December 4, 2011

The island's lure

Our former 25-foot Cape Dory

THIS IS THE TIME of the year when a handful of intrepid boaters in Washington state and Oregon start planning for a summer circumnavigation of Vancouver Island. It's a big island, about 250 miles long, and it sits, beckoning, just over the U.S. border, separated from the Canadian mainland on the east by narrow, protected channels of salt water, and open on its untamed west side to the boisterous Pacific Ocean.

Not many boats do the circumnavigation. It's more dangerous and more complicated than a trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska because of the lack of facilities on the western coast and because the rugged coastline, exposed to swells with a fetch of thousands of miles, and battered by long series of low-pressure systems spinning down from the Gulf of Alaska, offers limited shelter and calls for careful navigation.

The cruising guides are full of warnings about the dangers involved for small boats, but I have done the trip twice — a fact that reveals that anyone of normal intelligence (that is, somewhat more than mine) and boating skills is capable of sailing around Vancouver Island. I'm sure a lot more sailors would do it, were it not for one thing: it takes time; and people are more wary than ever about taking time off from work in these days of economic uncertainty.

However, for those with the ambition and the time, I thought it might be useful if I repeated an article I wrote for Cruising World magazine about 12 years ago. Nothing much has changed on the island, certainly on the western side, since then. Because the article is much longer than my normal columns, I have split it up into three parts.


TWO MILES OFF the deserted west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the wind had died and the auxiliary engine was chattering away to itself as we headed southeast in long low swells from astern.

“What’s it saying now?” I asked my wife, June. She’s my translator.

We first learned about engine talk from Jonathan Raban’s book, Coasting. Raban, a famed British literary author now living in Seattle, once sailed singlehanded around England. Whereas Raban’s engine lived deep in the boat beneath him, and sounded like “an indignant old fool, grumbling in the cellar,” our little Yanmar diesel was a babbler, a constant presence in the cockpit. Hunkered down right under our feet, it kept up a running commentary in a two-note baritone. Like a workman settled in to a long job, it passed comments to while the time away, not much impressed by anything and not at all concerned about repeating itself.

I have never been able to understand it, but June can. She translated:

No whales this morning,

No otters this morning,

No sun this morning,

Just gulls this morning

And the ducks, and the ducks

A few small ducks ...

No whales this morning . . .

Well, no exaggeration there. It had certainly been a quiet start to the day, the 34th day of our circumnavigation of the island aboard our Cape Dory 25D, Jabula. But many summer days in the Pacific Northwest are like that.

They start off gray and cool, and then gradually keep on improving until they’re just about perfect.

And so it was with this day. Just an hour or so later, a big helicopter appeared over the land. We were astounded. The coast here was wilderness. We hadn’t seen a plane, or even a car or truck, in a week. It landed on a beach, and then took off again, and circled, finally disappearing into the salt haze down the coast. We couldn’t begin to imagine what it was doing.

And that was just the start. Next, an eagle flew out from the land across our bow, straight out to sea, headed for goodness knows where. We’d never seen that happen before.

Then there were whales, four or five Humpbacks inland of us, over to port, blowing and raising their flukes. One spyhopped for us and showed us his belly. Quite a morning for excitement, we thought.

But it was all much the same to our cynical engine: 

Helicopter, helicopter,

Eagle, eagle, eagle

And whales and whales and whales,

Whales after all this morning

But still no sun, still no sun . . .

“It's like one of those people who like to verify the existence of things by saying their names,” June explained.

“I just wish it would whisper, not shout,” I said.

“Never mind,” said June. “Look — here comes the sun.”

Vancouver Island sticks out from mainland British Columbia like a detached right thumb. It runs southeast and northwest for about 250 nautical miles, and its western coast, wide open to the restless North Pacific, is one of North America’s last wild frontiers. It’s almost all forest and mountain wilderness, with five major indentations that form spectacular fjords, sounds, and bays filled with countless little uninhabited islands. From white sandy beaches, steep mountains push up high to a central, snowcapped ridge.

Very few roads penetrate the stark beauty of this deeply fissured wilderness. This is still the domain of the tall conifer and the sinuous madrona, the eagle, the bear, the salmon, the otter, and the orca.   

Like many other Puget Sound sailors, June and I were lured by this large island just across the Canadian border. We found its appeal almost irresistible. But the clincher was that you could circumnavigate it. Circles have always fascinated us. There’s something quite magical about setting out to explore new places, and traveling onward, ever onward, never passing the same place twice, and then ending up safe and sound at your starting point.

We knew, however, that comparatively few yachts have sailed all the way around the island. That fact first came to our attention when we saw advertisements in which a boat was referred to proudly as a “Vancouver Island vet,” and, in the shorthand of the yachting world, therefore presumably very seaworthy and desirable.

Time is a big problem for many people. You need six weeks or more to do the trip properly. Thick coastal fog during the summer months is another problem. And then there are big tidal ranges, fast currents, whirlpools, narrows, races, and bars where the current reaches 8 knots or more.

There’s also Cape Scott, the bleak northwestern tip of the island. Currents flowing along both sides of the island collide at Cape Scott and produce heavy seas and overfalls dangerous to small craft when the wind opposes them. The cruising guides aren’t encouraging. “It is reported that even in calm conditions seas can emerge seemingly from nowhere,” warns Robert Hale, publisher of the well-respected Waggoner Cruising Guide. “Cape Scott’s seas have capsized and sunk substantial vessels. If you find yourself in trouble off Cape Scott, you are in trouble.” Another well-known guide, Northwest Boat Travel, notes that a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island is “a shorter trip than the Inside Passage to Skagway and Glacier Bay, Alaska, but in several ways more difficult and more dangerous.”

In the end, the lure of the island was too great. We had to go. We decided it would be all right if we were very cautious.

But there was still the dinghy problem. Our dinghy, Tokoloshe, was an old 10-foot, fiberglass, outboard fishing skiff — a most unconventional dinghy for a 25-foot cruising sailboat. Nobody with any sense would tow a dinghy like that for 250 miles in the open Pacific. Or would they? We didn’t have much option. It was our only dinghy, and it wouldn’t fit on board.

And so, on an overcast morning in mid-June, I steered Jabula down the winding channel outside her home port of Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island, headed for the Canadian border. For three weeks, I singlehanded her north and west along the Inside Passage until June could fly up to join me at Port Hardy, the last vestige of civilization near Vancouver Island’s northernmost tip.

We topped up our stores and fuel in Port Hardy, and set out toward Cape Scott and the wild west in a strong northwesterly wind that didn’t bode well for our chances of crossing the Nahwitti Bar, another well advertised obstacle in our path. The bar is long and shallow, and the current runs at 5 1/2 knots, creating great heaping crests and breakers when the wind opposes the current . . .

(Coming Wednesday: The Lure of Vancouver Island, Part 2)

Today's Thought
Adventure is the vitaminizing element in histories both individual and social.
William Bolitho, Twelve Against the Gods.

I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I sail. I sail, therefore I think I am crazy.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Mike said...

Shouldn’t that be ‘I Think therefore I think I am’?

You may think you are crazy to go sailing, I sail but I don’t think I'm crazy.

On second thoughts, maybe because I don’t think sailing is crazy means that I really am crazy, to think that…?

Perhaps it should be ‘I think therefor I'm crazy’ or I'm crazy to think that I'm not crazy.

Well you started this….

andre said...

Wonderful article.Await Wednesday part 2.It certainly makes one want to go there.(To paraphrase John Buchan,it has ''the eloquence of a travel agent''but far more substance.

For your info,another Round the Island trip

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps to bring the tailpiece full circle (appropriate for this article!):

I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I sail. I sail, therefore I'm crazy. I'm crazy, therefore I think.