Monday, June 9, 2008

Back to the Start

Scanning the scene down below, it’s hard to believe that this is the same boat, the same space, that was shared with my sister and friends as I made my first passage from Halifax to Lunenburg with Rissa, as Annie Laurie was known back then. Seems very long ago, and was in fact rather far away.

When we set out that Friday morning in August 2006, our planned destination wasn’t even Lunenburg, it was Second Peninsula. The re-launching of the fully rebuilt ‘Valkyrie’, a 29-ft wooden sloop originally built and launched on the beach at Second Peninsula in 1946, was taking place that Saturday on the afternoon tide. The work was completed by a professional boat builder named Eamonn Doorly who works for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. I had become acquainted with Eamonn a month earlier when he recognized my boat as that of his friend and co-worker Terry Shaw, who had succumbed to cancer a year earlier. I bought Rissa from his widow, Sjan. The launching would also be a memorial for Terry, Sjan would be there, and Eamonn asked if I would bring the boat down for the event.

Wanting to get an early start, I planned a departure of 7am. Having owned the boat for less than a month, I was still becoming acquainted with her systems, and I shouldn’t have been shocked when the engine wouldn’t start right off the bat. The batteries were dead (what did I know about properly maintaining 12-volt batteries at the time? Not much.) I didn’t know what to do to remedy this situation quickly, and I did feel rushed, it being nearly 55 miles we had to make that day. I called my friend Super Dave, a past captain of mine from a tall ship on which I had done a short stint to Gloucester, Massachusetts. He’s the same Scot who helped me a month earlier when I signed the final papers and took possession of the boat. Without him, I would have planted her square onto James’ Rock moments after leaving the dock (I was unprepared, no charts, no idea how to get out Purcell’s Cove, no radar, thick of fog etc etc). He recognized the tell-tale signs of shallow rocks by the seaweed that was licking the surface dead ahead. His sailing and engineering skills I know and trust. While I was still in Nova Scotia, he was usually the first person that came to mind when I needed help, and he never let me down.

The invitation to Second Peninsula forced me to cram many things I had been avoiding, and a quick radio check (VHF radio) confirmed that I was able to receive, but not transmit. It’s law, but more importantly, it’s common sense not to leave port without a working radio. By 10:00, Dave had the engine going and the batteries charging, and a spare handheld VHF for me to bring. We were off to the races! Well, we would have been, if there had been a breath of wind. Nevertheless, thanks to the ‘iron jib’ (my Perkins 4-108 diesel) we didn’t have to wait for wind nor tide.

I guess it’s time to introduce my original crew. There were three aside from myself; two sailors and a wooden boat builder. My sister was up for the weekend excursion, and I knew that with her would come chocolate and great breakfasts, as well as her unfailing ridiculous and nonsensical behaviour that would keep me laughing, if no one else. I was thrilled when my friend Colin offered to help, giving up his coveted 1 day-off every 2 weeks from sailing the Bluenose II. Colin Duann is also a very talented artist in the field of film and photography. I'm grateful for the record of memories he created with our cameras on that trip, providing me with photos and footage of the 'early days' which I might not have made the effort to record on my own (please treat yourself to his Into the Mystic Bluenose film on Youtube, under 'whoneedsahandle'). Lastly, a visiting boat builder at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic was looking to increase his sailing experience on wooden boats, rather than just assembling them. I happily agreed, thinking if I encountered any sort of major leak, Wyatt would be just the man to have aboard.

As I was saying, we motored out of Halifax Harbor, and it appeared the fog would continue retreating from coast. It didn’t take Katie long to notice that the co-ordinates on my archaic handheld GPS hadn’t changed since we left the dock. Not knowing how to reset it, it became useless to me. That’s alright, I thought. I could finally put to the test everything I had learned over the years on the various ships I worked on. It’s different though when it’s your own boat and you feel the lives of your crew are in your hands. Sometimes I long for those days of working on other peoples boats, where the ultimate responsibility and worry belonged to someone else. Through all the learning that took place on other ships, I always knew that the officer of the watch had that ultimately responsibility, and they were double-checking every plot you made on the chart. Now, that was up to me. Without a GPS, I was relying solely on my compass and paper charts, taking sights of 3 known points of land and plotting our position as where the 3 lines coincided. I was pleased with myself as we progressed, and I seemed to get more and more accurate (a self-check is how small the resulting triangle is that’s formed by the 3 lines. If your third line falls directly over the ‘X’ of the first 2, then you have a very accurate position).

It was about 1PM when we spotted the famous Nova Scotia landmark, Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse. It is a very distinct sight, one that every Nova Scotian is very familiar with, as it is represented on everything from place mats to Christmas ornaments, and is a popular destination for Sunday drives any time of year. It is unmistakable to any native to Nova Scotia.

Most Maritimers know the expression, ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute…’ and not that any of us were complaining, but moments after taking a final sight of Peggy’s Cove, mist and fog began to roll in, and visibility quickly diminished to a varying ½ to 1 nautical mile. Now I wished I had that GPS. I was left with the most basic of navigational techniques, dead reckoning. For the next 10 hrs we would try our best to keep on our compass course, while watching how fast the water passed the hull so we could make a guess at our speed through the water.

I went below to take another look at where we were, and I gave Colin a new compass course to account for the shift in the wind direction that accompanied the fog. The wind had increased, and we were finally able to sail. That was reassuring, because without radar, it’s hard to know if you’re about to hit another boat in the fog if you can’t have some sort of audio clues, which the sound of the engine can disguise. If another boat on a collision course with you is also under sail, without radar or foghorn, well, we don’t really like to talk about that.

At some point that afternoon, I decided to change our destination to Lunenburg. I had sailed in and out of there many times on other boats, like the Bluenose II and Highlander Sea, and it had a well marked harbor and channel. Foghorns and bell-buoys would be there to guide us in, though I really was banking on the fog lifting well before. Second Peninsula was an obscure little bay to me at the time, with small day-markers that weren’t lit, let alone fitted with any kind of sound signals. I had never been there before, and I didn’t want my first time to be a midnight arrival in the fog.

As the hours passed, I made educated guesses every 15 minutes as to where I thought we were. At around 4PM, visibility temporarily improved to about 2 ½ miles and I was sure I should be able to see either Big Duck or Little Duck Island off our starboard side. Instead, Colin spotted a red and green bell buoy. That was totally unexpected; according to my charts, there were no such buoys for miles in any direction of my assumed position. I asked him to sail closer so we could read its identifying numbers. Disbelief soon followed, as we realized we were at the approaches of Shag Harbor. We hadn’t even made it to Peggy’s Cove yet (a sight unmistakable to every Nova Scotian, unless your name is Laura!). Then what was that vision of the lighthouse on the rocks that had fooled all of us? (sorry, in all fairness, Katie and Wyatt weren’t fooled, they were too seasick and hiding out down below out of the cold wind and rain to notice much of the scenery). Turns out we had spotted Betty’s Island. I won’t make that mistake again, was all I could tell myself. The fog closed in around us once more. The southeasterly swells were increasing and the ride was becoming less comfortable. We were many many miles from where I wanted to be, and darkness wouldn’t be long coming.

I took a deep breath, tried not to let my confidence take too hard of a knock, and I recalculated the rest of our course based on our new position, hoping that this time it was right! I came to a decision, and told Colin the plan. We would sail a northwesterly course for ‘X’ amount of time, then we would have to gybe, and sail a southwesterly course for another hour, and if visibility remained what it was, Cross Island, at the mouth of Lunenburg Bay, would magically appear out of the fog. I couldn’t believe my luck when, plus or minus 15 minutes, Cross Island lay before us. It was 10pm, and our final course change to aim for the inner harbor had us on a beautifully calm run dead down wind. The remainder of the fog lifted in time with our sighs of relief. We were going to make last call at the Knot Pub!

We got an early start Saturday, under blue skies and gentle breezes, and backtracked to Second Peninsula, approached the beach and anchored amongst the multitude of other wooden boats. The launching was a moving sight to behold, a classic boat with a renewed soul, being given a second chance at life. That day, I hoped Sjan would be reminded of good memories of Terry and the time they spent together on Rissa, and take comfort in the fact that, in a sense, a very big part of him still lived on.