Stern ties and cultural (in)competence

Through the heart of the Salish Sea is a cultural fault line that divides most Canadians from most Americans.

We like to swing and they don’t.

Smuggler Sunset
At the end of the day, our flawed stern tie provides this high tide view.

Through the heart of the Salish Sea is a cultural fault line that divides most Canadians from most Americans.

We like to swing and they don’t. They like to tie and we don’t.

I’m talking about the art of stern tying. Stern tying is what you do at an anchorage where people stern tie. After dropping anchor you run a line from the stern of the boat to the shore. This means your boat doesn’t swing, although in the wind the stern tugs at its tether like an annoying dog.

Occasionally stern tying makes sense. Let’s say a storm kicks up in Malaspina Strait and along with most everyone else you head for shelter in tiny Smuggler Cove. More boats can squeeze in when they park side by side around the edges, bows facing in in a neat circle. To facilitate the spacing of boats at this location, Provincial park authorities have installed iron rings at intervals along the shore. But even when there are no rings and lots of scope for swinging, the folks north of the cultural fault line will still stern tie.

And unlike those of us from the south, they are adept at it! No sooner is the anchor down than one of the crew gets in the dinghy, takes the end of a yellow plastic line from a bobbin mounted in the stern of the mother ship to the shore, puts it around a tree or though a ring, bring it back to the boat, and ties it two the stern. Done in less than 5 minutes.

Jack’s log offers a single note on a recent anchorage: “The stern tie from hell!”

There are only three boats there when we pull in to Smuggler Cove, a couple of hours south of Pender Harbour. With our pick of where to anchor, we choose our spot and drop.

As Jack at the helm tries to keep the boat off the rocks, I fumble with the yellow plastic line, get into the dinghy and head for shore. Somehow I manage to lose the end the line and have to go back to the boat to retrieve it. This time Jack unspools a whole lot so we can cover the distance. Fortunately, the yellow plastic line floats and doesn’t foul the propeller.

Stern tie is twisted but t
Here’s our set up on an earlier, imperfect stern tie in Laura Cove.  Note the makeshift bobbin mount, the wet shoes and socks and the fenders on the rail that will complicate a future effort that is going into the books as “The Stern Tie from Hell.”

I reach shore, get wet to the knee as I step out on a large flat rock. I secure the floating dinghy, untie the bitter end of the yellow line and scale the barnacle-encrusted cliff – just as well I’m wearing my snow pants. I find a ring, pass the bitter end through it and head back down to the dinghy, now stuck on the flat rock because the tide is falling pretty fast. I climb back on board Aurora as Jack kills the engine. We assess our twisted lines and check the tide tables.

Oops. We’re a more than an hour from the low low in a full mooned spring tide cycle. We’ve got to re-anchor and do the whole thing again!

Our stomachs are empty and our brunch of poutine will have to wait. I pocket a granola bar and head to the bow to raise the anchor. Rather than taking the trouble to open the hatch and flake the chain back into its locker under the V-berth, I bring the chain up on the deck. Then I accidentally step on the windlass motor button and manage to jam the anchor in the cradle and the taught chain on the windlass. As Jack keeps the boat off the rocks, I fetch the hammer, screwdriver and WD40. Swearing like a sailor, I eventually coax the links off the iron ratchet.

Lunch of poutine.
Our poutine brunch finally comes in the middle of the afternoon.

Finally we can repeat the process.  I drop the anchor and feed out a pile of chain. Then I get back into the inflatable still wearing my wet snowpants and shoes.  I tie the bitter end to the dinghy so the line can follow me.  I paddle out (not row, mind you, thanks to the oarlock that broke in Pender Harbor). The cliff is really high now; a vertical foot of tide has run out during the jammed windlass incident.  But with the end of this saga in sight, I bound to the top of cliff and put the end of the line through it. Now all Jack has to do is feed out the line so I can double it back.

Oh oh. Either my trajectory was loopy or the stern has swung, but now the line between spool and water is badly tangled among the spare fenders hung on either side of the $20-used-barbecue-that-has-never-worked.  Now it’s Jack who is swearing. He pulls fenders back over the rail into the boat, removing all play from the yellow plastic line and making things much worse. In the end he has to untie each of the fender lines.

Finally, standing atop the cliff like a resilient mountain goat, I coil all the line needed to reach the boat.  As I climb back down to the dinghy, the barnacles catch the coils.  Once the line and I are safely down in the dinghy heading back to the boat,  the whole scene changes.  The slack line snags on a rock and then another. As I look back in defeat, my paddling takes the inflatable atop the the half of the line already in place adding a new twist.

Our stern lines are rarely parallel.  Often they look
Our stern lines are rarely parallel; sometimes they do a crazy cat’s cradle.

Canadian stern ties result in neat parallel lines from ship to shore. Ours can be more like cat’s cradle.

Stern tying gives me cultural angoisse, existential anomie. It’s one of those times when the local culture seems impenetrable. How much else about Canadians do I fail to understand?  Does any of this behavior carry over to important differences in, say, the way they park their cars?

Voices of Comox

“Here! You should read this!”

Suddenly, a light blue paperback is thrust before me by a set of hands turning open the cover and luring me in. “You’ll love it.” The woman who’s sidled up up next me goes on, “Stories by 34 women who lived in Haida Gawai and other parts of the North Coast in the 60s and 70s. I’m Jane,” she says, snapping the volume shut and pointing to her name on the title page, “And I got these women to write about their lives.”

We’re at Blue Heron Books in Comox. On arrival I’d greeted the saleslady, telling her how good it was to be back and inquiring what about new titles for our shipboard library. Hidden in the art supplies corner overhearing our exchange is Jane Wilde, who masterminded a unique look at a period and place. By the time I check out Gumboot Girls: Adventure, Love and Survival on the British Columbia’s North Coast a is signed and waiting for me at the cash register.

Jane’s right. Great book. In our three days on the hook off Rebecca Spit I devour it along with Grant Lawrence’s Adventures in Solitude, stories of life in Desolation Sound over the past 50 years. Serendipitous companion volumes.

“When are you going to get rid of your president?”

At the Salvation Army store next to Blue Heron, I find a treasure trove of used forks, teaspoons, chowder spoons, and so many knives that I choose only the smaller bistro style ones. Ten cents each. When I’m ready to pay up, I spread I spread everything out on the glass jewelry case. The clerk wonders if I’m organizing an outdoor wedding, “Nope. This is to help save the Salish Sea! We’re getting rid of plastic at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival.” With so many schools and organizations going plastic free it’s hard to find good utensils I tell her. And yes I’ve left enough behind for a couple of households.

My colors revealed, my fellow shopper voices her distress. She looks a typical Port Townsend progressive. But she’s Canadian and Canadians are taking Trump really hard. They need reassurance.

Slowly and surely the wheels of justice are turning, I say. Meanwhile look at what’s happening at the state and local levels. People in the US are awake, learning the ins and outs of government and taking it back. State legislatures are stepping up to salvage social justice and climate action. And communities everywhere are launching new initiatives to strengthen democracy and local resilience.

“I’ve been here forty years and this was the worst winter yet.”

Jack and I are in line at the Comox Valley Harbour Authority to pay for another day’s moorage at the Fishermans Wharf we can enjoy the Sailfish catamaran races.
The sun is intense. The joy is palpable. Kids skip. Bounces in the steps of sandaled feet. Skin and ink everywhere. The weather out of the northwest seems to have finally vanquished the the unbroken wintry systems from the southeast.

The man ahead of us, shakes his head with a smile. He’s fished these waters – commercially – his entire career. Winter was bad. No, it wasn’t just imagination. Not just aging joints complaining. “Do you remember how it started? Before the end of September? Not a decent stretch of a few days until now.”

The wharf on the seawall had music and a beer garden, the perfect place to watch the Seafest multi-hull races, which featured everything from professional trimarans to small cats crewed by very agile teenagers.


British Columbians and the meaning of cruising

Our visit to the museum in Courtenay left me hungry for more local history so when we got off the bus in Comox, we stopped at the bookstore. Waggoner’s mentions Blue Heron Books so I entered with high expectations, which were suitably rewarded.

The proprietor, a woman in her fifties, ushered me to the appropriate section and started introducing her tomes one by one. Explorations into First Nations culture. Accounts by George Vancouver and crew members (with names like James Johnstone, Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey). Nature studies. A thick academic history of British Columbia. Dairies of homesteading immigrants. A new biography of Muriel Wylie Blanchet, author of the Canadian classic The Curve of Time.

Before settling on Heather Harbord’s 2007 Desolation Sound: A History, I’d asked a few questions; soon nearby browsers had joined in, making comments about their favorite islands in the great wilderness across Georgia Strait from Comox. In the course of this conversation, the owner mentioned that she’d never been to Desolation Sound! Quite extraordinary for a middle class business owner in a town with a harbor jam packed with well used boats, many are just big enough to make the crossing on a fair day and would probably welcome extra hands. Then she added, “I have to learn to sail first.”

Here it was again! That fathomlessly deep passion for cruising the people of British Columbia know in a way none of the rest of us can. Without cruising, they would be quite ignorant of their history, both of the lives of the native tribes and the exploits of early settlers. They would have no wilderness access to experience the creatures that live in their seas and on their land.

And cruising means do it yourself in a small boat. To take a “cruise” along the “Inside Passage” in an ocean liner is an utter oxymoron! First of all, a cruise implies moving without a fixed route or destination. Second, the “Inside Passage” is really the outer, most western of the routes to Alaska; it is only “inside” in the sense that it does not go into the open ocean around Vancouver Island.Cruising in British Columbia by ordinary people – recreational cruising, if you will – is about a century old. Captain George Vancouver wrote about every nook and cranny later cruisers would visit. Since his mission was to find the Northwest Passage, that’s what he had to do. He got along relatively well with Captain Dionisio Galiano of the Spanish fleet, which was also exploring these coasts in 1792. The crews of both expeditions had fairly good relations with the Indians, too, trading bits of metal for fish, fowl and game. Had they bothered to ask the natives if any in the maze of channels led deep into the mainland, they might have had the answer on the Northwest Passage. But Vancouver’s legacy is the superb mapping of every passage, channel, arm and inlet.

Vancouver’s charts allowed the British to exploit the coast for timber, minerals and marine life. At the end of the 19th century, the first settlers followed the loggers, fishermen, miners, and trappers. They included loners running from old lives or bad debts, Scandinavian immigrant families and even intellectual idealists, Thoreau-types but unlike Thoreau, unable to sneak back home for Sunday dinner. Living in nearly total isolation, they developed the fishing, hunting and logging skills needed to survive.

According to author Harbord, the first cruisers up the BC Coast were Amy and Francis Barrow, who set out every summer shortly after they were married in Vancouver in 1906. I’m eager to read their journals, though those before 1926 were lost in a fire.

Muriel Wylie Blanchet is the cruiser who inspires everyone who has come after her. After she was widowed – her banker husband presumed drowned when his rowboat was found not far their coastal home – Capi Blanchet cruised with her five children in the 24-foot Caprice. For fifteen summers they rented out their house on Vancouver Island for much needed income and explored desolation Sound and the coves and channels to the north. The Curve of Time is Blanchet’s account of the native people and settlers they visited, about their encounters with wildlife, the zen of marine engine maintenance and her own journey through life.