Luna-killer General Jackson nearly does in Aurora and crew

Now that we’re safely back in home waters, it’s time to tell the cautionary tale of our rounding of Cape Caution.  Cape Caution is a promontory that extends into  open water halfway up the coast of British Columbia just beyond the northern tip of Vancouver Island.  Our Waggoner’s Cruising Guide explains:  Although the distance in open water is only 40 miles, the seas can be high and steep.  The bottom shoals from 100+ fathoms (600 feet) off the continental shelf to 20-70 fathoms in Queen Charlotte Sound, causing seas to heap up.  The problem is made worse when these seas are met by outflowing ebb currents from Queen Charlotte Strait, Smith Sound, Rivers Inlet and Fitz Huge Sound.  

The trickiest part of the Inside Passage is rounding Cape Caution.
The trickiest part of the Inside Passage is rounding Cape Caution.

We celebrated our first rounding of Cape Caution in 2009  and have since done five more, each time building on experience and planning with extreme pre-Caution.   So only after considering weather, lighthouse and buoy reports, time and direction of tidal exchange, and reports of swell heights, do we make our decision to go –  to leave lovely Fury Cove  –  Everything conspires for an 5:30 am departure.

There is fog, of course, but fog goes with the calm of early morning before the winds come up.  With three of us on duty this time, we were in good stead.  In the  cockpit, Jack manages navigation, checking paper and electronic charts and AIS, the Automatic Identification System with which large boats are required to announce their position, bearing and TCPA, the Time of Closest Point of Approach.  When AIS signals that we are approaching and need to pass a large ship, Cruz takes over the helm and Jack hails the captain on the VHF radio.  He asks if they see little Aurora on their radar and if they don’t, they look more carefully until they do.  Then the two skippers agree on the best way to pass one another.  Captains of large ships are usually extremely grateful for these calls, especially in the fog.  As for me, I watch out for the smaller boats that don’t have AIS.  I spend most of my time in the bow, where I get nearly another boat length of visibility in the fog.  At intervals, I sound the compressed air fog horn for 5 seconds and, away from the engine noise of the cockpit, listen carefully for  replies in kind.  Between soundings, I run back to check the radar screen in the companionway, where I keep a pair of dry eye glasses that do not fog over as soon as I enter the warmer air.

So this we do all morning, through Fitz Huge Sound, around Cape Caution, past the rollicking ebbing waters of Slingsby Channel and into Richards Passage.   But at noon the fog is as thick as ever.  On the AIS we see a distant vessel called General Jackson and when we’re within about 10 miles, Jack gets on the VHF.  “General Jackson, General Jackson, General Jackson.  This is the sailing vessel Aurora.”  But there is no response.  Given General Jackson’s speed of 9.6 knots, Jack takes it for a tugboat.  A minute later he repeats the call.  Still no response.  The TCPA goes from 8 to 7 to 6 to 5 minutes.  Since we’re in thick fog in a fairly narrow channel, we’re set up for a head on collision unless we make contact.

This is terrifying.  There is no escape route.  Assuming we’re on General Jackson’s radar, it’s best to stay on the same heading so the captain can avoid us, since we haven’t been told how to get out of the way.  Nor can we slow down and compromise our ability to make a quick moves.  When I go back to the cockpit and see we’re in trouble, the only question that comes to mind is “How do we want to hit him?”  This rattles the rest of the crew, who send me forward so we can take advantage of the extra 35 feet of visibility.

Jack continues to yell over the VHF at the ship as the countdown continues.  Time of closest point of approach is 4, then 3, then 2 minutes.  We have no idea whether General Jackson is straight in front of us or ten degrees to the left or right, whether it will pass on port or starboard.

Then suddenly an enormous prow emerges in the fog right in front of us.  As we catch a glimpse of starboard, Cruz pulls the wheel sharply to the right and we slide by port to port.  Whew!  We exhale as the ominous high bow of an  enormous tug disappears into the fog followed by its low stern. We’ve avoided a collision by less than a boat length!  And we get the idea that General Jackson never knew we were there.

We breathe a minute or two and then the tow passes.  The front of a great barge appears briefly before merging into the opaque whiteness.  Then hundreds of feet of heavy equipment on the barge blur by.  Finally we see the stern before it disappears in back into the fog.

We note the time and place.  It’s about 1 pm on Saturday, July 12th and we’re just southeast of McEwan Rock, 51º35.7’N 127º37.9’W.  Only then do I learn that Cruz’s amazingly quick turn in front of the tug, while revving the engine to 4000 rpm, was the only option; McEwan rock further narrows Richards Passage at this point and made passing starboard to starboard too dangerous.

Much as we’re exhausted and blinded by fog and just want to move on, it’s not over yet.   We’re still in the channel where soon there’s another target on the AIS, also coming straight for us.  This time it’s a fast moving boat, most likely a cruising power boat.  Jack gets on the VHF,  “Sea Chalet. Sea Chalet. Sea Chalet. This is sailing vessel Aurora in Richards Channel.”  Again no answer. Again the countdown to doom until we see a white cabin cruiser appear and disappear on our starboard side.

By now we figure our VHF  doesn’t work.  When we call the Canadian Coast Guard for a radio check, however, they come back immediately on channel 16: “We hear you loud and clear.”  At this point, Jack tells what has just happened, mentioning the names of the two vessels.  No sooner does he say “Sea Chalet” than the skipper of the cabin cruiser calls in on 16.  Jack gives him hell with the Coast Guard as witness.

The thought that two skippers have ignored calls we made in complete accordance with rules and protocol will haunt us into the future. Fog suddenly seems too great a price to pay for calm waters.

Two weeks pass.  Finally the sun comes, we move hundreds of miles south through the Broughtons, sail down Johnstone Strait, do all five rapids in a day, continue past Desolation Sound through Malispina Strait and land back in familiar Pender Harbour, where the Garden Bay Pub has good Internet.

So we check out General Jackson.  It is a 261 ton, 104 foot, 1700 horsepower behemoth of the Great Northern Marine Towing Ltd. of New Westminster, British Columbia.  (Among the random photos offered by Google Images is this 2009 holiday card.)

Mega tug General Jackson on 2009 company holiday card.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s shocking.  General Jackson is the tug that killed Luna! One of the worlds most beloved marine mammals, he was the star of the documentary The Whale and the Saving Luna campaign.  Stories here and here. This orca was known to the tribes as Tsuux’iit and to marine biologists as L-98. L-98 means he was from our home waters.

Luna was a film star, spiritual leader and cause célèbre.
Luna – film star, spiritual icon & cause célèbre.

Today I visit  the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on Washington State’s San Juan Island to learn more about Luna’s short life (1999-2006).  The J, K and L extended orca families are all resident pods of the Salish Sea, who feed primarily on Chinook salmon, what Alaskans call Kings.  They travel out the Juan de Fuca Strait and along the west coast of Vancouver Island, just like we sailors do.   In the 1960s and 70s, however, the capture of orcas for the Sea Worlds of the planet decimated their population.

There’s also a based-on-a-true story movie.

Today they are seriously and officially endangered.  There have been only two births in the Salish Sea pods in the past two years and the L pod is the smallest.  On the plus side, these pods feature a couple of frisky if elderly and presumably menopausal matriarchs. One of Luna’s relatives, L-25, nicknamed Ocean Sun, was born in 1928.  And the matriarch of the larger J pod is J-2, known as Granny was born in 1910.  Earlier this year she was seen breaching – jumping fully out of the water – near Limekiln Lighthouse on the west side of San Juan Island.

The fellow at the Whale Museum urged me to follow recent sightings – many with spectacular photos –  on the website of The Orca Network.  You can meet all our local orcas here.  And when you check the list of births and deaths here you discover that Luna had a brother who went missing in 2008.  L-101’s other name was Aurora.  Perhaps he, too, will someday reappear in the wilds of the north Pacific coast?






Things You Cannot Find on a Nautical Chart

This is partly a review but the list is getting longer.

Vessels. These may be moving or stationery. The only vessels charted are shipwrecks. One of those little shipwreck symbols can instantly de-euphorize any great passage. By the way, did you know this?   If you drop an anchor on a steel shipwreck, “galvanic action can strip the zinc off the anchor chain in a matter of days!” (Thank you, Nigel Calder)

Marine mammals. It took us an afternoon of terror in Fitz Hugh Sound to figure this one out. Sure we were very tired from our first rounding Cape Caution and the surf had come up and froth was sloshing up against every little rocky island. Still, the effort we put into searching our charts for all those frothing rocks around us! Then, ah ha! Whales! Eventually we figured out “How to Tell a Rock from Large Mammal.”

Yes, we're going to hit that fog bank.
Yes, we’re going to hit that fog bank.

Fog banks. These sneak up in magical ways. Sometimes you can see them coming toward you, sometimes they descend from the blue heavens, sometimes you have to bang right into one to avoid banging into something harder. When you hit one, your eyes hurt. In the blinding light you gradually go blind. Then your mind, rather than your eyesight, takes over and starts telling you what you are seeing. Phantoms, dangerous and disorienting.

The two guys standing in the 12 foot boat. It’s not the vessel that counts here. The boat has less footage than the guys plus no radar, AIS, fog siren canister. Until this year, our worst day of fog was July 23, 2011.  It was the opening Sunday of salmon season between Port Renfrew and Sooke on the SW coast of Vancouver Island. Ten miles offshore hundreds of little boats heavy with humans, joy and anticipation. I stood in the bow, listened for voices and told Jack when to jog to port or starboard.

Aids to Navigation. Specifically the buoys, lights, reds and greens added since publication of the chart. Or since the release of electronic substitutes with data misappropriated from said chart. Like 16A in Wrangell Narrows. Which southbound you can mistake for 16, northbound for 18. Either way, the consequences are not pretty.

Hardscape. Scan any cruising guide for the term “uncharted rocks.” See?

Icebergs. The summer of 2014 followed a dry, moderate winter. We cruised among green peaks that other years had remained white and through clear waters that we’d expected to be clouded with silt and sprinkled with bergie bits. No reason to be on the look out. And yet there they were, proud survivors of glacial calving, the largest with a waterline diameter of several times our boat length.

Mirages. “See those two islands in the middle of the channel?” Everyone does. They’re far enough distant to still appear blue grey, their steep cliffs astonishing. And yet as we continue through Stephens Passage past Holkham Bay, they’re gone. Several weeks later later we decipher the deception with the help of Kevin Moran’s Local Knowledge. When the very cool air spilling down from the glaciers through Holkham Bay meets meets the warmer air in the channel  it may produces a mirage in which distances appear shortened and low lying islands “smear” vertically.

The direction you are headed. When you’re reading a chart in the library, you’re going nowhere. Maybe I’m just being cranky. But consider the on-board alternatives. Are they any more mindful, despite being in-the-moment?  The chart plotter says you are going toward the top of the chart plotter and gives you a heading based on the Magnetic Pole.   The radar screen tells you you are moving up a straight line in the middle of a bunch of concentric circles and gives you a True heading, which in the Inside Passage is off what your compass says by anywhere from 15 to 20 degrees. One plus for charts: east, west, north, south seem to be where they should be.

Log: The Home Stretch

Sunday, July 22 49º58.81’N 124º45.78’W Lund

We had no idea what to expect of Lund. Would it be a run down, end-of-the-road industrial site with some aging working boats? Oy a silly, expensive, prettified place focussed on its historic hotel, a bit ilke Roach Harbor? It was neither.  We’ll go back again.

Lund is small with several picturesque coves facing the sea. It’s about 20 miles from Powell River, close enough to be administratively a part of that community. But the harbor is community-owned and operated. Two floating fingers serve recreational boats and one commercial boats, although we were given space at the commercial dock. An ingenious, segmented, offset breakwater has hundreds of feet of tie up space with easy access to a dinghy dock. Moorage was a welcome $0.65 a foot. Surrounding businesses include the Boardwalk restaurant, Nancy’s Bakery and the 1905 Lund Hotel. The hotel, which is owned and operated by the Slimmom First Nation, had everything we needed: first real grocery since shearwater, laundry, and a friendly pub with internet.

Monday and Tuesday, July 23 and 24 49º37.85’N 123º07.53’W Pender Harbour

We sailed down Malespina Strait on reliable winds for wing and wing. I’ve figured out how to pole out the jib by myself. I figured out how to use the the anchor snubber to keep from losing it over board and to keep it from catapulting me overboard when I remove it under pressure of the sail.

We were delighted to see they Fisherman’s Marina could take us. Unfortunately, this meant a poor season thus far for Dave and Jennifer. The level of simple service remains high. We were greeted and made fast by the utterly polite and accommodating front line liveaboards, John and Liz. It was nice to finally be able to attend to email and enjoy a beer and supper at the Garden Bay pub, despite the shock of so many boats and people around.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, July 25-27 49º17.47’N 123º07.53’W Coal Harbour

We’d phoned Coal Harbour for reservations, which proved unnecessary. Hordes of people out in the hot sun on the waterfront and in the parks, however. We visited the Aquarium and got our questions about marine mammals answered. Despite the awkward choice of days, we got to spend time with the Habibs, who hope to go sailing with us out of Port Townsend over Canadian Thanksgiving. On the last evening, Poonam took me to dinner, talked about her interesting job, and provided helpful orientation to what I need to do for PHLUSH on return to Portland.

Saturday, July 28 48º145.04’N 123º11.04’W Bedwell Harbour

We had a terrific sail across the Strait go Gerogia to Porlier Pass but arrived too early for slack. So then we did a counter productive tack south against wind and current and ended up having to motor down to Active Pass to hit it at slack. It lived up to its name, with many ferries going and coming, the largest shooing us to one side right in the middle. Jack had me at the helm and said, “Just stay on course and do NOT look behind you,” It was great to do our first transit of Active Pass on such a nice day.

In Bedwell, we seemed to lose our anchoring karma. After moving away from a boat to which we seemed too close we landed a bit too close to another but stayed on deck in hopes of telling them how great our ground tackle is. But as soon as we went down for supper, they moved! If only people would communicate. In the morning, about eight links of our thick chain chain jammed but this provided a chance to practice what seems to be a foolproof unjamming technique: I use the staysail sheet and winch to put counter tension on it.

Sunday, July 29 48º145.04’N 123º11.04’W  Friday Harbor

Just as well the anchor routine took time; some of the fog out in Boundary Channel could dissipate. No problems. We had the usual Canadian flag lowering ceremony. With cell phone data service I was able to check US Customs and Waggoners sites for updates on regulations. It seemed that a beef ban was in effect, although the Customs guy in Alaska had asked only about fruits and veggies. So we tossed our a Vancouver Safeway steak overboard, only to discover at Customs that the ban had been lifted and our dinner was feeding the orcas! Next year we’ll do research and hope that USDA coordinates with customs so the current regs – somewhat complicated in the case of Canada – are clear.

Customs people were very cordial but the Friday Harbor Customs float is weird. Large cleats are too distant to be of use and there are only a few openings under the metal toe rail. The wind and current were against me but I managed to secure the midships line to a chain holding the dock’s rubber fenders and the stern to a cleat. The official had appeared by that time but said he wasn’t allowed to help people tie up. So I just threw the bow line on the dock and raced onto the float to retrieve it. The other weird thing was that there was no American flag. Not very welcoming.

By the time the sun broke clear there were boats everywhere, mostly sailboats. A typical summer Sunday in the San Juans. We took one look at the busy fuel dock and gave up. As the places on the outer transit dock disappeared, we anchored after carefully agreeing on the best place.

July 30    Return to home port, Port Townsend.

A spectacularly beautiful and happy journey ends.  And isn’t this the prettiest town on the Inside Passage?


The month of Fogust is upon us, at least in the Broughtons and the area North of Desolation Sound. At Lagoon Cove I was up at 5 studying the charts Jack had laid out in anticipation of an early departure. But the tiny cove was complete socked in. It just sat there and hugged us until about 9. The cliff swallows that flit between the slopes and docks there all came down an hung out quitely on the boats. At about 8 the fog started rollimg out a bit and then rolled right back in. At one moment you could see the top of the mountain above the marina. The next moment it would disappear again but you might be be able to make out the faint contours of a rocky island about 300 feet out in the cove. And it went on like that. It wasn’t acting like any fog we’d seen before. And it wasn’t.

Finally when it was almost 11 we pulled out anyway but soon got stopped in our tracks, or rather forced to shuttle between visible cliffs. By this time the sun was bright behind the fog, playing all sorts of tricks with us. A vibrant opaque white arc rose opposite the direction of the sun and closed in a full circle around the boat. Then another intersected it like some freakish, albino version of a double rainbow. My eyes hurt. Then the landscape would come into view all around the edges of a fireball of fog, a detached retina of fog, lying exactly where we wanted to go. But then we broke out into one of the most beautiful days of the trip.

In the wonderfully informative Anchorages of the Inside Passage, authors Anne Lipond and William Kelly talk about two kinds of fog prevalent in these parts. Radiation fog is thickest at sunrise and gradually burns off. Common from September through February, it is a product of clear cool nights. As the land cools, water droplets condense and gather over the warmer waters. Summer sea fog, or advection fog, is formed above upwellings of cold water caused by tides, currents and the motion of waves across an irregular sea floor. Warm moist air blows across colder water to form the fog and to push it into even the longest inlets, where it lingers stubbornly long after the sun is out. And of course it loves rapids and difficult narrow passages.

At Kawtsi Bay, the mouth of the bay was clear when we awoke but then the fog thickened and enveloped us. About ten, when it had broken just a bit, we pulled up anchor and headed out. The first boat of five in the bay and another 10 at the docks to do so, we found ourselves leading an impressive flotilla. I guess when your boat is older and scruffier people look to you as “local knowledge”. We looked back to see a silky strip of fog draped like a woman’s dupatta over the mountains shouldering the bay.

From deep in Port Neville inlet all the way down Johnstone Strait and into to Green Rapids, we were always in fog. At our anchorage to the mouth of Port Neville we had a good enough view of the surface to wend our way through the patches of Bull Kelp.
Once out in the Strait the fog was thick as pea soup. Since we’d timed our departure for arrival at the rapids at low water slack, we edged south along the shore. With eyes on the radar and on the chart and blowing a fog horn though the greyness, The blessing of strong winds the day before had translated into a blessing of absolute stillness. Johnstone Strait is not a moderate body of water. Summer mornings mean thick, unruffled fog right up until the gale force winds of the afternoon blow it away.

Jack says I’ve come a long way. He says the first time we hit fog I panicked and wanted to call the Coast Guard! An earlier post covers some of these adventures with fog.