Ebb and Flow on the Salish Sea
I used to have a sailboat large enough to sleep a few people comfortably for a week-long vacation, but I sold it a few years ago on the premise that it wasn’t convenient to have a 30-foot boat tugging at dock-lines in the November storms of coastal British Columbia, Canada, while we were off gallivanting in Eastern Europe. That is partially true, but, I have to admit that when I looked out my window on a Saturday morning and saw the waves of the Salish Sea start to crest with white foam, I’d start to sweat. Uh Oh – Arthur is going to want to go sailing…
I have my license to sail. Some years ago, I signed myself up for a course with Captain Mac’s School of Seamanship. Along with three other students, I cruised the coastline of east Vancouver Island for a week. Daily, we studied the theory of sailing, read the Tide and Current Tables, plotted our course and took turns at the helm. At the end of the week, to earn my stripes, I was put to the test of navigating Captain Mac’s 42’ sloop singlehandedly through several points of sail in a busy coastal harbour. Captain Mac yelled Man-Overboard!, as he tossed a beacon into the sea. The rest was up to me. The 457-foot BC Ferry Queen of Oak Bay was bearing down on my port-side, a tug towing a large log-boom was pressing me on my starboard side, and several recreational boats were zinging in and out of the space I need to complete my drill. I quickly dug through the 200 pages of theory in my head; …working vessel – I must give right-of-way, power vessel – must give me right-of-way – here we go! I called to my crew, Ready to jibe? (Ready Captain!) … Jibe Ho! They threw the sheets, ducked the boom, and winched the sails back in at my commands. A few more manoeuvres and we safely completed the triangle necessary to come alongside the bobbing decoy and pluck it out of the sea. Success!
So, armed with my sailing certificate, why does a little wind bother me? Well, a little wind doesn’t, say, 10-15 knots, but once it ramps up I know Arthur wants to be reefed and heeled and flying along at full hull speed, and this is way out of my comfort zone. While I like the idea that I know how to sail, my primary goal is to get out on the water, and a roomy sailing vessel that can motor through a choppy sea seemed like a safe way to do it. Bonus if I could sail the thing in a light breeze. Arthur, on the other hand, has a knack for understanding the wind, the ropes, and the sails as if he was born on a boat. Perhaps it has something to do with being Dutch; conquering the sea is built into his DNA. He loves the art of sailing and the challenges of trimming the rigging to get optimum performance. Seeing green water through the portholes makes me want to throw-up. When I recognized I was getting nervous every time a slight breeze moved the leaves in the back-yard, I conceded that I might not be cut out for sailing.
Our Canadian home sits at the gateway to Desolation Sound. Captain Vancouver must have been having a really bad day when he named this paradise of warm waters, remote islands, and cozy, sheltered coves, because, it is the nemesis of desolate. Every summer, boats flock here from California, Seattle, and Vancouver just to hang out for a few weeks of swimming, paddling, and anchorage-hopping. It’s just silly to live here, and not own something that floats. So, we compromised, sold the sailboat, and bought a little 18-foot (5.5 metre) powerboat dubbed “Rubato”, which is a musical term that translates to something like “steal a little time”. She is big enough to take us adventuring for a long weekend, and she tucks away nicely into the garage when we leave the continent.
But, as you can imagine, the safety of Desolation Sound is a little too easy for our Dutch mariner, and so, to keep everyone challenged, we make an annual journey 100 km's north to the Discovery Islands group. Here, tides with a spread of 16 feet push the sea back and forth between narrow channels creating currents that can run to 27 km per hour with treacherous rapids, waterfalls, and whirlpools that suck open unexpectedly and disappear just as quickly. Not exactly my cup of tea. Why do I step out of my comfort zone for this? Friends, that’s why. Lovely friends who have been journeying to this area for over 40 years, and since we met them, each summer they invite us up to their cabin to share freshly caught crab over great conversation. Now, even in my books, that’s worth a few rapids. Enter the Tide and Current Tables of my Captain Mac lessons.
A few weeks ago, we embarked on our annual excursion. We opted to make the journey to Owen Bay over two days. Our tables told us we could make safe passage through the rapids at about 1:00 pm on day-two when the tide would be slack. Of course, it is possible to push the limits of both the ebb, and flood tides, and pass through the rapids when the current is running, a little, especially with our speed-boat, but, slack was my preference. I awoke to a calm morning. Arthur was already up and making coffee on our little butane stove. Ready! He called pouring me a steaming cup. I crawled out of the cuddy-cabin, and into my seat where I had a view of the whole cove. The water sparkled in the morning sunshine. I sipped my coffee and contemplated a morning swim. Bliss.
“Let’s go through Whiterock Passage, suggested Arthur out of the blue, and then Surge Narrows. I was jolted back to the moment. To make this trip each year, I had to steel my nerves, do my research, and read anything that resembled a “guidebook to the rapids”. Over the years, I’d made friends with Hole-in-the-Wall, one of the most treacherous tidal currents on the coast, and the most direct route to our destination. I knew, from experience, that as long as our timing was right, passing through at slack tide was easy and uneventful.
Uhm, okay... I said slowly processing this new idea and trying to keep an open mind. I like predictable, Arthur likes to switch things up. I tried to see things from his side, and quickly ran through the proposed course in my head; man-made Whiterock Passage lacks the tidal currents of the Hole, but still requires very careful navigation, lining up beacons fore and aft to keep the vessel in the dredged channel. Although we would avoid the rapids of Hole-in-the-Wall, there were still the currents of Surge Narrows to navigate. Surge Narrows! The name says enough. My red flags went up, and the familiar silent tug-of-war started. I pulled up the cushions of the V-birth under the bow where I keep my library of coastal guides and dug out everything I could find on Whiterock Passage. I read aloud from the Sailing Directions emphasizing the “needs careful planning” recommendation. Arthur appeared nonchalant. Let’s just head that way, and see how it goes. Fine. I said. We pulled up the anchor and putted out of the cove.
As we approached the entrance to Whiterock Passage, I was saved by a whale. We stopped the boat for a quick pee and as we bobbed silently in the water, engine off, Pschew! The tell-tale sound of a whale blasting air through a blowhole. This got Arthur’s immediate attention. (Zip!) Sure enough, Mr. Humpback was floating nearby. A spectacular show ensued of breaching and leaping and whale-tale-wagging, the likes of which I have never seen in over 50 years on this coast. It was so dramatic, we stayed there for an hour – and missed our window for Surge Narrows. We’ll have to take the Hole, stated Arthur, the timing is perfect for slack. He was right, and we did, and we had calm waters all the way into Owen Bay, and it was a little bit boring.
Hover over the images (or choose landscape on mobile) to see some pics of our trip to Owen Bay.