Across the Strait of Georgia
Departed False creek under a cloudless sky, with no wind. Nothing. Not a fair breeze anywhere. Under power. Across English Bay. Through the freighters at anchor and then past the bell buoy at four and half knots.
There is a deadline to passage to the gulf islands. The deadline is slack water on the ebb tide and it’s 3pm. Presently, it is 8am. That should be plenty of time. 20 NM across at 5 knots is only four hours. Or at 4 knots, it is 5 hours. Either way, I should be across within the time allotted.
No wind, motoring only. The motor is an old 2 stroke, but it has enough power when I need it and that’s when it gets thirsty. At full throttle, it will push the boat at a steady 5.5 knots. Anyway, I have the fuel.
The sun is hot and it is a shorts and t-shirt day, even out in the Strait. I love the heat. I love the sun and even though there isn’t a breath of wind and my little boat and I are bobbing around the strait at 4.5 knots, slowly racing the ebb current to the Porlier Pass, I feel great. Almost all trips begin this way: feeling great, on an adventure, leaving the land-based nonsense behind. Though when travelling with another, there is always the traditional early voyage squabble on any given topic, just choose one.
It’s a long way – let’s put it this way, it’s a slow time to pass when there is no wind and there is no autohelm and I have to sit there and watch the wobbly ocean rocking the boat in any direction it chooses at whatever moment suits its fancy. The sight of logs, threating to bang into the hull and do some ridiculous damage, give me some distraction from the slow passage of time. The waves lap the bow and I focus on using core muscles to maintain an upright posture in this burbling sea. The compulsion to slouch and not sit up straight is, at times, overwhelming. Good posture in a sailboat cockpit is hard to maintain. No matter what boat it is, it’s never a very comfortable place to spend many hours. This is largely due to the fact that cockpits are not designed to be sat in, at least not for any extended period. They are designed to provide accommodation to those who wish to or are forced to, sit. Often, cockpits are designed like a park bench: they provide seated or crouching accommodation on a hard surface, are fairly resilient when it comes to the outdoor elements and most importantly, drain water easily. Provisions for comfort in a sailboat cockpit are always secondary if not tertiary. This is because being comfortable is only part of the experience. The other part of the experience is being uncomfortable and learning to get used to it. My theory is that if a sailor is too comfortable, he will stop focusing on all the obstacles in front of him. His comfort will lead to complacency and eventually to boredom, instead of being on lookout or navigating or trying to determine in which direction a freighter is really going and can they really see me and do they even care?
About 2/3rds of the way across, though it is hard to tell because I cannot stop the boat to get a fix and there is no autohelm or indeed anyone else aboard, to take over, I start to panic and think that I should really alter course and make for Gabriola passage instead. At least if I miss the slack water, I can anchor in Silva Bay or God forbid, Nanaimo. On the other hand, if I miss the slack water at Porlier, I’ll be stuck on the wrong side of Galiano for the next 6 hours sans break, sans autohelm, etc. etc…
After becoming irritated by the bouncing around for the next few minutes at a dead stop as I decided to finally take a fix, I discover that I’m equal distance between both passes. I alter course and strike out for Gabriola. 15 minutes later, it appears through the binoculars that Gabriola passage has not gotten any closer and that the tide has other plans for my destination and I should really have considered that any notion that I am master of my own destiny is a total fabrication and is in no way based in reality and should always be observed when boarding a sailboat, no matter what the outing.
It’s 2 o’clock and I’m pretty close to Porlier Pass, much closer than I thought. The throttle is full and has been that way for the last 2 hours. I’m powering my way toward Porlier pass at 5 knots and the engine is slurping up the gas. The pass is in sight and I move through it at 8 knots over ground. Swirling whirlpools and currents of water under the boat move the bow this way and that and throw it off course every second or two.
It’s fine with though. It’s half past two in the afternoon and I’m through the pass. The sun is shining, the sky is a beautiful blue and this calm vista is only occasionally disturbed by the sound of chainsaws echoing around the gulf islands.
Suppose I should start making my way toward Clam Bay and find a good spot to put down the anchor.
The VHF radio blares into the boat. There is a pan-pan call. A non-life-threatening emergency. A sailboat has lost power and is drifting down the channel not far from my location, afraid they might end up on the rocks. I listen and wonder how long it would take me to reach them and what help I might be able to provide. The coast guard and the powerless vessel exchange information. Other mariners contribute and before long, there are at least two vessels en route to help. Other vessels that are closer and more capable. Altering course to find my anchorage, the last communication I hear is a lament at just how little wind there is in the Trincomali channel and just how little one can do to remedy the situation. That situation happens all to frequently in the Pacific Northwest. Currents can be very strong and if the wind dies, then life can turn rather frantic, rather fast. There but for the grace of God, go I, I think to myself and look wonderingly at the engine.
Down with the anchor and down into the cabin. It’s still hot and it’s 4 o’clock. I stretch out and rest for an hour. Rest my head. Even when fatigued by a long day at the steering station with few breaks, I find it hard to completely release myself from attention.
After dinner, I set my alarm for midnight, 3am and 5am. Thankfully, the anchor watch is uneventful. At 6, I am up and by 8, I am underway toward Tsehum harbour, 35 nautical miles away.
The promise of wind and the reality of the engine
I only brought 60 litres of fuel with me. Was it 60 litres (15 gallons)? I think so. Maybe it was 40. I check the cockpit locker and discover it is 50, give or take. That was yesterday. Now, its to 30. I have been underway for 2.5 hours now and have been flirting with the wind and the current. Sometimes, I can just kick back and relax and enjoy the beautiful sunshine. Sailing at any speed in this weather with Salt Spring Island to my left and Vancouver Island to my right as I make my way toward the Sansum Narrows is just fantastic. 4 knots. Okay, it’s not 5.5 knots which is what I was doing earlier with the spinnaker up, but the boat is sailing. Let’s feel good about that. 3 knots. Hey 3 knots is 3 knots. Take it for what it is. It is still beautiful and it’s hot. 2.7 knots. The wind is going to pick up. It’s always fickle at the mouth of a channel. Once we get in there, the wind will be behind us, which is why we are flying the spinnaker despite the effort to do so. 1.5 knots. Dude! You have got to be kidding me. (I’m one of those people who still says “Dude” in exasperation). What am I supposed to do with 1.5 knots? 1.3 knots. 0.0 knots. Dead in the water. Okay, I could see that. Time to go forward and lower the spinnaker.
Spinnakers are not like white sails that attach to the sailboat’s rigging. Using a spinnaker (single-handed) takes planning, focus and more focus. It’s a difficult sail to raise and control. All manner of getting the ropes attached to the sail and led to the cockpit have to be exactly right or there will be an unholy mess trying to hoist the sail in the first place. However, in light air and calm seas, flying a spinnaker is one of the most enjoyable ways to travel.
To give an analogy for non-sailors, white sails are like an umbrella: large sheets of material attached to a metal frame that can be efficiently controlled in helping one reach a goal. Using a spinnaker is like flying a kite. A person must have enough wind to get them flying, they can be tricky to maneuver when they are flying and bringing them down must be timed perfectly or there will be an almighty crash. Despite looking pretty and taunting sailors with the promise of speed and sophistication, there is always some suspicion as to the benefit of their use.
The engine is on, and sucking up more precious fuel. 5 minutes into the mouth of the Sansum Narrows I feel the wind behind me. Up goes the spinnaker, and off we go. 6.7 knots! This is just what we want. Rounding the first bend, the wind gusts to 15 knots. Each time it does so, the boat, now beam-on to the wind, lays right out on her side. Rounding the next bend, the wind eases. Then the wind eases more and suddenly, there is no wind. The boat and I drift for 10 minutes covering very little ground. Power boats overtake me and and wave hello at me, no doubt pitying me and remarking to themselves on my form of transport, unaware of the massive wake their boats create, that bounces me up and down and back and forth in the cockpit. The sail complains and flaps loudly. Up to the foredeck I go and drop the blessed, blasted spinnaker, vowing to not raise the wretched thing again.
Arm-in-arm with the engine, is the name of this trip. Finally clearing the Sansum Narrows, I make my way into Cowichan Bay and find the only gas station that seems to be open on this long weekend, pun intended. Filling up the jerry cans, makes me breathe a sigh of relief. All set. Motoring out of Cowichan Bay, with full tanks of gas, I begin again the last leg of my journey to Tsehum harbour. It is somewhere around 3pm and I feel rather tired. Travelling at my present rate and taking into account the direction of the tide and the wind, I reckon there are about 3 hours ahead of me. And there is.
And there is more ferry traffic than I care to think about. But I do think about it. Looking down the barrel of a BC ferry in 26 feet of plastic is nothing like being on a ferry looking down at the 26 feet of plastic. Ferries move with purpose and move with purpose at 20 knots. Even if the rules of the road state that boats under sail are the stand-on vessel, it’s not wise to fool around in the path of a BC ferry. Keeping clear is the best method of staying afloat.
Into Tsehum harbour at last. In some ways, it feels like home. Some of the most beautiful views I have can recall, are on the horizon. Mount Baker is never so majestic or so clear as it is when seen from this place. The white beach of the Sidney Spit and an upcoming circumnavigation of James Island with the arrival of the first mate on tomorrow’s ferry, await.