I got seasick the second day out. Up on the high side, I was clearing the port jib sheet when it came. My stomach had been roiling since we slipped out of Howe Sound that morning but we were all busy on deck working an easterly blow through a finicky Straits just above Typhoon Songda—which had put the lights out in Vancouver just last night. Nature comes at you quickly. I jumped to the leeward gunwale to unload my business but was jerked to fast stop by my tether and found myself scrambling back up to the high side rail just in time to get my head under the life lines to the collective “yyeeew” of my four crewmates.
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. Our wind gauge clocked 29 knots as our boat cut through seven to ten foot waves. Even against a formidable ebb tide our SOG-meter was bobbing around 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 two meters high. Ebb tides there are no less treacherous with their gluttonous eddies and 16 knot currents. This was the gateway to our destination. We were going to take a 36’ sailboat through Skooumchuck. 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 Round Southern Straits Classic in 2014. ClaraALLEGRO is the mistress of Carl Richardson, a richly credentialed sailing instructor and racing skipper with the Vancouver Sailing Club, who can do an impressive imitation of a one-eyed flounder outwitting a fisherman’s hook. NauticEd Captain Level 5, Carl is especially renowned for the 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 straits 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 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 four 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 harbor at Gibsons, on the northern notch of Howe Sound. That would set us up in the Straits north of Songda. 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 16:30 and 17:00.
We walked off the passage with dividers across the charts and concluded almost twenty nautical miles as the crow flies from False Creek Gibsons. All four weather models predicted south-westerlies gusting 10-15 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 30% margin of error for anything that might come up and we could make port before sundown.
“If we miss this window we just sail harder the next day, eh.” was Carl’s cheery perspective. If we missed this window 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 brisk breeze and 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 and into the Straits of Georgia we headed-up to a close hauled course to pass through Shoal Channel and found ourselves tying off in Gibson’s marina ahead of the dusk, well ahead of the weather and just in time for happy hour at Smitty’s Oyster Bar.
Each of us reveled in tough sail. We flowed naturally with each other, rotated 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 barge-less tug on her way to the town of Sechelt at the bottom of the inlet that bears her name and followed her through the four kilometers of tight islands and swirling water. It was actually somewhat anticlimactic and, above all, safe.
The Skookumchuk rapids are the guardian passage way into the primeval wonderland of Sechelt Inlet. Boreal forest rise steeply out of green-grey water up to soaring snow-capped mountain peaks. Wispy clouds appear to have been painted across the mountain sides by a pastry chef and sometimes 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 as raw as it was unmolested.
Our level-headed sea-brother, Gier Sordal, ran deep and had 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 scotch. It was his easy connection with the place that helped the rest of us find our way in. It was either that or he just couldn’t be bothered at all.
In a pinch he was right there for you. In a choppy sea, Gier was on his back, across the foredeck holding the foot of our flapping foresail against the deck to keep it from slapping at Steve who had virtually leapt across the foredeck—like a Mountie-Pirate—to snag the loose end of our spin halyard which the waves had beaten loose. It was a good assist.
In the 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 her tides, and the capricious way that the mist disguised her wind shifts. It was happy, heads-up sailing all day long. Although the seas 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 suddenly turning a close hauled tack into a broad reach. On short tacks up the narrow Salmon Inlet unreadable microbursts of wind shot down at us. Gier 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 tal-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 speed table” mounted on the binnacle told us a TWS (True Wind Speed) of 14 knots at 20% heel should give a Beneteau First 36.7 an optimal Velocity of 6.4 knots. We were making 7 knots pointed high into the wind.
Then it would be “helms-to-leeee”, a “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 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 that split mountain ranges—with the chilly thrill of a downhill luge run.
Alas, for all her charm and beauty Sechelt showed us that she could be a bitch when her mood turned. A long run down to the town of Sechelt for provisions and—maybe, too long of a layover at The Lighthouse Pub—found us making a late night run back up the arm through a log strewn harbor and a steady rain (thanks, again, to Songda). Our reference points disappeared as the water, the mountain side and the sky faded into the exact same pitch of 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.
Even with flashlights—and we had some 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 through the rain. Carl on the navigation station below called 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 intuition. There were two slow hours of this cold, white-knuckle sailing before we made out the channel light at Salmon Inlet halfway to our mooring. There were a further two hours of dodging a few lethal logs before we found our moorage, secured the boat and collapsed in our foulies.
In ClaraALLEGRO’s cozy although overstuffed salon, unshaven and wrinkled we’d kickback under our dripping PFD’s, drank hot tea and Scotch whisky, played rummy on occasion and argued the burning issues of our times: like who should get the Nobel Prize for Literature? Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan.
We were falling into a balance with Sechelt. It is all about balance. Like the orange storm sails—sails that looked like they had shrunk in the laundry—we rigged to balance the boat in blustery weather. Eventually, on exploits like these, you find yourself reaching for your own personal balance with the places that you pass through. Regardless of how much energy you expend or how much technology you apply, it gets to the point where you are not going to make much headway pushing against very forces that make our planet work. As with so many other things in life, to sail successfully you must first submit, engage to understand and finally form a partnership to sail onwards.
“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 cup 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 speakers as we crowded, once again, around the nav station; pouring over the tide & current tables and tweaking out possible routes the chart plotter. When we did get back into the Straits we 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 accessor, Jon laid a string of waypoints across the plotter. “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 with luck, as the day warms, we ride the outflow from Howe Sound out here. Collingwood Channel, just like we learned to do up in Sechelt. Right out into the Strait.”
“Then it’s short tacks it all the way into English Bay.” He smiles up at me. “Oh but you know how this boat loves to point into the wind.” It would be a brisk day with the wind in our face. We calculated a five to six hour run (again allowing our 30% safety margin.)
We shoved off from Gibsons with the town’s lights still twinkling through the morning mist. All went as planned at first, rounding the top of Keats Island with the first streaks sunlight shooting over the snowcapped peaks to the east. Then we were all cocked and ready to get pushed through Collingwood Channel between Keats and the big chunk of Bowen Island. With Gier’s sweet touch on the helm we moved steadily under a broad reach and even threw up the spinnaker for a bit. With little wind we never got it flying well and as ClaraALLEGRO stepped out from behind Bowen Island we hit the confused chop of the open water and felt into the full blow of a fresh south-easterly. Reef the main, furl the genoa, balance the boat. We all knew our tasks and quickly went about them. Gier 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 and I took the helm. We got the tel-tales laying straight back against the jib and the nose pushing down into the waves that bawled over the foredeck. We had a strong and steady go of it. I could feel the rudder pushing back against the wind. Beating hard to windward, ClaraALLEGRO dug into the sea like the blade of a skate biting into the ice. We found ourselves flying through the blue sky and the cold water of the Strait of Georgia—holding our line and letting the combined forces of wind and water do their work.
And then, as luck would have it, the weather shifted to the east. Without change tack or sail set, this wind rode us, smiling and proud, back into the welcoming arms of English Bay. We didn’t beat it. We were going with it.
From their home port on False Creek the Vancouver Sailing Club has the perfect launch-point for sailing ventures into the one of the most cherished waters in the world—the Straits of Georgia. Be it day sails on English Bay, Cruise-and-Learn voyages into the islands of the Southern Straits or challenging keelboat racing this NauticEd sailing school has welcomed everyone from landlubbers who just want to see what it’s like to be pulled along by the wind to skilled racing crews who want to win. Take look at the web site www.vancouversailingclub.com or give the skipper a call at 603-805-9944. You just may end up on a life changing sailing adventure like this one.