Back In Shearwater Again (Sung to the tune by Willy Nelson)
Blunden Harbour slipped astern with it’s encircling shelter of rocks behind. Those same rocks which can seize and smash a boat may also protect it from the relentless energy of the sea. It all depends on which side of the rocks you choose. This whole coastline is one huge rock and I intended to stand well off. I have indelible images of the rusting hulks on the beaches by Cape Caution. I intend to keep my hulk in deep enough water.
It was calm and bright at first but there was a descending fog. I have radar and a chart plotter and lots of experience in this area so no worries. An hour further on I was off the mouth of a place called Slingsby Channel, yet another inlet which leads to world-notorious Nakwakto Rapids and miles of winding passages inland. The fog had descended so that visibility was less than a quarter-mile. This area is named Queen Charlotte Strait and known by some tugboaters as the “Rock Garden.” There are reefs and protruding rocks everywhere. Depending on the vagaries of the spinning planet the wind and tides swirl unpredictably. Some days they churn against each other. This was one of them. It is at a time of spring tides, when the moon is full. This is when tidal forces are at their greatest. Yeehaw! I ached to head for the open ocean and put this mess behind me. Out there, free of the influences of land, the seas take on a rhythm and the shore slop eases into a far more rhythmic motion.
Swells of three and four metres came from different angles producing steep-sided mountains of water sometimes called haystacks. These are the waters surrounding aptly named Cape Caution. The ebb and flood of several large inlets mix with those of the open Pacific. There are few dull days here. I have passed the cape a few times when there was an oily calm on top of an undulating swell and the suspense was palpable. “When’s the shit gonna hit the fan?”There was no point in turning back, chances were that the weather would be the same tomorrow and the day after. Grin and bare it and get it over with.
Items in the cabin, although carefully stowed, levitated and flung themselves in all directions into impossible places. I left them to settle in where they chose. There was no broken glass and no point in tidying up. It was hard enough just hanging on. The boat slewed, and rolled and pitched violently. Even trying to take a photo was a challenge. A boat in those sort of seas is an ultimate exercise machine. The swells rear up and then move on, there are moving monsters in all directions, haystacks and the holes between them. I was grateful for my electronics. So long as they continued to work I knew exactly where I was, my ground speed, and which way to steer. Peering into the fog, despite the electronic displays, one is soon seeing imaginary rocks, boats and dark silhouettes which appear and vanish. Even an hour of that is a long time. I was so happy that nightfall was many hours off. The engine began making noises I’d never heard before. Of course it was just my imagination, and I knew it was, but In the midst of this watery chaos you’re braced for the worst. Then a seal lion spy hopped out of the foaming murk twenty feet from the boat. Thanks for the laxative buddy!
I imagined being perching in the rigging of a sailing ship with only “Eyeballs and arseholes” to save your engine-less vessel from disaster. And in waters like these, no matter which way you turn, there’s something to hit, probably sooner than later. Those were the “Good Old Days,” when mariners had only a magnetic compass to rely on. In a fog it took fantastic local knowledge and intuition to know where you were after considering the set of the tide, wind, waves. There was no button to push to call for rescue if you got it wrong. If you had an engine, it was weak and unreliable. Any older mariner was truly a venerable force of stamina, knowledge and luck. And there were those who plied these waters for millenniums in dugout canoes!
All’s well that ends. There was about six hours of that herk and jerk. I composed songs about ‘The Cape Caution Shuffle’ and the ‘Slingsby Grind.’ It was too rough to write anything down and God knows I’m no songwriter. One of the joy’s of getting older is knowing that nothing is forever and so I toughed it through. Finally the fog began to brighten, the seas eased and then suddenly it was behind me. The sea was calm with a light wind and I could see forever. What quiet happiness. I was now in Fitzhugh Sound also notorious for vicious wind and seas but my dues had been paid; for the day. I later learned that up to sixty southbound yachts were waiting in various anchorages for the weather to ease.
Day six. I am now in Pruth Bay taking a languorous pleasure this morning of just sitting, sipping coffee, editing photos, writing and cleaning up the boat. I even bathed myself! That nasty smell is gone! I’m anchored off the docks of the Hakaii Research Institute. The institute has a wonderful website well worth checking out but be warned that you will find yourself wanting to come and visit in person. This place really made the news last year when they had confirmed archeological evidence here which proved human habitation over 13,000 years ago. That’s a hell of a grandfather clause! The facility is located at the Western end of Kwahsua Channel. About six miles long, it runs almost due East and West. There is about a half mile of low flat land separating it’s end from the open ocean. I wonder why a seaplane war base was not built here instead of blasting one out of solid granite at Shearwater. I’ll have to research that one, well aware I’m questioning military intelligence.
This is my day. I’m taking it off. I’ll go ashore after a week aboard and walk across to the beach. If I can. I feel as if I was in a brawl after yesterday’s rock and roll. I realize, all too clearly, I’m not a young feller any more. I want to name the beach as the finest I’ve ever been on so far in my life. It is pristine and there was not another person anywhere in sight. The water is clear, too cold for swimming but the air glowed with a special soft light, the breaking waves were back-lit and the only footprints in the sand, other than mine, were those of a raccoon. The curving beach is broad, firm and long enough to use as a runway for light aircraft. It is as close to untouched primal beauty as I have ever seen. I could find only four small bits of unnatural debris, (two were cigarette butts) to put in the litter bin at the trail head. Sadly, this isthmus was once logged of its giant spruce and cedar but there is healthy regeneration separating the bay from the beach. There are seven other adjoining beaches of various size. I left reluctantly but there was another place I wanted to visit.
And here I am three hours across Fitzhugh Sound from Pruth Bay. The fog rose and settled several times. The light has been amazing. I’ve dodged more Humpback whales and the wind was favourable for motorsailing. At one point I thought I had found an uncharted reef which proved to be a Humpback whale breaching and beating it’s massive pectoral fins on the surface. The bright streak ahead on the waterline was the backside of Koeye Bay, it was exactly dead ahead. Koeye Bay, at the mouth of a beautiful river and valley of the same name is an ancestral cultural and spiritual center of the Heiltsuk Nation. To my surprise three water taxis from Shearwater were rafted together in the bay. Maintaining these boats will be part of my job. I hoped no-one recognized ‘Seafire’ or me. This is MY day!
There was a grand wedding ceremony which required the boats to transport all those people so many miles from Bella Bella. The light was perfect to photograph the long house on the beach and as I did the wonderful sound of aboriginal singing and drumming flowed down from the “Bighouse” overlooking the bay. I was transfixed, especially when a humpback whale breached, vented and sounded just off the mouth of the small bay. The moment was indelible, a rare karmic second of coincidence, or spiritual energy if you will, that is now embedded in my personal hard drive. Later the aroma of alder woodsmoke wafted down onto the bay. I stayed the night.
Day seven. I awoke in the morning with the boat rolling just as eagerly as it had all through the night. A steady rain pattered down on the deckhead, a few drops coming in through the open hatch. I laughed ironically, closed the hatch, and pulled the covers over my head. Back in the Great Bear Rainforest! That must have been the welcoming committee, the rain has stopped now that I’m up. I crawled out of the bunk one toe at a time and greeted a bleak dawn. Now I’m sitting at my table having finished my very last orange and anticipating my first morning mug of coffee. I am contemplating the fog on the inside of the windows. What am I doing here? If fools rush in, what do you say about someone who goes back for more? Economic refuge!
I noted on my charts how tiny parcels of land are set aside as Indian Reserves. I marvel at white-think and how drawing a line around a piece of land was/is considered fair recompense for a culture that did not understand the concept of owning any piece of the planet. It was all ours to use and respect and share. My thinking is becoming less ‘White” as I age. MINE! I don’t get it anymore, how much is enough?
The further north I come, the more tree whales I spot. These creatures love to bask on the surface and disguise themselves as logs and floating trees. If you’re not watching they may give your hull a grand thump. It might be great fun for them but no mariner ever thinks so.. They usually travel in packs. If you see one, there are bound to be more nearby. Now I note as I turn west and south to the narrow passage that as usual my destination is on a fold in the chart. It’s just the way of things in life if you don’t have a big enough vessel for a full-size chart table.
Shearwater at last. The final leg was uneventful save for frequent rain squalls. I came the less travelled route around the back and top of the island, then through a gauntlet of rocks and currents called Gunboat Passage. As I turned in, I looked up the long length of Dean ChanneI. It bores it’s way well into the mainland to Bella Coola. It is steep-sided and deep, with few anchorages and the winds are often vicious. I felt small and weary looking up that channel. Up there is where Alexander Mackenzie was turned back by Heiltsuk warriors. He found Pacific waters but never got see the open ocean. He walked and canoed back to Toronto. I think I’ve had a long trip!
I hope a fresh approach and a positive attitude will be a great way to start a rerun here at Shearwater. It’s cool and cloudy today, the docks are very busy so I’m rafted alongside a fabulous J-class sailing boat. (One of it’s sheet winches alone looks to be more valuable than my entire boat.) I’ve already unloaded my mountain of tools and hopefully in the morning I’ll sort out a proper space for permanent moorage. Now I have to stay positive and keep thinking Mexico, Mexico through the long, dark, wet, windy winter ahead. Margarita, margarita, margarita.
Oh yeah! There’ll be lots to write about. I’m actually thinking of selling my beloved ‘Seafire’ and buying some smaller boat I find in Mexico. I already have an invitation to crew on a boat sailing to Mexico next year. The dream lives on. Ordeal or adventure, that’s up to me.
“The eyes of men speak words the tongue cannot pronounce.” …Crow proverb