S/V Tango. Log entries 2008-9

Part 3: Friday Harbor to Port McNeill
April 30 - May 8, 2009

Sunrise in the San Juan islands

Thursday, 4/30/09. We left the harbor at 05:50, pitying the poor working blokes who were still in their warm beds. The morning was overcast and calm. We motored past Spieden Island and could see a small herd of animals on the grassy hillside. They are probably the descendants of African ungulates introduced to the island long ago.

As we motored, we noticed the oil pressure dropping. It fell from 45 to 35 PSI at 1800 RPM. We stopped in open water, shut down the engine, and added a quart of oil. The pressure went back up to 45 for a few minutes then dropped to the mid-30s. We kept a close watch on it as we continued.

At 08:00, we crossed the international border and in an hour landed at the Customs dock at Sidney, BC. I cleared customs over the phone at the dock and we headed north toward Horton Bay on Mayne Island. Before noon, we anchored at Portland Island to wait three hours for the turn of the tide. We were facing a tight passage into Horton Bay, one that is fraught with currents as the tide rises and falls. I wanted to time it so that we would arrive at the turn of the tide so the currents would be minimal. It was good that we did, because the entrance into the bay was hair-raising.

The chart showed a 2-meter minimum depth in the center of the channel, literally between a rock and a hard place (a reef). Although it was low tide, there should have been more than enough water beneath our keel. As we ran through what I thought was the center of the channel, we saw the depth meter read 5.8 feet. Our keel depth is 6.3 feet. We felt and heard no contact as we swept through at three knots and quickly came into deeper water. “Yikes!” I said, and more profane expletives crossed my mind. Fortunately, there’s another way out and we’ll be leaving on a higher tide.

After we anchored, a man in a tiny blue inflatable dinghy motored over and started talking with Bob. He, too, was a sailor and was eager to talk about boats. He lived near the bay and made his living building and remodeling houses. His 33-foot sailboat had a dead engine. When he wanted to sail, he used the dinghy as a tug to push the sailboat out into the Strait of Georgia so he could set sail. He said that he had had to sail into the bay through the passage we had just entered—and had to tack upwind to do it. Oh, my! I hope it was at high tide.

Hans, as he introduced himself, said that the locals exit through the north entrance and cross the Belle Islands chain through a narrow slot between submerged rocks. After the entry we had experienced, I decided it would be better to follow a deeper channel 180 degrees from our intended course to clear the chain of islands, rocks, and reefs.

Horton Bay

I changed the oil in the engine, removing 5.5 quarts of black, smelly stuff. I studied the manual and found that the stated capacity was 4.5 quarts, with a warning not to over-fill. So I put 4.5 quarts in and found that the dip stick was wrong. I set it for the correct depth. I adjusted the valves and found that most were OK but the valves on #4 cylinder had excessive lash. Of all the systems on Tango, the engine is the one that concerns us the most.

Friday, 5/1/09. May Day! Not a call of distress, but tribute to the workers of the world. It was especially meaningful to Bob, an old Wobblie. We were underway before 08:00, took a roundabout through the Belle Islands, and headed north in the Strait of Georgia. One leg of the route took us 25 miles on the same heading. The engine sounded quieter and smoother, but the oil pressure was still lower than I’d like.

At 15:38, after motoring all day, we landed at the fuel dock in Nanaimo and filled up. Tango is using about a gallon an hour at 6 knots. We tied up to a nearby public dock, surrounded by small tugboats, fishing boats, and tiny, old pleasure craft, intending to spend a few hours ashore. But one thing led to another and early in the evening I decided it would be better to stay at the dock than make our way across the bay to the public dock on Newcastle Island, so I paid the wharfinger for the slip.

Nanaimo harbor

The skyline of Nanaimo sports skyscrapers.

An old fishing boat at Nanaimo

Tiny tugs at Nanaimo

A gleaming yacht provides a contrast with the working vessels.

The Nanaimo fuel dock

Saturday, 5/2/09. The forecast was for southerly winds in the Strait of Georgia, but there was just a hint of a breeze as we pulled away from the dock at 08:12. By 10:00 we were under sail at 6.5 knots on a beam reach with a 10- to 15-knot wind. Raising the sails wasn’t easy, though, because I had forgotten a lesson that I had learned once before. I let the mainsail halyard go too slack. The wind wrapped it around the tip of the upper spreader. When I got the sail halfway up and it would go no farther, I saw the problem I had to lower the sail and flail about with the boat hook fully extended to try to free the halyard from the spreader. I directed Bob to turn the boat this way and that, trying to get the wind to help me. Finally it was free, I pulled it in tight and was able to raise the sail.

Sailing downwind in Johnstone Strait

After a couple of hours of delightful sailing, I showed Bob how to heave-to. It was the first time I had tried it aboard Tango, and it worked perfectly. We tacked without taking the headsail across, leaving it sheeted tightly on the upwind side of the boat. I let the mainsail out and locked the rudder so it would try to turn us upwind. The headsail tried to turn us downwind, and between the two Tango just jogged along, crabwise to the wind at 2 knots, without needing attention.

Bob Durnell enjoying a downwind run in a 25-knot breeze

In Malaspina Strait, the clew car on the mainsail broke the end of its track on the boom free and pulled loose during a jibe. A rivet failed, We could have gone to the first reef, which would have relieved the stress on the now-flying outhaul and brought the foot of the sail back to the boom, but we dropped the sails and began motoring. The wind was subsiding and we would soon have furled them anyway. It’ll be yet another on-the-water boat repair experience to deal with the damage.

At 16:00, we set anchor in Sturt Bay on Texada Island. In the northern part of the Strait of Georgia, there aren’t many good harbors. This was said to be the best in the neighborhood. The southern end of the bay was full of boats on buoys, the docks of the boat club, and the industrial operation that loads crushed limestone onto barges. The marble deposits of the island have been mined and turned into quicklime for quite a while, judging from the old stone kiln that sits on the nearby shore.

We set anchor in the north cove of the bay, far from the docks and houses along the shore. Although we had a clear line of sight out into the strait, the waves were damped by the reefs around the entrance and didn’t affect us much. It was a stressful anchorage until we had stood anchor watch for a couple of hours, through the low tide, because we were on a lee shore with rocks and reefs close by. We had laid out plenty of rode and had a very good anchor set, but we still watched closely as the wind gusted up to 30 knots and Tango turned back and forth on her chain. Our track on the GPS stitched a tight pattern and we never got close to the rock.

Finally, as the tide rose, the depth increased, and the wind dropped, we were able to get to sleep. Bob, in the vee-berth in the bow, was awakened by the grating and groaning of the anchor chain dragging across the bottom. It sounded to him as if the chain were paying out, so he opened the anchor chain locker and peered in to reassure himself that it was still locked at the windlass.

Sunday, 5/3/09 We got started early to make one of the most challenging passes of the Inside Passage—Seymour Narrows, north of the town of Campbell River. Last night, I slaved over the navigation, setting waypoints and times of arrival so that we would reach the Narrows exactly at slack current. Many vessels have been damaged or destroyed by being there at the wrong time. The reversing tidal current can exceed 15 knots, with swirls and eddies that can twist the most powerful ship in circles.

The slack at Seymour Narrows was predicted at 13:37. It was 40 nautical miles from our anchorage. We would be facing adverse and helpful currents at different times. I plotted backward from the Narrows, calculating how long each leg should take, figuring what our speed over ground would be if we held a steady 6 knots through the water. We would be facing adverse currents through Discovery Passage, so I figured on a 4 knot average. Elsewhere, we could catch a ride on currents headed our way.

We weighed anchor 20 minutes ahead of schedule so we’d have a cushion. It wouldn’t have been a good idea to leave much earlier because we’d be facing strong adverse currents most of the way. After 20 miles, we were still 20 minutes ahead as we reached a waypoint.

Cape Mudge light house

We crawled up the current past Cape Mudge, notorious ship-wrecker in southeast gales, and hugged the eastern shore of Discovery Passage to ride a back-eddy almost all the way to Campbell River. While the water in the center of the channel was flowing south at three or four knots, we got a one- to two-knot boost going north.

Cape Mudge

We had thought of stopping in Campbell River, but the opportunity to clear Seymour Narrows was too good to pass up. We could have called a mechanic to investigate the surging in the engine or an electronics tech to troubleshoot the interference between the navigation electronics and the VHF radio, but we were on a roll and didn’t want to stop or spend money. So we kept going amid a growing flotilla of small, slow vessels.

Fishing boats were ahead and behind, a couple of motor yachts joined in, and by the time we reached the Narrows there were eight boats in line. We reached Ripple Rock, the choke point in the Narrows, at 13:33—exactly 4 minutes before predicted slack. Bob, gripping the wheel with a bit of apprehension, drove a flawless course. The navigator indulged in a bit of silent self-congratulation.

We headed for Kanish Bay, eight miles from Ripple Rock. We motored into the heart of the bay, past an oyster farm into a snug little harbor, Granite Bay, where we anchored for the night. During the day’s passage, the engine would surge faster and then slow down. It would run OK at 1800 RPM but seemed to suffer occasional fuel starvation at 2000. A few times when I drew the throttle back it would stall. It was annoying and unnerving, so I adjusted the idle speed and the anti-stall valve on the fuel injector pump. It still didn’t seem right, but the engine is so old and cranky that I have to be content with less than perfect performance.

Old docks and old boats in Granite Bay

Monday, 5/4/09. It has not been the best day of the voyage! Our plan was to make as much way west in Johnstone Strait as we could between dawn and the turn of the current at 08:00.

We were concerned about the prediction of an unseasonable storm, a 975-mb low that was forecast to strafe Vancouver Island during the following 24 hours with hurricane-force southerly winds. The wind would be in our favor, but the reputation of Johnstone Strait inspires caution. We definitely did not want to be on the Strait when the wind was against the current—it generates dangerous, steep waves and devilish currents. Over much of the 54-mile long strait, there are few refuges. We would have to get to a harbor before the wind built and the tide turned.

I set my alarm clock for 04:00, and we were under way before 05:00. Bob was on the bow with a two-way radio directing me out of the narrow harbor. As we passed the first of the Chained Islands guarding the mouth of Kanish Bay, the engine suddenly quit and would not re-start.

Kanish Bay, the site of fuel system failure

In a light breeze, we raised the sails and tacked back into the bay to find anchorage on the sheltered side of the Chained Islands. Most of the basin was more than 65 feet deep, a bit beyond our depth for comfortable anchoring with the 300-foot rode we have. But there was a rock in the center, chart depth 30 feet, so I sailed over it, did a figure-8 to kill boat speed and find the right spot, and we dropped the anchor on the upwind shoulder of the rock. We let out all the rode. The breeze backed us down and but we had no way of testing the set. I was reassured, though, that if the anchor were to drag, it would have to climb over the rock to do so.

During the day, as a light breeze tickled the water and it rained buckets, I dove into the engine compartment. Tango has a Byzantine fuel plumbing system, with three tanks, two primary filters, one secondary filter, three fuel pumps, a governor, four fuel injectors, a dozen valves, and many feet of piping, plumbing, and hoses. When it engine quit, it seemed like fuel starvation, judging from my experiences running out of fuel when we first bought Tango. I experimented with the priming pump and the supply and return lines to the various tanks. The flow through the plumbing from the main tank didn’t seem right, so I switched to a different tank. I replaced the secondary fuel filter and bled the lines, inadvertently splashing diesel fuel on the cabin sole but missing my shoes.

Soon everything seemed to be hunky-dory. It had fuel to each injector, the intake and exhaust valves were working (the timing chain hadn’t broken, thank Poseidon), the glow plugs were getting electricity when needed, the throttle and shut-off valve were working. The starter cranked and cranked but the engine wouldn’t even pop. Not one hint of starting. And no wind. We could have made great progress today. I was bummed, but sailing teaches patience. We were grateful that the engine didn’t wait until we were out of the bay to quit.

Tuesday, 5/5/09. The wind finally arrived early this morning. I heard the anchor chain scraping along the rock and the rigging slapping in the breeze. The gusts exceeded 40 knots, according to our mast-head wind instrument, as Tango turned one cheek and then the other to the wind. I started the shipboard computer, called up the navigation program, then magnified the chart of our little anchorage until it filled the screen. Our track was clear—we could see the figure-eight that we did before anchoring, then a tight mass of squiggly lines that showed Tango sitting right over the rock and swinging in less than a hundred-foot arc. No sign of a dragging anchor! This time, Bob slept well, reassured instead of disturbed by the sound of the anchor chain dragging, because he knew if he could still hear it we were still over the rock and had not dragged over the muddy bottom that surrounds the rock.

We tried starting the engine again. The result was the same—crank and crank, but no fire. I gave up and called the Coast Guard. The radio tech was very helpful, patching me through to my insurance company, which covers towing as well as damage. After some time, the Coast Guard called again with the return call from the insurance agent, who had had to do some legwork to find a nearby towing service. I agreed to the terms and asked to be towed back to Campbell River. Half an hour later, a small fishing boat motored out to us.

The skipper, Jay, lived at Granite Bay and had overheard our conversation with the Coast Guard. He offered to help, and I quickly accepted his invitation. He put his boat downwind of us and backed up until we could tie a line between our sterns. As he came aboard, he explained that the wind would keep his boat away. We opened the engine room and I explained the work and diagnostics I’d done. Jay said that I had done everything that he would have done. After a few minutes, he asked if we had any starting fluid (ether).

Jay, the good Samaritan

I slapped myself upside the head--I had forgotten about that option, even though I use it on my lawn mower every spring. The previous owner had left a can aboard, so I handed it to him. He sprayed it on the air cleaner, cranked the starter, and the engine began to run. Just then the Coast Guard called again with the information on the towing company that would be doing the rescue. With joy in my voice, I said that a good Samaritan had intervened and it looked as if the engine was going to work. Please cancel the tow.

Jay stayed for a cup of coffee and to swap tales of traveling and island life. He and his family make their living doing a little fishing, some log salvage, carpentry, caretaking, and whatever comes up. It must agree with him; he seemed more youthful than his 47 years. I suspect that island life has made him less cynical than his more urban contemporaries. He’s building a business marketing on the internet his own salmon catch (see www.treasuredocean.com), the baskets his wife makes of kelp, and other local goods. We agreed that buying locally was a good idea, but when I get home I’m going to order some of his canned fish.

Before he left, he invited us to visit his home in Granite Bay, and we would eagerly have done so if the tides and winds had not called so strongly. In mid-afternoon, after a few calls of inquiry from the Coast Guard about our status and intentions, I told them that the problem seemed to be resolved, that we were ready to make way north again, and thanked them for their help and concern. We maneuvered out of our little refuge in an easing wind and set off for Johnstone Strait. With a tail wind, we set the genoa until the breeze died.

By 19:00 we were trying to set our anchor in the north cove of Helmken Island, in one of the most current-prone parts of Johnstone Strait. We laid out more than 7:1 rode, but the plow anchor would not set—it felt as if it were sliding and skipping on rock. After a few futile minutes of dragging the anchor along the bottom, we raised it and motored to another spot nearby. This time it set, and I backed Tango vigorously to check the set, but neither of us felt entirely confident.

Sunrise in Johnstone Strait

Wednesday, May 6, 2009. After a night with little wind, I felt rested even though I got up before 06:00. In the bow, Bob didn’t have as restful a night. Currents swept through the cove, pulling Tango against her anchor chain, which sounded to him as if it were being dragged over an enormous tin box.

We motored out into Johnstone Strait and soon had a 4.5-knot current boost. At times Tango’s speed over ground was more than 13 knots, but then we ran into an eddy and it dropped to 4 knots, even though the boat speed through the water had been a constant 6 knots and we were supposed to have a favorable current. I chided myself for getting into the eddy by reading the channel wrong and angled toward the other shore. Seconds after we crossed a streak of white foam marking a current line, our speed over ground doubled to 8 knots.

At first the following wind was too fitful to make it worth setting a sail, just enough to blow our stinky exhaust fumes into the cockpit. The breeze continued to build, as predicted by the government forecasters, but we had too little time before reaching our next anchorage, where we planned to wait for favorable currents.

About 10:00, we pulled into Boat Bay, a small cove across the strait from Robson Bight, world headquarters for orca research. It’s a bit exposed to the waves coming from the southeast and the wind was gusting to 30 knots, so Tango was lively.

From this point next to Boat Bay and the bluff above, whale watchers monitor the orcas that frequent Robson Bight.

I baked a batch of sourdough raisin cinnamon rolls, the latest in my bread-making experiments aboard. A few months ago, I started a sourdough culture and have kept it going with almost daily baking. My intention was to develop the technique to bake bread aboard with a minimum of fuss, mess, and stress. I’ve continued to make a batch of bread a day, always with the sourdough starter. Sometimes it’s whole wheat with flax seed meal. Sometimes it’s white-and-whole-wheat-herb bread. The cinnamon rolls came out with a crust a bit like a sourdough baguette, but I’m happy with them. Except that I ate too many. The technique I’ve developed leaves little mess and takes only half an hour to knead a batch of dough, feed the sourdough starter, and assemble the next day’s dough.

I'm very happy with the galley range that we installed. The oven does a great job on the bread and it even has a broiler that works, an unusual feature for a gas range. Bob keeps burning toast and setting off the smoke alarms, though, because it's so hot and toasts so quickly.

While an adverse current bucked the wind and caused a nasty chop in the strait, we stood anchor watch by monitoring various GPS-based instruments—the little Garmin hand-held GPS at the steering station, the Furuno chartplotter in the cockpit, and the navigation software on the ship’s computer. During the five hours that we stayed in Boat Bay, our anchor dragged about a hundred feet. We were grateful that we didn’t have to stay there all night.

Mid-afternoon, just before the turn of the current, we raised the anchor and motored out into the strait. Soon we unfurled the head sail and shut off the engine. For three hours we sailed near hull speed, the waves, wind, and current in our favor. It gave the lie to my observation that the wind is always on the nose in the Inside Passage. As we neared Port McNeill, we furled the sail, motored into the harbor, and tied up at the municipal dock. We’ll stay long enough to have a mechanic clear the fuel line and clean out the tank.

Tango at Port McNeill, tied up next to another yacht with green trim.

Thursday, 5/7/09. On a rainy day, we did chores, laundry and shopping, and tried to whittle down our lists. In the early afternoon, we took the ferry to Sointula, founded in 1901 by Finns as a utopian community. It’s a small town, population 800, with deep roots and civic pride. Although the commune split and disbanded within a few years of its founding, the spirit lives on in the Sointula co-op store and the attitude of the long-time residents.

Sointula from the ferry dock.

The communal spirit of the founders lives on in the co-op store.

A nice job of shingling, made even better by the detail on the outbuilding.

This wall is flat. The perspective is very artistic.

A driftwood cobra guards an old barn

In the coffee shop, we met a 37-year-old woman, a sixth-generation Sointulian, who had lived off the island for eight months when economic hard times hit. She was happy to be back on the island, and like many others we’ve met, was making her way with part-time work, sharing housing and expenses with relatives,

The ferry unloading at Sointula.

Back at Port McNeill, I made arrangements with a mechanic to clean our fuel tank and unclog the lines. Bob roasted chicken thighs and vegetables. He had been wanting for a few days to bake corn bread and thought this was the right meal for it, so I refrained from baking bread. I logged Tango’s computer network onto the internet. Bob was soon engrossed in his e-mail. As we finished our dinner of tasty veggies and deliciously tender chicken, I said, “Great meal, except for the lack of corn bread.” He had been so wrapped up in working on his laptop that he had forgotten.

Mariners devote as much imagination to naming their dinghies as their yachts.

Friday, May 8, 2009. It's a beautiful day today, with sunshine, high scattered clouds, and relief from the rain that has dogged us for several days. Graham the mechanic showed up this morning and is getting his gear together to clean the fuel tank and lines. Bob is doing his laundry. We have a cooler full of ice, beer, and veggies, our shopping list is down to a few items, and we're eager to head north.

--Dennis Todd

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