Cruis­ing to Spir­i­tual Haida Gwaii

Passage Maker - - Contents - Craig Hougen & Mark Tan­ner

The wind had been build­ing all morn­ing. What had started as a gen­tle 10-knot breeze at sun­rise was now a sus­tained 30 knots. De­spite its deep gun­wales, our lit­tle 15-foot alu­minum dinghy is not the most com­fort­able place to be on the open ocean in high winds and a six-foot swell. Yet, af­ter a run in to Queen Char­lotte City for per­ish­ables, that was ex­actly where we found our­selves. We were ex­it­ing Skide­gate Nar­rows at its western end and ex­pected that an­other 30 min­utes would put us back aboard Ex­plorer, our 60-foot wooden trawler (cover model for the April 2002 is­sue of Pas­sage­Maker). The wind­whipped spray col­lect­ing on my glasses added to the visibility chal­lenges, but I be­gan to make out a boat cir­cling about a half mile off­shore. It looked eerily like Ex­plorer, but I dis­missed that thought, know­ing we had left her safely an­chored some five miles from here.

The Queen Char­lottes, or, Haida Gwaii

Skide­gate Nar­rows sep­a­rates Gra­ham Is­land to the north and Moresby Is­land to the south. These two is­lands form the bulk of Haida Gwaii, a group of about 200 is­lands off the rugged west coast of Canada, as far north as you can go be­fore re-en­ter­ing U.S. ter­ri­tory at South­east Alaska. On our charts, this ar­chi­pel­ago looked de­cep­tively close to civ­i­liza­tion, but we quickly found that a sea voy­age to Haida Gwaii is not for the ill-pre­pared.

Our jour­ney was the cul­mi­na­tion of years of dream­ing and plan­ning. The re­mote and mostly un­trav­eled west coast of Haida Gwaii had called us most strongly, and those wa­ters re­quired a spe­cial ves­sel, well found and stout, ca­pa­ble of han­dling the ex­tremes of both weather and cur­rents. Ex­plorer fit that bill, and we—my good friend Brian McWat­ters and I—cast off on a fine morn­ing in mid-July 2017. We were bound for wa­ters with no cell phone cov­er­age, no mari­nas, no towns or vil­lages, scant sources for potable wa­ter, and no as­sis­tance close by. The Cana­dian Coast Guard has a well-equipped sta­tion in Skide­gate, but in the case of an emer­gency, their travel time by boat would be mea­sured in many hours—even then, only weather per­mit­ting.

While some lo­cal boaters may visit the northwestern part of Haida Gwaii, few ven­ture far­ther south along the coast of Moresby. There, many of the bays are un­charted, an­chor­ages are few, rain­fall to­tals up­wards of 60 inches per year, and the shores are ex­posed to the wild winds that the Pa­cific Ocean de­liv­ers at will. Our ca­pa­ble and ex­pe­ri­enced crew had all these el­e­ments in mind, and when we slipped our moor­ing in Van Isle Ma­rina, Sid­ney, B.C., Ex­plorer was suit­ably pro­vi­sioned for the com­ing voy­age. We would not be back un­til early Septem­ber.

Start­ing Out

The first part of our jour­ney would be de­voted to po­si­tion­ing our­selves for the cross­ing of He­cate Strait, which sep­a­rates Haida Gwaii from the is­lands that hug the main­land of Bri­tish Columbia. Where we would make the west­ward cross­ing would de­pend al­most ex­clu­sively on the weather fore­cast. He­cate Strait is rel­a­tively shal­low (even 20 miles off­shore there are large ar­eas where there is less than 100 feet of wa­ter), and sub­ject to strong winds and cur­rents as well. Cross­ing the strait can be quite dan­ger­ous and should only be at­tempted with a true un­der­stand­ing of the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of your ves­sel and full knowl­edge of de­vel­op­ing weather sys­tems.

Our over­ar­ch­ing plan, given the fu­ries that He­cate can sum­mon, was to make the cross­ing as quickly as pos­si­ble. A glance at the charts sug­gested a likely path: up the In­side Pas­sage to the top of Princess Royal Chan­nel, just south of Hart­ley Bay, and then out through Ot­ter Pas­sage along the south­east end of Banks Is­land. This would set us up for a straight shot across the strait to Sand­spit, a route that would have us in un­pro­tected wa­ters for just un­der 70 nau­ti­cal miles. Un­der­way, at our usual 1400 rpm and mak­ing 7.8 knots, Ex­plorer could make the run in about nine hours. (She sips diesel at about four gal­lons per hour.)

Ex­plorer is equipped with the tech­no­log­i­cal wiz­ardry that en­ables us to gather a re­mark­able va­ri­ety of data on marine weather and sea con­di­tions. As we jour­neyed north we kept a close watch on con­di­tions on Queen Char­lotte Sound and He­cate Strait.

As it turned out, our vig­i­lance with re­gards to weather de­vel­op­ments pre­sented us with an­other op­tion. We had put

in three long, 14-hour days since leav­ing Sid­ney, and with the added help of an early (7 a.m.) slack tide at Sey­mour Nar­rows, we were tucked in com­fort­ably at Farewell Har­bour in the Broughton Ar­chi­pel­ago. It was the even­ing of July 19 and the weather gods were smil­ing on us so far. We as­sessed up­com­ing con­di­tions on Queen Char­lotte Sound and be­gan to give se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to an al­ter­nate route: one that would en­tail trav­el­ing 50 miles up Queen Char­lotte Strait and then mak­ing an open-ocean run of 140 miles, bear­ing north­west for Rose Har­bour, which is lo­cated at the most southerly part of Moresby Is­land. The south­ern half of Morseby is en­tirely made up of Gwaii Haanas Na­tional Park.

It was clear to us that even­ing that con­di­tions for such a cross­ing were ex­cel­lent. In fact, con­di­tions would likely never be bet­ter than those fore­cast for the next 48 hours. If we were will­ing to make a 26-hour non­stop run, this win­dow would al­low us to get to Haida Gwaii sev­eral days ear­lier than an­tic­i­pated. The weather also pro­vided a fur­ther in­cen­tive to change our route: If we missed the open­ing, then not only would the gale force storm to fol­low add days to our travel up the in­side, but that travel would at best be un­com­fort­able and might re­quire us to ride out the worst of the storm in a pro­tected an­chor­age. I laid in our new course on the chart­plot­ter be­fore mak­ing an early night of it. At 8 a.m., with the sun well up on our star­board side, we weighed an­chor.


As fore­cast, the 10-knot winds grad­u­ally sub­sided to zero, and the swell from the north­west was so long and gen­tle that we left the par­a­vane sta­bi­liz­ers se­cure in their cra­dles for the en­tire cross­ing. A pod of dol­phins kept us com­pany for hours as they played on our bow wave, and as we left the coastal wa­ters in our wake the ocean took on an aqua clar­ity, al­most mes­mer­iz­ing in its beauty.

Dark­ness fell as we neared the mid­point of our run, and the sky over­flowed with stars. Night­time bridge du­ties were un­com­pli­cated—mainly we mon­i­tored our course to be sure the au­topi­lot kept us on track and kept an­other eye on the radar and AIS data to iden­tify any po­ten­tial traf­fic in the area. Of the few

ships we did see dur­ing the night, none ap­proached within five miles of our boat. Of course, keep­ing an eye on the ocean for large de­bris is stan­dard pro­ce­dure at any time, but as we moved across a quiet ocean un­der clear skies, this was not a ma­jor con­cern.

Brian and I, pow­ered by es­presso, took turns stand­ing watch, and in the wee hours we were graced by an ethe­real bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence, green and eerily com­pelling as it swirled past our bow. For a while we tried dip­ping into an au­dio­book, but that didn’t last long—on this night the seren­ity of our pas­sage was com­pany enough. Day­light found us about 30 miles off Cape Saint James, and by 9 a.m. we had dropped our hook at sunny Rose Har­bour. It doesn’t get any bet­ter than that.

Gwaii Haanas Na­tional Park

For those of you who have done it, you know there is great ap­peal in cruis­ing the wa­ters less trav­eled. They of­fer us a chance to ex­plore, to come to terms with our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and to ex­pe­ri­ence real soli­tude. Gwaii Haanas, a re­mote and moun­tain­ous land, of­fers a refuge to all. Yet even to ex­pe­ri­enced mariners, the idea of en­ter­ing an un­charted bay in strange wa­ters is dis­con­cert­ing. We have come to de­pend on the work and records of mariners and hy­dro­g­ra­phers who have come be­fore us. But there are many bays and in­lets along the western shores of Moresby that de­mand to be ex­plored, and where charts have yet to be made. From the com­fort of our liv­ing room months be­fore, we had de­vel­oped what looked to be an ef­fec­tive strat­egy. We would launch our dinghy (with a crew mem­ber equipped with a hand­held VHF and sonar) to scout the area ahead of Ex­plorer. And hav­ing iden­ti­fied a safe route, we would en­ter into pro­tected wa­ters in rel­a­tive safety and com­fort.

Af­ter a cou­ple of weather days in Rose Har­bour, where we had heavy rain and 40- knot winds, a third crew mem­ber joined us. Joe War­shawski had trav­eled with Moresby Ex­plor­ers in their Zo­diac, a six- hour run from Sand­spit. July 23 dawned clear and sunny, and by mid- morn­ing we had pulled the hook. Our next des­ti­na­tion, Flamingo In­let, was roughly two hours away, and this would give us a chance to prac­tice our planned ap­proach.

We en­tered the main in­let, and once in the lee of Na­gas Point we were able to launch the dinghy with­out dif­fi­culty. While there is par­tial chart data for Flamingo In­let, we were hes­i­tant to rely on it. With Brian bird-dog­ging and guid­ing us by VHF, we were able to safely tour the in­let, bot­tom to top. In the end we liked the looks of un­charted Sperm Bay, a lit­tle pocket some two miles up the east­ern shore. Brian gave us the thumbs up af­ter a few min­utes of scout­ing, so we eased in be­hind the small is­land at the head of the bay and set our an­chor in about 35 feet of wa­ter. It was a lovely spot, scenic and well

pro­tected, with sandy pull­outs for our kayaks, al­though there was no ob­vi­ous source of fresh wa­ter. Din­ner was Joe’s spicy cur­ried co­conut potato/veg­etable med­ley, with mar­i­nated and bar­be­cued lamb chops.

Mak­ing of Our Ten­der

The calm, clear weather con­tin­ued the next morn­ing, and I took ad­van­tage of it to in­stall new equip­ment in the dinghy—a Garmin chart­plot­ter. The most com­pelling fea­ture of this de­vice is its abil­ity to record sonar data and use it to gen­er­ate bot­tom con­tours, in essence, giv­ing us the abil­ity to make our own charts. These could then be shared with Ex­plorer’s on­board plot­ters, mak­ing sure the en­su­ing an­chor­ing op­er­a­tions would be both less spec­u­la­tive and more re­laxed.

As the sealant for the dinghy’s new trans­ducer cured, we made the 16-mile run up to Gow­gaia Bay and then on into Yaku­lanas Bay at the head of this in­let. All of Gow­gaia is charted, and with both swell and wind al­most nonex­is­tent, this made set­ting the hook a straight­for­ward op­er­a­tion. With plenty of day­light left we man­aged to land a coho and sev­eral rock­fish off the Gow­das Is­lands, and din­ner was a spicy rock­fish stew.

Del­i­cate Sit­u­a­tions

Away from the shores of Haida Gwaii the sea is charted and deep. The bot­tom rises quickly as you ap­proach land, of­ten go­ing from a depth of over 7,000 feet to just a few hun­dred in a half mile or so. The Pa­cific is never still of course, and this rapid shal­low­ing has the ef­fect of both rais­ing the height of the om­nipresent swell and short­en­ing its wave pe­riod. A gen­tle swell at a half mile out is of­ten am­pli­fied con­sid­er­ably as it crosses the shal­lower wa­ters at the mouth of an in­let. Al­though we had at least par­tially an­tic­i­pated such con­di­tions, we found that scout­ing out po­ten­tial an­chor­ages would rarely be as easy as what we ex­pe­ri­enced our first two nights on the out­side coast.

Ex­plorer’s ten­der weighs in at sev­eral hun­dred pounds, with a 30 horse­power out­board at­tached, and when we are un­der­way she rides lashed se­curely to the deck some 14 feet above the wa­ter. De­spite this mass, the dou­ble-winch davit that we use makes launch­ing a rou­tine op­er­a­tion—when seas are calm, that is. Hav­ing her swing­ing about at the end of a boom in a large, rolling swell is an­other mat­ter en­tirely. For such big wa­ter days (and there would be many), we also had op­tion B for an­chor­age se­lec­tion, one which did not re­quire the dinghy. We would use this for our next stop.

As you near a rocky shore on a heavy ves­sel, par­tic­u­larly with a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing sea urg­ing you for­ward, cau­tion dic­tates that you slow down. At the same time, how­ever, the need for helm con­trol re­quires some speed through wa­ter. It can be a del­i­cate balanc­ing act. Where an an­chor­age per­mits a straight-on ap­proach in these con­di­tions, I keep a hand on the throt­tle, spilling speed when I can, ac­cel­er­at­ing when it’s re­quired. Where an en­trance is nar­row or wind­ing, or if we en­counter break­ing surf on our path, we look else­where. Within those lim­its even a fairly heavy fol­low­ing sea (10 feet) with a short wave pe­riod (5 to 6 sec­onds) will per­mit a con­trolled en­try for Ex­plorer.

The dis­tance be­tween Gow­gaia Bay and Tasu Sound is about 27 nau­ti­cal miles, and along the way there are per­haps a half dozen po­ten­tial an­chor­ages, none of which are charted. To iden­tify pos­si­bil­i­ties for our next stop we con­sulted our notes on the area. These had been gleaned on our pre­vi­ous trip to Haida Gwaii when we met a friendly com­mer­cial fish­er­man who was happy to share his ex­pe­ri­ence. His lo­cal knowl­edge proved to be in­valu­able on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. We also read

through the rel­e­vant ob­ser­va­tions in Ex­plor­ing the North Coast of Bri­tish Columbia, a fine work by Don Dou­glass and Reanne Hem­ing­way-Dou­glass. We al­ways gave an eye to sea con­di­tions and lo­cal to­pog­ra­phy.

On leav­ing Gow­gaia In­let we were met by con­fused seas on top of a four-foot swell from the south­west. This had us rolling a bit more than we cared for, and in the in­ter­ests of crew com­fort we throt­tled back to about 5.5 knots. A move out be­yond the 600-foot con­tour line added con­sid­er­ably to our well-be­ing. We gave a pass on Mike In­let, Barry In­let, and Mur­ray Cove, where we judged the odds to be poor for mak­ing a safe en­try or for find­ing a calm and suf­fi­ciently deep an­chor­age. Four hours and a run of 21 nau­ti­cal miles even­tu­ally had us in­spect­ing the en­try into Pocket In­let, which our notes had flagged as a good prospect. Nine-hun­dred feet wide and flanked by im­pos­ing gran­ite cliffs, the fjord-like en­trance sug­gested a deep wa­ter pas­sage. We turned in to­wards the in­let rid­ing a 10-foot fol­low­ing sea with a rel­a­tively com­fort­able 15-se­cond wave pe­riod. Our sonar data con­firmed the depth in mid chan­nel to be ap­prox­i­mately 110 feet. We moved into the lee of the south­side point with­out in­ci­dent and left most of the swell be­hind us.

An­chor­ing was straight­for­ward and sim­i­lar to our ex­pe­ri­ence in other bays along the main­land coast of Bri­tish Columbia. (Typ­i­cally we look for no more than 60 to 90 feet of wa­ter, fac­tor­ing in tides, which in these wa­ters of­ten ex­ceed 20 feet.) Ex­plorer’s navy-style an­chor weighs in at al­most 200 pounds, and her 400 feet of ½-inch chain rode comes in at just over 1,000 pounds. We are com­fort­able with a 3:1 scope in most sit­u­a­tions, and our tackle has held fast in up to 70 knots of wind in a South­east Alaska win­ter storm. Calm and un­oc­cu­pied, Pocket In­let was a welcome refuge af­ter our rolling pas­sage. Beau­ti­ful wa­ter­falls sur­rounded us, al­though we noted that with all the runoff en­ter­ing the bay, the sea was brown, not at all like the crys­tal blue of the open ocean. Rem­i­nis­cent of Gut Bay in south­east Alaska, this would be a won­der­ful spot for hik­ing in the eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble sub­alpine ter­rain.

Relieved to see that the sea had set­tled overnight, we en­joyed a rel­a­tively gen­tle two-hour run to Tasu Sound. Once in­side the nar­rows at its en­trance we tried our luck with fish­ing. Though the hal­ibut re­mained elu­sive, we did catch a nice feed of yel­low­eye for din­ner.

The next morn­ing we de­cided to go in through the nar­row chan­nel that leads into Botany In­let. The pas­sage lies just to the east of the small is­land guard­ing the mouth of the in­let, and we had been ad­vised there was plenty of wa­ter there for Ex­plorer. (Good in­for­ma­tion, as it turned out. Our sonar never showed less than 50 feet be­neath us on our en­try.) This clas­sic west coast in­let reaches three nau­ti­cal miles west of the en­trance, never more than a half mile wide, and much less for most of its length. Its sides are de­fined by steep, high moun­tains, forested and draped in clouds. At the head sits a per­fect sand and cob­ble beach, fringed with tall grass, dis­ap­pear­ing into ev­er­green forests of cedar, spruce, and hem­lock.

Crew Changes in Tasu

We spent sev­eral days an­chored here—kayak­ing, ex­plor­ing the cor­ners by dinghy, set­ting and check­ing crab and shrimp pots, and en­joy­ing the an­tics of the large black bears that came daily to feed along the grassy verge at the head of the in­let. We re­lo­cated one even­ing to Two Moun­tain Bay to es­cape a strong north­west­erly wind along Botany. As it al­ways does, crewchange day ar­rived un­bid­den, and we moved to the lit­tle bay just out­side Botany In­let to meet the float plane char­tered out of Sand­spit. We were sad to see Joe go, but happy to meet other friends, Dave Maxwell and Mike Ki­na­han. I was able to get some

fab­u­lous drone footage as Brian kayaked down Botany In­let, and while the sal­mon and hal­ibut eluded us, the crab­bing and shrimp­ing kept us well sup­plied with seafood.

Though we had two-way satel­lite tex­ting (via our in­Reach) that al­lowed us to make crew ex­changes eas­ily—help­ing us track de­layed flights or com­mu­ni­cate about miss­ing sup­per in­gre­di­ents—the won­der­ful sense of iso­la­tion that comes with cruis­ing and gunkhol­ing in this re­mote area was only en­hanced by this lim­ited con­nec­tion to the worka­day world. The days were slip­ping by uncounted.

Our notes and ref­er­ences con­sulted, we con­tin­ued our idyll with a two-day stop at an­other un­charted spot, Koote­nay In­let, where we an­chored in the pris­tine south arm. We noted that since leav­ing Rose Har­bour we had not seen an­other boat, nor had we heard an­other voice on the VHF ra­dio save the daily tests of the Coast Guard emer­gency trans­mit­ter.

For the next crew change we had planned to move Ex­plorer to Sand­spit on the east side of Haida Gwaii where the air­port pro­vides easy ac­cess to the out­side world. This would re­quire us to tran­sit Skide­gate Nar­rows, a jour­ney which re­quired both care­ful tim­ing and a tide close to its up­per ex­tremes. Al­though we had timed our pas­sage to co­in­cide with a big tide, it still seemed pru­dent to scout the chan­nel in ad­vance. Brian and I would make the run by dinghy the day be­fore. The scout­ing trip would also give us a chance to re­place our much-di­min­ished sup­ply of fresh pro­duce. We made the long run to the head of Amen­tieres Chan­nel and an­chored Ex­plorer in about 50 feet of wa­ter. With sev­eral days of wig­gle room we were con­fi­dent we would get a weather win­dow that suited our pur­poses.

Af­ter three days on the an­chor in this gor­geous bay, with winds that var­ied from mir­ror calm to 30-knot gusts, cap­tain and first mate were ready for a break. Our last foray into civ­i­liza­tion had been al­most three weeks ear­lier in Camp­bell River. Hav­ing spent three days swing­ing on the an­chor, I was com­fort­able with our set and judged there was lit­tle risk in our leav­ing the ves­sel for a few hours. Mike and Dave, two ex­pe­ri­enced crew who had voy­aged many a trip on Ex­plorer, would re­main aboard, and we felt con­fi­dent in their abil­ity to han­dle any sit­u­a­tion that might arise.

Un­for­tu­nately, some hours af­ter we set out for Queen Char­lotte City, the wind in Amen­tieres be­gan to rise, reach­ing a sus­tained 20 knots with gusts to 50. Our quiet an­chor­age, pro­tected from the open ocean by a se­ries of peaks, some­how al­lowed wind to sneak past and into our quiet lit­tle bay. As the wind in­creased Ex­plorer be­gan to sail on her an­chor. Then, when she was al­most abeam to the wind, a 50-knot gust hit her am­ple sail area broad­side and ripped her an­chor from the ground. Our two-man crew, en­joy­ing a quiet day of read­ing, no­ticed not only the vi­o­lent gust but also that the land­scape out­side was chang­ing with un­usual speed. A check of the chart­plot­ter con­firmed they were in­deed adrift and mov­ing to­ward shore at about two knots. They were faced with two op­tions: let out more rode and hope the an­chor would re­set or haul in the an­chor, re­po­si­tion, and re-an­chor. Given the blus­tery con­di­tions and un­cer­tainty of achiev­ing a de­pend­able re­set, Dave and Mike wisely chose the lat­ter. Start­ing the en­gine and haul­ing in the an­chor, they were able re­gain con­trol of the boat. This they did ef­fi­ciently, and, given the con­di­tions, opted to re­main un­der­way un­til the cap­tain re­turned to his ves­sel. The next four hours were spent in a hold­ing pat­tern, slowly cir­cling in front of the west en­trance of the Skide­gate Nar­rows. And that’s where I found them, calm, and per­haps just a lit­tle bored, some four hours later.

Ex­plorer and her crew went on to spend an­other three won­der­ful weeks on Haida Gwaii be­fore re­turn­ing to civ­i­lized realms.


Op­po­site: Ex­plorer’s nav­i­ga­tional in­stru­ments al­low for overnight pas­sages. Right: The am­ple sa­loon has seen some pretty mem­o­rable evenings spent en­joy­ing freshly caught seafood dishes. Below: Ex­plorer tucked safely in a quiet B.C. cove.

Left: Fresh sal­mon fil­lets for din­ner. Top: A whale breaches. Above: Our Garmin dis­play shows our run from the Broughtons to the south­east­ern tip, in Gwaii Haanas Na­tional Park.

Right: (bot­tom) Mul­ti­ple fish­ing tar­gets show­ing up clearly on sonar. (top) The fruits of our fish­ing la­bor and din­ner for sev­eral nights.

Top: A ten­der is an es­sen­tial tool for tak­ing sound­ings in un­charted places.

Top Right: The serene beauty of Haida Gwaii in the mist.

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