiday pilgrimages to the areas. Many have been coming for years, often in boats they built themselves. It’s not uncommon for three generation of a family to share a boat, spending weekends together, overlapping weeks of use by different combinations of family members. Recreational cruising along the coast in the gentle winds of summer goes deep within the culture. Some cruisers choose their favorite spot and stay put for a week while others pull up anchor and move on every day. Among the literary classics of the province, is Blanche Wylie’s The Curve of Time, an account by widowed mother of adventures here with her five children and dog in a 24-foot wooden boat in the summers of the late 1920s.
Desolation Sound, so named by Captain Vancouver on a day in 1792 when he must have been feeling out of sorts, lies north of where Route 101 comes to its end in the small town of Lund. Understandably, the wilderness anchorages become crowded with everything from 70 foot yachts to tiny trailerable boats. Stern ties allow the maximum number of boats to anchor safely without swinging into one another. So if you want to visit this spectacular area in the summer, you simply have to stern tie. And it’s a pain in the neck.
Once you drop your anchor in a feasible depth from the bow and let out appropriate scope, you run a line from your stern around a tree on the shore. Assuming you have enough length, you double the line back to your stern so you can simply pull it off the tree when departing. Remembering the trials of our initial visit to Desolation Sound’s Prideaux Haven, where we (make that First Mate Baggywrinkles) managed to stern tie using a tippy dinghy filled with several hundred feet of heavy soppy 1-inch woven line that normally occupies the bottom of the lazerette, we’d picked up a bobbin of cheap ¼ inch yellow propylene line at J.T. Browns in Craig. Just in case, since we still wanted to avoid doing it. On the recommendation of a sailing couple from Vancouver Island, who actually confessed they avoided stern tying, we headed for Tenedos Bay as they had come from there and not had to because it was more or less empty.
But when we arrived on a Friday afternoon in mid-July, we found a handful of boats already stern tied. Of course this is the polite Canadian way: you anticipate others joining you and make way for them. Once the first boat stern ties, the rest follow suit.
So after finding a spot not too near anyone else we circled to ensure correct depth and dropped our anchor. Then using the staysail halyard, we hoisted and launched our inflatable, which semi-deflates whenever there is no sun, which was the case. No matter it could get me to shore. To stop to inflate it and then dig in the lazerette for the seat would have just marked us as even more incompetent. While Jack stayed on Aurora and let the bobbin of plastic line play out, I rowed to shore. I landed on the slippery rocks, thankful for the thick treads of my knee-high rubber boots but cursing myself for forgetting my gloves. With the end of the line tied at my waist, I made my way up the cliff, traversing the brightly colored horizontal tidal bands that mark the BC shore when the tide is out. A green band of slime-covered rock, followed by a beige band of oysters, a brown band of seaweed flecked mussels , a grey band of bare granite, and a soft yellow green band of moss until I reached the nearest tree. After putting the bitter end of the line around the tree, I retied it to my life jacket and headed back to the dinghy. All went well until I hit the slippery green stuff and had to break my fall onto the oysters with my bare hands. By the time I’d pulled myself back to Aurora along the outgoing half of the line, the dinghy was completely bloodies, but that made my moment of triumph all the sweeter.
The morning calm extended well into the afternoon but finally the wind picked up. I sat on deck watching the emerging southeasterly on our beam push our stern around, stretching the cheap yellow line. The leeward boat dragged and several others repositioned. Instead of subsiding at sunset, as usual, the gusts kept coming on and off until 4 am. Unlike a boat that is free to swing smoothly with its bow always into the wind, a stern tied boat wiggles and rocks and the stern end fishtails. Fortunately, I had a good book to share my night-long wakefulness and our anchor held. In the morning a neighbor claimed we had had 20 knot gusts. When we found the propylene stern tie line had stretched to accommodate them and was floating in lazy Ss on the surface, we tightened them up.
So how great an idea is stern tying? Alaskan commercial fishermen evidently stern tie to avoid swinging onto rocks in the catch as catch can anchorages they use between openings. However, they are among the world’s most experienced small boat mariners. We’ve never seen recreational boaters do it anywhere except in Desolation Sound. So it remains an enduring challenging. Since there seem to be few written guidelines on how to stern tie, you have no choice but to watch others do it. These observations result in as many questionable, and often amusing, strategies as actions to emulate. And they usually say more about the calmness or excitability of a crew member’s demeanor, if not reveal the family dynamics of several generations.