Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Timing is Everything

Storm in Key BiscayneWhile I have yet to bridge the gap from Haida Gwaii to my eventual return to Squamish B.C. where I continue my coffee shop job, here is a previous bridge to the gap I left upon leaving Key West as I headed north alone this past summer. It was written months ago, when my writing flowed more naturally and frequently, as I hope it will again someday soon…

Palm Coast, July 19th 2008

… if timing is everything, then my advice to anyone thinking of sailing the east coast of Florida, do NOT go in July. You’ll make it a few miles unaffected, but there are rarely a few daylight hours in a row without a ripping thunderstorm with high winds, blinded visibility, and 'deadly lightning strikes', as the automated voice reading the marine forecast will report.

I was prepared to leave Key Biscayne (beautiful anchorage in a state park, from which the city skyline of Miami is visible) but before turning the engine key, something told me not to go.

And so, I didn’t.

Sometimes I think that ‘feeling’ is protecting me from approaching danger, other times I think it’s the universe directing me to people who’ll enrich my life in one way or another. This was the case in Key Biscayne and I spent a day in the company of some great folks on a motoryacht in No Name Harbor. Sure beats a day alone at sea, no matter how promising the forecast.

Leaving the following morning at sunrise, once in the gulf stream I was averaging 8 kts. The day was uneventful, one rare day without the terrifying thunderstorms with winds of 40kts and fork-lightening that seems to reach down halfway from the moon.

After 6 or 7 hrs on open ocean, I entered a narrow man-made break
in the beach that led back into the Intracoastal Waterway, from which it was only another 2 hrs of motoring to Kim and Mike’s house (folks I previously spoke of, having met them in Bahia Honda in the Keys a couple of weeks before). The next few days became a blur of fine wines, unbelievable food, rotating load after load of laundry, and running errands. It was time for Effie to get her rabies shot, and Kim patiently waited with me, on her precious day off, in line for hours at the local pet store where shots were being given at a fraction of the price of a veterinarian visit. And in search of a new electrical panel, Mike drove me all the way to Fort Lauderdale to the famous Sailorman, an emporium of everything boat related, new and second hand. Every evening was spent relaxing in their saltwater swimming pool, encouraging their golden retriever to do belly-flops into the pool (which he
never grew tired of) watching the palm trees sway and the flicker of distant lightening storms reflecting on the clouds.
After a little less than a week in their company, it was time for me to press onwards. I had booked my flight for British Columbia, and I had a lot of distance to make and a lot of work ahead of me to prepare the boat for what may be months of sitting idle.

Since leaving Key West, I was constantly torn by how exactly I wanted to make my way to Palm Coast. Would I sail on the outside the whole way, present myself with the challenge of my first 3-day non-stop trip alone, or will I play it safe, motor up the waterway and have a safe anchorage every night and get a good nights sleep? Every six hours since July 1st, I was sure I had made a final decision. Yes, go on the outside, you’ll have such a sense of accomplishment. To ‘do the ditch’,
as the waterway is commonly referred to, would be easy, but boring, and I thought I may feel like I was chickening out in a sense. I kept telling myself that people sail all around the world alone, surely I can sail a couple hundred mile by myself. But there are a lot of issues at play; most single-handers have autopilot to keep their course while they doze, and this was a coastal trip, in heavy ocean-traffic lanes. If I slept for too long, I may inadvertently run into the shore, or a tanker whose radar might not detect a small wooden boat. And if I was really lacking sleep and one o
f those storms was to sneak up on me, my ability to make good decisions might be compromised and… well, I’m this close to Palm Coast, why risk myself and the boat at this point.

By measuring 50 or 60 mile intervals on my chart, I chose a series of ports that I could day-hop between; sail offshore during the day, and go into a protected anchorage by the evening. But after Fort Pierce, to continue to sail offshore, I would have no other choice but to make that final 110 mile hop to Palm Coast all in one go. That, or motor up the waterway. Taking things one day at a time, I left Kim and Mikes, motored to the next break in the sand dunes, and set my sails, bound for West Palm Beach just 40 miles up the coast. By 10am, I was in 30kt winds, skirting the edge of a large thunderstorm. Thankfully though, the bulk of the storm continued out to sea behind me. I had good wind most of the way, never straying much more than a mile from the beach. Murphy's Law was confirmed as I approached the Fairway buoy marking the entrance to West Palm Beach though, and with little notice I was once again in gale force winds, but this time the rain was blinding, and the two 60ft sport-fishing boats I'd been tracking for the past 2 hours disappeared in the fog. A collision though wasn't at the top of my list of worries. It was the lightening. It was almost simultaneous with the thunder, and I kept thinking, 'Yup, this might just be the day'. The day my luck runs out. It's strange, the things that can get stuck in your head when you spend too much time alone, and they repeat again and again in your mind. On this day, it was the words Human French-fry. Once, I felt all the hairs on my body stand on end, I don't know what that means in terms of how close the strike must have come, but at this point I went below, closed the hatch, stayed away from metal objects, and let the boat sail where she liked for the next 15 minutes. I've never been more thankful for the change in my rig that Mike in Lunenburg insisted upon before I left Canada, providing me with a self-tacking jib. I was shivering
and shaking, partly from being rain-soaked and wearing only my bikini, but more out of fear and nerves. I kept looking out the windows, hoping to be able to spot the other boats in time if I came too close.
When I felt the storm was a safe distance away, I looked to my destination, and again, a series of white-hot forks made their way from the clouds to touch down who-knows-where. Feeling like a tall target on the wide flat sea, I made a run for the harbour, hoping visibility would stay on my side, and that I could make the 4 or so miles before the bulk of the storm hit.

I dropped my anchor in 8 ft of water not long after passing through the harbour entrance, and ran below, with a moment or two to spare. The next crack of thunder and lightening was one to surpass all the stormy situations I've been in to date, witnessed from sea or land. I started talking, muttering, nervously, incomprehensibly almost, to myself, or to the cat, or to both of us. "Did we just get hit? What just happened? Was the boat struck? Are we okay? Are we?'. I was convinced the boat had been struck, from the charge I felt myself, and from the unnerving sound of Effie's shriek a split second later. The ensuing torrents of rain calmed me though, an
d slowly I became rational, and gathered the courage to go out and check if there was a cindered spruce mast, being doused by the rains. I never did find any
evidence of a strike, but I have no doubt it was a close one.

I waited a few days at West Palm Beach for appropriate weather. It was a true test of patience, being unable to go ashore because I had only one oar for my dingy, and with little else to do but sit down below to hide from the sun and in
tolerable heat. Two days passed, then I was able to begin making my way to Fort Pierce. Within a few hours, storm clouds were looming, and a loud, piercing aggravating beep over the VHF prompted me to turn the station over to the WX channel (weather station) for an emergency broadcast. I heard the weather warnings of 30kt gusts with an approaching isolated thunderstorm the front, and I thought I had reduced sail sufficiently. With a small jib and my mizzen set, and the wind coming from behind, I though when it breezed up, I would fly downwind without too much fuss. I was less than a mile from the beach, and before I

knew it, the beach was made invisible by a wall of white. A moment later, instead of breaking speed records, Annie rounded up almost into the wind, then laid down on her side. I think I was thrown, I assume I was, and I attempted to steer her all the way into the wind, to let the sails flog, and to bring her upright. But, she wouldn’t.
The rudder must have been completely out of the water. I started up the engine and hoped that by motoring, something would be different, but it wasn’t until about 10 seconds later, when the wind eased momentarily, that she went where I wanted her to, and
she slowly righted. Not being able to hear the engine for the screech of wind in the rigging, I didn’t realize I had the throttle to over 2500rpm (2000 is my normal maximum) and as soon as she righted, her bow then passed right through the eye of the wind, and the wind caught the other side of the sails, and over I went again. It took me 15 minutes of running forward to the bow and out onto the spindly wires of the bowsprit to pull part of the jib down, then running back to the helm to bring her up into the wind again, numerous times, before the sail was down then I could deal with the mizzen from the cockpit. Then my thoughts turned to the beach. I could hardly see 60ft ahead from the driving rain, and in all that fiasco I had no idea how close I may have come. I decided to steer due east until visibility improved. Not long after I was able to take the engine out of gear; the windage on the boat itself was enough to keep me running downwind at 6kts. Once sufficiently satisfied that everything was going to be alright and I had things under control, I became aware of a throbbing pain in my right arm and baby toe. I didn’t think I was one to panic, but looking back on my actions, and realizing that I had no idea when or how I had hurt myself, I wondered how I could have avoided it. I was 6 miles from Fort Pierce, and unable to move my right arm, I motored the remainder of the trip, not feeling able to raise sail again. It crossed my mind to continue around Cape Canaveral on that overnight journey, because I wasn’t sure if, once dropped, I’d be able to retrieve my anchor again. Sailing might be easier, I reasoned.

Definition of the term 'easy' is primarily is a matter of perception. When I processed the thought, that spending a night at sea, alone, on a wooden boat, in relatively unfamiliar waters, where violent and deadly thunderstorms maintained a constant watch, where cargo ships habitually had a computer at the helm with watchmen only intermittently taking the care to lookout for those little red and green lights indicating another life on that broad ocean… I laughed when I realized that all that risk would be easier for me than the alternative of swallowing my pride and asking someone in the anchorage the following morning for help hauling up my anchor.

I motored towards the inlet. It seemed I'd not be let off easy on any account, and would not relax until that anchor was deep in the mud. As I approached the inlet, an hour after low tide, I thought I had the currents all figured out. I thought I'd have a nice easy rush of water at my stern, and I'd be able to motor at half throttle in around the bend. I was a little surprised when I had 3 kts of current working against me, creating standing waves and eddies that made steering difficult and kept my heart in my throat as I struggeled to keep centered between the two rocky breakwaters. I wasn't completely surprised though. I have been wrong before.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Haida Gwaii

Arriving at Banks Island early afternoon, we pushed our way through mounds of kelp, more than we had ever attempted to transit before, and got out our make-shift boat hook to nudge the pieces that managed to get lodged in the rudder. We anchored amidst a small fleet of boats offloading geoduck to the larger mothership. Geoduck (pronounced goo-ee duck, sounds appealing, doesn’t it?) was something I had never heard tell of until we met Jean-Marc. He dives from his own boat to gather these giant clams, which have a lifespan upwards of 150 years and are considered a delicacy in Asia.

While all those aboard the boats at anchor continued to work, it was time for us to play. We rowed… no... PADDLED… you paddle a canoe… ashore and poked around for evidence of the wolves. There were plenty of tracks, none too recent though. An epic canoe journey ensued, into moderate surf not suited to canoes, but we explored many small inlets and islets, and our beachcombing turned up evidence of more wolves, bears, mother-of-pearl, tiny snails, and some baleen from a whale. I’m an obsessed beachcomber, but only until the point where I become overwhelmed with too much stuff, and overboard it goes. Usually all at once.

Arriving with high hopes of a wolf sighting but leaving with mild disappointment, we set out across the Hecate Strait to the Queen Charlotte Islands. My friend Chris, who has spent time in the Strait aboard Coast Guard vessles, refers to it as the Hell-Cat Strait, and it is known for being treacherous. Like the Great Lakes of the Canada-US border, and the North Sea adjacent to Great Britain, it is very shallow. The result is steep seas with short wavelengths that can build quickly with very little coaxing from the wind. Despite the area never being too long without a gale this time of year, we had a beautiful sail.

The Queen Charlottes have recently become known as Haida Gwaii, a closer resemblance of the original name of Xaadala Gwayee in recognition of the Haida Nation and to place less emphasis on their colonial past. We had heard from many that the West coast of the Charlottes was the place to go, as most cruisers, the few that venture to the Queen Charlottes in the run of a season, head down the more protected east coast. The remnants of Haida native villages are everywhere, having been abandoned during the late 19th Century as European explorers introduced diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, and measles. The Haida people were almost entirely decimated, their population reduced to a mere 350 from approximately 50,000 before the arrival of the explorers. As the Natives fell ill, survivors abandoned their villages and took to the woods, splitting from family and friends, and most of them eventually re-congregated in Queen Charlotte City, Masset, Sandspit, or Skidegate.

We waited a week dockside in Queen Charlotte City as gale after gale blew through, and eventually decided it was best to just head back from whence we came. Not being familiar with either the east or west coastline of the Charlottes, and having spent hours pouring over the charts on loan from Jean-Marc, it didn’t seem like there were many options for good safe anchorages from the inevitable storms along the 200 mile stretch we’d have to navigate. We picked our weather window, probably the only 10hr stretch of reduced winds in over a week, and set out before sunrise, bound once again for Banks Island and to make our way south through the Inside Passage. Re-living my visit as I write, I realize just how much I'd like to believe it was more than just another stop along the way. I want to return and take in what I missed; the remnants of totem poles over 100 years old, the antique trading beads lacing the shoreline, the long-submerged glassware of Japanese sailing ships washed ashore or uncovered on a regular basis by fierce Pacific storms, not to mention all the natural beauty of the landscape and seascape. Someday.

It wasn’t all disappointment though. We met a Haida elder who was eager to share his stories, and he gave us a driving tour of his home town of Skidegate, described their matriarchal society and how all the remaining Haida (approximately 4000) all belong to one of two social groups, or moieties; Eagles or Ravens. There are more than 20 lineages that exist within each of the Eagle and Raven moieties, and an Eagle must marry a Raven, never a fellow Eagle, and any children belong to the same group as the mother. Members of any of the Haida lineages have certain entitlements of land, hunting and gathering areas, and other natural resources.

Our guide took us to a totem pole along the shore of the reserve that was carved in the 1970s by renowned Haida artist Bill Read, whose art is also depicted on the Canadian $20 bill. His ‘Jade Canoe’ sits in Vancouver International Airport and apparently leaves a lasting impression for all those arriving on international flights (I only say apparently because I have no recollection of it despite passing through there just a few months ago). As a last stop, he left us at the newly opened Haida Cultural Center. A couple of current projects are underway at the Center, including the carving of totem poles and traditional Haida canoes. The canoes, sometimes more than 50ft in length, are carved from a single massive trunk of cedar. By hollowing the trunk, filling them with water, then dropping hundreds of pounds of red-hot rocks into the resulting wooden 'bath', the canoes can be manipulated and thwarts (seats) can be forced into place, permanently reshaping the canoe as the wood cools.

The other end of the Center focuses on the geology, biology, and history of Haida Gwaii. Here I learned of the shocking practice of the 18th and 19th century explorers confiscating anything from art, general household items, family heirlooms, and even Haida remains as trophies which they sent or carried back to their homes in Europe. Most of these items or remains eventually found themselves in the hands of museums throughout the world, and as part of the organization of the Cultural Center, a call was put out for the return of all these artifacts. Every museum known to possess these artifacts was contacted, and I was impressed to learn that every last one has complied and returned what rightfully belongs in Haida Gwaii.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Publish Something Already

We made our second stop in Prince Rupert to clear in with Canadian Customs upon returning from Alaska. This time, realizing we could stay at the town dock for free, we met more friendly and interesting characters than we had at the yacht club on our previous visit. Jean-Marc, sailing aboard a large and excellently outfitted aluminum sloop he had built himself 9 years earlier on Vancouver Island, and his father Vincent. Jean-Marc has a sailor’s dream job of sailing his own boat around, collecting shellfish samples throughout the northwest to be tested for red tide, and other parasites. His father who was out visiting for a couple of weeks is a model Canadian citizen. Concerned, interested, informed, I envied his contentment as an early riser who would be up at the crack of dawn reading the morning’s news at Cowpaccinos (a perfectly unique, relaxed Tim Hortons alternative that has rekindled my desire to one day own my own little coffee shop).

In the weeks leading up to meeting Jean-Marc, Brian had told me about, on numerous occasions, an excellent documentary at this years Banff Mountain Film Festival called In Search of the Coast Wolves. Brian thought Jean-Marc’s boat bore a striking resemblance to the one in the film. Vincent said it should because it was indeed the same boat. Jean Marc was hired by the producers as the knowledgeable captain to lead the search throughout the remote islands of BC, and the resulting film is fantastic. Check it out if you can.

I almost bypassed a fascinating story of coincidence, if it wasn't for Brian drawing my attention to a small, nondescript fiberglass motorboat in a seaside park. In 1986, a lone fisherman set out from Owase, Japan for day of fishing to provide for his family. He never returned. One year and over 4000 nautical miles later, his boat was found drifting off the BC coast near Prince Rupert, Owase’s sister city. The boat is now the heart of a Mariner’s Memorial in downtown Prince Rupert.

With the perfect resource at hand, we asked Jean-Marc where we should go if we wanted to see wolves. Without hesitation, his answer was Banks Island, about 50 miles southwest of Prince Rupert. Knowing we were also bound for the Queen Charlotte Islands, he gave us all the charts we would need to either go down the east or west coast of the southern islands, providing we return them when finished.

It was necessary to make one stop on our way to Banks Island, and we found ourselves in Totem Inlet. Just wide enough to get in, and barely deep enough, I stood on the bow pulpit hoping to get the best vantage point. I hate these entries. Though we went very slow, there’s something infinitely unnerving about seeing the bottom the whole way along. After a nightmarish grounding aboard my own boat in Mexico last March, it’s something I’m not sure I will ever fully get over. It was worth it though. Once inside the full protection of the tiny bay shortly before sunset, a family of otters scurried onto the rocks beside us and up into the woods, and the atypical (for this time of year) towering cumulus clouds caused by daytime heating of the land hinted at the presence of the Queen Charlotte Islands just over the horizon. Just another 15 miles to sail the following day would leave us plenty of daylight to explore one shore of Banks Island and hopefully see one of these elusive wolves, or at least hear a howl.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


"Two Grande extra-hot half sweet non-fat no whip extra foam hazelnut decaf mochas".

Yes, as I stand behind the coffee machine making various espressos at Starbucks, I find it hard to believe that this time last year I was 200 miles offshore in the North Atlantic, sitting in the cockpit of Annie Laurie. It's been one year since Ed, Effie, Logan and I set out from Surrette's Island, Nova Scotia, bound for Gloucester, or Provincetown, we had yet to wait and see. The atmosphere looked like winter and smelled of salt, and we were bundled up and in high spirits in anticipation of our final destination, Cuba. It's amazing how, despite the very best intentions and dedicated work, we can fail to meet our goals and events can unfold so differently. It's hard not to speculate, could I have known back then what the future had in store, if I ever would have even begun such a journey. Weighing the good with the bad over the last 12 months, I know it was a decision I will never regret. Certain details I'd like to delete from my life's story, feeling that they contributed to more of a regression of my character rather than an enhancement, but I suspect had I stayed home and continued my forecasting position, my life would have spiraled into an unsettled tangle of unrealized dreams and discontent.

As much as we may worry about the future and how we’re going to live it, there's no telling where all the little choices we make in the run of a day will eventually land us. Any plans I make right now have little purpose other than putting my mind at ease for the time being, fooling myself into believing I know what the future will bring. Chances are the plans I make now will bear little resemblance to where I find myself six months or one year from now. But what gets me through these land-bound days are hopes of earning the means to head back to Annie Laurie in early spring, dreams of a jaunt over the Bahamas, and a summer cruise up the eastern seaboard, hopefully arriving in Lunenburg in time for the 2009 September Classic boat race.

Making the most of what you have while working for what you want is a motto I strive to live by. I constantly remind myself how life can pass you by while you're busy making other plans. Therefore, I hope to make the most of my time in British Columbia, enjoy the company of the new friends I’ve made, while working for the winter to enable the next part of my voyage.

It's a challenge though, sitting still. I find clarity in motion and consider myself lucky to have literally endless trails throughout the mountains that loom on my temporary back doorstep. I’ve felt throughout my life that, in a sense, I've been drifting along in the dark, carried by the currents as I tread water. I rarely try to fight fate, and all in all, I don’t’ think the latitude of my existence has been hindered. Despite having the comfort of past experience telling me everything always finds a way of sorting itself out, I’m aware of a feeling of limbo, and I know something is missing. Without being able to identify what it is I seem to be waiting for to make my existence more complete, I see no better option or need to do anything but allow this current take me where it may. That being said, I’m slowly realizing that whatever the choices or currents in the coming year, they all lead to home.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


The day we were to arrive in Alaska began as any other. Up before sunrise, a bit of mist in the air, and not much wind. We motored out of Port Simpson and within half an hour, the wind picked up. The wind was against us, but we decided to do what we could with it, rather than leave the sails down and motor a more direct course. It would be the first day that we would really have to work for our miles. Days like these are character-building, as we wove a zig-zag course up Dixon Entrance, seemingly making little to no head-way after each tack. As the day wore on, we were looking for back-up plans, because we didn't think we would make our destination of Foggy Bay, Alaska before nightfall. It's surprisingly difficult to find a place to anchor for the night. For an anchorage to be practical, the water can't be too deep, which is the main problem on the west coast. Much of the coastline of B.C. drops to depths of 600ft or more within a few feet of the waters edge. Coming up with no alternatives, we resigned ourselves to a nighttime arrival in Foggy Bay, with only a hand-sketch in Charlies Charts to go by.

The moon was on the rise as we approached the entrance to the bay, but it wasn't enough to illuminate the rocks that sat just a few feet above the surface on either side, as the diagram showed. From the bow, away from the engine, I could hear the swells breaking on the reef that offers protection from rolling seas once in the anchorage, but is a hazard when trying to get through it. There was enough salt spray in the air that the beam from the spotlight fell flat within a few feet, so was of no use. We tried to think of other options that would give us a better idea of our actual location. We had a brand new handheld Garmin GPS, which will tell you within 7ft where you are, but without a map or chart of some sort to plot that latitude and longitude, the numbers don't really mean too much. Then we remembered something. NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. provides all the charts for U.S. waters free of charge online, and Brian had downloaded some of the charts he thought we may need the previous week. Luckily, there was enough power left in his laptop to bring up the necessary chart, we plotted our position on the screen, then were able to plot a compass course to follow, and we winded our way past a few more shallow spots and islands and dry reefs before finally dropping the hook at 2230. It can be frustratingly confusing navigating in the dark. Just when you think you know exactly where you are, and identify the silhouettes of the islands and rocks and think you know what's what when making comparisons to the sketches in the guidebooks, you begin to proceed between the two islands only to realize it is one island. Nights like these, we go slow. Its always interesting to see all the obstacles you dodged when departing in daylight the next morning.

The following day was our first 'official' day in Alaska. Ketchikan is the first Port of Entry where you can clear customs when arriving from the south. Effie made sure she would be the first among us to set foot on Alaskan ground, and she took a flying leap off the boat when we were still a fair distance from the dock. Since the arrival of the babies we don't have to worry about her going too far. Speaking of which, Jake is gradually learning why walking forward is the preferred mode of transportation, and isn't falling backwards off the bunk as often. Mary-Anne is my favorite (I tell her all the time). In the beginning, she seemed to have inherited Effie's kittenhood fascination with blinking eyes, and would lay quiet and motionless on my chest in the morning, waiting for my eyes to open with the morning light, before going for the gold.

Ketchikan is a small town that caters largely to cruise ships. We awoke the following morning to no less than 6 cruise liners clogging the entire waterfront. The town is on the island of Revillagigedo, which eventually became Re-Village Gigolo to Brian and I as we struggled to grasp the proper pronounciation. We stayed long enough for Brian to celebrate his birthday in style, if by accident, when we ended up in the company of a lumberjack who'd just stumbled out of the woods, quite literally. He called himself Red, wore a red bandana and... well, what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think 'lumberjack'? Yes, good, 3 foot-beard, that's right... red-and-black plaid jacket, 5-lb axe... or perhaps he left that outside with the ox. He spent the evening ringing the brass bell at the end of the bar, which meant he was buying yet another round for the house. He passed out money for the jukebox and told us to pick 'songs from the soul' and bragged how he lived "totally off the grid, man", which, in his books meant kerosene lamps and candles. Yes, if you've ever wondered what you're missing out on when you hear Brian and Laura are on a boat in Alaska, now you know.

I think Brian and I came to the realization around the same time as one another that it was time to start thinking about turning around and heading home. We had reached our destination, and having set out late in the sailing season, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. Not only was the temperature becoming unbearably cold at night, but the Pacific storms were rolling in, one after another. We decided to circumnavigate Re-Village Gigolo, which would take a few days and take us up into the Misty Fjords National Park. We were 100 years too late if we wanted to see any sea-level glaciers. A glacier that graced our northernmost anchorage in the early 20th century has receded so far up the valley and around the bend that it would take a full day of hiking to reach its edge.

We were blessed with 3 days of sunny weather and decent winds. The Parks people provide moorings to tie off to, so finding a place to anchor wasn't an issue. After tying to a mooring in Punchbowl Cove, we decided to hike up to Punchbowl Lake, on the recommendation of the Visitors Center employee in Ketchikan. Upon canoeing ashore, Brian spotted some fresh bear poop and prints. As eager as I was to see a bear, I was uneasy with the prospects of coming face to face with one in such a remote area. We spent 1/2 an hour tip-toeing around, looking for more evidence, or any rustling in the trees. We made our way toward the waterfall, figuring we'd find a trail up to the lake. As we quietly stepped along the rocky shore, we suddenly heard a deep roar. Stopping in our tracks, we looked at one another, and carefully started taking steps backwards. A moment later I burst out laughing when I realized it was only a jet, high above our heads.

The lake was lifeless and silent. As a previous visitor had noted in the guest book at the shelter, God forgot to put fish in the lake. The shelter was supplied with wood for chopping, a fire-pit, raised wooden platforms for sleeping and paddles for an upturned canoe by the waters edge. Though the water was cold, it was fresh, so I took advantage of it with my soap and shampoo, knowing it might be some time before I'd find a shower again.

Wanting to get to another anchorage 20 miles south before dark, we limited ourselves to about an hour at the lake before hiking back to our canoe and leaving the mooring by early afternoon.

There is a very distinct rock formation mid-channel a few miles out of Punchbowl Cove known as New Eddystone. It's the remnants of the core of a volcano, much like the outcrops on which Edinburgh and Stirling Castle are built, the hard rock core remaining where the softer surroundings have eroded away. Captain Vancouver, who was assigned by Britian to survey the coast from California to Alaska late in the 18th century, reportedly stopped and had lunch on the rock . We passed within 1/2 a mile of the rock without seeing more than a slightly smugged dark patch in the fog bank. If Vancouver was surveying these waters in the typical west coast weather, it's more likely that he ran his ship into the rock, rather than have lunch on it.

We followed the shoreline all the way to our next anchorage, the fog being so thick at times that if we had been mid channel, we would have been unable to see either shore. We picked up a mooring at the mouth of a river where dead salmon were abundant ('tis the season), and a bald eagle watched patiently atop a dead cedar, searching for a suitable dinner. Brian caught dinner this particular evening, the first (and only) fish of any substance of our trip. A flounder with partially migrated eyes, as what happens in some stage of their development. It's not my area of expertise and I'm unable to find a reliable article on the subject, but I believe they are born with their eyes on opposite sides of their head, like a salmon, and they swim 'upright', like a salmon. At some point, one eye migrates to the other side, and the fish begins to swim like a flatfish, like a stingy-ray, along the seafloor, with both eyes on top. If someone knows about this, please feel free to comment. (no funny stuff, Doug)

Before heading back to Canada, it was necessary to re-stock in Ketchikan. The wind was dead calm and the fog left us with less than a boatlength of visibility. It's bad enough navigating in the fog when you have a radar and charts, but we had neither, and we were entering a narrow and busy channel with significant currents, frequented this time of year by as many as half a dozen cruise ships per day, along with any number of tour boats and tugs and barges. We estimated our position then set a compass course and noted the time, and calculated when Forgot-the-Name Island would appear from the fog. Quite some time passed and there was no sign of the land. I was on the bow, looking for shallow areas, still unable to see more than 30ft ahead. The fog can play tricks with your vision. You think you see land, then the shape evaporates. Eventually we found land, but as we followed along, we realized we were at least 2 miles from where we had hoped. We began 'bumping' our way up the channel, overshooting our desired points over and over, once arriving at a rockpile marked at its low peak by a small green lighthouse. It was very difficult to do anything else but motor along slowly, and look at the compass, and hope to recognize bits of shoreline that we'd seen a week earlier when we had entered Ketchikan the first time. A pilot boat, sent ahead of a cruise ship, spotted us and called us on the radio to inform us of the 300ft ship to follow. The cruise ship eventually called us too, able to see us on their radar. We were unable to see him until, miraculously, the fog lifted long enough to see we were well clear of each other, then closed in once again. Ketchikan is a high-traffic area for float planes as well, and we could hear them overhead, but never did see the ones coming in for a landing this particular day. We heard a random yokel on the VHF, muttering quickly and to no one in particular, "Dat plane up thaar, is'it okay? She's goin' round and round and round in circles". Float plane pilot is an occupation that has really stirred my interest in recent weeks, but in those conditions, I feel safer in a boat. Even Brian's boat.

In the hopes of quelling any boredom of retracing our steps down the coast, we had high hopes of cruising a portion of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Things have not gone as planned, but a second visit to Prince Rupert brought an unexpected meeting with a couple of very interesting people. As always, you cannot anticipate what is going to bring you the most fulfillment or enchantment in a journey such as this.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bella Bella and Beyond

Myles Inlet was our first stop after leaving Vancouver Island, and we lost a crewmember on the way. Early afternoon and little Finbar gave up the fight. I didn't really expect it; It had been a week since their birth, and Finbar and Finnigan were considerably smaller than the other two, but I thought they were doing alright. We were hours from our next port, and Effie was mourning, so I decided it was better not to wait for a land burial, so we buried him at sea. It didn't feel very natural to drop him into the water, but eventually I did, and for a moment he looked no different from the moment he'd been born. Then our thoughts immediately turned to Finnigan. We tried to feed her warmed egg and milk, but she refused to eat. The next morning, she was gone too. A Schooner Match box was the perfect size, and we left her behind in Myles Inlet by the tidal falls. Effie was lost for a while, searching the boat for her lost kittens, but she seems to have let go now. She's very protective of Jacob and Mary-Anne, and doesn't let them get very far from their box before taking them by the scruffs of their necks and dragging them back to safety.

The next jump north was wide open to the Pacific swells. With a name like Cape Caution, the passage seemed a bit more intimidating than it was in reality. We had good wind, and despite dozens of floating logs scattered around, they were easy to spot thanks to all the seagulls resting along them. Once north of the Cape, we were back on the protected Inside Passage. An overnight stop at Pruth Bay was recommended by Charlie, the author of our 1986 cruisers guide we picked up at a sailors exchange a month ago (it's as good as the day it was written, not much has changed). Charlie's Charts, as far as were concerned, have been an essential for this trip, having purchased American published 'charts', which, upon closer inspection, are 'not to be used for navigation'. There's a reason why friends don't left friends shop at West Marine.

In Pruth Bay we spotted wolf tracks on the white sandy beach which was a short hike from the anchorage. The island is the site of a sportsfishing lodge, which had just closed for the season. Caretakers had just arrived by float plane to look after the property for the winter, and told us of the wolves, and details of the lodge, and pointed out an old cabin where John Wayne stayed when he visited the lodge many years ago.

Each day, the scenery has steadily changed. We've become completely spoiled with humpback whale sightings, and often stop and drift as they come up for their displays. Usually we see a fin, followed by a huge tail that swoops up, then falls beneath the water without a trace of a splash. A more impressive show is to see a lone whale somersaulting and slapping the surface with its long flippers, sometimes repeatedly for 20 minutes or longer. The sound it makes, in such a wild environment, is difficult to describe. When the wind and seas are calm, the only sound you hear is the ringing in your ears. It hasn't been unusual for us to go for days at a time without seeing another boat, or plane, or any other sign of civilization. I had no idea before setting out on the trip that there would be such long stretches of desolation. I do have to wonder how many outlaws seek the remoteness of this area, and live up in the mountains where, chances are, they would never be found.
Bella Bella was the first community we encountered since leaving Port MacNiell. As charming as the name sounds, I found the walk around town a bit depressing. The kids were friendly, the teens looked angry, and the shopkeepers were helpful, much like any other town big or small, but I could feel a difference. The consequence of a community that is so isolated from the rest of the province, I guess. True, BC Ferries makes a stop there ever few days, and there's nothing to stop a float plane from landing just off the shore anytime, but I think I would find it difficult as a young adult trying to find my life's calling in such isolation. Then again, perhaps growing up with a greater sense of community and having a greater reliance on one another than the average city-dweller, knowing what's important comes into focus more easily. We were easy to spot as we wandered around, not only as sailors, but as non-Natives, and sometimes I find it hard to read how people feel about tourists in their town. The reception in Bella Bella and all of the communities since has been very welcoming, and when it comes to opinions on the salmon fishery and fish farm disputes, many are eager to share their point of view.

On our way to Klemtu, I recall reading on the chart 'Waterfall Point' on the American 'chart', and I slandered the chart once again for being completely wrong. I assumed a place named Waterfall Point would have a waterfall there, but one should never assume. It eventually began to make some sense though in the following hours when we started counting waterfalls by the dozens. This would continue for many days and miles. We learned in Klemtu about the 'Spirit Bear'. On rare occasion, two recessive genes combine and a Brown bear is born white. There had been sightings in the last week, so we spent much of our time the next few days scanning the shores as we sailed along, hoping to see him. It never happened.

The only fault we have found in Charlie's Charts, which we only began to understand in Klemtu, was that most of the native communities are dry towns. Charlie was a sailor, we thought, so he must know that such information might be considered important and would deserve a mention. After 2 weeks, I began working on a design for a flag, that when hoisted would unmistakably suggest to any passing ship that our flag was the International Distress Signal for Wine and Baguettes, and to assist if possible.

Charlie never steered us wrong when it came to good anchorages though, and recommended one in Butedale next to an impressive waterfall. We entered the small bay, the site of an old cannery, where an old man name Lou is now the caretaker of the remains of the cannery and surrounding buildings. He lives alone, and advertises on a large piece of plywood by the shore that he sells ice cubes, ice cream, and showers. We tide up to his dock, which easily became submerged as we stepped off the boat, and hiked up to a nearby lake. Hundreds of felled trees remain behind in the lake, cut decades ago, and now gathered at the corner of the lake before the waterfall. Since arriving in British Columbia I've been dreaming about running around on the log booms and trying my feet at logrolling. Discovering that lake of huge trees has been one of the highlights of the trip for me, odd as it may seem. There was yet another degree of silence we experienced up there, as we made our way as close to the middle of the lake that the huge floating logs would allow. Night was falling so we began our hike back to Lou's cabin. Lou seemed delighted with the company, and after a lukewarm shower by the light of an LED headlamp strung above the faucet, we all sat around his TV to watch a very old Michael Douglass movie. Lou kept a running commentary on the film he's probably seen 2 dozen times, pausing only to top up his glass of vodka and purple Kool-Aid.

Before departing the next morning, Lou told us of a hot-spring off the beaten track. We sailed up to the end of the inlet, dropped the anchor and canoed up the river we assumed Lou was trying to describe. A short hike into the woods and we found the springs. A concrete pool was built around a spout, and the rate of flow was slow, so it wasn't as warm as we'd hoped, worth the trip nevertheless. By evening we were in Hartley Bay, another native town, and very unique in the sense that the entire town is interconnected by boardwalk. There are a couple of scooters, but the only other motorized vehicles on the island are the fishing boats. We followed one walkway up into the woods, where 3 young boys were walking back from the lake with a big salmon, and very thoughtfully and casually said, "Be careful of the bears". I still wanted to see a bear, so was eager to keep going, but Brian said it was time to phone his mom, so we turned and headed for home. I know the truth though, Brian.

Some days seem longer than others, especially when there's little wind, and we're just motoring along. There's a tendency to fall into a sort of highway hypnosis at the helm, and the boredom can lead to too much thinking. As a result, we've begun to take turns reading to one another to pass the time. I found a book in a second-hand shop in Squamish called Ralph Edwards of Lonesome Lake, about a pioneer in the Bella Coola area. Knowing we'd be sailing in the vicinity, I thought it might be of some interest, and its probably the best $1 I've spent since beginning the trip. His family became caretakers for the wintering Trumpeter swans which were dwindling in numbers and were dangerously close to extinction. He was credited for getting the species off the endangered list, which is just the beginning of his story. Suffice to say, it's a great read, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Most places we've visited, we've kept it to just an overnight stay, either exploring on arrival, or getting up in the morning for a few hours of canoeing or fishing before moving on to our final destination, Alaska. Hartley Bay had something about it, I could have stayed another day or two, but we carried on up Grenville Channel to find an anchorage in West Inlet, our final stop before the bustling town of Prince Rupert and the first pub since Vancouver Island. West Inlet was deserted aside from a large converted freighter on a mooring called the Heli-Forrester. It is a portable accommodation for a logging company that does all its logging using helicopters. We dropped the anchor in about 35 feet of water, and decided we'd like to canoe over to the Heli-Forrester and see who was around. Only one caretaker was aboard, waiting for the next crew to arrive in a few days. We talked for an hour or two, and he described the process of the helicopters plucking the felled trees from the hillside and dropping the trees into the water, where they'd later be transferred to barges and shipped away. We had a good yarn and it was pitch darkness paddling back to the boat. As we approached the boat, I was busy looking below the canoe, splashing the water to activate the phosphorescence. Once beside Nirmala, I thought I could see some leaves suspended about 3 feet below the surface, but then realized I was looking at the bottom. The boat wasn't floating anymore. "Brian, I think the boat is sitting on the bottom..." I felt terrible, thinking about how it was me that had dropped the anchor, so as I let it down I should have been able to estimate more accurately the depth of the water. The tide range is substantial here, but not quite 35 feet. Brian was really quiet for a while as he assessed the situation, and I got a bit nervous, feeling to blame, and knowing how I'd feel if I came back to Annie Laurie sitting on the bottom. I didn't know what to say, and then he started laughing, "Laura, to tell the truth, I can't believe we made it this far!". We climbed aboard at the bow, careful to keep her balanced on the keel, and made our way below. By morning we were floating again, and at 0630 the tide was falling rapidly, so we got an early start and enjoyed a good laugh at our own expense, after we were sure there was no harm done. I explained my feelings of guilt about it all, but Brian is very easy-going and understanding. He reminded me how I shouldn't worry my 'pretty little head' about such things, how I can't be expected to do a man's work, and how I'm really out of my element. A womans place is in the kitchen, not at sea! After Brian cooking blueberry waffles on the barbecue, and cleaning an inch of solidified bacon fat out of the frying pan using the cotton washcloth, I'm more than happy to take over the galley chores.

We regrouped for a couple of days in Prince Rupert, finding a shower for the second time since Port MacNiell, stocking up on groceries, doing a bit of laundry, and lowered the Wine and Baguette distress flag for the first time in 3 weeks.

Next stop, Alaska.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Surprise, Surprise!

One week yesterday, Brian and Effie and I left Squamish, northward bound. Solid southeasterly breezes, uncharacteristic of this area this time of year, have helped us to northern Vancouver Island via the Inside Passage with little need for the motor. Our first stop, Smugglers Cove on the Sunshine Coast, was a popular and cosy nook with an entrance barely 50 feet wide, yet with 60 feet of depth. We've strived for early starts (9am or so) so not to waste any of this great wind, and by mid-afternoon on day 2, we were close to our next destination, Cortes Island, and were carrying a reefed main in gale force winds. We had one reef to round, before approaching the Gorge, where safe harbour would be found.

The gorge entrance itself was wide-open to the wind and swells, and also had its constant background of swirls and whirlpools. I think often of how the sound of the wind in the rig makes matters seems worse than they are, so I try to imagine complete silence in such situations, and suddenly none of it seems so overwhelming. Part of me can't get used to the fact that I'm no longer on my boat, and I feel the same stress and responsibility on board Nirmala as I do on Annie Laurie. Brian has surprised me a couple of times, such as nonchalantly pointing out the petroglyphs on the gorge wall when we're transiting the narrowest point in the entrance, and I wonder how I feel so stressed when it's his boat and he doesn't appear to be worried at all.

Once inside the harbour, we eventually found a spot protected enough from the gale that we could feel confident that we wouldn't drag into the rocks, at least not immediately. About 10 minutes later, driving rains begun, and so did frantic cries from Effie and looks of desperation, directed at me. "Whaasaaap, kittehhh?", is a common response from me when she gives me funny looks, but this time she seemed to be in pain. "Perhaps this isn't false pregnancy number three!" I said to Brian. Two little hind legs appeared, and with it, confirmation that these were Key West babies, from her boyfriend she found when the boat was hauled at Old Island Marina.

Each consecutive kitten was born with a bit more ease than the previous, and by the time the last two arrived, Brian and I had actually fallen asleep, and Effie came and walked all over my face, purring, and ran back to the box, as if to say, "Come look! More babies!". We counted five, two girls, and three boys. By early morning, there were still five, but a little later there were only four. That was 5 days ago, and all, including mum, are doing well.

Finnegan, the first born, I named for a good friend I lost a couple of weeks ago. Of the 5 of them, she was the one I didn't expect to make it through the night. But like my friend, she's proven to be a fighter, and she's now the most adventurous of the bunch, making it a full 2 meters to the other end of the bunk before Effie noticed and ran over for the retrieval. Finbar was next, and I think he'll be a hell of a sailor, named after the Admiral of the Conch Republic Navy. Brian and I laughed at the sight of the next born, the sheer size of his head, he's huge! We agreed to name him Jacob, a reference only the graduating class of 1992 from Grosvenor Wentworth Park Elementary School will know. The next morning, after the last little boy stopped breathing, I thought it may have been a bit of bad luck that he wasn't named, so now the pressure was on to name the last girl. Brian suggested Mary-Anne, after the mistress of the explorer Cortes for whom the island was named. I liked it. Turns out Brian remembered the story wrong, and her name wasn't Mary-Anne at all; it may have been Marina, but even that we're no longer sure of, so, Mary-Anne it is.
Effie has always had the proclivity to run off to other boats, especially wooden ones, and we're currently dockside at a marina in Port MacNeill. The kittens have provided the perfect solution to getting Effie to come home from her excursions. She comes running if we remove one from their box, and say, "Effie, we're stealing your babies!". She'll climb up my legs to get her baby back. (I know, Mom, what a sin... what a sin...)

We stayed a couple of days in Cortes, hitching rides in the pouring rain to explore the tiny island. Whale Harbour was by far my favorite spot, population less than 10 I would guess. The library is the size of my childhood bedroom, with the hours posted on the front door, "Open Fridays, 1 til 3".

A time consuming and somewhat challenging aspect that is defining our trip so far is the necessity to time the tides and currents. There are many small passes than must be transited at slack, or near-slack tides. Currents can easily run at 15kts, and in some cases 24kts a bit further up the coast. There are literally hundreds of mountainous islands, and dozens of routes to take. We decided we were going to go through Stuart Pass, 25 miles from the Gorge Harbour in Cortez, but the only safe (daylight) times to sail through that area were early morning and just before sunset, and there were no safe anchorages nearby. After moving to a somewhat closer anchorage, further north but still on Cortes, known as Von Dop Inlet, we changed our minds and ended up passing through Hole in the Wall, which our tide books gave slack water at 2pm. Arriving at 1:40 after a failed attempt in the areas popular and apparently fool-proof fishing hole, our cruising guide seemed to suggest near-slack tides were acceptable, and passing through the 'rapids' (the tide runs so hard, it really is like rapids) should be straight-forward. There were more than one narrow sections, it was a winding path, and the whirlpools were the best I've seen yet. The turn of the tide at the southern tip of Nova Scotia was quite a show as I recall as I left for Cuba on Annie Laurie, but it was nothing compared to what I was seeing now. I kept my eyes on the chart, trying to judge our position by the little coves and points of land I was seeing. There were rocks mid channel, I eventually noticed, but were veiled by the rapids, and looked like much of the rest of the water in the immediate area, white and frothy. Brian steered for shore to avoid the rocks, but we were still going faster on a perpendicular course. A well-powered fishing boat stopped to watch us, seeming a bit concerned and wanting to make sure we made it through to the other side alright, which we eventually did about 15 minutes later. About 45 minutes later a line-up of sailboat were motoring towards the same pass. We both thought, "Hmm, aren't they going to be at the pass a bit too late?".

We found a wonderful secluded anchorage at a low island surrounded by mountains and seals and jumping fish (couldn't catch them, either) that evening, protected from the southeast gales that were supposed to appear sometime after midnight. The current pulled us quickly, again, 90 degrees from where we wanted to go, until we were between the 2 islands marking the entrance. From there, we had to steer around long strands of kelp that was grazing the surface (it can get stuck in the propeller), but still attached to the rocks 35ft below. We were joined by a local fishing trawler who came to anchor for the night too. It felt like the calm before the storm, the water was like glass except for the occasional light rain passing, and some less-impressive whirlpools that could be seen outside the islands we had come between.

Morning we awakened to much the same, aside from the trawler getting an early start and being long gone. There was not a breath of wind, so we motored for the first hour. Finally the wind began to fill and we were flying along at 7, 8, 9, 10 kts. A while later the GPS reached a maximum of 15 kts, and all this in the northern end of the Johnstone Strait, where apparently there is always 1 to 3 kts of current against a northbound vessel. When sailing in heavy winds, I find there will come a point, even when things are going smoothly, where you feel that something is about to go wrong. With only one reef in the main, and no other options for flying any sort of smaller sail, I felt we were overpowered. I think Brian felt the same, so when we were approaching shore and it was time to gybe (turn the boat and bring the wind to the other side) we didn't feel it was safe to do with the sail raised (a quick or unexpected gybe in high winds can do a lot of damage. I've ripped reef-points and clews clean-off the sails on my boat, and on some boats it can take down the mast). So we dropped the sail, came around, and looked at the GPS. We were still able to steer and were moving in the direction we wanted to go at a speed of 7kts, with no sails up at all. I was estimating some of the gusts at 40kts, and really didn't want the sail raised again just yet. Brian agreed, like he has many times before on the trip, not because it was necessarily the right decision (in hindsight, we probably would have been fine and I think he knew that) but because he doesn't want me to feel beyond my comfort zone.

So we drifted along like that for a couple of hours, and noticed that the water temperature in the past 20 miles had dropped from 16 degrees Celsius to 8 degrees. This temperature change brought a change in wildlife too. Dolphins played on the bow, and later that afternoon, Brian spotted our first Orcas of the trip! There were at least 5 of them, and the two largest had dorsal fins that were taller than I am, an awesome sight as they came within a few boatl engths of us.

The wind was relentless until we arrived in Port MacNeill around 5:30pm Saturday. I made a phone call to my friend Chris who I haven't seen in a couple of years, who now lives in Victoria on Vancouver Island and is currently cruising the same waters. We've come within a few miles of each other a couple of times, not knowing until after the fact, as cell phone coverage is spotty and apparently we weren't monitoring our VHF radios at the same time. He's an experienced sailor and an officer in the Canadian Coast Guard, and when I finally got a hold of him the other night on the phone, he just mentioned in passing about the tide tables published by the Canadian Hydrographic Society, and why they don't work Daylight Savings Time into their tides, to make it easier for the sailors reading the tables. "Of course, Laura, you add an hour to all the tides this time of year, right?". Right. That probably explains the violent eddys and whirlpools and ridiculous currents, and that line-up of boats heading for the pass and hour and half too late! I love these learning experiences where, for some reason, nature is kinder than she has to be and lets people like us off with just a warning.

We've been waiting on the weather for a couple of days here in Port MacNeill, 35-45kts from the southeast that never seems to come. Yesterday we took the opportunity to take what must be the smallest BC Ferry in operation over to Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island. The tallest (at one time, anyway) totem pole in the world sits at the top of the hill above the town. Another area of totem poles lay as private memorials of the Namgis tribe down on Pine Street, that runs along the waters edge. As tourists, we were only permitted to view them from the street. Some are old, some are new, all are incredible works of art. Walking back from the tallest totem, we were stopped by a local who asked us how we were enjoying our visit to their island, and he shared some of his smoked salmon ('Indian candy', as he called it) that he had just picked up from his smokehouse.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the continent, Fay hit northern Florida as a Tropical Storm, with the eye, from what I gather, passing close to where I left my boat in Palm Coast. The storm surge had the dock under a foot of water, Shirley tells me, but Annie weathered the storm just fine. Thank-you to the exponent of a million, Shirley, Bill, and Art.
And with that, I once again check NOAA weather, and Hurricane Gustav may hit Florida as a possible Category 3 hurricane. This is not good news.