Becoming Coastal is my new book published in 2019, about my 25 years of exploration of the British Columbia Coast by paddle, oar & sail.
Excerpts from Becoming Coastal
At two o’clock in the morning of my last night on the peninsula, I crawl out of my tent for a pee. I look up and nearly forget why I have gotten up. It is absolutely still and quiet calm. The sea is soundless and the sky is crystal clear. The air is so still and stable that the stars aren’t even twinkling. Each star is as hard and unwinking as a laser. The lesser magnitude stars are so bright that it is difficult to pick out the familiar constellations. The Milky Way is splashed across the sky like a spilled bag of diamonds. Suddenly I comprehend that I am not looking at a pattern of light against a two dimensional background but I am seeing the disc of the galaxy, edge on. I experience a moment of vertigo as the sense of the vastness of even our small corner of the universe fills me. For an instant I am no longer standing on the surface of the earth, but I am clinging to the side of some gigantic space ship, about to fall off and go wheeling away among the stars. The feeling quickly passes, but it is a rare glimpse into our place in the universe. Perhaps we humans aren’t equipped to contain such immensities for more than a few heartbeats. The chill night air soon drives me back to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
The fog clears off by evening and it is still clear at two in the morning when I get up to pee. The fog is back when I get up in the morning, thicker than ever. It is so thick I can’t see the waters’ edge from my campsite. I have just fetched the food bag and have everything spread out on the log ready for breakfast. Suddenly, out of the fog, three wolves appear on the other side of the log, not more than ten feet away. One starts to circle around the end of the log behind me. I grab my paddle (I’m not sure what I think I am going to do with it) and brandish it at the wolves and yell at them, “Bugger off!” They look at me, the smallest one gives a yip, and they trot off, none too quickly. The whole encounter didn’t last more than ten seconds and the fog closes in like they were never there.
It’s mid-afternoon the next day and I am warm, clean and dry, sitting on a nice pebble beach north of Iron Point by Carpenter Bay. I am up at five thirty in the morning to be away by quarter to seven at the latest. I want to cover the six miles of Skincuttle Inlet from the campsite out to Hecate Strait with the assistance of the ebb tide. I want to get around Ikeda Point while the winds are still calm or light from the overnight lull. The first part goes as planned, the ebb tide and calm winds part, but I haven’t anticipated the ebb tide flowing contrary to the northeast swell. The swell originates out in Hecate Strait and is running three to five feet high. Off Ikeda Point, it is ugly. With the swell both coming in to and rebounding off of the point and opposing the ebb current, the waves are absolutely chaotic. There is no way to predict which direction the next wave will come from. Waves lump up out of nowhere, leaving half the boat suspended over nothing, to crash down on the other side. Some of the wave shapes are nothing short of fantastic, with square sides and tops. On top of all the big waves are zillions of tiny little wavelets, as if from a light wind, except that there is no wind. I have never encountered conditions like this before. It is deeply scary, but the worst part is not knowing if it will get worse.
The breeze begins to turn into a real wind sometime around about half past eleven. It occurs to me that if this is the start of the predicted stronger wind later in the afternoon, now will be good time to eat my lunch before I get too busy. It’s a good strategy, as soon after that the wind gets stronger and I keep busy reefing the sails to reduce the area. Reefing the standing lug sails that comprise Hornpipe’s rig involves dropping the whole sail into the boat, shifting the tack pennant, tying in the reef points as you come aft, then shifting the sheet to the reef clew. After that, you hoist everything back up again, haul down on the tack pennant to tighten the luff and then sheet in. It doesn’t take long, as I have the main halyard and tack pennant lead aft – perhaps two minutes. When the mizzen is up, the boat behaves very well with the main down, sitting there quietly hove to while the mizzen and tiller look after themselves.
As the wind increases, I first reef the mizzen and the immediately the boat’s motion is more comfortable. Within twenty minutes the wind increases again to the point where I have to take the first reef in the main sail. The boat is again more manageable but within another twenty minutes the wind rises again to the point where I need the second reef in the main. The wind keeps rising until finally I drop the mizzen sail altogether. By the time I am down to just the double reefed main, in early afternoon, we have made a lot of progress across the Strait, and don’t have far to go. The wind, however, is really strong, and more to the point, the sea state is beginning to catch up to it. I estimate the wind to be twenty knots with gusts higher than that. We find out later that this is wrong, that the wind is in fact a steady thirty knots, gusting to at least thirty-four, on the edge of being a gale. That is a huge amount of wind for a small open boat. Waves by now are routinely four to six feet high, with occasional waves to eight feet. At the bottom of the wave troughs I can’t see over the tops.
In the pre-dawn darkness, I listen to the weather forecast, the lighthouse and ocean buoy reports on the VHF as I pack my gear and get ready. I’ll move out as soon as even a little bit of light appears. I am the only boat in tiny Jones Cove, north of Cape Caution. It is the nearest protected cove to the Cape to wait in readiness for rounding it. Cape Caution! For the small boat sailor voyaging along the Inside Passage, it’s the equivalent of rounding Cape Horn, and frankly, I am very nervous about getting round it safely in Fire-Drake.