Tempting the Strait

Fairy Boat At Anchor in Chuckanut Bay

by Howard Eskildsen

            Waves rocked the Fairy Boat uncomfortably in the darkness as fickle breezes turned her beam to the swells on Chuckanut Bay.  In the cabin below, a wandering shaft of moonlight flashed across the Mickey Mouse alarm clock by the stove.  It was 1:30 A.M. and I had not slept since returning to the boat earlier after visiting friends who live by the bay.  We had shared a perfect mid-August evening together roasting marshmallows around a fire on the beach and reading ghost stories in the fading twilight.

            I was haunted, not by the stories, but by the wispy clouds that raced overhead and by waves that rolled ashore from somewhere beyond our sheltered anchorage.  We had to leave for Vancouver, BC, at first light, but forecasted gale-force winds threatened to make the Strait of Georgia impassable.  Normally we would just hole up somewhere and let the wind blow itself out, but this time, we were facing a deadline.  One way or another, we had to be in Vancouver within 24 hours. 

            I eventually fell asleep, but later awakened in the chilly, pale dawn, not at all refreshed by the begrudged slumber.  The waves and the breeze had subsided, but to the west, fog draped itself over the shoulder of Sinclair Island and ascended towards Lummi Island.  The gale warning was still in effect but reported winds along our route were less than ten knots.  If we made good time, perhaps we could still make it across the strait before the wind rose. 

            We left the bay before sunrise and ran at 23 knots to the south end of Lummi Island where the fog turned to clouds as it rose above the water towards the west shoulder of the island.  The sunlit top of Orcas Island rose beyond the mist, beckoning, teasing, then disappeared as we entered the gloomy gap between sea, clouds, and Lummi Island.   Though in a hurry, we briefly slowed to displacement speed to safely pass around the nets of three fishing boats that worked the waters near the shadowed shore. 

            Abeam of Lummi Rocks we could no longer avoid the fog.  I stopped for a moment to mark our position and time on the chart and to refigure our compass course.  As we entered the fog bank visibility fell to one-quarter mile, but to my relief it ended halfway across Rosario Strait.  With hopes rising that we might actually complete the trip, we ran free over serene waters to Boundary Pass and into Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island to clear Canadian customs.  A haze lay over the sleepy marina as we docked by the customs office, happy to have made our first goal on time.  The agent had just opened the office and quickly cleared us through.  We were on our way again by 8:15 A.M. 

            We nervously turned towards Pender Canal, a narrow, shallow channel between north and south Pender Islands at the other end of Bedwell Harbour.  We had once been warned by a charter company not to take their boats through there, but it was our most direct route and this time we were in our own boat, so we had to try it.  Reefs guarded the entrance, and visions of the Bytown Lady, a small craft sunk by a rock there years earlier, tugged at my mind.  We approached cautiously, thankful that the low tide clearly revealed the hazards.  The current pushed us past the rocky entrance, through a narrow passage, and under a wooden bridge.  The channel widened into Shark Cove, and we passed safely through. 

            With a sigh of relief, we left Shark Cove and traveled to Plumper Sound where our course turned northwesterly, through the shelter of the Gulf Islands, toward Porlier Pass 21 miles away.  There we would have to leave the protection of the Gulf Islands and enter the open waters of the Strait of Georgia before the weather gods made it impassable.  The drone of our engine seemed to be chanting, “Hurry, hurry!”

            Along the way we met a 30-foot Willard, a slow, reliable displacement vessel that chugged along sedately at six knots.  It could not, would not hurry, and I momentarily envied those on board.  Yet there was a strange sort of irony.  We would not have even tried to cross the strait that day if our speed had been limited to six knots, but if we were caught in a gale, I would much rather ride it out in the stout little Willard. 

            Through the shelter of the islands, we ran for nearly an hour, ruffled only by the wake of a passing ferry.  At Porlier Pass flooding tidal waters rolled and boiled as they tumbled through the pass like a troubled mind, pouring over things unseen, hidden, almost forgotten.  We slowed momentarily to reduce our wake as a motor-powered canoe with a young couple and child worked the back eddies by the south shore against the main flow.  The six-knot current whisked us over the surgings and ripples and into the strait. 

            Swells met the current from the pass, ruffling the water even more, and I stopped abeam of the buoy by Canoe Island to consider our prospects.  Gale warnings remained in effect, and 40 miles away, winds had the northern waters of the strait, in turmoil.  Though the winds at our position and in Vancouver were calm, I wondered if we could make it across 22 miles of open water ahead of the approaching gale?  It would take about an hour at our normal cruise speed, but if rough conditions slowed us to displacement speed, it could take over 3 hours.  Two other boats about our size appeared in the distance approaching comfortably on plane.  Finally, I decided that if they could do it, so could we.

            I compared the boat’s compass with the hand bearing compass, marked the time and set out on the course to cross the gulf.  Half a mile from the pass the seas organized into gentle three-foot swells on the port beam.  To hold the compass course, I had to turn slightly to port as a swell approached and then slightly to starboard as it passed.  This also neutralized the tendency of the boat to roll with the swell.  We settled into a pleasant, mesmerizing, rhythm; going up and down while turning the wheel slightly left, then right as the engine purred along.

            About halfway across the strait a mountain ridge appeared through the haze in the distance and Howe Sound and the Frazier River delta came into view.  Our bow pointed towards a distinctive area in the ridge ahead, which we used as a navigation reference along with periodic cross checks of the compass.  We later discovered we were headed directly towards Point Atkinson, right on course. 

            About four miles from the Burrard Inlet the waters changed from blue to brown along a shear line.  A great deal of debris lined the convergence of the strait and the Frazier River outflow.  We slowed to displacement speed to pick our way through flotsam and fishing boats.  It was a good thing.  Just past the shear line confused brown waves rose over five feet jostling us about as we continued on.  One large wave lifted the stern abruptly and there was a loud roar followed by “kerrrwamp!” 

            “What did we hit?” Fairy asked nervously. 

            “Air!” I replied, a bit startled myself.  The passing wave had momentarily lifted the stern drive out of the water and the revving engine and re-entry into the water produced the sound effects.  I was thankful that we had not been running at high speed when it happened. 

            We took the waves in stride for the next 45 minutes and were finally across the gulf.  In the Burrard Inlet waves diminished to two feet, and we ran a strait course past anchored freighters to the First Narrows. We followed a barge under tow through the narrows and maneuvered carefully to avoid large logs and other floating debris.  A mile and a half further we turned southwest towards Coal Harbor and dodged seaplanes that buzzed by like so many busy bees. 

            Tired but happy to have the crossing over, we tied to the dock in Coal Harbor Marina at noon under a breathtaking high-rise city skyline. Flags atop some of the larger buildings limply caressed the flagpoles.  Where was the wind we had been warned of earlier?  The few thin clouds overhead gave no hint of approaching storms.  Had the forecasters been overly cautious, or had they simply missed the call?  I thought about it for a while and then went below for a well-earned nap. 

            Two hours later the Fairy Boat tugged playfully at her mooring lines while rattling halyards on a nearby sailboat broke the slumber.  Wind!  I went topside to check out the situation.  Flags on the nearby buildings flapped wildly in a 35-knot gale.  An ebb current rushed outward through the First Narrows into the wind driven waters of the gulf and created steep, angry waves in the Burrard Inlet.  I shuddered as I imagined what might have happened had we been caught out in the strait.  Then I wondered, had I made a wise decision in crossing before the gale, or merely gotten away with a foolish one? 

© Eskildoodle 2022