Well, we finally did it. On the Fourth of July we were ambling back south but just not ready for it. Comparing destinations with fellow sailors tied up at Baranof Warm Springs, we kept hearing Tracy Arm! This 45-mile fjord south of Juneau is clogged with icebergs and bergie bits that make their way clear into Stephens Passage. The big ones hang around all summer.
In 2009, on our first trip to Alaska, we floated near the entrance of Holkhum Bay contemplating whether to go up Tracy Arm to the Sawyer and South Sawyer Glaciers or up Endicott Arm to its glacier and Ford’s Terror. I’d been the one to chicken out and had not lived it down since.
Canadians Wayne and Randi and Americans Anna and Jim, sit us down, lay out the charts and tell us exactly what to do. “There’s an unnamed cove right at the beginning. Good anchorage once you get in.”
Cool. We know how to squirm into an anchorage.
“When we were there last week an iceberg floated in in the middle of the night and a couple of boats had to move,” says Anna.
Oh. Not so cool. In an attempt to recommend the best place to drop the hook, the four of them discuss iceberg movements. There’s no consensus. The only message is “Just go!”
Sitka and Petersburg. A week in each has reacquainted us with these two gems in Southeast, as Alaskans call their panhandle.Both enjoy Tlingit culture, huge fishing fleets, and miles of docks along which you can stroll and talk to fishermen. But they’re quite different.
Sitka looms large in American History as the capital of Russian Alaska and the place where Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867. Sitka’s multilayered past comes alive as you visit the National Historical Park with its totem poles, Castle Hill, St Michael’s Cathedral, the Bishop’s House, and the Sheldon-Jackson and city museums and attend performances of the Naa Kahidi Tlingit dance troupe, the New Archangel Russian dancers, and summer chamber music festival.For natural history, there’s the Alaska Raptor Center, a bear rescue operation, and the extraordinary Sitka Sound Science Center, to which the locals attribute their children’s documented high levels of science literacy. Everyone should spend a week in Sitka.
For me, Petersburg stands out as a bright story of immigration to America. It was founded by Peter Bachmann who arrived from Norway in 1897. He chose the site because of proximity of fresh ice from the nearby Le Conte glacier. In time recruited hundreds of his impoverished countrymen, who built houses on pylons and great wharfs with canneries over the waters of Wrangell Narrows.
Okay, you say, Norwegians settled many places in the Pacific Northwest; so where’s the story?Well, Alaska produces about 60% of all US seafood and Petersburg a good portion of that. The old canneries now house modern fish processing operations to which the catch is delivered 24/7 during the summer. People walking down Nordic Drive speak Tagalog, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Slavic Languages, and varieties of Englishes (thatfor Number 45, with his preference for Norwegian immigrants, mark them as potential terrorists from “shithole countries”).More than any agricultural community in the Central Valley, Petersburg hammers home the reality that workers like these, who willingly leave home to follow the harvests, are the heroes of our national food system. They are responsible for the food security we currently enjoy.
I talk about Sitka here; let me just share some photos of Petersburg this week.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Okay so there’s a gap in our itinerary for what cruising sailors refer to as “boat repairs in exotic places.” You have to find a mechanic, parts, and a boatyard to pull the boat out of the water, move off the boat with clothes, stuff and perishable food, manage the crew’s patience and tolerance for uncertainty, and choose whether to spend the time in a cheap motel, on a land excursion or a flight home. Let’s leave this story for some other time.
After three and a half weeks we head back to the boat. Jack carries our two bags and my backpack on the scooter and in Prince Rupert we provision a single bag of groceries, a bottle of gin and a box of wine and take a cab to the Port Edward xboatyard.
We’ve got a congenial and talkative cabbie. Somehow we start talking about Haida Gawaii and he asks if we know the story about the Golden Spruce. We do, we’ve read John Vaillant’s strange tale of the demented environmentalist who chops down this albino tree, as sacred to the Haida as the white Spirit Bear is to the tribes of the coast.
“I drove that guy and his kayak to the ferry,” says the driver says.”
“The blue plastic kayak?” I ask. “The only evidence of his disappearance ever found?” Yep.
Then he tells us about his tribe, the KitSan, I believe, from the interior of northern BC interior. They warred with the Haida for generations. Mind you we’ve just come from the BC Museum in Victoria, where the vast collections of objects of Haida material culture – especially the argillite carvings – speak of their power and vision. Everybody knows that the Haida must have been an awesome enemy.
“You know,” the cabbie says, “we got a totem in our village. It’s very simple. Just a woman with a baby and a tiny canoe.” With measured drama, he goes on to explain how she was kidnapped by a Haida Chief and bore his child and then built the tiny canoe. One night she escaped with her child and paddled all the way across the terrifying Hecate Strait and up the river to return to their village on the mainland.
Tuesday 26 July – Port Edward
Port Ed is a busy, mixed bag of a working port hidden away behind the coal and grain bulk terminals on Prince Rupert’s Ridley Island. Finally Aurora is splashed, bills are paid, and we’re good to go with full water tanks and our lone grocery bag of provisions. Just before dawn we’re off, elated.
Then we discover I’ve done something completely stupid.
As part of the take off routine the night before, I’d closed the raw water intake to check the filter, saying to Jack’ “Remind me to reopen it”: distrusting my short term memory is part of the routine. Then I figure it’s probably been done as part of the repair and grab my high intensity bike light to peer though the clear plastic lid of the filter. Yep, good to go.
On the way out of Port Ed I notice the exhaust is white and mention it. A few minutes later Jack notices the engine is heating up faster than usual and we put two and two together. I forgot to open the valve!
I rush below and open it but still no water is flowing through the filter or out of the hull. We need to let the engine cool down. Rather than add minutes by going back to the dock, I spy a netfloat about 30 feet long where fishermen repair their gill nets. Dawn is breaking and the big seiners are pulling in to the processing plant, but I figure it’s too early for gill net repair. I get the fenders out but position them way too high. Like so many floats and breakwaters in the area, this one is made of metal detritus left over from Port Ed’s earlier industries, such as the rendering plant that was a sideline at the cannery after salmon fishing crashed. At a short distance the float looks like it’s all wood but it sits on rusty cylindrical tanks which gouge our gel coat.
I tie up, pull the steps from the companionway and find a very hot engine. We need to check the “fresh water” system – really chemical coolant – but I don’t dare open the cap lest hot antifreeze splash all over me. So we wait. Finally, dressed in full foulies and goggles, I out a rubber gloved hand into the engine room and remove the cap. The tank is still full to the brim with coolant. I replace the cap. Funny how you need both the fresh and raw water systems working together.
So we decide it must beworking and fire up the engine. Alas, no bubbling is observed under the transparent top of raw water filter and no water is spraying out with the exhaust. (Nigel Calder says there are two things you check as soon as you start the engine: check the oil pressure and lean over the rail to see if water is spurting out with the exhaust. Lesson now learned.)
All we can think now is that we must have fried the impeller. It’s a spinning valve with rubber teeth. I can show you a picture but you won’t get the whole picture. Impellers are located at the base of the engine and you have to contort your body into a pretzel to get to the place. Then you have to take off the plate covering the impeller and not drop your screws into the bilge, something that has unfathomable consequences when you’re dealing with a closed system.
So changing an impeller is a rite of passage. My First Time was on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We were precariously anchored off a rocky point among 30-foot long fronds of slippery bull kelp. Sea sickening swells were rolling across the open Pacific from Japan. But I did it. And, emboldened with experience, I did it again!
Wednesday 27 July – Lowe Inlet 53º33.5’N 129º33.9’W
Now those coordinates! Write them down! That is the only really good place to anchor in Lowe Inlet. It’s stage left of spectacular Verney Falls, which feeds Lowe Inlet. And it’s not just when the salmon are practicing to jump over the falls and head up into the mountains to spawn and die or not spawn and die anyway in the jaws of a bear. What a spectacular anchorage! Two, three foot salmon thrusting themselves clear out of the water and coming down with a fantastic splash. A little the summertime thrill of fireworks, but all 360 degrees around you so you head is always spinning.
While I’m here – at Lowe Inlet – I must confess that this is the site of the stupidest thing we’ve ever done. But there’s sort of an unwritten statute of limitations on this saga. So patient readers, stay alert. By next summer the time may be right to come clean.
Thursday 28 July – Green Inlet 52º55’N 128.28.9’W
The sun is finally setting when we turn into Green Inlet. The tiny anchorage is tucked behind some islets near its mouth. As soon as it flashes 40 on our depth sounder, Jack calls it out and I drop anchor. Anchor and chain spool out at a ferocious speed, impossible to control. 120 feet! Jack comes forward to help and we get out more chain but don’t feel like putting out all. Instead I’ll sleep on deck and monitor the situation.
Note these coordinates and avoid them. Like the plague. Like Zika. Oh, and by the way the bottomless nook behind the islets is appropriately named Horsefly Cove. Fortunately, horseflies give up at night and as we the days are shortening with the season and our southerly course.
Friday 29 July – Ormidale Harbour 52º11.6’N 128º08.4’W
We survive the night at Green Inlet in 120 feet of water with only 1:2 scope (but all chain.) Worth sleeping on deck rather than trying to find a better spot in this tiny, deep, protected cove. Seems there’s an uncharted bump in the middle of this deep bay that’s only 40 feet.
Heavy fog rolls down Grenville as we pull into the Channel and soon a target – probably a tug and tow – appear on the radar behind us. I hope it’s northbound and out of our way. Jack checks the GIS and finds they’re following us. He hails the vessel whose captain appreciates the call. He sees us on his radar, says we’re in fine place where he can pass on starboard, and tells us there’s another tug and tow following him. Jack confirms with captain #2 as well. We hear the groan of the diesel very near, then a break and the second tug boat passes. Apart from BC Ferries’ Northern Expedition, which plies the Prince Rupert to Port Hardy route every day, these two tugs are about the only commercial boats we’ve encountered
Finally the fog breaks and we see the temporarily coupled tugs and their tows part ways. Not far from Klemtu we grab a cell phone signal and call Christophe at Shearwater. Not a chance of moorage, he reports.
Millbanke is much kinder than on the northbound passage so I peruse the charts and the Waggoners and find this huge protected harbor in Seaforth Channel. We expect it will be ringed with houses but the only thing there is a large new working boat that must belong to the Hieltsuk tribe in adjacent Bella Bella. We find our own little cove and anchor twice to get it just right. Note these coordinates! How come no one talks about this convenient anchorage that is an alternative to the always-crowded Shearwater? It’s a bit open to the Northwest but has a couple of coves and should be good in a storm from the south.
Saturday 30 July – Codville Lagoon 52º03.5’N 127º51’W
Today is a rest day. I lie in bed finishing Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers’ new book that was released on Tuesday. As we said good bye to the land of wifi, the text flowed onto Jack’s Kindle, the reading into my Audible.com library. We’d both pre-ordered as it was Dave Eggers and Alaska and what’s not to like? Well, this book. I don’t get it. It makes me feel uneasy and literarily insecure. All along I think it may erupt into either very dark darkness or full blown satire. Alas, it does neither. Now Jack is reading it and shaking his head but I’m hopeful he’ll have some insight. Is this book just about how poor decisions lead to ever poorer decisions foreshadowing the weathering of otherwise sensible and sensitive young children tethered to a wholly dysfunctional parent? We should be on wifi in another week; it will be interesting to see what the critics have to say about Heroes.
We take a break in our grasse matinée at anchor to move the boat, checking with Christophe at Shearwater on the possibility of space at the dock. Nope, not this trip. Fine. We’ll ration our protein. Cooking will be a lot simpler. Nothing wrong with the boat that needs attention. We’ll live with the dirty laundry. And won’t have to risk risk Lama Passage in deep fog. It’s great that he Hieltsuk tribe has such a successful operation in Shearwater. It would be nice to have a dock in Orimidale or if other tribes along this long long stretch of wilderness offered a few more services.
No sooner are we past Bella Bella when things get weird. Over channel 16 we hear, “Calling the Canadian Coast Guard, calling the Canadian Coast Guard.” (And what other coast guard would reply?) Coast Guard lady answers and asks how they may assist. “There’s a fishing boat harassing a bear. They are preventing it from swimming to shore.” Seems some hysterical environmentalists from Florida on a fancy boat named True East want the coast guard to arrest the fishermen. But the bear is not headed to any old shore – it’s the fish processing plant! Smarter than your average bear!
We continue down Lama Passage, cross Fisher Channel and pull into Codville Lagoon. It’s a wonderful place with dozens of semi private nooks.
Sunday 31 July – Fury Island 51º29’N 127º17’W
Fury Island is wonderful in every way. Nothing as magical as our last trip, perhaps, but still pretty great. White shell beaches. Views of the open ocean beyond at high tide. A soft bottom that hugs your anchor and won’t let it go.
Fury Island is the jumping off place for the rounding of Cape Caution, a day long slog through whales and rocks that look like eggs as open ocean swells ends in great vertical splashes against the formidable headlands.
No matter how much you relax and doze and dream at Fury Cove, you know your supply of adrenalin is restoring itself. And all you you need the next morning at dawn is a good cup of coffee and to be on your way. In any weather Cape Caution makes you pay attention.
Our southbound rounding was as flat and calm and pleasant as the one north. You just never know with Cape Caution.
Monday 1 August – Blunden Harbour 50º54’N 127º51’W
Cape Caution is dead flat and because it’s British Columbia holiday there’s no traffic. We spend a peaceful, windless day out on the water. Blunden, south of Allison Harbour, is the perfect landing place after rounding Caution. Allison the perfect take off place northbound.
Tuesday 2 August – Waddington Cove 50º43’N 126º36.9’W
I love the part of the Broughtons that is all dramatic steep-walled bottomless channels and I love the low islands to the northwest. Waddington is a wonderful anchorage. But at the helm I can’t find the way to it through the rocky islets without Jack on the electronic chart signaling every move.
Wednesday 3 August – Port Harvey 50º34’N 126º16’W
Gail Campbell takes our lines at the dock of the grandly named Port Harvey Marine Resort. Soon afterwards, George roars up in their fast aluminum boat with their daughter, son-in-law and little grandkids.
The couple has been working on their own all summer. A modest new lodge is rising to replace the large two storey structure with restaurant and general store. The old building was on a bladder and sank over the winter; the new one is on a barge. Work has now been put off until next winter so cruisers can be served.
There’s a huge tent on a float where homemade pizza is baked and served. Hot croissants and cinnamon buns are delivered to the dock at 7am. The wifi is strong. Moorage is only $1 a foot. Bravo, Gail and George. You rock!
Thursday 4 August – Blind Channel Resort 50º24.8N 12530’W
While power yachters stay hunkered down at Port Harvey thanks to reports of 35 knot gales hitting Johnstone Strait later in the day, we cast off well before dawn. Jack has put down electronic “breadcrumbs” so we can exit the way we came in. When we reach Johnstone we turn of the running lights and enjoy the light on the water.
Blind Channel Resort, now moving into the hands of the fourth generation of the Richter Family promises fuel, delicious spring water, a fine small grocery with produce from the resort garden and world-class food. Since one of my goals is to get this blog fact written and fact checked, we’re disappointed at the poor quality of the wifi and surprised at the lack of cell phone service. And even with the big yachts around us acting as breakwaters, we rock and roll all night at the dock. We need to find a good place to drop the hook so we can just swing. Options, however, are limited.
Friday 5 August – Von Donlop Inlet 50º08.6’N 124º56.8’W
We’re off mid morning to catch Dent and Yaculta Rapids at slack. We pass tiny Shoal Bay where dozens of boats are rafted five thick at the wharf. Since we’re making such good time it’s not painful to miss the annual Blues Festival and Pig Roast which Mark offers for a $10 donation, with proceeds to a local environmental charity. At Shoal Bay we like to be tied up at the float: getting to shore when rafted or anchored out is tedious. We’ll leave this an early season destination and try to get Mark and Cynthia to visit us in Port Townsend.
We exit Yaculta Rapids into the beautiful grand expanse of Calm Channel. True to its name, the channel has little wind but at least it’s behind us. We pole out the genny on starboard and push the main out over the port rail – wing on wing.
We move slowly slowly just enjoying the sun and warmth. There’s no space at George Harbour and as nice as the hot pool would be this evening, we’re delighted to be at Von Donlop Inlet. We go all three miles in, past the stern-tied boats to the large basin at the end with it’s even bottom and good holding ground.
Saturday 6 August – Ford Cove on Hornby Island 49º29.8’N 124º40’W
Ford Cove represents the one major departure from our usual southbound route. Normally we head down to Desolation Sound then past Lund to the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver.
A brochure we pick up on the Coho Ferry – Denman Hornby – highlights an option. These two islands are not part of the Gulf Islands but rather lay near Vancouver Island at the entrance to Comox. We’ve know the rollicking, often rough passage behind long Denman. Little roundish Hornby sits to the east. To get to Hornby by car you take a small BC Ferries boat to Denman and then an even smaller ferry to Hornby.
According to Ford Cove Harbour Manager Jean Miserendino, Hornby has about 800 year round residents but goes to 5000 in the summer. Sounds like the whole island takes on the ambiance of a three month festival every summer. Fords Harbour is already jammed with local boats: commercial fishing vessels, rec boats, and run about are rafted three deep. Managing comings and goings of community members must take some real cooperation.
We need to come back and explore. Hornby is little and will be easy to get around. Its local park sits atop a bluff overlooking Tribune Bay. With a sandy crescent beach, rare in these parts, Tribune Bay is an inviting anchorage, though it only works in the good weather brought by gentle NW winds.
While finding a dock attached to land at Hornby doesn’t look feasible, the transient float where we tie up is less than 100 feet from a finger that leads smoothly to the pier – easy enough to shuttle Jack’s scooter and then Jack into shore in our little inflatable.
There’s still about 45 feet of free space at our float when the sun sets. Hearing the voices of a crew about to land, I stick my head out of the companionway and see a fine wooden schooner. With Baggywrinkles! I go help with the lines, getting midline and stern with no problem. Even so, a rookie crew member bounds off the bow and rolls onto the float, young and unhurt. The schooner? It’s Nevermore, whose permanent slip is near ours in Port Townsend.
Sunday 7 August – Ladysmith Maritime Society 48ø59.8’N 123º48.7’W
We’re making good time and feeling great. Our predawn departure from Hornby gets us at Dodd Narrows safely before slack, with the water still flowing south. We’ve called Mark at the Ladysmith Maritime Society and there’s space for us.
Eager to end relax after a long day we head through the narrows early. It’s still clear of northbound boats but it’s full of strong whirlpools. And there among the swirls at the neck is a fisherman casting from a very small rowboat! He waves to us as we speed by. A crowd has gathered on both shores to keep an eye on him, not that they could help much. Ah, reentry to the Gulfs and the San Juans! This is our first brush with summer craziness. As we clear the narrows, the first northbound boats are arriving, circling, waiting. Soon the VHF squawks, “Third-foot sailboat northbound through Dodd Narrows. Calling any concerned traffic.” The prudent sailors on the other side are concerned and get the guy – of course it’s a guy – on the radio and help him with the math concerning the speed of his boat and that of current thinks he can overtake.
How good it is to dock at Ladysmith with smiling volunteers on the docks to take your lines! We decide that again this year the Ladysmith Maritime Society has the best marina on the Inside Passage. There is nothing particularly promising about its location in a traditional logging community on a bay still filled with log booms and next to a clamorous milling operation.
But where else is there so much going on? Old timers restoring historic local wooden boats. Birders tracking and banding purple martins. Folks in the little museum trying to understand the material culture of the region’s past. People building the spectacular new marine science float with its windowed deck, touch tanks and interpretive displays. Disabled people learning to sail in specially equipped Marin 16’s and sometimes going off to compete in regular races. Multi-generational families from all over town filling every seat at the Oyster Bay Cafe for a gourmet Sunday brunch. Cruisers just hanging out on their boats, talking to passers by, using Internet, doing laundry, taking long warm free showers all for one small Canadian dollar a foot. And no tax: LMS is a nonprofit. This place rocks!
Monday 8 August – Watmough Bay – 48º25.8’N 122º48.6′W
Out of Ladysmith it’s morning of big boats. Our southbound course takes us to Houston Passage, a tight U- turn around the tip of Salt Spring Island. On Channel 16 a captain is hailing “a northbound sailboat.” No answer. It’s not us being called; we’re still southbound. But then given the Houston’s U, boats from either direction enter northbound and exit southbound. Hmmm. Something to remember.
No sooner do we enter the Passage than a ship, bright orange in the morning glare, appears among the trees. We hail the captain but there’s no reply. Not on 16 and not on 11 (though we should be on 12 as we’re now in Victoria traffic). Then the “northbound sailboat” appears and we have the Argent Sunrise on port and Osprey on starboard. At this particular point, there’s enough room but still. When I see that S/V Osprey is out of Portland, I take it personally. In general, skippers who cruise among the big ships on the Columbia River are unusually skilled at rules of the road and using VHF. If you know Osprey, mention the confusion wrought by their failure to monitor VHF
Out in Boundary Channel we have no trouble reaching the pilot of a large container ship making the 72º turn around Stuart Island. He says we’re fine and thanks us for the call. We cross behind his stern and bring down the pennant.
As we head deeper into the San Juans, things get crazy busy but nowhere more than in narrow channel north of Shaw Island. Huge power yachts roar by rocking us and the folks in kayaks, rowboats and sailing skiffs that should be comfortable in this narrow interesting waterway. Hey, San Juan County, how about a speed limit?
We we finally exit we’re somehow passed by three large Washington State Ferries in the space of five minutes. We forgo Spencer Spit and James Island to avoid being rocked by traffic all evening and head south to Watmough, where we find our first mooring buoy of the summer. This charming bay is closest point in San Juan County to PT and its three mooring buoys are provided free by the local community.
There’s little wind or current in the bay but interestingly we don’t spin. Rather we rock gently all night on what must be swells Pacific swells sneaking all the way in.
Tuesday 9 August – Home in Port Townsend
With a mid morning departure, we can flood home. No wind. No fog. Hardly any other boats. But Growlers. As we slip east of Smith Island we see their Oak Harbor.
Finally we near Point Wilson. There are a couple of ships on the AIS. The fast one is the Victoria Clipper, which passes soon after it appears. Behind it a large cargo ship looms. We’re on the south side of the southbound lane and should be fine. Jack hails the captain to make sure. No answer on 16. We try 12, forgetting that Puget Sound traffic is channel 14. Still, everyone is supposed to on 16.
Suddenly the big ship changes course. We turn into the commercial shipping lane, at it – Matson Line – passes us starboard, leaving us to take the wake. Point Wilson throws its own surprises even without traffic in the mix.
I’m already wary of civilization, missing the wilderness. But some I’m home watching the eagles and herons in the tree above my desk or turning over rocks at low tide and marveling at dozens of exotic creatures.
Is there any other creature on earth for which that adjective is more apt? Their faces are adorable. Their mannerisms are adorable. And then there is the mutuality of the adoration. When you glide past sea otters they invariably face you, their big eyes looking up at you adoringly. They paddle up on their backs then relax, their long feet sticking up humanlike and just stare, pleasantly. Holding their meal on their bellies with one front paw, they appear to wave with the other. Or they engage more enthusiastically, treading water furiously until they are head, shoulders and mid section above the surface straining to look into your boat. Adoring. Adorable.
Without the blubber that protects other marine mammals, sea otters have to eat all the time. They never leave the water, spending long hours foraging about a quarter of their weight daily. They relish a highly varied diet that includes Dungeness crabs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.
The otters’ preferred foods are among the cash harvests pf the Prince of Wales fishing industry. The produce flies fresh on ice to hungry mouths in China and Japan. Perhaps we should think of it as the Silk Route of artisanal commercial fishing. Sea otters seem to be taking their revenge. They were exterminated in the fur trade of an earlier Northwest economic boom that was followed by an absolute bust.
Luxurious fur with 125,000 hairs per square centimeter also helps sea otters manage without blubber. I’ve twice felt an otter’s pelt. First at the museum in Wrangell, where we stroked skins of beaver, fox, mink, ermine, and otter to understand why the species disappeared in the fur trade. The other time was at the old Icy Bay Cannery in Hoonah, an interpretive center run by the Native Corporation. There was one simple square pillow in the shop. $300. I’ve since thought of this an the ultimate luxury gift and one that might doom the otter anew if experienced too widely by too many people.
Later in the Tlingit village Klawock on the west coast of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, I ask if anyone is harvesting otters. I learn about a man – Native people can get harvest rights – who lives in the blue house on stilts at the head of the dock. I look for him to no avail. A week later at Cowpuccino’s in Prince Rupert I hear two fishermen commiserating over the demise of their livelihoods. “Nothing to do. People love the otters.”
I consult Marine Mammals of British Columbia by John K. B. Ford that is always at hand on the boat, at home or when I’m docenting at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Sea otters, a single species, is in the Mustelide family along with the weasels but the only one considered a marine mammal because they rarely if ever leave the water.
Canada has kept a pretty good population counts. Between 1785 and 1809 55,000 pelts were sold in BC, although a portion of these hunted in Washington, then Oregon Territory, and Alaska. The Sea Otter was commercially extinct by 1850 and apart from a handful of pelts and live sightings, did not reappear until 89 individuals from Alaska were reintroduced along the northern part of the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1967. By 1995, reports Ford, aerial surveys showed a population of 1500, representing a remarkable growth rate of 18 or 19 per cent per year. Today, Sea Otters off this coast are reproducing at 8 percent owing to less abundant food. Unlike marine mammals that store calories in blubber, Sea Otters must keep moving, foraging a quarter of their body weight daily.
Ford explains that the Sea Otter’s “large hindlimbs are oriented backwards and flattened into flippers for swimming” while its “forelimbs are short with highly dexterous paws.” With the help of a paddle-like tail, it can dive down 50 meters to fetch food from the bottom. “Sea Otters capture prey with their forepaws and can carry it along with rocks or other hard objects – which are used as tools to break open shelled prey – in loose folds of skin under their forearms as they swim,” writes Ford.
We glide past in awe as these furry, whiskered, round-headed, sub nosed marine mammals use their chests tables at which to fix and eat their meals. Adorable. At the same time they are altering the dynamics of the food web, decimating the many invertebrate species on which they feed. Once devastated,they are now devastating.
Wednesday 22 June Klawock 55º33.4’N 133º05.9′ W
More whales and Sea Otters. Perhaps they leave us tired when we enter the proterws bay at Klawock on a lowish tide and entry to public docks confuses us. So we tie up in an empty space at the Tribal docks next to the cannery. I call on the good ladies inside who are cooking lunch for tribal members and organizing a food bank. They say, no, the boat in the place where you are will be back later today and there should certainly be space at the public harbour.
There is indeed. After not getting the Harbour Master on VHF we tie up at an empty space. Nice view of Klawock’s deservedly famous totem park. A fisherman says call Rose and gives me her cell phone. Find this strong little wisp of a woman near on the street. She’s ben Harbour Master for 17 years. Part time no benefits. Her house is across the street. I pay moorage in cash – 11.45 for boats of any size – and thank her for the well designed and maintained restrooms and showers on the ground floor of her office perch with view of skips coming and going.
Prince of Wales is the largest of the bunch – the third largest in the USA in area, plus a thousand miles of coastline, which are magic to look at even on a map. The true surprise was finding not only wonderful wilderness but also an variety of intriguing small “cities” and Native villages.
Prince of Wales – land of watery wonders and deep culture.
A sign pasted on the inside of our pantry door at home proclaims says “Dream POW-ABC.” It’s the fruit of a collision between my January resolutions and a list of the largest islands in the USA. Did you know that four of the largest are in Southeast Alaska? Prince of Wales, Admiralty, Baranof and Chicago. We’d already done a major part of the shoreline of each one, so why not go back and systematically circumnavigate all of them?
Prince of Wales is the largest of the bunch – the third largest in the USA in area, plus a thousand miles of coastline, which are magic to look at even on a map. With hundreds of small protected coves in which to drop anchor, there would be no need to hurry. All spring we looked forward to our DIY luxury cruise. The true surprise was finding not only wonderful wilderness but also an variety of intriguing small “cities” and villages. Since available books on the area are so out of date we wrote our own Cruisers’ Guide to Prince of Wales Island to document port facilities and other amenities.
Sat 11 June – Kina Cove, Kasaan Bay 55º20’N 131º31’W
Once we flee Ketchikan, we head up Chatham Channel to Kasaan Bay. Kina Cove is the perfect place for a much needed weekend of rest. It’s not the most beautiful spot as there has been recent clear cutting. But no one is there, holding ground is good and we have five bars of AT&T and tether to strong wifi! I even manage to post the first part of our log.
Mon 13 June – Kasaan 55º32’N 132.23.9’W
In their decade-old cruising guide the Douglasses say don’t even think about spending the night tied up at Kasaan’s rickety docks. As we glide by, even at a distance, my binocs pick up some rather splendid infrastructure for a village of 65 people. It’s right there on the vast uninhabited shores of Kasaan Bay. As we approach we see the float plane dock, lots of empty slips for boats of all sizes and a hefty float capable of handling a large barge.
We walk up the ramp, along the shore, past the fire hall and a handful of houses. Up the hill are the offices the Organized Village of Kasaan, the health clinic, library and a small modern school that features a climbing wall and a new green house where the villages vegetables are growing in traditional containers and hydroponic tanks. The library seems like the appropriate place to request permission to visit the totem park and get directions to the path. The lure of Kasaan is one of the finest collections of Haida totem poles on coast. “Of course” say the folks in the library, “and place don’t miss visiting the carving shed as well.”
The path through old growth is beautifully maintained and no problem for Jack on his scooter. Just before the totem park, however, the steps onto an otherwise fine log bridge block his progress. I cross and go onto the narrow paths around the poles and take lots of photos. The longhouse, however, is surrounded by orange plastic tape that marks it off limits.
Back down the trail we visit the Carving Shed where Stormy Hamar is carving the top motifs of an enormous yellow cedar log. The drawing he shows us speaks to the sophistication of Haida art (confirmed in the collection of the BC Museum in Victoria.). It represents the fruits of hours of interviews he, in collaboration with master carvers, has carried out with elders. Stormy, who seems barely in his mid thirties, insists he is not a master carver.
Again and again on this trip we meet young, dynamic, smart, focussed Native artists, naturalists and political types for whom deference to elders is the norm. I wish I lived in a society like this.
The orange tape, Stormy explains, is because this Whalehouse, one of the oldest Haida structures on the coast, is being restored. Artisans and carvers from neighboring Tlingit tribes are helping these northernmost – and hence minority Haida – with the work. In fact, everyone is preparing for once in a lifetime ceremony to rededicate the Whalehouse on September 3, 2016. Their kin from Haida Gawaii and the coastal mainland BC from whom they are cut off by the international border will be among the guests of honor.
On the walls of the carving shed are hung red cedar strips for basket weaving, small ceremonial paddles made by kids and a splendid small Haida canoe with a delicate design burned into its gunwales. I comment that it is very sad that in recent years there’s been no native canoe at the Port Townsend Wooden Bast Festival.
Stormy smiles proudly and says the canoe is his son’s work. In fact, his son is a student at the Port Townsend School for Wooden Boats. Jack and I perk up in recognition: this spring the Port Townsend Leader profiled a young Haida carver. I have the profile of Eric Hamar on my desk and Kasaan Carving Shed has a computer print out tacked to the wall. Our communities are linked.
Tues 14 June – Thorne Bay 55º40.9’N 132º31.4’W
A tiny break in the thickly treed shoreline marks the long winding entrance to Thorne Bay. Unable to find the fuel dock we call it a day and tie up at the mostly empty new docks, Greg jumps off the 50 foot sailboat docked nearby to welcome us and help with our lines. He and Cheryl are Thorne Bay liveaboards on Toccata, which says Greg, “We’ve been building for the past 28 years.”
Toccata looks pretty shipshape to us and when we’re invited for drinks the next day, we get the whole story. Yes, Greg and Cheryl launched their dream 28 years ago, not to sail blue waters, but to live in mindful comfort in the coastal wilderness. We look through the photos of the long construction process, every stage of which they managed hands on. The splash day in Port Townsend is celebrated with a part for all the people from the boatyard who helped out with this a small floating house for two people. Exquisite woodwork. Wonderful head with colorfully tiled shower. Hasse sails and rigging by Lisa and Dan.
We hear that the fuel dock is best visited on a high tide so we head deeper into the bay the next morning. As we prepare to tie up a float plane arrives with the mail and we’re asked to wait. First plane leave and a second flies in to drop another dribble of cartons from Amazon.com and first class mail on the dock. Then we pull up only to find there’s not a single cleat so we use the short lines the float planes uses. Then we discover the electricity is out and the pump won’t run. Gary, the owner, says, “Never mind, it’s pretty shallow here for you anyway, I’ll just bring your diesel over to the dock later.”
After Gary’s visit to us we stop by his store that sells fishing and hunting gear and licenses. We talk about bears, learn that there are no grizzlies, only black bears on the Island. Last year nine bears were taken, some by locals who hunt them mid season for their meat and some by trophy hunters who take them later in the season, when their meat tastes fishy but their coats are thick.
Thur 16 June – Coffman Cove 56º00.6’N 133º37’W
Unlike Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove doesn’t hide. It’s houses string along shore and it’s easy to find the docks. The Doglass guide is again way out of date on the the condition of the facilities. Docks and floats are new, with steel ramps that let folks drive right up to their boats on the floats. There’s lots of space.
The fishing fleet is small, it seems to be mostly personal use and subsistence fishing. Small fleet. Community seems to serve local folks, although I meet an RVer, an Oregonian from Salem, who comes to fish and consume everything he catches on the spot.
We really need a fisherman on board. Just a little bit too much to manage ourselves what with navigation, sailing, VHF underway and cooking, eating, planning, chart organization, exploring, talking to folks on the docks, journaling, reading, and fixing things when we’re not.
Minus tide reveals Two rocks. I snap a photo To remember them
Unless you get mixed up with those rocks that mark the start of the lagoon beyond the docks, Coffman Cove is easy to enter and exit. The islands just to the north are rich with sea life. Humpbacks dive and blow. Steller Sea Lions swim around our boat to join a huge group of their kin on a rocky shoal.
Again today! Three hundred sixty degrees No other humans!
Sat 18 June – Point Baker 56º21’N 133º37’W
Long enchanted by fisherman-author Joe Upton’s accounts of life at Point Baker in Alaska Blues, I want to go. Jack thinks we were there in 2014 but he’s confused it with Port Protection, which is several miles south. Both tiny off grid communities are at the very tip of Prince of Whales above the 56th parallel.
Point Baker will be our northernmost stop. Founded in the 1930s, it has about 35 residents on boat and in houses clustered around a tiny bay. At one end of a long float are the public buildings – post office, community center with library, and fire hall. At the other, the businesses – fuel dock, grocery, bar, laundry and showers – apparently all operated by one family. Up on the hill there’s a communication tower that doesn’t include cell service and a shiny new cluster of lights like you might see around a fancy tennis court. I discover it’s a new tank farm adequate to meet the fuel needs of the gill net and troll fleets. Less than two miles away, in a slightly larger bay is Port Protection, population 63, which offers a similar mix of services.
I go chat with a pair of fisherman, shuttles in hand, who roll their gillnet off the drum to check and repair it. There’s a good rhythm to the work of this father and son as they prepare for this week’s Sunday noon to Thursday noon salmon opening. The knife clenched in his teeth does not deter the father from conversation. They’re out of Wrangell.
The net is 24 feet wide and 3/8 of a mile long. It’s a five and one quarter inch net – that’s the distance between knots on opposite side of each individual “net square” when pulled away from each other. There’re aren’t a lot of tears in the net itself because the float tine at the top and the leaded line at the bottom are bound to the net with the lighter thread on the shuttles. Consider it sacrificial: if something big like a shark gets caught in the net, the thread breaks not the net and the shark leaves. They are fishing sockeye and hopefully kings. Last year their best haul netted $3200. Yes, cloudy days are better; when it’s sunny the fish go deeper.
A pretty girl arrives, fresh laundry in hand. She’s the son’s partner, the third fisherman on a pair of 32 foot boats fishing together.
So, I ask, what are rec boats supposed to do when we see a working gill netter? The tiny red buoy that marks the end of the net looks just like what crabbers deploy over their traps. New rule of thumb: Head toward the boat itself. These guys watch for boats, using radar in the fog. You can call them or they will call you.
Point Baker’s float plane dock is extra large because it doubles as a helipad, the communities emergency evacuation point. Unattended boats don’t tie upthere but on a calm sunny day in fishing season this large float makes the perfect net loft.
Monday 20 June – Devilfish Bay 56º05’N 133º22.5’W
This is most varied passage of the trip is from Devilfish Bay. A garland of splashing Dall’s porpoises crosses our bow as we make a pre-dawn departure from Point Baker. Heading west we round Port Protection at the tip of Prince of Wales. Sumner Strait is full of whales. The rock outcroppings of nearby peaks rise above the clouds. Isolated sea otters enjoying the ocean swells give way to larger groups as we enter Shakan Bay. Near the mouth of Dry Passage, I spot what looks like a tidewater glacier but cannot be. It turns out to be the marble mine, newly reactivated if mining mostly marble dust. I’m at the helm as we wiggle through Dry Passage. Jack has his iPad open to Navionics and all we have to do is get the countless red and green aides to navigation in the correct order. We’re just coming off a low tide. Next is El Capitan, narrow with peaks all around.
When the waters open up again we see an UnCruise boat at anchor. The Wilderness Discoverer takes only 76 passengers and it would seem a kayak, SUP, skiff or inflatable for each one. Then again, they are too big to get into where we have come from.
Tuesday 21 June Kaluk Cove 55º44’N 133º17.5’W
Day starts with windlass problem. But I’ve got a strong back that I take good care of and the ergonomics of the manual raising are okay. Later it dawns on us that I am the culprit. Jack had suggested that the new inverter should be mounted on the wall of locker in the aft stateroom. The mounting brackets allow air to pass around it. To find a suitable place for it I pick it up only to see a flicker. One the red plastic screw on the back is loose and the copper ring collides with the one on the black screws, causing the short. The new inverter is dead.
We have our pick of pretty coves off Sea Otter Sound and choose Kaluk, which is perfect.
Wednesday 22 June – Klawock 55º33.4’N 133º05.9′ W
To raise the anchor without the windlass we run a line from a winch in the cockpit and snapshackle it to a link of the chain. Soon the chain is up on deck and even easier than usually to flake in the chain locker. We embark on another day of whales and sea otters.
Perhaps the excitement of it all has left us tired. When we enter the protected bay at Klawock on a lowish tide, we’re not sure how to get to the public docks. So we tie up in an empty space at the Tribal docks next to the cannery.
I call on the good ladies inside who are cooking lunch for their members and organizing the food bank. They say, no, the boat in the place where you are will be back later today. But there should certainly be space at the public harbour.
There is indeed. After not getting the Harbour Master on VHF we tie up at an empty space. Nice view of Klawock’s deservedly famous totem park. A fisherman says call Rose and gives me her cell phone. Find this strong little wisp of a woman near on the street. She’s ben Harbour Master for 17 years. Part time no benefits. Her house is across the street. I pay moorage in cash – 11.45 for boats of any size – and thank her for the well designed and maintained restrooms and showers on the ground floor of her office perch with view of ships coming and going.
This large Tlingit village – population 850 – seems like a good place to moor a boat to winter over. While hardly in the thick of things, Kwalock has a real airport and a harbor that charges an annual moorage rather of only $11 a foot! Look up from your boat and there is Kwalock’s renowned totem park.
Thursday 23 June – Craig 55º28.6’N 133º08.6’W
We’re in AT&T land so Jack is on the phone with Michele in Craig, a town that captivated us on our last visit. She has a place for us. Jack writes down where it is- behind a blue hulled trawler. After stopping for fuel at Craig’s fuel dock – a first class docking adventure facilitated by young strong life-vest-clad attendants – we slip past the fish packing packing plant and into North Harbor. Narrowness, rocks, traffic, current, you name it. Man, I can’t find that trawler. There’s a blue hull but it’s a troll rig! We go on almost dead ending into shoe and there’s a space. It’s behind a recreational boat resembling a fishing trawler and style recognized as such.
Jack tight turns into the dock for his usual flawless landing for a starboard tie. But something is off. I get down on the stern rail to fend off the trawler, whose crew appears to help. Easy landing, but this is the first sign transmission is awry.
Trawler crew – sixty something Jack and Jills from Washington State are nice. They’re in Alaska for the summer. Going to Kasaan for the September 3 Whale House rededication. A daughter has become Alaskan. They’ve been coming for years. Man says, “It’s addictive.”
When I go to pay moorage, Michelle and I laugh about the “troller” and “trawler” confusion – the two fishing boat styles sound almost the same. From the emergency preparation handouts on her desk, I discover she’s a community activist. Completely attuned to infrastructure vulnerabilities and the need for politically powered community resilience.
Craig docks are wonderful, even better if you’re tied near the ramp to the street and can follow all the comings and goings of the whole community. The last time we were here it was the Fourth of July, Three years olds casting baited hooks in the fish derby; older kids in the log rolling competition. Tradition. Alaska style chaos.
Just across from us is Mixie, crewed by aging commercial fishermen Charlie and Lee. She’s from Craig. They troll in the summer and retire in the winter. And like Greg and Cheryl in Thorne Bay, they built their boat themselves and sailed up from Port Townsend! I learn it’s a Hoquiam hull, distinctively curved, and that there are four similar boat at Craig, including one built by their son.
At Napa store we ask Mike who might be able to answer some of our questions about our inverter. He says find Dave. Retired Master electrician who lives on a sailboat near yours. We find him and sure, he’ll take a look. Climbs around following wires, talking to himself. “What is that I wonder? All right. It’s right there. Okay. Al righty.” There must be a breaker
Like most single handed liveaboards, Dave’s a talker. He worked all over Alaska, turned to alcohol, as many do, lost his family, heard God, embraced an orthodox Catholicism. I find him better informed about Church history and politics than anyone I’ve talked to in a long time. Today his technical smarts make Dave a local legend. Slowly he’s getting back close to his kids.
Qualms. Cramped thoughts. Weary. Spooked. Unready. For Tlevak Narrows.
I recuse myself. Jack calculates, navigates. Dead on. We glide through.
Monday 27 June Hydaburg 55º10.1’N 133º41.7’W
Hydaburg is the largest Haida settlement in the United States. We’re the only visiting boat at the spacious and largely empty so everyone knows who we are. A few people greet us. Lisa, Chair of the Native Corporation, does so in Haida. She lets us struggle with a few words before filling us in in English. Hydaburg’s big, two-day Fourth of July celebration is coming up and then at the end of July there is culture camp, a week of workshops in traditional skills, arts, and music as well as language classes.
The houses are modest ranch-style while the school, the health clinic and city hall are stately and well-designed, which seems appropriate for a people of a round shared culture. The foundation for new longhouse is being built and carvers in the shed are working on the poles. There’s a tiny Alaska Commercial Company store and emergency medical services and a small fleet of three village busses to take people around the island via a road that is slowly being paved.
Hydaburg is the largest Haida settlement in the United States but residents are separated from their Canadian cousins by customs requirement that make the journey between the communities onerous. Like us, they must enter Canada at Prince Rupert rather than going directly to Haida Gawaii. And returning from there, they must pass US Customs at Ketchikan. This is surprising given the special status of Native Communities in both countries.
The weather for crossing back south looks good for the end of the week. So we leave, curious to come back.
Water’s lavender Blues, silvers, sun mirrored mix Of dawn’s clouds and sky.
Wed 29 June – Nichols Bay 54º43’N 132º08’W
Nichols Bay is at the very south tip of Prince of Wales, reached though many hours of wilderness. Forgotten by all save a few commercial fishermen, it lies a couple of miles from the Canadian border. We snug into a little nook off the first bay and turn in early as we have long day ahead.
Thurs 30 June – Prince Rupert
In the predawn darkness of Nichols Bay, some seaweed “floating” off our stern turns into rocky bumps as the tide ebbs out. We bump into the uncharted drying peaks as we exit but gradually find our way out into the light of early morning.
We sail from the cape And a flat line of horizon Closes around us.
Silky silver sea
Your billowing swells push us.
Where we need to go.
Humpbacks spout, cross bow Just as sun burns hole through clouds Giving whales haloes.
Bull kelp grows longer By a foot each shorter day. To guide us over shoals.
The Gnarled Islands Misted monochrome west Deep color stretches east.
After passing customs in Prince Rupert we discover the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club has a space, albeit it a port tie. Jack attempts a bow out-stern in but the transmission is suddenly funny and the current strong. So we give up on that. As I scramble to move fenders and lines to the port side, the usual helpful and competent contingent appears on the docks and helps us in. We sleep soundly leaving boat issues for the morning.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?