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"Beyond all things is the ocean." Seneca

Sooke Harbor, July 1, 2003

 We are underway and are at the mercy of our lifestyle. We are out of phone contact. We can't get the news. I shower every other day and wear one shirt for two days - or more. We have water and fuel aboard and a month's supply of frozen food. As long as the boat's systems work perfectly we can generate electricity, freeze food, heat food, take hot showers, and otherwise live a comfortable life. With our new stove or our bar-b-que grill on the stern rail we prepare gourmet meals. Today, it is summer mid-afternoon, and we have moored the boat at Sooke Harbor's Port Authority pier. Our summer cruise has begun with a full day under diesel power pushing against headwinds. We're making an attempt to go "outside" and up the coast to a moderate sized bay on the Vancouver Island's west side.

I'm bone tired. My mind and the GPS say we departed Port Sidney Harbor just ten hours ago. My physical body says it's been at least a week. At my age I finally realize how a demanding mind can be relentless, insisting that the body continue to do something that was just barely possible only a few years ago.

It was the barest of morning twilight when Ellen and I and "Love of Liberty" slipped out of Sidney Harbor into an angry, chilling low overcast. The forecast was for another prototypical northwest day featuring rain and dirty gray skies, snotty weather. Sure, it's summer in the Northwest, but I've learned that it is naive to expect sunny skies at any chosen time with any useful regularity. Just forget trying to calculate the weather into your plans. You learn to take whatever condenses in the atmosphere, grin and then have it slung at you.

Clearing our slip at Port Sidney is a serious consideration, certainly not a procedure to be taken lightly. I believe ­ and this is even true of the captain of the tiniest rowing skiff - that you must never, ever permit your boat to unintentionally collide with, strike, scratch or even touch another man's boat. Even the slightest bumping of someone else's glistening white fiberglass hull-side will bring the owner and all his guests on deck like a family of prairie dogs. They'll soon be circling, kibitzing and curiously scrutinizing all surfaces around the "collision site". Animal instinct tells them their vessel has been "damaged" somehow. Even if nothing is found, a surveyor may be called in to check for deeper structural stresses, deeper injury that may, just possibly, show in their boat's later life. If repair is truly necessary, only the most expensive, yacht repair yard will be consulted, a pretentious yard that caters to yachts exclusively belonging to CEO's of American corporations. "A collision at sea" or even a fender-bender in the harbor can ruin many days. Therefore, a departure calls for precise calculation and careful planning. The details of the maneuver required to cleanly exit our slip are quantifiable and consistent - except for one item. "Love of Liberty" backs like the most intractable, pigheaded mule any Texan ever saw. She'll go, but she'll go in any direction - and that direction is usually surprising. She's consistently inconsistent.

On backing out of our tight slip in Sidney Harbor there's rarely any current to consider. That is good. Next I reflect on what the wind can do, how it can quickly change and blow from any point on the compass. Yes, her response in the wind is predictable and is known. An early morning departure means we will likely have light winds. Sure enough, this morning there is a light southeasterly wind. The third consideration is engine torque, for torque at higher revs acts like a lever "torquing" the stern in a predictable direction. I know that direction, and engine torque moves the stern to port. At times, that would be very useful, except today we wish the stern to back to starboard. Short of getting help from a higher power, we plan to back out using a doubled continuous spring line. On the way out, a pull on that line at the right moment will snub the stern in and to starboard somewhat which forces the bow to move out and into the wind. Once we're out of the slip and the bow points down the waterway, Ellen will release one side of the line and we will be completely free to move ahead with more power. This is a handy maneuver because, before sunup, there is usually no conscious or even semiconscious person available at the dock to help us with lines. However, a foul-up at the dock cleat where the line must trail out and free itself - with nobody standing there to help and the boat inexorably moving away - would turn a tidy looking maneuver into, well, a disaster.

Powering out in reverse I glared at the dock cleat to cajole the spring line to be free running, for soon we'll retrieve it. We back out further. The spring line works as Ellen gives it a slight pull. The line's tension neatly snubs the stern around. Our bow swings outward. Ellen casts free one end of the line, and voilà the bitter end then moves outward from the boat to the dock cleat as we move forward. I brought in more power and moved ahead, carefully watching the spring line. I saw its bitter end daintily slide around the dock cleat - whereupon the last of it plopped off the dock into the water, perfectly. Ellen was retrieving the line, and I was mumbling to myself that someone should be here to see THAT. While thinking so highly of my skill, I noticed over my shoulder that I narrowly missed a collision with a glitzy, polished chrome and white plastic, "primp-fluff" yacht. A cloud of exhaust smoke hung at his stern. He had reversed his engines to stop his boat as I slipped into his way - with only the back of my head showing. The portly looking owner was wearing tan slacks, white yacht shoes, a cap that was embroidered "Captain" and a blazer that looked like it was designed by Liz Clairborne. I was forced into silence.

Outbound, we passed the rocky harbor seawall, turned right, cleared the green entrance buoy and powered southerly. We were heading down Haro Straight, then west to Juan de Fuca Straight, out the straight, and then up the Vancouver Island west coast to Barkley Sound. The rumor has it that this area is less traveled, a paradise of islands and coves where the scenery, the fishing, the crabbing and the historical features are not to be outmatched - even by a trip to Alaska. This may substitute for my long held desire to go farther north on that high-paced "cruising trip to Glacier Bay". Glacier Bay, where every Northwest yachtsman dreams to go, if only for bragging rights.

I steered on course, watch cap pulled over my ears and hunched inside my floatation jacket that was zipped around a heavy shirt and the top of my flannel lined jeans. I was about a mile off the coastline - fighting a peculiar notion that this trip should be on the reverse course. Behind us is a section of British Columbia inside the Straight of Georgia euphemistically called "The Sunshine Coast". We've been there. There'd be less fog, less rain, less wind and odds on there'd be bright sunny skies. My ambivalence doesn't affect the boat, on autopilot she dutifully grinds onward - leaving Zero Rock and Little Zero Rock to port in the drizzle.

At times like this, I suppose that somewhere in my mind it is possible to discover why it is that two people still seemingly possessed of good judgment will insist on staying aboard a small boat. And then, using sail or engine or both, move the boat from one point to another ­ frequently alone and without the concern of anyone else. I do know that under those circumstances my sixty-four-year-old imagination can still be stirred making an adventure appear just somewhere out there. It can happen as we slow to approach an isolated island town or point the bow into a remote calm water cove fully hidden behind old cedars and firs.

I watch other small boat cruising sailors in my search for clues. Some individuals come to sailing in a small boat unsure of whether they are rich or poor, capable or incapable, secure or insecure. They have made not enough money or too much money. Nevertheless, once free of the bindings of work and the urban life, the newcomer finds that time is no longer divided into eight-hour days and five-day weeks. Newcomers move aboard their boat, and immediately, I find, they discover subtle but serious benefits. Clothing the body is now simple: flannel lined jeans and a zippered, lined sweatshirt purchased from Costco are good for cold days, shorts and a tee shirt for hot days. A heavy weather sea coat and pants for foul days. Ask a seasoned cruiser about cuff links, cordovan wing tip shoes, a tie, button down collars and pin striped shirts and he will draw a blank stare slipping into what seems like a catatonic state while vaguely trying to remember.

There's little space on these vessels. The newcomer - even one whose shore-side life has been solely in small apartments - discovers that most possessions [such as a George Foreman Grill] are totally unnecessary. The catharsis continues, for greed and envy are also left ashore. Here, there's no one to play it on. The friendship of your fellow crew - and there may be only one - soon develops into an honored and highly valued companionship. Each person is needed by the other, for each is necessary to keep the boat able and safe. Meet another cruiser in a small cove somewhere and simple friendship generates immediately for he too is secure and has all that he needs. He is interested in a friend, only.

The other imposters, money addiction and wealth addiction, become almost a joke and virtually meaningless. "I loaned my cousin $300k.", "How much did you say you made last year?" makes banal stumbling conversation. After an introductory three or four days, a seasoned stockbroker will find waning interest in the bouncing numbers on the stock pages. Those morbidly fascinated with front page headlines can't read about a serial killer in Washington or a mass-murderer pig farmer in British Columbia. That same person may now stare for an hour at trees mirrored in dark flat water while a ruddy sunset turns from orange to red to magenta. Our newcomer re-discovers himself. He now mulls over his uncertainty about old values and even searches for new. There come so many good days that the novice wonders just when some collector is going to arrive. I know there are others who understand this almost clean slate. Not many may believe it, but there are few sensations that can satisfy mind and body this way.

So begins this summer's mini epoch. We enter Haro Straight, where it rains more heavily. The winds increase and bring an annoying lumpy chop in the water. Spray sweeps around the dodger and into the cockpit. A growling white-capped wave breaks its crest just as it passes the stern rail. The wind then blows the foamy top sideways pelting the side of my face. I can reach out my hand and touch the wave, even breathe it. I can hear it. Waves make a hissing sound as they pass along the hull-side and are forever lost astern. I can taste saltwater in my Kicking Horse, Grizzly Claw Dark Roast coffee as we barrel westward and pass the entrance to Victoria Harbor. A Canadian Navy ship leaves Esquimalt, crosses our bow and then stops a mile off our port side. Save for a few fishing skiffs hunkered near the shoreline, there's nobody else out today. The wind is shifting and increasing gusts come over the bow. We can't use any sail to steady the boat as we approach the inside edge of Juan de Fuca Straight.

Juan de Fuca Straight, I remember this place. When I was fourteen years old, my family and I crossed Juan de Fuca Straight from Port Angeles to Victoria - on a ferry. My sister and I called it, "The Want to Puka Straight". We weren't wrong. The slow plodding ferry left Port Angeles, followed a northerly course and - for half of the trip - took the incoming Pacific Ocean swells on the beam. In those days I don't believe the ferry had stabilizers, so she rolled and she rolled. She rolled with a nice easy motion that was bound to strum the inner ear of every seasick susceptible passenger. Visually, it is impossible to detect a seasick susceptible person on dry land. Even when aboard a vessel strangers don't go about on their own accord revealing their affliction. Mentioning the word "seasick" on even a moored vessel tends to initiate symptoms for some. However, once on a rolling, pitching deck, a subtle loss of composure begins, conversation stops, followed by a narrowed steely gaze at the horizon - and the differentiation now becomes easy. On the rising and falling upper deck of this ferry, the door to the men's room was propped open with a floor wedge. This made for speedy, unobstructed access to the toilet bowls - and easy identification of one who was seasick. Those going in are hunched over, grabbing door edges and handrails with only a slight glance up to make sure they are going to an empty stall - a defining behavior. Coming out of the head, they still use shuffle steps, but stand more upright. Usually, they'll say they feel better outside the men's room, for the men's room itself has become a nauseous sight that would sicken a dog.

One of the ferry crew with a mop and bucket chuckled,

"It's not that you're afraid of dying when you are seasick; it's that you're afraid you'll continue to live."

Everyone found that the head was no place to be for any but a few seconds duty. My father, who had a cast iron stomach was seemingly oblivious to all this. He was finishing his second cup of coffee and wandering about, squinting with his chin forward, reading the posters on the cabin sides. I too, felt good, feeling somewhat fascinated with the others' agony. It wasn't until a few years later while rounding the San Francisco lightship in a sailboat that I too became seasick and felt, " my head weigh a ton or more and forty gales inherently within it roar". The top-heavy, round bottomed ferry then shuddered, took a slight pitch upward and began another long, easy roll.

Our cutter, "Love of Liberty", has a confident but gentle motion in short steep waves. The bow lifts and lifts and points upward until the approaching wave crest won't support the boat any longer. The wave crest passes mid-ship and the bow falls burying her spoon shaped front sections into the next wave. The dissected wave breaks in two parts, sending white water out 90 degrees to the boat. It's spectacular to see as the seas explode off to the sides. A gust of wind blows spray into and over the dodger top. Saltwater cascades down the supports, along the cabin sides, then runs like a small river to the lee and out the scuppers. It's a sturdy motion, and there is no shuttering or harsh movement. About every tenth wave she may hit one dead center and slow a bit, but then the bow lifts upward again, and the cycle repeats. We progress on course in this staunch vessel staying safe, dry and comfortable.

The "Straight" is correctly named, for it is a straight, parallel-sided opening in the coastline with an international border demarcation line right down the middle. It separates the USA and Canada where to the south is Washington State and to the north is Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The opening is set at a right angle to the Pacific Ocean where there's an inflow and outflow of strong currents generated by a tidal water exchange that fills and empties 225 miles of inside bays composing Puget Sound and the Straight of Georgia. Historical hydrographic charts show the west side of Vancouver Island sprinkled with shipwrecks. Unfortunate captains, trying to enter Juan de Fuca Straight in fog with gale winds blowing out of the west, had their ships splintered against a lee shore paved with rocks and pinnacles.

The Juan de Fuca Straight serves, what some regard as a very useful purpose, namely waste discharge. The effluent, the sewage waste of the residents of Victoria city is dumped into the Straight and goes out to the Pacific Ocean on the ebb - twice daily. The city's 75,000 residents have no sewage treatment facilities. Underway we sighted no floating residue, so I suppose some government bureaucrat in a business suit with a clipboard, a briefcase and his name on an office door in the Parliament Building has figured this out. To me riding the wave crests and troughs on the surface, I imagine that the water looks clean or clean enough.

We pass Race Rocks and its black and white striped lighthouse when, interestingly, the rain stops, the winds lighten and sunshine fills the sky. With the sun blazing above us I am mesmerized. I looked skyward and wondered what grinning, devious devil designs this screwy pattern of dreary, depressing, bright, awesome and glorious. Here, now, is "summer weather", and I roll back on my heels holding myself up just by my grip on the wheel. We sight Sooke Harbor entrance, the terminal end of leg one, day one.

Long, low, sandy Whiffin Spit extends almost all the way across the 3/4-mile wide entrance to Sooke Harbor. Closer in I sight people, casually walking along the spit. Dogs chase sticks and wade in the surf. It seems prosaic and un-endangering. The tiny channel opening on the spit's right end shoals quickly. At low tide it is only 60 feet wide. The right side of this channel entrance, across what seems like just a slight gap in the sandbar, has another underwater shoal. Then it shows a few rocks awash. Behind are sheer steep cliffs. Believe me, there are few things that will assure a greater churning sensation in one's gut than to feel the boat's keel stick itself firmly into a mud impregnated sand bar - on a falling tide. Should you find your big fin embedded in the mud, you become like a partially beached whale. As seconds tick by the tidal level drops. There you sit, parked, awaiting the return of higher tide that just may be high enough to lift you off. If you seek to avoid embarrassment and so go inside the cabin, things will be uncomfortable as the boat rolls out of plumb twenty or thirty degrees. Try to rest in a bunk on the high side and "plop" you roll out to the cabin sole. Try the bunk on the opposite side and you roll to rest crazily against the book shelves. Books fall from the high side shelves and the dishes crash in the lockers. You just have to wait for several hours ­ or days - for the next high water to lift you off.

We draw almost seven feet at the keel. The current is ebbing. We must hit this particular channel right on the button. I sighted the range markers, the first set, that is. There are three separate sets of range markers for this harbor because this approach is one tricky SOB.

A range is a visual navigation aid placed on land to help you get inside, safely. It is easily seen from outside the channel and is identified on the chart. Usually there's a set of two large rectangular placards each mounted vertically and separately on tall pole foundations. A placard may be twenty feet tall and be painted white with a vertical black stripe in the center. They are set, usually on a hillside, one just above the other and perhaps one a hundred feet behind the other. Together they act much like the sights on a rifle. On entering the harbor you first locate both placards. If one is positioned vertically inline above the other and appears to stay that way, the boat is safely on course, mid-channel. If the lower placard is not in alignment, you are then out of channel and in danger. The direction to correct your course is obvious depending on which side of center the lower placard appears. Obvious that is, unless you are on a reverse course going out of the harbor and must sight the range over your shoulder. Or, maybe you could turn around trying to make proper course adjustments, hands on the helm behind you, while reversing the course corrections in your mind. Or, keep looking forward from the helm and have crew call out the directions in a manner they feel is logical. Saying, "A little to the right", or "your course is to starboard" when two people are facing opposite directions will result in grounding, period. So, Sooke Harbor has three sets of these things. Once inside Whiffin Spit the second range is visible to port. Align on those two placards and continue until the third set to starboard is sighted. Correct your course for those and soon you will sight the red channel buoys. Leave the red buoys to starboard and you'll easily reach the Port Authority pier.

By VHF radio we assured a mooring space at the dock. I secured the boat there, and visited the wharfinger in the shack at the top of the rotted pier. She's friendly, collects our money and comments,

"Aboot th' first time two sailboats have come in here without at least one going aground. Ehhh!"

Crowded fore-and-aft between some rough fishing boats we rest in this, a bullet proof, perfectly secure harbor. We'll get a good night's sleep and grind out the 12-hour slog to Barkley Sound tomorrow.

It has been three days now, and we have faithfully lifted our bodies out of the bunk at 4 AM to tune in the VHF to Environment Canada's whimsical weather forecast. We focused our attention on Cape Beale and Ucluelet [yuu-cloo-let]. We could change our plan somewhat and make two legs of this instead of one-long-day up the coast. We could sail southwesterly across the mouth of the straight and stop on the other side in Neah Bay. We would then have crossed an international border, entering the USA. This creates a border-crossing conundrum because our stores include wine and fruit and meat that would all suffer a duty or possibly be un-allowed [because of a mad cow] in the USA. Subsequently, on returning to Barkley Sound we'd have to re-enter Canada and face the same wine, fruit and meat customs/duty issues. The only port of entry customs office close to our destination is Ucluelet, and the approach to Ucluelet is difficult in bad weather.

Strong winds, offshore waves, unfavorable currents and finally fog. On our third day in Sooke, the 4 AM weather broadcast reported the winds to be "gale force" out of the NW. The fog had closed in giving 1/2-mile visibility at Ucluelet - and the customs office. The chart showed rocks awash and pinnacles strewn about the Ucluelet approach. The waves were to be one to two meters superimposed upon the long ocean swell. Opposing flood currents began to dominate the daylight hours. I imagined the best: a long tiring day of pounding headlong into miserable choppy seas terminating in a foggy soup at our destination. That was a setup for confusion and just one little mistake. I imagined the worst: a form of nightmare that transforms me into a yesteryear captain, where due to a miniscule error, he makes a tiny misjudgment. The captain stands surrounded by fog and breaking seas. His beautiful ship plunges again and again against rocks that finally breach the hull planks and crack the frames. Just as cargo tumbles out of the hold and passengers wash from the decks into the seas, the 4 AM alarm sounds.

We gave up. I pushed the bow away from the Port Authority pier and headed out, leaving the red buoys to port. I carefully aligned our reverse track to the three ranges. Outside Whiffin Spit we entered Juan de Fuca Straight and turned to port, eastward to the Straight of Georgia. We are now ambling along enjoying the assist of a fine flood current that was, just a few hours ago, "our final straw". Gambling on glorious summer sunshine ahead we rounded Race Rocks, sailing with brisk following winds. I now imagine Pender Harbor, Princess Louisa Inlet, Desolation Sound, the rapids and ultimately the Discovery Islands.

Not an auspicious beginning to our summer cruise.

 

With best regards, Terry and Ellen

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