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?