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.