February 21, 2016

The problem with the islands

NORTHWEST OF THE CITY of Seattle there is a glittering archipelago of wooded islands spilling over into the Canadian province of British Columbia. It’s a charming inland sea, a wonderful cruising area for small boats, but it sometimes proves a challenge for navigators. There are islands everywhere. One island looks much like another island when you’re observing them from six feet above the water. They overlap. Their edges blend. And all too often the passage you seek between them is invisible until you are within spitting distance, when it might be too late to retrace your steps.

As I have never owned a GPS chart plotter I have had my fair share of last-minute scares. My invariable method of pilotage has been to plot a course on the chart and sail the boat very carefully along that course, even as it seemed — as it usually did — that I was heading straight for the middle of an island. Eventually, though, as we drew nearer, one island would start to separate itself from another. A sort of three-dimensional effect would kick in. The background would separate from the foreground. And if the current hadn’t pushed us too much sideways we might still have enough time to shape up a new course to take us safely through the gap.

One of my favorite authors, Negley Farson, had this same problem, when he sailed his 26-foot centerboard yawl Flame from Holland 3,000 miles to the Black Sea. This is from one of his books, The Way of a Transgressor:

“An American, sailing an English boat, in a Dutch river, with a German chart, is a confusing enough combination. Add to this that the scale of the chart was in kilometers not miles, that none of the buoys were numbered, and that the shoreline was honeycombed with waterways, and you have some idea of my feelings.

“Realize also that while an island is an obvious thing on a chart — there it is, with water all around it — it is a deceitful affair in real life. If it is big and lies close to shore you are not sure whether the open mouth of water you see at its foot is merely the mouth of another river or not — it might not be an island.

“You cannot fly over to look, nor is it always possible to rush up and see if there is water on the other end of it. You have to chance it, trust your luck, and spurn all enticing water mouths until your instinct tells you that you have reached the one you are bound for. Canals every few hundred yards do not tend to simplify matters.”

I must say that I don’t think that our islands are deceitful. That has a ring of deliberate nastiness about it. But they’re certainly deceptive. Luckily though, almost all the islands in the San Juans and Gulf Islands are steep-to, so you can get mighty close before there’s any danger of running aground. I thank my lucky stars for that.

Today’s Thought
Ay, many flowering islands lie
In the waters of wide Agony.
— Shelley, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills

“Does your husband always talk to himself like that when he’s alone?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been with him when he’s alone.”

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

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