A Day on Sheer Folly (old version)

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A Travelers Tales Prizewinner

A Day on Sheer Folly:

Crossing Queen Charlotte Sound

August 5, 2000
Allison Harbor, Canada

I roll over. Speck of light. It’s 6:15 AM and today’s the day we cross Queen Charlotte Sound. I reach down and flip on the heater, and ease myself out of bed.

Allison Harbor is a fjord-like indentation on the British Columbia mainland opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Yesterday we anchored here, having slowly worked our way up the inside passage. We are here aboard the Sheer Folly, our 42′ 1969 Monk trawler, three-hundred miles north of the U.S. Border on our shakedown cruise for next summer, when we plan to head on up the coast to Glacier Bay, in Alaska. Up until now, we’ve been cruising in the lee of Vancouver Island, but today we must leave it behind in order to cross the open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. That’s fifty miles of open ocean to cross, to get to the once-again protected waters on the other side. So there is adventure in the air, this morning. And fog.

6:25 AM:

I start up the generator. 25 Kilowatts is a lot of electricity, but our generator is over-sized because it is also our “get home” engine. Should the main engine fail — it never has — the generator can push us along at almost four knots. Our batteries are partly depleted this morning, because the refrigerator has been running ever since yesterday afternoon, when we dropped anchor here. I enjoy making water each morning with my hotshot little reverse-osmosis desalinator. Our tank holds 290 gallons of fresh water, but when we are cruising we like to top it off each day, so we don’t have to conserve on showers, dishwashing, boat washing, and all those other things that we rich Americans waste water on so lavishly. In the process of making water, the generator will also give our storage batteries a charge, before the main engine’s alternator kicks in once we get moving. It is toys for boys, and my biggest toy of all is the Sheer Folly. But at the moment, our most important piece of equipment is the electric coffee pot. If the noise of the generator doesn’t get Nancy out of the sack, the smell of coffee will.

6:30 AM:
Bud the Cat wants out. Cold and wet out on deck.

6:31 AM:
Bud the Cat wants in.

6:52 AM:
Ablutions accomplished, I’m sitting on the couch, drinking coffee and studying charts. Bud is fast asleep. Again. Nancy is stirring. I can tell she’s had a rough night of it, probably lost her purse again. Or didn’t study for her exam. Couldn’t remember where she parked her car. It’s always the same old story.

7:02 AM:
I pull up the floorboards and grease my shaft. There’s a little water in the bilge, got to tighten that packing gland one of these days. Down I go into the engine room. Engine oil OK, transmission fluid OK, I wipe off that pesky oil drip that loves to run down behind the bypass filter.

7:13 AM:
I turn on VHF Weather Channel 2: Canada Weather Radio says “Winds, Queen Charlotte Straight 20 to 30 knots out of the Northwest.” I check the anemometer for the wind-speed reading at the top of the mast: 1 knot. It’s a go. Time to start up the Detroit Diesel.

7:15 AM:
I turn on all the electronic navigation equipment: Depth Sounder… Autopilot… GPS… Computer… Whoops, forgot to turn off the mast light. It won’t help us none in all this fog.
Back in the salon I am talking to Nancy: “There are a lot of little rock islands off the entrance of the harbor and we are going to have to thread our way in between them carefully. I’m going to have my eyes full watching the radar, the depth sounder and the navigation computer, and I won’t have much time to peer all that carefully into the fog. Until we get out a mile or so, I’d like you to keep a sharp eye out. Straight ahead and to each side. Most likely there are some other boats out there, leaving or entering the harbor. So I’ll go slow. In fifteen or twenty minutes we should be
clear of the rocks. Until then it will probably be a bit tense. We need to be careful.” “Aye, aye, Captain!” I dream on.

7:28 AM:
All systems go. Time to get out of here. I go out on the bow, to operate the windlass and pull up the anchor. You can’t see a damn thing in this fog, it will probably lift, it usually does. I stomp on the foot-switch and 150 feet of chain comes rattling up over the bow roller. Our anchor weighs forty-some pounds, plus the weight of the chain. This morning much of both chain and anchor are covered with slimy mud. Now I’ve got mud all over the deck. No problem! I’ll just get out my little handy-dandy saltwater wash-down sprayer — another of my little toys for boys.

7:37 AM:
Warm again in the pilothouse, I ease the great diesel into gear, and we are on our way. Creeping along in the fog, now it’s Spouse Nancy Vs. the Furuno Radar. Both of them are nice to have on board, but it’s thanks to the radar that I can see the harbor entrance, a half-mile ahead. The shores on each side of us show up on the radar screen as parallel green slabs of light about an eighth of a mile off to both port and to starboard. The slabs converge towards the harbor entrance, until there is only a narrow, dark green slit separating them. Beyond this bottleneck are a scatter of irregular little green blobs of light — those cursed little rock islands we saw yesterday on the way in. We must go in between them once we are beyond the entrance. I can already see them on the navigation computer’s satellite-based GPS system. There we are in our cute little simulated green boat. I’ve drawn an electronic course on the map, that should take us between all those rocks. So long as I keep the Sheer Folly on top of that line, the Lord will protect us or so I’ve been told. I’m not quite sure about all those shipwrecks, I guess stuff just happens.

First Mate Nancy is dutifully staring into the fog, like she’s looking for that car she lost last night. My eyes are glued to the radar, and Second Mate Bud is asleep as usual. The depth sounder says 10 feet of water. Sheer Folly draws 5 . That leaves 4  feet of water underneath our keel, which is not an inspiring thought when you know there are rocks lurking about, just waiting to rip your guts out. The water is smooth and glassy this morning and the radar is picking up all the seagulls, ducks and driftwood. I de-tune its sensitivity adjustment, to diminish the clutter.

7:26 AM:

I check the radar. then our corresponding course and heading on the laptop, then put the boat on autopilot and make a quick trip down into the engine room, to make sure everything is OK. I write “EROK” into the logbook, meaning “Engine Room OK.” Then I check all the gauges on the console and make the entry, “GOK” (Gauges OK). “EROK, GOK,” I say to myself aloud. All is well with my world.

7:50 AM:
We’ve made it out through all those little rock islands guarding the entrance to Allison Harbor from waves coming in off Queen Charlotte Straight. All is clear on the radar, but it’s still pea soup. Two-and-a-half miles ahead, at about twenty-five degrees off to starboard, are a couple of blips on the radar, which I am pretty sure are those two commercial fish boats I heard talking to each other earlier on Channel 16. Probably gill-netters. They don’t seem to be moving much. I make a course correction further off to port. I give gill-netters a very wide birth. Nets in your prop are a boater’s nightmare. Some guys carry a wet suit for this kind of unhappy event, but me, I’m more like that Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, I am dependent on the kindness of strangers. Not a very good philosophy for the skipper of a vessel.

8:16 AM:
Now we are flying along at 8 knots SOG (speed over ground), according to the GPS. The depth sounder’s log read-out says only 7 knots speed through the water, meaning we are getting a rip-roaring 1 -knot kick from the tide! 8 knots is about 9 miles per hour–jet propulsion for a full displacement 42′ trawler. Without a hull that will allow you to get up on plane — just a little — 9 miles SOG is as good as it gets. There are major advantages to going slow. You are a pleasure boat. You must enjoy your ride. You feel especially good when you hit your first log, and realize you didn’t sink. Because you were going nice and slow. This, too, is not a good philosophy for the skipper of a vessel.

“Hey Nancy, keep an eye out for logs. I want to go topsides, to get Bud off the flybridge. It’s going to be windy today, and I don’t want him rockin’ ‘n-a-rollin’ all by himself up in the cold.” Leaving the warmth of the pilothouse, I find Bud huddled up underneath the loose canvas up there, trying to keep warm. Poor little guy, he turned out to be a gal. Ever since, I’ve not been able to keep him straight. “Whether you want to our not, Bud,” I tell him forcefully, “you’re coming below! I don’t want you getting seasick and I want to keep an eye on you. Bud doesn’t give a damn. But it’s gonna be hairy out there today. “EYOWELL, EYOWELL, EYOWELL,” he screams at me. “EROK GOK, EROK GOK,” I yell back. We understand each other, Bud and me. It’s hard to find decent crew. They don’t follow orders, they talk back to you. Can’t even keep track of their purse.

8:22 AM:

Warm again in the pilothouse, we are now three miles off
the mainland and seven miles off Vancouver Island. I can see its northern tip on the radar. Soon we will be leaving our beloved island to port. Vancouver Island has been our home for more than a year now. Cape Caution, here we come!

10:03 AM:
Vancouver Island behind us, we are no longer in its lee. We are beginning to feel the rhythmic power of the open ocean swell. “What’s going on up there! What’s going on up there!” Nancy yells at me from the galley. “Don’t you have the stabilizers on? Bud’s getting seasick again and it’s your turn to clean up the mess!” “EEYOWELL, EEYOWELL!” says Bud. “EROK GOK, EROK GOK, EROK GOK! says I. “Shackelton didn’t have no steenkin’ stabilizers!” I want to yell back at her. “Yes, dear, I just turned them on.” In a moment the roll subsides, but we still have the “pitch,” that up and down movement of the bow as it busts through the oncoming waves. Our stabilizers are super cool! They are hydraulically driven fins that protrude down into the water from each side of the hull, like ailerons on the trailing edges of the wings of a jetliner. They are hooked to a gyroscope that senses the beginning of each roll and then sends a message to the fins, telling them to twist and dig into the water more deeply, in order to counteract the rolling forces of the waves. Stabilizers are terrific for swells on your beam. They ought to be sold in bars.

10:49 AM:

We are now headed directly into the wind. Our anemometer reads 26 knots apparent wind over the boat. Subtracting out the boat’s now-reduced 7-knot-forward SOG, that means we are now heading into about 19 knots of true wind over the water. Our depth sounder’s log reads 7 knots through that water, so we appear to have lost our knot-and-a-half boost from the tide.

All good things must come to an end.

10:54 AM:

The wind is kicking up three to four foot waves, which periodically coincide with the five foot swells rolling in off the Pacific — all of which means we regularly have a sum total of nine feet of water suddenly trying to squeeze itself under our keel. We go up! We come down! With a slam! We are thankful for our stout boat. Sheer Folly keeps us safe. Like a mother. That’s why they name boats after women.

11:02 AM:
“Sweet Betsy from Mary J, Sweet Betsy from Mary J,” on the VHF radio. No answer. “Sweet Betsy from Mary J, Sweet Betsy from Mary J, Sweet Betsy from the Mary J.”

“Sweet Betsy, this is Northern Dawn,” a disembodied voice replies. “We are northbound and we passed Mary J almost an hour ago. She was coming on slow. Reply six eight.”

“Northern Dawn, this is Sweet Betsy on channel six eight, you copy?”

“Yeah, got you, Sweet Betsy. I’m pretty sure that’s you on the radar, up ahead of us. We are coming up behind you at nine knots, and should pass you in approximately fifteen minutes. I thought I would let you know that we passed Mary J about nine miles back. Over.”

“Roger, Northern Dawn, glad to hear that. We are having a little trouble with our port engine coughing and sputtering. We were making the crossing with the Mary J., but we lost her in the fog, a while back, and it’s good to know she’s still coming along. Over.”

“Do you need assistance, Sweet Betsy?”

“No thank you, Northern Dawn, I think we’ll be OK. Pretty soon the wind should be easing and we can run on one engine if necessary.”

“Roger, Sweet Betsy, and good luck to you. Northern Dawn clear.”

Boaters stick together. I like to get in on the act too. Picking up the microphone:

“Sweet Betsy from Sheer Folly?”

“Come back, Sheer Folly, this is Sweet Betsy.”

“I’ve been listening-in to you guys, and I just want you to know that there’s another boat out here too. We are northbound and will be rounding Cape Caution in about an hour. If your problem gets worse, don’t hesitate to give us a yell. Over.”

“Thank you Sheer Folly, we won’t hesitate to take you up on that. But we will probably be OK. We are approaching Cape Caution now, and once we are on the other side, things should get easier. Back to you.”

“Roger, Sweet Betsy, will watch for you on the radar. This is Sheer Folly going back to Channel 16 and standing by.”

It’s fun to talk on the radio. It’s unprofessional to say so.

11:45 AM:
I look up at the radar: there’s Cape Caution glowing greenly off our starboard bow. And it’s getting rough. Suddenly there’s a crash. The refrigerator door has come open and Nancy is doing pirouettes in the salon, trying to catch hold of one of the handholds before she falls down. An open box of milk has slid out of the refrigerator, onto the carpet, and is in the process of making a huge white stain. And my beer is getting all shook up. The thin aluminum cans have come out of their six-pack and are rolling back and forth across the carpet, to the rhythm of the waves, and bumping into each other and into the chair legs and the beleaguered milk carton, with each pass. The mess is growing. “Thar she blows,” I yell, as one of my beer cans lets go, spraying beer all over the place.

“What’s going on? What’s going on!” Nancy yells at me.

I drop the RPMs of the engine and the boat slows, the pitching eases, there is a sea of nasty little whitecaps all around.
“Everything is fine,” I tell her.

“OK fine!” she lashes back at me. “Fine! Fine! Fine! You clean up this fine mess you’ve got us into!”

She knows I should have slowed down in this confused sea, we are in a tide rip and the autopilot lost its lock. We are starting to bounce and roll. I stuff most of the food back into the refrigerator and rescue my beers, not in that order. I continue on, bravely. With my angry wife and my angry cat.

“The rest of this mess will have to wait until things get smoother,” I tell them. I stick a strip of duct tape across the refrigerator door, “just to make sure,” I tell Bud and the duct tape, trying to smile. But my crew isn’t smiling. We are rounding Cape Caution.

Capes are interesting things, and rounding them is exciting, both in terms of the psychology and of the physics involved. Capes have a certain cachet in nautical history. They are simple extensions of land, sticking out into the ocean, as land likes to do. Capes are protrusions, usually underwater ridges falling off gradually in height, and lowering and narrowing until they disappear beneath the surface of the sea. Out of sight, out of mind, they lurk about, doing complicated things when the tide flows above. Water is a stress medium in which wave action gets excited by the wind, creating pulsating tensions in the liquid. When this stress medium encounters shoaling off the ends of capes, the inter-positioning of the earth interrupts the regular, mathematical play-out of the forces at work. When waves move into shallower water, their shapes and periods must change, the result being that they start to break down, creating vertical faces on one side of each of the waves. Good for surfers, bad for boaters. When your boat encounters such disturbances, depending on the interplay between depth, wind and tide, you can get pretty bumped and rolled around off the ends of capes. It can be hell, as many mariners have discovered. You can usually avoid this problem by trying to cross submerged bars farther out, where the water is deeper. But sometimes you are in a hurry and sometimes you just don’t want to add-on that extra mile, or two or three, so you damn the torpedoes and let your wife and cat yell at you. They are not amused.

Rounding capes gives one a sense of well being because capes are so prominent on maps and charts. They are your milestones. They are your accomplishment. I have been preparing for my own battle with Cape Caution for two years, gazing at the charts vicariously many a time. And now all I have to show for it is a dirty carpet, a pissed-off wife, and and a pissed-off cat. “EEYOWEL, EEYOWEL, EEYOWEL.”

12: 49 AM:

The seas have eased, the fog is beginning to thin. It’s getting brighter. Two miles ahead, I see two green blips on the radar. I watch them for ten minutes and decide they are two boats going in the same direction as we are. Gradually we close on them. We’ve been all by ourselves for several hours now, and I’m getting a little bored. I want to take a look at these blips to see who else is out on the ocean. With the radar and autopilot, I try setting the Sheer Folly on a collision course with the blips. Don’t worry, we will be able to see them a quarter-mile or so before we get to them.

1:15 PM:

In a half-hour I see a transom emerging from the fog. It says Wind Dancer. “Wasn’t that the name of that boat Sweet Betsy was supposed to be crossing with?” I ask Nancy. Sure enough, in a few minutes I see “Sweet Betsy” painted on the boat’s transom. There is a guy outside in the cockpit. Slowly, we pass the boat. The guy waves at us. We wave back. In a few minutes he will see Sheer Folly written on our transom, and will know we were the boat he was talking to earlier. Sweet Betsy is a surprisingly little boat to encounter out here on the ocean. It’s no more than twenty-four feet long, and has two outboards hanging off its back. And there is the “buddy boat.” The two skippers have connected again, and are doing fine. I give them two quick toots on the horn. “Bye bye.”

1:14 PM:
The fog is definitely lifting. We should be able to see Egg Island soon. Shafts of intense blue splinter the oppressive grey. I watch Egg Island on the radar, and on the electronic chart plotter. Egg Island is the most important landmark marking our approach to the northern side of Queen Charlotte Sound. Our cruising guide says it has a lighthouse staffed by a young couple who are happy to give you the weather. I think about calling them up on the VHF radio. “Hey! How’s the weather over there?” I might say. But why am I supposed to do this when I’m just outside their window?

2:20 PM:
The fog is almost completely dissolved. We have sunshine! We also have the southern tip of Calvert Island off our port bow. Calvert Island marks the beginning of Fitz Hugh Sound, the continuation of the inside passage. The waves we have been
punching through have eased steadily. They no longer have sufficient room to build up. No “fetch.”

2:49 PM:
Just passed Cape Calvert off to port. The entrance to Rivers Inlet is off to starboard. Rivers Inlet is one of the most productive salmon fishing grounds on the West Coast of North America. We have seen several commercial fish boats in the vicinity recently.

2:53 PM:

Compass course 355 degrees magnetic. Almost due North. Sun’s out, wind’s down, mountain’s all around. Feelin’ good.

3:07 PM:
Penrose Island is off to starboard, we had planned to anchor there in Fury Cove. Our book says it is the most popular anchorage for boats kicking off across the open water on their way south. Maybe we will stay there on our way back. We just can’t bring ourselves to stop now, all these mountains are too damn beautiful! Outside of an occasional fish boat, and a cruise ship, we have the wilderness all to ourselves.

4:02 PM:
Our cruising day is nearly over. We are approaching Green Island Anchorage, which a fellow boater told me about earlier. Whenever I meet people on the dock who are cruising in the opposite direction, I ask them about where they have stayed. Green Island has been mentioned in the superlative by more than one of them.

4:38 PM:

Picking our way through the constellation of small islands, I no longer need the radar. I just follow my eyes, and the course I laid out on the laptop’s electronic chart plotter earlier. We squeeze through a narrow rock opening and we are suddenly in. The bay inside is beautiful, and marvelously protected by a ring of small islands. This is one of the most beautiful anchorages we have ever seen. And we have it all to ourselves. Nancy loves it that way, but, me, I never mind having a few boats around. We cruise around the anchorage, slowly, checking out all the nooks and crannies and depths and currents. Finally we choose a narrow spot along the south shore opposite a small island with a large white spot on top. I call Nancy to the helm. She puts the engine in reverse. I go out on the bow, to unloose the Delta anchor. Forty feet of chain goes rumbling out until the anchor finally comes to rest on the bottom. I take the helm once again. Slowly, I back down until the chains grow taught over the bow roller and the boat comes to a halt. Then I run the engine up to 900 RPM to make sure the anchor is dug in solidly. While doing so, I watch the GPS carefully. We don’t budge. I turn off the engine. All is quiet. We made it.

9:17 PM:
Being “on the hook” is the best part of boating. Over the course of a long day of cruising, tension builds up in you because you have been operating in the unknown. It is your job as a skipper to remain alert and on guard. Sinking the hook, at the end of a long day, brings about the complete relaxation of this accumulation of tension. You have done well. You are safe. You are where you want to be. You are rewarded. Sticking your hook in the bottom is the mark of a satisfied man.
Green Island is an exceptionally scenic, secluded, and safe anchorage. We drink it all in. Tomorrow we are going to launch our dingy and go exploring the remains of a lost civilization. A few hundred feet away, on that little island, that white spot shining so brightly in the sunset is a midden. A midden is a very large calcium deposit marking the site of a long-ago aboriginal Indian settlement. The Indians along the British Columbia coast once lived largely on clams. Over time, more and more clamshells were crunched underfoot as such villages grew larger. Eventually the inhabitants would move on, perhaps because their supply of clams had run out. Their huts remained, to be quietly reclaimed by mother earth. But these sites, these chemically unfriendly alkaline deposits glistening so whitely in the sun, are still chemically unfriendly to encroaching growth. Thus, such middens remain perched today upon the shores of some of the loveliest bays along the British Columbia Coast, shining testimonials to the people who once knew these beautiful places far more intimately than we ever will. People who lived here and vanished. As we will too. Tonight, the people of this island and the people of the Sheer Folly are passing through history together, like ghosts in the fog.

Copyright 2009 William V. Raney

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