S/V Tango. Log entries 2008-9
Part 5: Sandspit to Queen Charlotte City
May 20-June 2, 2009
The shingle beach near the Sandspit Coast Guard station, with the village in the distance.
Wednesday, 5/20/09. We finally got our orientation and are authorized to enter the park. We were out on the road by 07:30 with our thumbs out (Sandspit Taxi wanted $38 to take us) headed for the ferry dock. The first car stopped. Misty, a nurse working as a drug counselor, shoved stuff off the seat of her VW sedan so we could get in. She proved to be our guardian angel, running into us time and again during the day and seeming to pop up whenever we needed a ride. We sat in her car during the ferry ride to Skidegate, then she drove us to Jags’ Beanstalk, a coffee shop/garden store, on her way to work at the health center.
The Skidegate-Sandspit ferry loads and unloads on launch ramps.
As soon as the ferry leaves, it's a launch ramp again.
When she wasn’t working as a counselor, Misty and a partner harvested kelp. They had been able to obtain a permit from the Haida to collect in certain areas, “even though we’re white as can be.” They cut long, leafy fronds from bull kelp, cleaned and then dried them. They were able to sell more than they could harvest and were saving up for a bigger boat.
After coffee and pastries, we strolled through the village of Skidegate. It’s a historic Haida village site, the refuge at which the survivors of the 18th and 19th century plagues and diseases gathered when they abandoned outlying villages. The new Haida cultural center and museum is on Sea Lion Point, between the ferry dock and the town, but didn’t open until 11:00, so we set off in search of views, a store, and a cash machine.
Views we had plenty of. On the beach near the playground, where a little freshwater stream ran through the intertidal zone, a dozen eagles stood together quietly, occasionally drinking or shifting position. A bench overlooking the beach was guarded by a carved and painted eagle. The streets were quiet, lined with modest, well-kept homes with colorful metal roofs, satellite TV dishes on the south walls, and boats in the yards.
A totem pole and stone markers commemorate the deceased.
At the far end of the village, we chatted with Garner, a Haida carver who was working on a 2-meter totem pole of red cedar and a stylized eagle head of yellow cedar, about half a meter long. When we arrived, he was bargaining with a firewood seller for some yellow cedar blocks. The wood was salvaged from an old-growth blowdown and was so tight-grained that the grain was almost invisible. Garner picked out a few choice blocks before the rest of the truckload was turned into firewood.
He had been a commercial fisherman for years but always suffered from sea-sickness. He had been carving since he was young, and finally (with some pressure from his wife) decided to try to make a living ashore. He had worked in silver and in argillite, a black sedimentary stone found in the islands, but eventually focused on wood. He was hoping to sell the larger piece for $2000 when it was finished. When I asked him what the three faces on the pole represented, he replied, “All bears,” because there’s a controversy about bear hunting on the islands.
The Haida language is enjoying a renaissance.
As we walked back toward the village on the main road, Misty happened by in her VW and stopped to say hello. At the Co-op and the gas station, we got camera batteries and ATM cash, then stopped at Jags’ for more caffeine. There was Misty, buying flowers for the health center.
Bob and Misty exchange contact info.
When Jags heard that we headed to Gwaii Haanas, he got out a copy of a book written by a local woman on the native history of the area. He pointed out good places to stay and important sites to visit.
Such generosity in these islands! He offered to loan us his copy, obviously a beloved book, saying we could mail it back to him. Knowing the personal value of a book like that to its owner, I declined for fear that something would happen to it in my care.
The Haida Heritage Center at Kaay Linagaay
We finished our hike to the Haida center for our orientation and found that the deli was not yet open for the season. Bob walked back to Jags’ for a couple of sandwiches while I chatted with the beautiful young woman staffing the gift shop. Her olive skin and almond-shaped eyes made her look oriental, but she was Haida. When she was young, she spent the summers with her grandparents at their ancestral village site, now within the Gwaii Haanas, hunting, gathering, and preserving food.
During the orientation, we learned how to avoid disturbing the wildlife and the protocols for visiting cultural sites. Several of the sites have Watchmen who act as hosts and site guardians. There, boaters call ahead on channel 06 to arrange for permission to land. At other sites, it’s leave-no-trace-take-no-artifacts.
I was surprised to learn that many nesting birds in this area fly at night. We should avoid artificial light. No anchor lights, no loud noises, no lights after dark. The nights are so short here, and dusk and dawn so long, that I’m asleep well before dark and don’t usually arise until there’s light in the sky, so it will be no hardship.
We toured the museum after the orientation. Although the collection is small, it’s impressive. Some poles have been preserved from the 19 th century (well weathered), and several new poles have been erected on the grounds. Glass cases feature beautifully carved stone and wood artifacts, elaborate clothing, and functional tools and implements. Other displays discuss the history of the Haida, their population plummeting to fewer than a thousand after repeated plagues of exotic diseases in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
In the past few decades, they have become more assertive about their hereditary rights, and in the mid 1980s protested wholesale logging on Lyell Island. It was a turning point. They pressed the provincial and national governments to recognize their claims and to require consultation with the Haida on environmental and cultural concerns. The Gwaii Haanas preserve is one result. Another is this newly-constructed heritage center.
In the carving shed lay several canoes (including one traditional-looking canoe made of fiberglass!) and an unfinished pole.
A classroom with woodworking tools and piles of carving chips was lined with canoe paddles, many yet unfinished.
After touring the heritage center, I walked to the ferry landing while Bob went back to the village to try to find ice. Sitting in the lounge at the landing, reading the material we got at the orientation, I looked out the window and was only a little surprised to see Misty. And Bob. She had again come to our rescue. While he was looking for ice, he ran into her at the gas station next to the Co-op. He bought 10 bags of ice and stuffed them in his duffle bag. She drove him right to the ferry landing.
After we boarded the ferry, Bob immediately found a ride for us back to the marina. Kathy, driving the Jeep, was a kindergarten teacher who worked in Skidegate and lived across the inlet at Sandspit. Like others we’ve heard from, she and her husband (a teacher who had attended the University of Oregon), came to the Charlottes intending to stay only a short time—a two-year contract—and then move on. That was 17 years ago. They kayak, she loves winter storms, and they like the pace of island time.
We got back to Tango about 18:00, stowed the ice and fresh produce, filled the freshwater tanks, and spent our shower tokens for two and a half minutes of hot water at the wharfinger’s. I started the engine, we were ready to cast off, but we had to wait for a boat headed for the fuel dock. Once again, Misty surprised us. She showed up with a big slab of halibut. I’m glad we were delayed! I showed her through the boat, gave her the remaining cookies I baked yesterday, and once again thanked her for being so helpful and friendly. After making our goodbyes, we cast off for nearby Alliford Harbor, where we anchored for the night. Bob cooked part of the halibut as we were underway and as soon as the anchor was set we ate a wonderful dinner.
Thursday, 5/21/09. It was an uneventful day of motoring on a calm, hazy day. We left the harbor at 06:00 and made the long and circuitous passage around the shoals off Sandspit. This time, we didn’t go north all the way to Lawn Point but took a short-cut at buoy #19 recommended by Peter Greengrass, who sails a Cal 39 that has a keel five inches deeper than Tango’s.
By mid-afternoon we were at anchor in Thurston Harbor. It’s not especially scenic, but it’s a good first day’s destination. Concerned about the engine’s declining oil pressure, I changed the filter. It’s a messy job, one that I skipped the last time I changed oil. When I started the old Westerbeke to check for leaks, the pressure improved by 50%--from 25 to 37 p.s.i. The moral lesson here is don’t be a sloth—I must change the filter every time I change oil. Ugh.
Friday, 5/22/09. We made a 4-hour passage to Echo Harbor. The distance wasn’t great, but we stopped to watch humpback whales near shore. A mother and calf fed just off Heming Head. At first, I saw only the calf and mistook it for the smaller Minke whale. It spent a lot of time at the surface, and only when we were closer did I get glimpses of the mother’s gaping maw as she chased a school of fish to the surface. She rolled and waved a pectoral fin, white on the underside, and the identification was certain.
It was a rich feeding ground. At times, so many fish were splashing the surface that it looked like a wind gust raising wavelets over an area a few dozen meters in diameter. We saw a dozen or more humpbacks, some close by, some near shore, and some in the distance in Darwin Sound.
Humpback whales often splash at the surface while feeding.
Pectoral fin splashing.
And a deep dive.
Approaching Echo harbor.
The view from the inner harbor.
The fishing boat Ocean Lily pulled in and motored close. Bob hailed them and asked whether we could buy prawns. They asked if they could buy beer. Loathe to deplete our dwindling supplies, Bob asked how many were aboard. Four was the answer, and four ice-cold beers were quickly traded for a couple of pounds of prawns. We froze most of them and enjoyed them for several meals.
F/V Ocean Lily
The skipper brought the prow of the steel-hulled boat close to our stern and we reached across to trade bags. I told the young fisherman doing the hand-off that I hoped his skipper was good. He said, “He handles this boat like a lady!” Sure enough, he got close enough for the hand-off and eased away again, setting anchor nearby. Soon we heard loud laughter and loud music. They had been out of port for two weeks and weren’t sure when they were going to be able to fill their hold and head home. They went to bed well before dark, and all was quiet except for their generator, which had to run all the time to keep the prawns at -40 C.
I rowed to the little waterfall at the head of the harbor.
Saturday, 5/23/09. Our route today is a near circumnavigation of Lyell Island, one of the largest islands off Moresby Island’s east coast. It has special significance because it was the site of the Haida protest against industrial logging that was laying the island bare. In 1985, Haida elders took a stand. We were hoping to stop at Windy Bay (Hik’yah Linagaay), where they built a long house to commemorate the victory that led to the establishment of this park, but the anchor buoy was absent from the exposed anchorage that fronts the long house. My guess is that it’s too early in the season for it to be emplaced
Two decades after logging stopped on Lyell Island, it's still taking its toll as poorly-built logging roads trigger landslides.
The mariner can tell the size of the flotsam by the number of birds it can hold. Here's a 16-bird log.
We were surprised in Darwin Sound to see not one, but two vessels at once. They were only the second and third boats we’d seen since we left the Sandspit area. One was an anchored Coast Guard vessel, perhaps a buoy tender. The other was Achiever, a sailboat turned research vessel. She carried a low tower on her cabin top, preventing any use of the mainsail. Bob had inquired when we saw them in Sandspit and found that they were filming humpback feeding behavior. We later met Achiever at the float in Hoya Passage, where they were taking on water. We tied up to a nearby buoy in “Freshwater Cove” to spend the night.
Bob qualified for near-sainthood by taking on the literally shitty task of fixing the discharge pump on the aft toilet. After some diagnostics, we found that the pump would run, but it wouldn’t pump anything out of the holding tank, which was getting very full. When Bob took inlet and outlet fittings off the pump, we found black rubber objects. Puzzled by their odd appearance, I looked in the operator’s manual and found that they were duckbill valves turned inside out. They are one-way valves, one on the pump’s inlet and one on the outlet, but they can’t function inside-out and out of place. He turned them right-side out and reassembled everything. When he turned the pump on, I was leaning over the side of the boat watching for discharge. Because we were next to the freshwater float, I didn’t want to dump sewage into the water any more than necessary, and I asked him to turn it as soon as it looked as if it was discharging.
Sunday, 5/24/09. We had a short way to go, only 6 nautical miles, to Kostan Inlet, but we couldn’t leave early. The inlet has a narrows that’s best transited just before high slack tide, today at 14:45. When we woke, it was grey and rainy, with low clouds, mist, and haze obscuring everything but close views. We moved to the float, filled our water tanks, and washed the decks. I pulled Clara T onto the float for a good bath. The water runs continuously through a 1.5-inch hose. It felt good to use as much as we wanted.
We idled out into Darwin Sound to watch whales but the visibility was so poor that we ended up following the shore into and out of Bigsby Inlet to avoid being at Kostan narrows too early. For twenty minutes before we got to the narrows we ran the engine up to 1800 rpm to heat the coolant to 150 F. It had been at 115 F for a couple of hours and I wanted to dry the condensation that no doubt collected in the crankcase while it was running so cool. There was an additional benefit in heating domestic water through a heat exchanger. It’ll be nice to have warm water after we anchor. I also turned on the furnace so the cabin would be toasty after our long exposure to rain and cold.
Unfortunately, when I tried to pump out the aft holding tank in Darwin Sound, it again failed to discharge. The holding tank was completely full. Frustrated, I decided to wait until we got into Kostan Inlet to do any work on it—I have to take everything off my bunk, including many pillows, blankets, camera boxes, sleeping bags, and assorted paraphernalia before we can get to the holding tank and pump.
We made the transit through the narrows at 14:00 and soon were anchored at the head of the inlet. It’s very steep country with no signs of human activity. We could hear waterfalls on both sides. Low clouds wreathed the trees in gossamer. Rain pelted down. I finished kneading the day’s bread (crusty rustic white) and found a number of other things to do before tackling the aft head. Finally, I could delay no more and set about moving all that stuff into the main cabin.
Fog lets the viewer see individual trees.
Bob, hero that he is, stepped in when it was time to do the stinky, messy part. He disassembled the pump’s duckbill valves and found them in the right place and in working order. To test the pump, he took both inlet and outlet hoses off then installed a piece of spare hose on the inlet side. While he held it in a bucket of water, I turned on the switch. It coughed and spit and finally started pumping. I guess it just needed to be primed. Then he put the overboard discharge hose back on the pump outlet and repeated the test. Again, it quickly pumped the bucket dry.
He thought he had figured out the wye-valve, which allows the sewage to discharge either through the macerator pump or a deck pump-out fitting. I told him I found it very confusing. He said just point the arrow on the handle toward the hose that you want to use. I said, sure, you think, but I think it’s confusing.
To test the valve, he took the suction hose off the holding tank to see whether the pump could suck up a bucket of water. He pointed the wye-valve handle the way he thought was right. I turned on the pump. It ran but didn’t pump. I turned the wye-valve the other, seemingly incorrect direction, and it started sucking. “I told you it was confusing!” I said. He re-connected the suction hose to the holding tank and, without moving the wye valve, turned on the pump. Finally, sewage was flowing out the through-hull and discoloring the water.
Even though the holding tank was critically full, I dumped only the minimum to get by that night. I didn’t want to harm the creatures sharing our inlet. The water was full of little transparent jellyfish, perhaps an three centimeters in diameter. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, swept past in the ebb current. Each liter of water seemed to contain several. As far as we could see into the water around us, their numbers were undiminished.
Bob brought a few up in a bucket. We could see the white, cross-shaped gonads, a little wad of tentacles and digestive apparatus in the center, and the edge of the bell—otherwise everything was transparent. My guess is that we came across a breeding site. I’ve seen other tightly enclosed inlets, boat basins, and harbors with immense populations of jellyfish, almost always of only one species, different species in different inlets. They must know how to get here to find each other—this inlet could not possibly support this many individuals for any length of time.
Monday, 5/25/09. At low tide, we rowed to the narrows at the mouth of Kostan Inlet. There were many starfish, including bat stars, sun stars, and other species; anemones, both large and small; shark egg case fragments; small spider-like crabs covered with bushy algae; dense kelp forests; barnacle-covered rocks; snails, and a host of other species. In the gravelly intertidal, clams shot a squirt of water a meter into the air. I stepped near a kelp holdfast that suddenly withdrew into the ground. I tugged at it and it pulled even harder against me. I looked around and realized that the siphons of the clams that were squirting were often covered by attached kelp. When the clam withdrew its siphon it pulled the kelp down with it.
Bat stars come in many colors.
As we rowed back to Tango, we noticed that the little jellyfish were concentrated in a dense school, with as many as half a dozen in a liter. Further away, we saw only scattered individuals. There’s no doubt in my mind that they are purposefully aggregating.
While we were rowing, we both noticed a slight odor of hydrogen sulfide. There might be underwater hot springs here. Near Tango, I had noticed gas bubbles rising from the bottom. At first, I thought it might be a bottom-feeding fish disturbing the sediment and releasing methane. But the bubbles kept coming from the same spots and with considerable regularity. I watched two patches near the boat. One featured a cloud of small bubbles that rose in a cluster. The other emitted a single, larger bubble, perhaps 1.5 or 2 cm in diameter. Both burped about twice a minute, but out of phase with each other.
While we were waiting for high tide so we could motor out through the narrows, we measured and marked the anchor chain using nylon wire ties of four different colors. No more guessing how much chain is out!
When we had entered the inlet, I followed the instructions in Douglass’ guide closely and went within 20 feet of “Bread Loaf Rock.” It was scary close and required a lot of faith in the authors. When we scouted the narrows at low tide, we saw the poorly charted rocks that we might have hit if we had not stayed so close. I saw that the side of Bread Loaf Rock looked as if it would fit the curve of Tango’s bilge, so I knew that even if I went closer she wouldn’t ground. On the way out, we went close with more confidence.
"Bread Loaf Rock"
In mid-afternoon, between Darwin Point and Richardson Point, we were surrounded by 30 or 40 Pacific white-sided dolphins. They ignored us and appeared to be feeding. We shut off the engine as they surfaced and splashed again and again. Half a dozen humpback whales were within earshot. Every so often, one would let out with a great bellowing noise as he exhaled. They splashed the surface with their tails as they fed. Their great lips would suddenly emerge from the water as they chased their prey to the surface.
Tuesday, 5/26/09. We spent the night at Ramsay Passage Cove, hoping for settled weather so we could visit Hotspring Island. The wind this morning was about 15 knots from the west, far too much to row Clara T the two kilometers across the passage to the island, so we motored over, not expecting to land. We ventured into the little passage just east of Hotspring Island and found that it was protected from the swell. We dropped the anchor and 150 feet of chain but didn’t try to set the hook. From what I read in the guide books, it would just be an exercise in frustration, the holding is so poor. I figured that the weight of the chain and the anchor snagging in the kelp would do for a while. Just to be safe, we took turns staying aboard while the other went ashore to soak.
I stopped at the Watchman’s cabin to have my passbook stamped. It was cozy and warm, with a well-equipped kitchen, wood stove, simple furniture, solar panels, and a wind generator. Built in the traditional longhouse style, albeit a miniature version, it featured posts and beams with the traditional mortise-and-tenon corner posts and face beams.
There were showers and changing rooms made of weathered grey planks and boards.
After showering, I stopped at the first pool, where the temperature was just right.
After the soak, several miles of motoring, and many more humpback whale sightings, we anchored in Bag Harbor. It’s just south of Dolomite Narrows, which is reputed to have the greatest density of biomass anywhere.
Wednesday, 5/27/09. At low tide, we rowed into Dolomite Narrows. We couldn’t get through—it was completely dry for a hundred meters or so. Carefully, trying to avoid squashing the life under our feet, we beached Clara T and gingerly stepped up to the high intertidal, where we could walk on rocks and forest floor instead of barnacles and clams.
Acres of shoals were exposed. Brown algae covered other great swaths. Some areas looked from a distance like gravel beach but proved to be barnacle-encrusted cobbles. Clams shot squirts of water into the air. Mussels packed tightly on the rocks above the reach of starfish. Four times every day, the tidal current sweeps through, providing a conveyor belt of food for the filter-feeders that support the rest of the food web.
Mussels and algae cover the high intertidal area. Privately-installed range markers help guide the mariner through the narrows.
Acres of clams.
A predatory moon snail
The shallows are crawling with life.
Bob finally found a tide pool.
In mid-afternoon, we continued our voyage south, bypassed the little community of Rose Harbor (an old whaling port), and anchored near Denny Rocks in Rose Inlet. The one who named the features in this area must have had a lot of family members he wanted to honor. Anthony Island, Adam Rocks, Rose Inlet, Cape Fanny, Gordon Islands, Arnold Point, Houston Stewart Channel, and Catherine Point lie within a few miles.
Thursday, 5/28/09. All last night, Tango was rolled by a low swell that crept into our anchorage. In the aft cabin, I sleep right under the mainsheet rigging, and all night the boom swung a few centimeters to port, a few to starboard. With each swing, the rigging groaned. Eventually, it ceased being annoying and became part of the background music, along with the splash of the wavelets, the squeak of the fenders rubbing between Clara T and Tango, the throaty whisper of the wind in the shrouds and stays, the rattle of the anchor chain dragging across the bottom, and a dozen other lullabies that put a sailor to sleep. Those same sounds can immediately wake him if they don’t sound right. A change in tempo, a new noise, a sound gone missing….suddenly he’s wide awake and alert. Bob has had many midnight alarms as he has gradually become used to the noises.
It rained so much during the night that we had to bail Clara T before getting underway—she doesn’t need water ballast. We were dubious about whether we’d be able to visit SGang Gwaay. It’s at the far southwest edge of the Charlottes, with nothing but the wide Pacific beyond, so it’s subject to everything that the ocean can throw at it. There are only two places to anchor, and neither was recommended by knowledgeable sailors. A southeast gale was predicted in the afternoon. When we approached the preferred landing, it was exposed to the southeast. After looking closely, we decided no way, we’ll do an island circumnavigation instead.
When we got to the north cove, which is disdained for poor holding, we found it protected from the swell and the light breeze. We laid out a bunch of anchor chain and didn’t bother trying to test the set. I figured that 300 feet of chain lying across the kelp on the bottom would probably hold us in place unless the wind rose a bunch.
Just about low tide, I radioed the Watchmen and got permission to land. As I was rowing in, peering over my shoulder trying to figure out how to get past the dry shoal ahead of me, I heard a voice say, “You’ll never get into the lagoon.” I looked over my other shoulder to see Chuck, one of the Watchmen, standing on the rocky, kelp-covered shore. He beckoned me over and helped lift Clara T through the slippery kelp until she was several feet above the water.
Chuck said that he wouldn’t be my guide, but came to show me where to land and how to find the trail to the Watchman’s cabin. Just back from the shore, he pointed out a dark cave at the foot of a thirty-foot cliff of black rock, saying that it had been used for many purposes, including habitation, ceremonies, and burials, and was still intact. Soon he left, saying he’d see me at the cabin.
I took my time, admiring the roots of a big old spruce that snaked their way down a ten-meter rock wall to the soil below the cave entrance. Dense moss, decomposing wood, and mats of roots provided a soft and springy path to the beach.
Skunk cabbage in bloom.
I followed the high tide line until I found the boardwalk that led to the cabin. There, I met Jordan, my guide, his mother Shirley, and co-worker Randy. The cabin was compact but well equipped. The kitchen side of the room had a propane refrigerator and kitchen range. On the other side, a small wood stove kept the room very warm, A couch, a couple of easy chairs, and a kitchen table completed the furnishings. The view to the east, into Houston Stewart Channel, was breathtaking.
A two-story composting toilet at the Watchman's cabin
Shirley stamped my Gwaii Haanas Visitor Guide with the official Watchman’s stamp and used a press to emboss it, just as if it were a passport. I feel privileged to have the honor of visiting this world heritage site!
Jordan let me take my time and shoot as many photos as I wanted. The drizzle continued, but the breeze remained light, allaying my fears about our anchorage. I had faith that Bob could handle almost anything that might come up, but I didn’t want anything to come up.
This bear has seal faces carved into its paws.
Several totem poles remain standing. Many are mortuary poles, which were carved to hold the body of a chief. They were relatively short, perhaps 12 or 15 feet high, and planted “upside down”—that is, the butt end of the tree was at the top of the pole. A cavity was excavated at the top of the pole to hold the bentwood casket of the deceased, then covered with split boards weighted down with rocks. Often a single motif, perhaps a stylized bear or killer whale, would decorate the pole.
Fewer tall poles remain, probably because they fall sooner than shorter poles. Some tall poles were erected to commemorate someone lost at sea. They were often plain, with only a single carved figure at the base, and erected where they could be seen from the ocean like a mariner’s lighthouse. Other tall poles were house poles, carved with multiple figures that tell the story of the clan and the chief who built the house and commissioned the pole.
A face rafter has fallen almost to the ground. Close in the photo is one of the corner posts, planed remarkably square, smooth, and straight. Jordan said of this post, "He's stout. He'll last a long time."
The tradition of mortise-and-tenon face beams and corner posts is still followed today, even in the small Watchmen's cabins.
The remains of a six-beam longhouse.
Jordan pointed out that there were two styles of houses. The older style had two roof beams; the newer had six. Both featured mortise-and-tenon rafters and corner posts and were roofed with split red cedar boards. The interior of a chief's house might be excavated, sometimes with stepped sides to provide sleeping platforms. A house had a central fire and a smoke hole in the middle of the roof.
The Hiada moved rocks from the deepest part of the lagoon so they could slide their canoes ashore during low water. The houses were set close together in a crescent around the lagoon. Thirty or forty people would live in a long house, with the peak population of the village about 300. During the summer, they would disperse to their holdings along southern Moresby Island and the nearby archipelago to hunt, gather, and preserve food. They were said to be some of the fiercest of the Haida, a fierce and feared people.
Jordan said he had been working at this site since the early 1980s. At first, most of his work was clearing the trees and brush that had overgrown the village site. He now tends the poles, using an orchard ladder so he doesn’t have to lean anything against the delicate wood, picking away the tree and shrub seedlings that germinate on the poles and house posts. He leaves the moss, however, because it’s picturesque.
He said that about 70 visitors had arrived so far this season. In July, about a thousand would visit. I feel fortunate to be here early and to be the only visitor on the site.
After my tour, I rowed back to Tango to mind the ship while Bob took his turn ashore. Sometimes a gust would rattle the cove, but the promised gale didn’t materialize. We extricated our anchor from the kelp and headed for a little cove in Louscoone Inlet, where we found a buoy to tie to. The rain continued unabated all day long.
Friday, 5/29/09. We set off at 08:00 to explore Flamingo Inlet on the west shore of Moresby Island. It’s poorly charted and rarely visited. I’d been told that it’s a great place for beachcombing because so much drift collects at the head of the inlet. I expected to see lots of plastic litter, but the possibility of finding a worthy souvenir motivated me to explore despite the plastic.
The paper chart was just a sketch, with a line of soundings down the inlet, scattered soundings nearer the shore, and drying rocks identified. We found a good route through the rocks and anchored at the head of the inlet.
Flamingo Inlet chart was drawn to an unknown datum. Our track was really about 150 meters east of what's shown here.
Sure enough, the shore was littered with plastic. Broken 5-gallon buckets, lengths of rope, bait cans, plastic sheeting, water bottles, detergent containers, fish nets, and a host of other human creations were washed up. There were a few shoes, a couple of hard hats, many logs and pieces of wood, and some plastic fishing floats with oriental script identifying them. Alas, no glass floats. We left empty-handed, but we had a great walk.
If plastic were worth money, this beach would be a gold mine.
Tango anchored at the head of Flamingo Inlet.
Streams flow from several directions into the head of the inlet.
The forest was incredibly dense and deep. Downed wood made overland travel impossible—logs lay like jackstraws, covered with moss, shrubbery, and younger growth. The biggest red alder I’ve ever seen was leaning out over the beach, the butt swelling at its trunk a full two meters in diameter. Water brown with tannic acid flowed down streams into the inlet.
As we motored back toward Louscoone Inlet, we were tossed around by a beam sea. I had to turn away from shore for a couple of miles to keep the swells on our forward quarter, then made a quick 90-degree turn to run past SGang Gwaay Island with them on our stern quarter. It’s the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and sometimes the sea gives us a reminder of its ability to toy with us.
Offshore islands often have extensive seabird rookeries.
Saturday, 5/30/09. We decided that it’s time to make tracks, so we set off for a 65-nautical-mile day. Despite my best efforts to predict a favorable tide, we had to buck a contrary current through Houston Stewart Channel—then another adverse current in Hecate Strait. As we were motoring, a head wind rose, cutting our speed even further, so we diverted from our planned route and took Darwin Sound, a protected passage, to our destination, Thurston Harbor.
The detour added ten miles to the journey but was well worth it because we were able to go faster and be much more comfortable than if we had been out battling the swells. It also had the benefit that it put us on a reach for several miles and we were able to motorsail with the genoa unfurled. The day was beautiful, with bright sun and many whale sightings. We opened the hatches and overturned the mattresses to ventilate. When we set the anchor, Bob served a beautiful dinner of a stuffed pork loin, steamed veggies, and salad. It went well with the banana bread and whole wheat bread that I baked earlier in the day.
Tango at Thurston Harbor, near the end of her Gwaii Haanas tour.
Sunday, 5/31/09. We wanted to make the 54-mile run to Sandspit today. The currents in Hecate Strait and over the shoals north of Sandspit would be favorable on a rising tide and contrary on the ebb. Low tides were predicted for 02:09 and 14:28. I figured that if we could get up early enough, we could ride the morning tide north and get a good boost before high tide at 08:05 turned it around. We might even get into port before noon. But there was a catch—a northerly gale was predicted.
We set out in the dark, having weighed anchor at 02:11. Slowly, radar, chartplotter, GPS, and depth sounders showing the way, we worked our way out of Thurston Harbor. Two hours later, when we turned north around the last little offshore islet, the wind hit us right in the face. Tango’s speed dropped from 6 knots to 5 to 4 and then down to 3 as the swells tossed the bow up and down. I realized that we weren’t going to be able to make it as planned, so we changed course for Cumshewa Inlet.
After a couple of hours of roller dodging and upwind slogging, we pulled into behind Haas Islet, somewhat shielded from the west wind (as soon as we turned west into the inlet, the wind changed 90 degrees so it was still on the nose). It’s a scenic, if rather unprotected, spot. The guide books say that there’s an abandoned Haida village here. We saw a black bear working the intertidal zone. Two bald eagles stood on a nest in a tree on the islet.
We waited for the turn of the tide in mid-afternoon. The breeze at our anchorage had diminished but was still gusty. I said we could motor out to Cumshewa Point and see what the conditions were like. If they were still contrary, we’d head back into the inlet and anchor near its head, 12 miles away.
The swells were still rolling, but the wind had died down a bit and we decided to press on. A few miles of upwind slogging later, the wind rose again. The alarm bell rang for a second. I looked at the engine gauges and saw that the oil pressure had dropped almost to zero, then recovered, when Tango rolled over a wave. It appears that the oil pick-up inlet is set too high—it sucked air when the oil sloshed to one side of the oil pan. We put the sails up and shut the engine off, even though it meant sailing a course perpendicular to our destination. We had to make way offshore before we could tack and cross the shoals north of Sandspit. I decided to be cautious and raise the mainsail only to the second reef.
With the genoa and boom sheeted in, Tango started dancing close-hauled through the waves. No longer were they annoying impediments to progress—now they were a slalom run in a soft mogul field. I kept a close hand on the wheel but soon realized that she sailed better if I kept my hands off. The rudder would turn a few degrees to one side or the other as she rode over a wave, but she always stayed in the groove, with the wind at just the right angle to the bow. For hours we sailed in 15- to 20-knot northerly winds without a hand on the wheel.
Finally, late in the day, we had made enough northing that we could tack once and make it to the pass through the shoals. After the tack, Tango again steered herself for hours, making 4 to 6 knots until the breeze died. It was time to take the sails down anyway, because it was after 22:00, the sun was setting, and twilight probably wouldn’t last more than another hour. We still had three hours of motoring into Skidegate Inlet to get to our anchorage.
A long passage, Thurston Harbor to Queen Charlotte City.
After navigating by instruments and the light of a gibbous moon in a gloriously starry sky, at 01:00 we arrived at Queen Charlotte City and dropped anchor in Bearskin Bay, just off the town front. Exhausted, we drank fine scotch whiskey to toast the longest day’s passage yet. Our 54-mile day had become a 72-mile, 23-hour day.
Monday, 6/1/09. We rowed Clara T ashore and beached her on a very hospitable gravel beach right in front of the shopping center housing the grocery store, laundry, liquor store, and post office. We each had two bags stuffed with laundry and our sleeping bags to wash, but only half the machines were operational. We resigned ourselves to a long laundry duty in a dingy, ill-equipped room, and that’s exactly what we got. We took turns monitoring the laundry. I walked to the west edge of town and bought oil and a big pair of pliers from the auto parts store. Bob went to the bank and on other missions. Eventually, the laundry was finished and we toted all the bags back to the beach.
The seaplane dock and western edge of Queen Charlotte City.
We found that the tide had gone out. Way out. Clara T was just as we had left her, but the ocean had withdrawn 50 meters. Our inviting gravel beach was high and dry. We had to slog through the clam flats, in ankle-deep water and mud, to drag her out to deep enough water, then trudge back to the shore to get our duffle bags. We felt like real sailors by the time we rowed back to Tango.
Later, after the afternoon breeze died down, Bob rowed to the public dock and talked with a couple of fishermen on an old wooden troller. They said they were going to vacate the spot on the dock, and if we got there first, we could have it. It had bright yellow bull rails, meaning “loading zone only,” but they told Bob just to tell the wharfinger in the morning that we were loading. It turns out that the loading zones are not really honored here—there are several old boats that don’t look as if they can move tied up to yellow-railed docks.
The Charlotte harbor is crowded.
Tuesday, 6/2/09. Tuesday, 6/2/09. We stayed tied to the loading zone dock until a fisherman politely ousted us, explaining that although rafting was a custom at this port, we probably wouldn’t want him rafting outside us. We made our way to the breakwater with a passenger Bob had invited aboard, Arianne Clement, an outgoing and adventurous young woman from Quebec. She said she was doing field research for her photojournalism major. Bob guessed that she was getting as far away from an old boyfriend as possible, which she confirmed. Her personality, red dress, and French accent led to further adventures. After she left us she twice passed aboard other boats.
Queen Charlotte City's commercial center--the grocery store, post office, laundry, and cosmetics store.
While Bob got groceries, I went to the bookstore, found the proprietess absent, a note on the door “Back in a few minutes.” So I walked around the eastern part of Charlotte City, finding the organic food store, the tourism center, and a few other landmarks, before returning to her store just as she did. I bought three books on Queen Charlotte history and headed back to the dock.
As we were preparing to leave, another sailboat tied up to the breakwater. I had first noticed the vessel at Rose Harbor, at the southern end of Gwaii Haanas, then again as they sailed a course parallel to ours in Darwin Sound. It turned out to be a very skookum home-built steel boat, 36 feet in length, made by the skipper, Richard Till. He was sailing with his son and his friend.
I was very impressed with the quality of the work and the thoughtfulness that went into the design and construction. Richard had trained in metalwork when he was young, and although he now works as an employment counselor, he teaches metalworking at the high school and has free access to all the equipment. He made everything from the hull to the anchor winch to the self-steering wind vane, installed a used VW Rabbit diesel (“common and cheap”) and incorporated many clever and practical features.
After exchanging boat tours and sharing beers with the three of them, we cast off for Sandspit, where we’ll dock for the night and refuel in the morning. Then we’ll cross Hecate Strait and resume the Outside Passage.
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