Friday, July 24, 2009
Adventures Offshore and in the Queen Charlotte Islands
We have been in the Queen Charlottes (also called Haida Gwaii because it's the home of the Haida Nation) since June 30, but we've been in remote wilderness the entire time. As the guidebook says, "You have entered a different world. One as far removed as possible from flashing neon and smog, from traffic jams and street lights..." There are over 400 islands in this archipelago that sits about 70 miles west of the British Columbia Coast, just south of the Alaska border. So, that's a quick orientation on where we are.
Our course was northward from the southern tip. We are now at the Sandspit marina on the northeast tip of Moresby Island, about halfway up the archipelago. Earlier this month we rafted with our new friends Kirk and Karen Palmer from F/V Light Scout, and visited S’Gang Gwaay together. S'Gang Gwaay, on Anthony Island at the southwest tip of the archipelago, is a World Heritage site and a partially restored Haida village with the most complete group of totem poles of any historic site here. We rowed ashore, walked through the ancient village, and hiked a trail around the island.
Back at the raft-up with Kirk and Karen, we yakked and told stories for two straight days and had a fabulous time. Serendipitously, they had extra diesel aboard and, coincidentally, we had run very low after our long crossing, so they gave us 5 gallons, which made a big difference in our ability to get into the remoter areas where winds and currents are fickle. Kirk and Karen were due to leave at 0400 the next morning, and we all swore we’d stop talking early so they could get some sleep, but we couldn’t stop. It was just too danged much fun. Finally at midnight we all cooked supper, and they took off at oh-dark-thirty to make the hundred-mile crossing back to Port Hardy. They must have been tired. We asked them to post a quick note on this blog, which they did, but we forgot to tell them that you can’t post photos via email, so we will put their photos alongside ours later, when we see them again in Victoria, before returning to Port Townsend in September. Now for some catching up:
AOOGA! AOOGA! a fish has been caught! But before we regale you with that astounding moment, a little backstory first: June 24: Leaving hospitable Port Alice and cruising back to Winter Harbour and Browning Inlet at the mouth of Quatsino Sound, we spent a couple of days readying the boat for an open-ocean crossing to the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands, a 164-mile voyage if done in a straight line, which sailboats never do. The forecast was for southeast winds, which would make it a downwind sail. We wanted to sail offshore, to see what Triangle Island looked like, and get some sea room for when the winds went back to the northwest, so we plotted a course south of and paralleling the islands that jut 50 miles out to the west from Vancouver Island’s north tip (ending at Triangle Island, about which a fisherman told us later, “It always blows fifty there!”) More on that later. Fifty miles out from Quatsino, a course change to a northwesterly bearing for a landfall east of St James Island at the southern tip of the Queen Charlottes would, we figured, make a total run of 25-35 hours. If you haven’t noticed yet, we are optimists.
We rigged extra lifelines, the storm trysail, preventers for the mainsail, set up the running backstays, lashed the anchor down, made sandwiches and stocked the larder and snack bins, and then, the last thing before turning in for the night, we got a final weather forecast. The predicted SE wind had been upgraded to a gale warning of 35. We talked about it. Once this southerly weather system blew through, the winds would swing around again to 25 on the nose, which has been the prevailing direction so far all summer. We decided that 35 knots downwind, though uncomfortable, was do-able and would give us a faster passage than beating into a head-wind and seas. It is much easier to sail downwind in a small boat like this than it is to beat to windward. We’ve sailed downwind in 35 before, but not on the open ocean. We figured the small staysail combined with our roller furling genoa would give us enough downwind drive and flexibility to cope with the larger seas. Although Sockdolager is only 24 feet on deck, she’s heavily built. Dana 24s are easily capable of going offshore in safety if not in big-boat comfort. It was a go. We arose at 0400 on Friday June 26 and tuned into the weather as we made coffee. Our hearts sank. Storm warnings in Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait, with winds of 40-50 knots meant no go. We plotted where the low was, where it would be later, and with great disappointment, did the only sensible thing: we went back to bed. THEN we went fishing. End of backstory.
Now, if you want to bumfuzzle a line of 20-foot C-Dorys and Alumawelds bristling with fishing gear as they troll over the local reefs, join them in a full-keeled sailboat rigged for sea, troll your flasher-rigged hootchie with its slip-weight as if you were born with it, and look nonchalant, just another weird-looking fishing boat. We watched surreptitiously as they reeled in and netted their many catches, and we learned what not to do, after three escapees shook off our barbless hooks. “Nice fish!” we called to a nearby pair of fishermen as they hauled one in. “Yeah, we’re limited out now, gotta go,” they said. “Yeah,” we replied, “We think we’ll stay, we’re not quite limited out yet.”
Then, a miracle happened: a fish not only bit our hootchie, it stayed on. Jim reeled it in and Karen scooped it into the net, an honest-to-God coho salmon, exactly 22 inches long and a little over 4 pounds (yes, Jim measured it.) You could hear our shrieks all the way to the Quatsino lighthouse. We high-fived, danced in the cockpit, and sang victory medleys all the way back to the little cove we chose to ride out the gale in. And we barbecued our fish. Two eagles sat in a tree nearly overhead and watched us like… well, like hawks. Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low, we got our coho mojo on, yeah!
June 28, 2009: 0530 departure for offshore: For a couple of days while the gale blew, we kept listening to the weather, hoping for the wind to veer to a stretch of southwest before it went northwest with another possible gale due in a few days. The forecast was good: southwest winds for 36 hours followed by gentle northwest of 5-15, then 10-20. No new gales in sight. Yay! The gentle weather was forecast to last for four to five days. The wave height forecast was a tad daunting, though - 2 to 3 meters with some 4 meter seas thrown in, but we figured they would subside quickly with a switch in wind direction and speed. So, excited and a bit nervous, we left Quatsino Sound for the open ocean. Immediately outside the Sound we met the sport fishing fleet, each boat perched atop a huge wave and disappearing in the troughs. The charterboat customers did not look pleased, and even a few skippers were chumming. These were no 3 meter seas. They were at least twelve to fifteen feet, steep as cliffs and close together. Five meters, yeeks! And it was chaotic: a big swell from the northwest overlain by wind waves from the southeast and even a few coming in from the west. It was a bit like sailing in a washing machine. Karen looked at Jim to see if he wanted to turn back. Jim looked at Karen for the same. Neither said a word. Stubborn buggers. Both rationalized that these seas were probably higher because of the nearshore effects of the bottom outside Quatsino Sound. Later on, we switched from rationalization to hope: these seas WILL subside, they’ve got to because there’s not enough wind to create them anymore, or even sail over them! The promised southwest 15-20 knot wind was west, 5-10 knots-almost on the nose. At one point Sockdolager’s bow sailed off the top of a wave into thin air. Karen, at the helm, looked straight down, anticipated a crash landing, and muttered “This could be ugly…” but the boat merely tipped down and surfed nicely down the back side of the wave! That’s what a good sea boat with a full keel will do.
You may be expecting some exciting photos of us sailing in this mess, but reaching for a camera was not our highest priority right then. We shot some video of ten-foot swells, but frankly the camera lens flattens out the seas, which nullifies their size and effects on one's equilibrium. So verbal descriptions will have to do.
By nightfall we made the turn at Triangle Island, and so did the wind, dagnabit. Northwest, right on the nose. So we made long tacks, 3 hours at a time to correspond with our watch schedule of 3 on and 3 off. Two hundred twenty miles’ worth of tacking, 56 hours in all. Except for about twelve hours of pure joyful sailing in sparkling beam seas with just the right amount of wind, we had either too much or not enough wind, and big lumpy disorganized seas that degraded windward progress so much that we used the engine at low rpm so as not spend a third night at sea.
Did we mention seasickness? Jim was very seasick for most of the voyage but remained amazingly functional, and Karen experienced the most severe nausea ever, of any voyage she’s ever made. However, she managed to hang onto her digestive composure throughout. The larder full of sandwiches went begging and the snack bins stayed closed. A few queasy nibbles on crackers and some sips of lemonade and water were all either of us could handle in the bashing nausea-thon. This is a photo of Karen in her foulies before it got rough.
And did we mention hallucinations? You never saw people hit the bunk faster on the off-watch than we did. Fully clothed, too. But sometimes the pure sensory overload and nausea kept sleep away, and that’s when some sort of half-awake dream state would make images float by all free-associated, with the dreamer fully aware of the open door to the unconscious. Both of us dreamed of mythical wildlife. It was actually enjoyable to dream like that. Then, when the off-watch would come up on deck for his or her turn on watch, there was a steady parade of real wildlife keeping us company nearly the whole way across. Dozens of passes by several chocolate-colored albatrosses with kind dark eyes that examined the boat, the dinghy, and us in our bright red and orange foulies. Heavy-bodied short-tailed shearwaters and tiny storm petrels swooping, occasional whales (but fewer than near the coasts) and one large shark came to visit and check us out. At one point about two-thirds into the trip, each of us looked longingly to leeward, thinking how easy it would be to turn downwind and stop the seasickness, but neither of us said anything, so we kept going. And we made it.
Cruising in Haida Gwaii (Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands): The next three weeks were the most enjoyable ever, starting in the southern part of Moresby Island, visiting the unique World Heritage Site S’Gang Gwaay with its awesome totem poles and ancient Haida village, then sailing on the west coast where we spent five days.
Several whales swam back and forth outside our cove the whole time, and the most amazing “cloud waterfall” spilled over the mountain and put on a show each afternoon.
One humpback whale playfully escorted us for several miles. While in Looscoone Inlet on the west coast, we tied to a mooring buoy that was thoughtfully connected to a water hose that came from a gushing mountain stream, and we did laundry, washed ourselves and the boat, and filtered fresh water into our drinking supply, which we had feared was getting low. We carry 45 gallons. To our surprise, we found that we had only used 15 gallons since leaving Winter Harbour, and have been using only about a gallon and a half per day for all our needs! When you can do your bathing and dishes in clean salt water with a quick freshwater rinse, it makes conserving fresh water supplies a lot easier. Joy dishwashing liquid will lather in salt water, and you can wash your hair in it quite nicely. This photo is Jim doing laundry in a bucket, with unlimited fresh water.
New friends: Although there are fewer than two dozen cruising boats registered in Haida Gwaii, we managed to meet a few, plus occasional kayakers, in various anchorages. There were Kirk and Karen from Victoria aboard Light Scout, whom we mentioned earlier. Then we met Yoshi from Japan on Foxglove, a 40’ Sparkman & Stephens sloop. Yoshi, a retired fireman, sailed from Japan in 72 days with his wife. Crossing the Pacific was her first time sailing! There were Jack and Kay from Minnesota on Eagle Spirit, with whom we explored Burnaby Narrows by dinghy and who later raided their freezer and fridge to give us steak, chicken, fresh veggies and ice! Eagle Spirit is a spacious, sturdy “Grand Alaskan” powerboat, but Jack and Kay are ex-sailors who quickly figured out we were out of fresh supplies. Then there were Glenn and Cindy on Mystery Ship, a large Nordhavn Trawler. They are headed for Mexico this fall with plans for the South Pacific. So many interesting people are out here on the ocean road!
Ports visited: For anyone following via charts, we visited Rose Harbour, Gray's Cove, Etches Cove, Looscoone Inlet, Ikeda Cove, sailed through Skincuttle Channel where we caught two small halibut, anchored in Bag Harbour, navigated the dreaded Burnaby Narrows (also called Dolomite Narrows) then visited Island Bay, a favorite, then retreated north and inland to the primeval-looking Sac Bay, far up De la Beche Inlet in Juan Perez Sound, to ride out a gale. Sac Bay looks like the kind of place where you’d half expect to see a Tyrannosaur jump out of the bushes. After a couple of days of heavy rain and wind (and unable to figure out the inscrutable directions on our cribbage board), we felt a bit of cabin fever. Not that we ran out of conversational topics, mind you… Even though Sac Bay had at least 3 large waterfalls, it had very little possibility for walking ashore, and we were unable to stretch our legs at all. This can be an issue in some of these remote places where dense forest grows right up to the tide line and no trails exist. Most of the time we’d make up the lack by rowing, but it was storming too hard here. In spite of its beauty, we were happy to sail out of Sac Bay and into better weather at a cove on Ramsey Island, across from the best hot springs anywhere.
Hot Springs…Aaaaaaaahhh. So maybe it’s a lot of work to get here, but it’s SO worth it. After being unable to stretch our legs for awhile, we walked ashore and visited all the natural rock pools, which ranged from hot tub size to 10' X 20'. Every pool had a great view of the ocean. We soaked, floated and swam in these hot springs for several hours (again, by ourselves!) and were noodles again by afternoon, as we sailed up to Murchison Island to anchor. The next morning as we sailed out we were boarded by a very polite and professional crew of RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) except that their “mount” was a boat, not a horse. They were just checking visiting boats, and we had a good conversation. The Canadian Coast Guard does not have enforcement authority, it’s the RCMP who does all that, including federal, provincial and local law. Efficient but a challenging job, we concluded.
Running on empty: With four weeks passing since the last provisioning and having run out of most fresh food, bread, cereal, ice, and pretty much anything interesting to eat, (plus Jim’s beer supply was dangerously low) we decided to head north to the Skidegate Channel area where we could re-provision and dump a month’s worth of garbage. Yes, there is nowhere to put it ashore, and you must keep it aboard. Luckily, ours all fit crammed into a cockpit locker, but barely.
Welcome, Haida style: Before we reached Skidegate (prounounced “SKID-i-git”) channel, we visited two more of the major Haida sites in Gwaii Haanas National Park, where ancient villages once stood. The Haida have a program called the “Watchmen,” who are a group of volunteers who get paid a small stipend for spending a month at a time in the rustic but beautiful and comfortable cabins provided, and who give interpretive tours of the sites, many of which were thoroughly looted in the early 1900s. These Watchmen are awesome. You could not find friendlier and more eager-to-share people anywhere. The village sites are located mostly on exposed coastal promontories, so visiting boats must choose the weather carefully and anchor or tie to the lone mooring buoy on a potential lee shore. There are Watchmen at S’Gang Gwaay, Hot Springs Island, Windy Bay, Tanu, and Skedans, plus a few others. We stopped at Windy Bay intending to stay only an hour because we had far to go and the wind was forecast to rise, but the warm hospitality of the Haida family there enticed us to stay several hours. Gladys (Jiixa), a Haida elder who is helping keep the language alive, invited us into her kitchen and showed us a spruce root hat she was weaving. She is a renowned artist and her baskets are so intricate and tightly woven that they can hold water. We enjoyed talking with her, and then her husband Al and their grandson Josh returned from a walk, and we went off to hike with Al on a trail through old-growth cedar forest that included a wade across a cold salmon stream. Al’s fascinating interpretation, plus being among trees that were nearly a thousand years old, made this walk a treat. When we returned, Gladys again invited us into her kitchen and asked, “Have you ever eaten fried bread?” She brought out a huge pan of freshly-risen bread dough and started to fry pieces of it in a 100 year-old iron pot. We were wrapped into that Haida family for a brief time and treated to a traditional food served hot with butter and Glady’s’ homemade jam. She gave us a couple pieces of fry bread “for the road,” and also the recipe. We left Windy Bay with happy hearts and called our thanks to them on the radio-in Haida, which Gladys had taught us. ('ah gan hla Kyang gaay 'laa! Look after yourself! Howa! Thank you!)
Shortly after that a pod of killer whales romped past the entrance to Windy Bay, and we sailed up to Tanu, the next ancient village site. Tanu’s young Watchmen are Sean and Helen, an archaeologist and an anthropologist, and the depth of their knowledge seemed infinite. We were so fascinated that we stayed longer there, too. I’ll try to write up more on Haida ancient village sites later, as it would be too lengthy now. We did get safely to anchor late that night, happy after a very full month’s stay in Gwaii Haanas National Park.
Back to the future: Which brings us back to Sandspit, where we are now. The tide range is 24 feet here and you have to watch the navigation. We’ll stay another day or two, then sail over to Queen Charlotte City to reprovision. We may head west out Skidegate channel to see a bit of the west coast at this latitude, a little over 53 degrees North.