Sechelt Inlet - "A Calculated Assessment of Heavy Weather Sailing"

Jul 27, 2017

sail magazine july cover

My stomach had been roiling since we slipped out of Howe Sound that morning but we were all busy on deck working a gusting easterly blow through the middle portion of the Strait of Georgia . On our weather charts we were located just above the influence of Typhoon Songda, which had put the lights out in Vancouver just last night. Nature comes at you quickly. 

steve sailing

We were on a tough run up the coast in a broken rain: reefing, double reefing, furling and unfurling, scampering in and out of the cockpit, chasing lines across the foredeck. I noted our wind gauge clocked 29 knots as our boat cut through seven to ten foot waves. Even against a formidable ebb tide our GPS reported our SOG (speed over ground) between seven to eight knots. We were proud of that, even as we stayed turtled-up against the weather and tethered to our jack lines. Another day of this would bring us to the infamous rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows; the fastest saltwater tidal change in North America. If we hit it on a flood tide we would face a standing wave that could reach over two meters high. Ebb tides there are no less treacherous with their gluttonous eddies, vortexes and 16 knot currents. This was the gateway to our destination. We were going to take a 36’ sailboat through Skooumchuck Narrows. What we were going through now was the easy part of this cruise.

ClaraALLEGRO knows these waters well. She is the Beneteau First 36.7 that, among other things, won the Division 2 Southern Straits Classic International Yacht Race in 2014 and has cruised and raced around Vancouver Island 3 times. ClaraALLEGRO is the mistress of Carl Richardson, a richly credentialed sailing instructor and racing skipper with the Vancouver Sailing Club. Carl is especially renowned for his emphasis placed on safety-at-sea throughout all his courses. Carl’s call; “Skookumchuck Rapids is our obstacle to get through into Sechelt Inlet for a week of heavy weather sailing” attracted four sailors who were familiar with both the northern Georgia Straits, Malaspina Strait and had a past relationship with ClaraALLEGRO. But we all signed on when Typhoon Songda was just a tropical depression somewhere out in the Western Pacific.

jon steve marc

Jon Kindrachuk flew in from Winnipeg to join us. With the possibility of the airport being closed, the ferries cancelled and storm warnings throughout the entire Georgia Straits, Jon’s wife asked him if it was foolhardy to go out in a 36’ sail boat. Jon, with his ever-abiding optimism, assured her that we were not being reckless at all. “We are merely making a calculated assessment of sailing in heavy weather.”

Although our wives may have felt differently, we weren’t being cocky. At our home port on False Creek, Vancouver, the five of us pressed our noses into the navigation station. Typhoon Songda came ashore as three separate storms—two of them behind us and one of them yet to come. Between them fell open a six hour window of manageable winds on Saturday afternoon and the probability of a safe run around the south end of Bowen Island and on to the protected harbor at Gibsons, located on the northern notch of Howe Sound and the Georgia Strait. That would set us up north of Songda's projected gale, on the Sunshine Coast and Malaspina Strait. Our greatest challenge was not the possibility of an unpredicted shift in the weather but the shoals on the top end of Howe Sound. We’d have to make them at high tide, between 1630 and 1730 hours.

We walked off the passage with dividers across the charts and concluded almost 20 nautical miles as the crow flies from False Creek to Gibsons Harbor. All four weather models predicted moderate south-westerlies gusting 10-20 knots so we could count on a SOG of, say, 6 knots. A three-plus hour sail time. As the cautious sailors we were we added a Plan B (Snug Cove, Bowen Island) emergency port  and 30% margin of error so  we could confidently make port before sunset.

steve sailing

“If we miss this window we just sail harder the next day, eh.” was Carl’s cheery perspective. If we missed this window today we would sit out the Typhoon tied to a dock in False Creek. What fun is that?

So we went sailing. Decked out in our foulies and tethered-in, we were happy to get underway in a light drizzle. Through the white caps in English Bay we picked up a good pace with Steve Wilson’s steady hand on the helm. An accomplished and bold sailor, Steve, had a close relationship with this boat and these waters having been Carl’s de facto first mate through many races and extended cruises. Buttoned up in his red Musto Offshore jacket he came off like the Mountie of the sea—mustache and all. He was a safety officer by training and by nature. The blue whistle that was always dangling from his left chest pocket reminded you of this. If we went into the water, I was staying with him.

After a brilliant broad reach northwest out of English Bay we were in the Strait of Georgia and finally lifted to a close-hauled course to pass through the shallows of Shoal Channel into Gibsons Harbor. Our Sail Plan now completed we found ourselves tying off in Gibsons Marina ahead of dusk, well ahead of the the next wave of Tropical Storm Songda's forecasted gale and just in time for happy hour at Smitty’s Oyster Bar.

morning sail

Each of us revelled in a tough sail. Our actions flowed naturally with each other, rotating positions easily, played off each other’s humor and traded friendly insults. At Skookumchuck it didn’t take a lot of discussion to agree on our approach to the legendary rapids. We took them on a slack tide when the rapids weren’t running. We gave way to a  25M tugboat  on her way to Sechelt at the bottom of the inlet that bears her name. Our attention glued to our piloting directions, we motored through the four kilometers of tight islands and swirling water. It was actually somewhat anticlimactic and as safe as we had planned it to be.

The Skookumchuk Rapids guard the way into the primeval wonderland of Sechelt Inlet, Narrows Inlet and Salmon Inlet. Emerging from the narrows, the  boreal forest rises steeply out of green-grey water up to soaring snow-capped mountain peaks. Whispy clouds appear to have been painted across the mountain sides by a pastry chef and in many places hang across the inlet like misty spider webs. The air itself is delicious. In the days we explored these mysterious inlets not one plastic bottle was seen bobbing against the shore line. This place was raw and spiritual in an unfamiliar way.

Our level-headed sea-brother, Geir Sordal was at the helm. He runs deep and has a calculated way of going about things. Under that harlequin green weather hood, he was the face of Yoda in our toughest times and always made sure we ended the day with a taste of a good scotch. It was his easy connection with the place that helped the rest of us find our way in. 

In a pinch Geir was right there for you. In a choppy sea and near gale winds, Geir was on his back, lying across the foredeck, holding the foot of our flapping foresail against the deck to keep it from slapping at Steve to snag the spin halyard which the waves had beaten loose. 

In the 6 days that ClaraALLEGRO plied these mystifying waters we let the natural spirit of this place take us over. To sail her well we had to learn the wily nuances of Pacific Northwest tides, currents and the capricious way that the mist disguised the ever shifting winds. It was happy, heads-up sailing all day long. Although our waters here are well protected by the steep mountains on both shores, the low pressure left over from Songda created strong outflows from the feeder fjords that met us at right angles and would suddenly turn a close-hauled tack into a broad reach. On short tacks up the narrow Salmon Inlet unreadable microbursts of wind shot down at us. Geir would drop the main sheet traveler as Jon simultaneously feathered the helm into the lift to keep our angle of heel. Like a gazelle in sea boots, Steve danced between the jib sheets to keep the tel-tales flying while Carl paced the deck from stem to stern in his best imitation of Captain Bligh eyeing the bend in the mast and barking for more backstay or adjusting the tension of the genoa and mainsail halyards.

“Going through the gears like a sports car,” Carl called it. The official Beneteau First 36.7 "speed table” was mounted on the binnacle. It told us on a close-haul the TWS (True Wind Speed) of 20 knots at 22 degrees of heel should give a Beneteau First 36.7 an optimal Velocity of 6.6 knots through the water. We were making 7.4 knots through the water and pointing very high into the wind.

Then it would be “helms-a-leeee”, a quick “hallelujah” release on the jib sheet and we’d all jump to the other side as ClaraALLEGRO swung through the wind to find her new tack. Through a dozen upwind tacks we rotated positions and took our turns dancing with and uncovering the mysteries of this bawdy seaway.

Reaching the top of Salmon Inlet we bore-away, eased sheets and hoisted the spinnaker. With the wind and the tide now pushing us from behind, ClaraALLEGRO screamed back down the cold grey water with the chilly thrill of a downhill luge run.

Alas, for all her charm and beauty Sechelt Inlet showed us that she could be a bitch when her mood turned. One day on a long run down to the town of Sechelt for provisions and a long layover in the warmth of the Lighthouse Pub, we found our crew making a night run back up the Sechelt Inlet to our anchorage on the south side of Narrows Inlet. Through a log strewn harbor and a deluge of blinding rain (thanks again to Songda) our piloting skills were tested. All of our reference points disappeared as the water, the mountain sides and the sky merged into the darkest impenetretable pitch black. There were no roads or house lights to give us hints of where the shores were and the cloud cover played havoc on our positioning systems. The depth contours on our charts were stacked close to the shore indicating very deep water and we used them to follow and carefully keep us clear of the shore.

Even with flashlights—and we had some very good flashlights—there were no visible markers. It was too dangerous to post a look-out on deck. Steve, on the helm, couldn’t see the on-deck instruments mounted on the bulkhead 6 feet away through the pounding rain. Carl was on the navigation station below calling headings from the Chart Plotter as I stood in the companionway swiping rain off the gauges and calling out what appeared to be our actual bearings as Steve steered by repeating the courses given him. After 4 harrowing hours we secured the boat at anchor in a quiet bay and collapsed in our foulies. A mouthful of scotch was all we could swallow before our bones and brains surrendered to the calm of our peaceful anchorage at the south entrance to Narrows Inlet. 

Throughout our week we sailed hard most days from morning to early evening and we found ourselves satisfied. Sitting in ClaraALLEGRO’s cozy sometimes overstuffed salon, unshaven and wrinkled we’d kickback without the PFD’s and BBQ salmon and steaks, toss salads, drink hot tea and Scotch whisky. A few nights we played a competitive, mostly courteous, often ruthless game of Rummy and most importantly argued the burning issues of our times: like who should get the Nobel Prize for Literature? Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan?

We agreed that it is definitely not all about me or all about you, "it" is all about balance. Like rigging our small bright orange storm sails to balance the power generated in a blustery gale with our ability to steer. Reefing before the inevitable forcasted increase in wind velocity gets too high and impedes our progress. Sleeping when your body tells you to sleep. Eating a little instead of alot.  On adventures like these, you find yourself having the opportunity to find your own personal balance of heart, health and mind. You renew your understanding that there is a connectedness to all things which is always apparent when we slow things down and recognize the interaction of the elements. We are at our best when we connect with others and the environment. Regardless of how much energy you expend or how much technology you apply, you don't make much headway pushing against the forces that make our planet work.

 steve sailing

“And it’s a worthless trip unless you go home and do something different with your life,” Carl said as he gave an elfish wink from behind his sip of Johnny Walker Black.

Eight days out, eight days of wet clothes and frozen finger tips, we were sad to leave but made ready to get ClairALLEGRO back home. But, this time the tides at Gibsons were not in our favor. I was skipper on that leg. Jon was my navigator. The marine weather forecast crackled from the VHF speaker as we crowded, once again, around the nav station; pouring over the tide & current tables, Piloting Directions and creating potencial routes on the chart plotter. When we did get back into the Georgia Strait we more than likely would have the wind on our nose: South-East at 20-30 knots.

“Not enough water over those shoals until mid-morning. 10:00 earliest. We’ll miss our window south.”

“We could cheat those shoals if . . .” The ever-confident risk assesser, Jon laid a string of waypoints across the plotter screen. “Up the Sound at first light. Count on these north shore mountains to block the easterlies early in the day, then we could round the top of Keats Island, here, and as the day warms, we ride the northerly outflow winds from Howe Sound into Collingwood Channel right out into the Georgia Strait.” 

“Then it’s short tacks it all the way into English Bay.” He smiles up at me and in a husky voice remembers “Oh but we know, so very well, how ClaraALLEGRO loves to point into the wind !". So, it would be a brisk day with the wind in our face. We calculated a five to six hour passage allowing for our 30% safety margin.

On this last day together we shoved-off from Gibsons shelter, the town’s lights still twinkling through the early morning mist. With engine pushing us, re-charging our batteries, all went as planned rounding the north end of Keats Island with the first streaks of sunlight shooting over the snowcapped peaks to the east. With Geir at the helm we were all cocked and ready to get pushed through Collingwood Channel between Keats and the steep western side of Bowen Island. Geir stuck to our course moving steadily under a broad reach in 8 knots of wind. He reached a concenus with all on hoisting the spinnaker. Instead of rising winds we experienced the gradual slowing of wind indicated by "shiny water" for as far as the eye could see. Patiently we allowed the current to sweep us south until ClaraALLEGRO stepped out into the Stait of Georgia and confused choppy seas. After 20 minutes of chaotic wind and water, we finally penetrated the dark water of the 15-20 knot blow of a fresh south-easterly wind . . . and we were gone.

I was now on the helm of this last leg and I cried "Reef the main, furl the genoa, balance the boat." We all knew our individual tasks and quickly went about them together. I tacked us back east towards the shore. As we cleared Cowan Point, Bowen Island’s southeasterly outcrop, we picked up the north easterly outflow from Howe Sound. With our jib halyard as tight as a piano string we still were able to get the tel-tales laying horzontally straight back against the jib as the bow parted the waves that bawled over the foredeck. We had a strong and steady go of it. I could feel the rudder pushing back. Beating hard to windward ClaraALLEGRO dug into the sea like the blade of a skate biting into cold ice. With 20-25 knots of wind we found ourselves flying through the blue sky and the cold water holding our rhumline and averaging 7.5 knots. As luck would have it, the wind persistently veered to the east and then south-east putting our False Creek destination directly in front of our forestay.

Without changing  tacks the wind lifted us- smiling and proud- between the welcoming arms of English Bay. The forged partnership of sails, keel, rudder, wind and water had worked for us; taking us all home again with no regrets.

Marc Hess- is a lifelong sailor of dinghies and Keelboats, author, publisher and communications sales executive is located in Fredricksberg, Texas. Marc and his wife Lorrie are sailing again with Carl, Geir and Steve  to Corfu, Greece and the Ionian Sea in September 2017. 


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