Our run up Goletus channel to Bull Harbour was uneventful, bordering on dull. The channel itself is straight and fairly featureless, marked only by the odd Island here and there. It was also a day of low cloud and intermittent showers. There was supposed to be an ebb current speeding us on our way, but it didn’t materialise until late in the afternoon. The cloud eventually descended and we found ourselves fog-shrouded, with only 30 or 40 feet of visibility around the boat. The radar came in handy then.
We saw very little boat traffic. There was a sailboat for a while, but it turned off northward, slipping into port Alexander.
Grey skies, distant clod-shrouded forests.
The wind was from the NW, which meant on the nose. We beat upwind for three hours or so but due to a late start of the ebb, we had to motor at least half the distance and even then only made port before dark. This end of Goletus channel was the first real, total wilderness I’ve seen so far. The entrance to Bull harbour is sheer vertical cliffs, and scores of cormorants roost there, watching our progress far below. Deep in the harbour we found a public/First Nation docks to tie to for the night.
We left Bull harbour in early morning fog and blue skies above. As we passed the cliff walls we again saw the cormorants clustered on its sides. Moving further out into the Queen Charlotte Strait roadstead, the fog banks lurking just offshore began to move towards us.
There was little wind so we were forced to motor our way over the infamous Nahwitti Bar. Off to starboard rick spotted a bevy of sea lion bulls (from which Bull harbour takes its name). They were enormous and the colour of paprika, making them visible from a great way off.
Sometime around then I made the mistake of inserting my digital camera in my back pocket. I must have sat on something hard, because later that morning I found that the screen was busted. The camera still works, but since there is no viewfinder all we can do is point and shoot. Amazingly, most of the pictures subsequent to that still turned out.
Soon though, despite their outrageous colour, the sea lions vanished as the threatening fog blew in from offshore. We had no visibility beyond a circle of a few hundred feet radius. But no concern on our part as there wasn’t anyone out there; we didn’t even turn on our radar. There is an ocean buoy that marks the roadstead and it began moaning.
The day went on like that for several hours, the fog would come and go, the buoy would moan, and then the sun would shine again. We saw several sea otters.
The further out we went, the broader became our perspective as the open Pacific and its swells greeted us. The wind was fitful and from the northwest, but it was foul for us and too weak given that we had a good 30 miles or more to make. The tide was supposed to be ebbing after 11:45 but it didn’t assist us until we actually made Cape Scott.
It was quite exciting to be making our way around that feared landmark. Ironbound cliffs and jagged rocks mark the extreme northwest promontory of Vancouver Island. But despite its fearsome reputation, the swells were hardly noticeable and the wind was light. Off to seaward were the rocks and islets that make up the Scott Islands. Everywhere we looked to starboard was wide open ocean, nearest landfall Asia.
It was a thrill and a tiny letdown to turn southward to begin the trip back to Victoria. The coastline is wild and rugged, with booming surf and reefs and shoals quite a long way out from shore, so we gave the area a wide berth. The land is rolling mountains and thunderheads grew from the tallest peaks, although to seaward there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the fog had long since retreated northward. It was profoundly beautiful to see this wilderness, even from a mile offshore.
At last the wind picked up, and being on our quarter we were able to raise the spinnaker and make a lovely downwind run past the cape.
Approaching our first landfall on the west coast we doused the spinnaker, but when Rick put it in gear, nothing happened. Oh god, what now? I ran below and took the cover off the engine, and discovered that all three bolts that mate the V-drive to the prop shaft had backed out and fallen off. SHIT! This had happened before and I had tightened the crap out of those bolts. Obviously I would have to do more. At least it was a quick and easy problem and revealed itself while we were still well off shore; I shudder to think what would have happened if they fell out while we were making our way into Sea Otter Cove. It has an ugly entrance, choked with reef and kelp, and no clear way. The kelp was so thick we actually had to grind our way through them to reach the anchorage inside. It was rather a white knuckle passage into the deeper waters of the Cove. Once inside, Rick tried some fishing but came up empty-handed.
The next morning we watched a family of sea otters playing close to the boat. They were very vocal, chirping and gibbering as they nuzzled and rolled together. It was a lot of fun to watch. They seemed not at all concerned by our presence
Rick and I rowed to the head of the bay and made our tangled and muddy way overland to Lowrie Beach. We were not happy about the twin seats of bear prints in the soft mud (one large, another small) but we made it to the beach in about ¾ an hour of vigorous hiking through second growth forest and a coastal marsh.
When we emerged from the forest the sight was glorious. Stunning. Very much like Long Beach, but smaller and nobody else there. We went beachcombing and collected a lot of shells and empty booze bottles and floats that had drifted across from Asia. A couple of sake bottles and a Russian vodka bottle. We also found a couple of large mermaid purses, which are the egg sacks of sharks and rays. There was a kayakers camp set up, where some intrepid soul had made a hammock of driftwood and fishing net. There is also an small emergency cabin just off the beach.
On our way back to Sea Otter Bay, we were startled to see a new set of bear tracks overtop off the rest (including our own). There were a number of huckleberry bushes filled with fruit and it wasn’t surprising that bears heavily used the trail.
But one had passed by within the hour and that was not good. There being no other way back to the boat, we walked much more cautiously back, making a hell of a racket, yelling and drumming on a couple of floats we had brought back with us. Fortunately we made our way back to the cove without mishap, where Eric had lunch waiting for us. We were hot and thirsty so it was a great welcome.
Eric has been a wonderful addition to my crew. Aside from his seamanship and knowledge of sailing, he bakes fresh bread every couple of days. The food and booze on this trip has been amazing.
Our next leg was to Winter harbour. Our farting around on shore meant that we were pretty late in getting started south. The southeasterlies that they have been threatening us with for the last couple of days produced only a light ripple, so of course we spent the next five hours motoring again. It’s an incredible feeling to be chugging down the west coast in almost totally flat seas and no wind. They are calling for gale force winds starting tomorrow PM, and lasting until Friday, so we might be stuck in harbour for a few days.
Before we made Winter Harbour, we passed a creature in the sea. I’ve seen pictures of them before, and I’ve since learned that it was a sunfish, basking in the sun. It was upside down in the water, with its white belly topmost. We circled past it and it turned over and gave us a baleful glare before slowly moving off. It was incredible to watch.
There were also huge numbers of cuttlefish-like creatures. Completely transparent except for orange eyes. They were often locked in embrace with one another. Overall it was a warm, sunny day and while the land masses to port wore threatening cloud, where we were a few miles offshore the weather was gorgeous.
We watched many dark, long winged birds soar over the ocean. Their skills were amazing to watch: they skimmed only a few centimetres over the surface, following the contours of wave and swell flawlessly, and at great speed. Unfortunately they were shy and never came close enough for me to be able to make a positive identification as to species, but I think they were shearwaters.
Winter harbour is totally picturesque and friendly. It also is representative of what has happened to these little outport towns. Despite all the charming houses we saw, most had become vacation homes; there are only 5 full time residents left. While we stayed there we kept hearing shots; apparently the store owner has a problem bear – and is a pretty poor shot – as we heard several shots through the day. A very accommodating individual who opened up for us at noon although his hours say 3 ‘till 7.
Things go to hell
And just like that, that tables turned. First indication that all was not well was the midnight appearance of a tuna boat at the dock; I was wakened by a flood of lights and the rumble of diesels as the Arctic Warrior pulled in a few feet ahead of us on the dock. Later, another tuna boat pulled in behind us.
Their sudden appearance heralded a turn in the weather. Winds above 60 knots were forecast for Friday. That’s hurricane force.
Now we had a decision to make; it was Wednesday, and the forecast sounded like snotty conditions until next Sunday at least, with another depression following hard on its heels.
We talked to the fishermen about what they knew about local weather patterns, trying to get some advice and information about what to do. At that point the wharfinger arrived, who also was the operator of a local fishing guiding company. As it would happen, his was the company in the news lately for the loss of a vessel with guide and two American tourists off Brooks Peninsula. He was understandably reluctant to offer his opinion on the weather. Tragically, he told us he had advanced prostate cancer and less than a year to live. As he put it: “It’s been a rough year.”
Our problem was that we could be stranded for days in Winter Harbour. Perhaps weeks. We weren’t sure if 25-35 knots was the new norm and we could wait until spring for a nice comfortable 15 knot passage.
The weather for that day was 15 knots rising to 35 at midnight, then dropping the next day to about 20-25. Friday was when it was supposed to get really ugly.
After a lot of discussion we decided to head out; the plan was to make runs when the winds weren’t too strong, then tuck in when it really howled. The biggest obstacle we faced at that point was getting past Brooks Peninsula.
It was with some trepidation that we headed out of Quatsino Sound.
What we encountered was a fairly steep chop with around 15 knot winds. We had a double reefed main and storm jib (we swapped it with the genoa while still at the dock), and managed a healthy 5-6 knots. The wind of course was right on our nose and we had to beat upwind for Klaskish Inlet.
After we had been under way a bit, I calculated our ETA as being about 21:00. I was not happy about pulling into a strange anchorage in the dark. I called a meeting and we all debated the merits of carrying on vs turning tail. In the end it was decided to press on.
The further out we went the rougher the ride got, so we tacked, preferring a path that followed land fairly close. It was more chop than swell, and we were ploughing deep, with a huge amount of water running green over the decks.
Because of Fainleog’s poor anchor locker arrangement and shallow bilges, we started accumulating salt water below decks. Heeled over, the bilge pump couldn’t keep up and water started sloshing around the cabin sole. Unknown to me, water was running into my bedding as well, through a vent in the forward V-berth locker that connects to the anchor locker. I had wet blankets that night.
It was a pounding day and poor Rick started to get seasick. I was very tired and fighting a bad cold, but other than that I wasn’t really bothered by the severe motion. The weather turned and we watched as a truly ominous line of black clouds crept in from the west and obscured the setting sun.
As predicted, it was dark and late when we made it to the anchorage. It felt a surreal experience for me. The wind had been building and it was blowing a good gale as we slipped into the anchorage. I couldn’t see anything from the cockpit and tried steering by the chartplotter, which was a nightmare. The wind kept blowing the nose over and by the time the plotter recorded this, we were pointing way off course. When I corrected I would inevitably overcorrect and the boat would swing wildly off in the opposite direction. In the end I determined a compass heading and just steered by compass as we slowly inched our way into what we thought would be sanctuary.
But we were wrong. I’ve never been in such a violent anchorage before. The winds in there must have been well over 40 knots and the boat strained at her anchor, heeling over in the williwaws. Fortunately we had 300’ of scope out and the holding was excellent, but the noise was awful and the motion terrible.
The rain was also violent and for another first we developed a couple of small leaks over the quarterberth and the cockpit enclosure let in water like a sieve. Everything in the cockpit was soaked. After three winters in Victoria we never had a leak, but now water was coming in everywhere.
The forecast was for a (relative) lull of 25-35 knots of southeast wind. Our thinking was to make a dash around Brooks Peninsula and tuck in on the south side before the big storm hit Friday. The forecast was one thing but the conditions of the previous night made me uncertain about the likelihood that we would be successful.
But the weather did improve, and the morning showed a lot of promise with a mix of sun and cloud and light breezes in the anchorage.
We left Klaskish Inlet late in the morning and made our way westward under storm jib and double-reefed main, paralleling the peninsula. We made excellent time closed hauled (yet again) but some of the gusts were well over 35 knots and shoved us over on our beam ends. The seas were getting lumpy and I felt we needed to reduce sail further, so we turned and ran downwind to slacken everything off and furl in the storm jib.
But when I put her back upwind again, checking our point of sail, our hopes were dashed. Somehow we had blown out our main! A combination of too much luff tension and too much wind had ripped it from bolt rope to leech line during our gybe.
So much for that; there was no way to make our way around Cape Cook without a mainsail. We turned about and of course made wonderful time downwind back to Klashkish Inlet. Once back in the anchorage I set to sewing the main while Rick started hauling in fish; I’ve never seen fishing so easy – each cast netted a nice rockfish.
It appeared that we were going to have to ride out the approaching storm in Klaskish Inlet, a proposition nobody was happy with, given our experience of the night before under much less winds. Although the holding is good and you are protected from the sea, there is very little shelter from winds that are channelled through the Inlet.
We decided it would be prudent to move deeper inside. There is a long, very narrow basin leading northward from the main anchorage that is supposed to contain mooring buoys. The passage was through extremely close, sheer cliff walls, and emerging into the basin, we found that they buoys had been removed at some point in the past year. I didn’t like the north-south orientation of the place with southerly winds forecast but we decided that anything was better than back in the main anchorage. But unlike our previous night, holding was less than stellar with a lot of weeds, and it took a couple of attempts before we even got the anchor to hold. We let out all our scope and went to bed.
The storm wasn’t forecast to hit until the next day midday. They were right about the storm but wrong about the time. It hit at midnight with an appalling ferocity. Of course we started dragging and we had to reset the anchor and add the second one as well. That arrangement held for a couple of hours when the drift alarm roused us all again. This time we hauled it all in and moved into what we hoped would be the relative lee at the far southern end of the basin. Both anchors were dropped and there we waited.
I’ve never seen weather like this. Less than ten miles away winds were recorded at 71 knots. The air was thick with sheets of horizontal rain, and leaks appeared in Fainleog that I’ve never seen before, all over the quarterberth. Suspecting a portlight I went out in the storm and tried to seal it with some polyurethane, but it didn’t help. It looked like the genoa track bedding had let go.
The gusts in there were incredible; the wind would rise to a scream and the whole boat heeled over 35 degrees, straining against the ground tackle. The rain was a continual, roaring deluge. Slowly, an inch at a time we were dragging again, but the worst of the weather was forecast to abate by noon and so we held our breath and waited. If the anchors let go we would have to motor right into the lee of the shore and send someone out in the dinghy to tie us to some trees. That would have been a very difficult proposition, but we needed to be held in place long enough to get some sleep.
By 16:00 the worst was passed. There were actual lulls in the storm and everything was silent. It felt very strange to not have howling or the roar of driven rain. Later we were to learn that hundreds of mm of rain fell in the area, with Port Hardy declaring a state of emergency, Port Alice being cut off, Villages being evacuated, and slides all over the north island. I was concerned about Tracy and Cory and how they must be very worried for us.
We have a lot of food, water and power so as long as nothing severe goes wrong we’ll be okay staying put, but we have to decide what will happen next. This is absolutely not like the inside and so removed from daily experience. It could go back to easy calms but I’m concerned that this is part of the seasonal weather change, with a series of storms aimed right at us. What we need is a few days of high pressure, with good northwest winds to push us down the coast. The thought of beating our way against southeasterlies the whole way sounds like an awful trip. We are only just over the top of Cape Scott.
Wasn’t this supposed to be fun?
VHF reception in the basin was quite poor, with only occasional trickles of legible weather forecasts making it our way. The news was not good: the weather would be foul until Wednesday, meaning another 4 days hunkered down. Everything was wet or damp and we were bored. And that assumed another storm didn’t start forming. There was another rapidly deepening low forecast for Sunday evening.
I hated to admit defeat twice, but these guys have to be back home in a week or so and that just didn’t seem possible with this weather, and Tracy will need her home soon. Between having to wait 4 days for winds to become manageable, and with great likelihood they were quickly turn foul again, It was time to decide whether to go on or pack it in. I put it to my crew and they all agreed that it was time to turn back north. Brooks Peninsula has as bad a reputation as Cape Scott and it seemed a real barrier. If that main hadn’t blown and we had gotten around Cape Cook when we had tried earlier, we would certainly keep heading south.
It felt a relief to at last be moving again after three days of hanging out. We had a small window to make it back around Cape Scott and into Bull Harbour before the next blow hit with winds forecast to exceed 55 knots. Winds were forecast to be gale force from the southeast, but that shouldn’t be too bad running before it. Sunday morning the wind was supposed to drop to 20 before climbing late in the day. Two full runs should get us past the Cape.
It was a real struggle to get our anchors out, especially the Danforth. I figure that was the one that really saved us as it was buried very deep in mud, and we actually had to use a sheet winch to pull it out. The water in the basin had transformed over the last two days. The rain had been so torrential that the runoff had coloured the water brown with sediment. In fact, the sea was brown for at least a full mile from shore, the whole way to Cape Scott. Even the breaker foam was a yellow brown colour.
We were somewhat concerned about the sea state we would find once we left the anchorage, and we weren’t disappointed. The further out we went the higher the swells, which were at least 15-20 feet, with the occasional much larger monster roaring beneath us.
The run north was predictably easy, with the wind on the quarter. We were flying along, making anywhere between 6 to 9 knots. Surfing down the swells we once broke 11.3 knots.
Rick was struggling to keep his guts in with the awful corkscrewing motion that Fainleog was making. At one point a big one almost pooped us as it broke over our quarter, spilling tons of water on our aft decks. Down below Eric was attempting to make coffee and our bodun went flying against a bulkhead, sending coffee, coffee grounds, and broken glass flying through the cabin. What a mess. I’m glad Tracy can’t see the sorry state of her home.
The wind was blowing a good +30 knots and the swells were growing again. It was an incredible experience riding those great beasts for the first time; the sea surface was confused and torn with wind waves, but beneath all this were the rolling hills of water. The horizon expanded to many miles as you were lifted up, then shrank to a grey dish a few hundred metres across.
We heard a couple of distress calls on 16 that day. one was a kayaker looking to be picked up (he was wet and cold), and another was a real mayday, with people in the water. We could only hear the Coast Guard part of the conversation, but they got everyone it seems.
We had planned on anchoring at Sea Otter cove that night, a good forty mile run made in five hours. As we approached, it suddenly occurred to me that making the narrow entrance this time would be far more difficult with all these swells breaking on the rocks and shoals. And just as I was musing on that, we noticed that the swells were rising and steepening as the sea shallowed as we approached shore. I’ll never forget the feeling as this one gigantic mountain of water lifted us up and up, and it felt like looking down into the anchorage, with a bird’s vantage point. I’m sure it was at least forty feet high; a four story building. The wave broke and once again we just escaped a pooping as it burst over our quarter. We slid down the face of the wave and hit an incredible 12.5 knots, almost twice our hull speed!
The cove with all its surrounding reefs and islets was fast approaching and I had no idea how this was going to go. We all admitted later that we were all scared shitless. It was my boat and my responsibility so I guided her through the kelp and thundering surf, rollers crashing and booming on all sides as they tumbled into and over the black rocks. Breaker after breaker pounded on our stern. The whole area was awash in thick brown foam. We ploughed into the kelp, and then we were through. The swells subsided and we all took a breath. My knees were shaking. I followed our previous track into the middle of the Cove, where we tied up to a hurricane buoy. All around was the distant, echoing boom of surf, and looking to seaward you could see these great yellow plumes of spray leaping from black reefs, backlit by a setting sun. It was glorious.
Not one to think far ahead, it took me a few hours before I realised that we would have to go back the way we came, but this time with the surf on the nose. I didn’t think they would subside all that much as there was still a good gale hissing through the anchorage. Going downwind was one thing, but what would it be like pounding through it on the nose?
Fortunately, the wind died a great deal that night. We were up by 7:30 to make our escape from the cove before the winds were forecast to increase. Checking the charts I decided to leave by the west entrance as it was wider, even though it was yet untried by us. There were a lot of reefs surrounding it as well, just below the surface.
There was a sunrise to follow us out, and it turned the plumes exploding from the reefs a sickly yellow colour. The foam had built into thick, ochre mats, covering the surface of the sea. As we pushed out of the cove the surf created a violent pitching motion, but we were able to make good headway. It was a strange effect watching the rollers coming at us, rising above us. While the day before we had the effect of looking down on the anchorage, this morning felt like we were climbing out of the anchorage, like ascending a hill.
We didn’t need the chart to tell us where the hidden reefs were, because the huge plumes of spray revealed their location quite obviously. Although there were a few anxious moments, escaping the cove was far less perilous and terrifying than the afternoon before, and we were soon running downwind again, headed for Cape Scott.
The swells had subsided in the night and our way was easier. We still had a good breeze astern, and made it past the Cape in a few hours. It looked very different from the sun-soaked headland we had passed less than a week earlier. The sea was breaking a pale yellow on shore and the air was ghostly with salt spray and fog. The Scott Islands weren’t even visible.
The swells followed us all the way to Bull harbour. It was a little lumpy crossing the Nawhatti Bar, with a 20 knot wind pushing against a 3 knot current, but nothing remarkable. It felt sad leaving behind the wild, rolling, and tempestuous sea for these relatively placid inshore waters. We had to keep a sharp eye out as Goletas Channel was choked with brush and trees that had blown down through that storm.
Pulling into Bull harbour-could it possibly be the same place- was as anticlimactic as possible. We had been through so much in just a few days, had seen so much, and yet it was like we never left.
I wish I could find the words to describe what we experienced and what we saw, especially sailing on that open rolling sea. It was a profound and moving experience. It feels like a living, breathing thing, those grey mountains with their dark birds wheeling and gliding between their peaks. Green and craggy wilderness to one side, open sea and sky on the other. A heady combination of beauty and danger, risk and affirmation.
Although it is hard to be beaten back a second time, that’s what will happen when you aren’t cruising as a lifestyle: the land reality still takes precedence, especially where time and schedules are concerned. I think it’s a mistake to try and circumnavigate so late in the year, especially going the typical south-north-south route via the Inside Passage.
I would be more successful climbing up the outside first, pushed up by the southerlies that seem far more common this time of year. When I think about it, I can recall two days of north west winds since leaving Vic – the leg out of Nanaimo, and out of Port Hardy. The rest was no winds or winds from the south. That’s in a month of sailing.
I’m back in Port Hardy waiting for the tide. Both Rick and Eric have left for home and it’s a strange sensation to be alone again. It takes a time of adaptation to live with two men like that in such a small space, and I guess it will take time to get use to their absence, especially with two such great bunkmates. But I am so glad that they joined me for this short, intense adventure. Sailing is wonderful, sailing with friends even more so.
I’ve got a load of pics here and once I’ve edited them I’ll post my videos on youtube. Once I sat on the camera and broke the screen pictures were hit and miss. The videos tell the story far better.