Five Sailors go in Search of Heavy Weather — and Find It

Safety first! The crew tries the storm sails on for size before setting off

Safety first! The crew tries the storm sails on for size before setting off

I got seasick the second day out. My stomach had been rolling ever since we’d slipped out of Howe Sound that morning, but we were all busy on deck working an easterly blow through a finicky strait just above Typhoon Songda—which had put the lights out in nearby Vancouver the night before. Nature comes at you quickly. I jumped to the leeward gunwale to unload my business, but was jerked to a fast stop by my tether and found myself scrambling back up to the high side rail just in time to get my head under the lifelines to the collective “Ewww!” of my four crewmates.

We were on a tough run up the coast in a broken rain, scampering in and out of the cockpit and chasing lines across the foredeck. Our wind gauge clocked 29 knots as our boat cut through waves up to 10ft. Even against a formidable ebb tide, our speed readout was bobbing around 7 to 8 knots over the ground. We were proud of that.

Another day of this would bring us to the infamous rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows, the fastest saltwater tidal change in North America. If we hit it on a flood tide, we’d face a standing wave that could reach over 6ft high. Ebb tides are no less treacherous with their gluttonous eddies and 16-knot currents. This was the gateway to our destination. We were going to take a 36ft sailboat through Skookumchuck. What we were going through now was the easy part of this cruise.

ClaraALLEGRO points to the head of the Agamemnon Inlet on her approach to the infamous Skookumchuck Narrows

ClaraALLEGRO points to the head of the Agamemnon Inlet on her approach to the infamous Skookumchuck Narrows

ClaraALLEGRO knows these waters well. She is the Beneteau First 36.7 that, among other things, won the Round Southern Straits Classic in 2014. She is also the mistress of Carl Richardson, a richly credentialed sailing instructor and racing skipper with the Vancouver Sailing Club. Carl’s announcement that “Skookumchuck Rapids is our obstacle to get through into Sechelt Inlet for a week of heavy weather sailing” had attracted four sailors who were familiar with both the northern straits and ClaraALLEGRO. However, we’d all signed on when Typhoon Songda was just a tropical depression somewhere out in the Western Pacific and nowhere near the storm it had since become.

Still, our crew was game, including Jon Kindrachuk who’d flown in from Winnipeg to join us. With the possibility of the airport being closed, the ferries canceled and storm warnings throughout the entire Georgia Straits, Jon’s wife asked him if it was foolhardy to go out in a 36ft sailboat. Jon, with his ever-abiding optimism, assured her that we were not being reckless at all. “We are merely making a calculated assessment of sailing in heavy weather,” he explained.

In fact, while our wives may have felt differently, we weren’t being cocky. Typhoon Songda came ashore as three separate storms—two of them behind us, one of them yet to come—and between them fell a window of manageable winds on Saturday afternoon and the probability of a safe run around the south end of Bowen Island and on to the harbor at Gibsons. That would set us up in the straits north of Songda. Our greatest challenge was not an unpredicted shift in the weather, but the shoals on the top end of Howe Sound. We’d have to make them at high water, between 1630 and 1700.

We walked off the passage with dividers across the charts: 20 nautical miles. All four weather models predicted southwesterlies gusting 10-15 knots, so we could count on a speed over ground of, say, 6 knots, or a three-plus hour sail time. Even with a 30 percent margin of error for anything that might come up, we could still make port before sundown.

So we went sailing. Turtled up in our foulies and tethered-in, we were happy to get underway in a light drizzle. Through the whitecaps in English Bay, we picked up both a brisk breeze and a good pace with Steve Wilson’s steady hand on the helm. An accomplished and bold sailor, Steve has a close relationship with this boat and these waters, having been Carl’s de facto first mate through many races and extended cruises. Buttoned up in his red Musto Offshore jacket, he came off like the Mountie of the sea—mustache and all. He is a safety officer by training and by nature. The blue whistle that is always dangling from his left chest pocket serves as a continual reminder of this fact. If we went into the water, I was staying with him.

Jon eases ClaraALLEGRO  through Sechelt Inlet, where boreal forests crawl out of the icy water

Jon eases ClaraALLEGRO through Sechelt Inlet, where boreal forests crawl out of the icy water

Then there was our level-headed sea-brother, Gier Sordal, who runs deep and has a calculated way of going about things. Under his harlequin-green weather hood, he was the face of Yoda in our toughest times and always made sure we ended the day with a taste of Scotch. In a pinch, he was right there for you. With waves breaking over the foredeck, Gier was the one on his back, holding the foot of our flapping genoa against the deck to keep it from slapping at Steve who had leapt across the foredeck—like a Mountie Pirate—to snag the loose end of our spin halyard that the waves had beaten loose.

After a choppy broad reach northwest out of English Bay and into the Straits of Georgia, we hardened up to a close-hauled course to pass through Shoal Channel and found ourselves tying off in Gibson’s marina just ahead of dusk, well ahead of the weather and just in time for happy hour at Smitty’s Oyster Bar.

Each of us reveled in tough sailing. We naturally clicked with each other, rotating positions easily, playing off each other’s humor and trading friendly insults. At Skookumchuck, which serves as the guardian to the primeval wonderland of Sechelt Inlet, it didn’t take a lot of discussion to agree on our approach to the legendary rapids. We would take them on a slack tide when the rapids weren’t running. It was actually somewhat anticlimactic—and safe. Meanwhile, all around us, boreal forest crawled steeply out of green-grey water, reaching up to snow-capped mountain peaks. Wispy clouds appeared to have been painted across the mountainsides by a pastry chef. The air itself is delicious. Not one plastic bottle could be seen bobbing against the shoreline. This place is as raw as it is unmolested.

Pushing for maximum boatspeed, Steve and Geir fly the kite on a reach down Salmon Inlet

Pushing for maximum boatspeed, Steve and Geir fly the kite on a reach down Salmon Inlet

To sail ClaraALLEGRO well we had to learn the wily nuances of Sechelt’s wicked tides and the capricious way that the mist disguised her wind shifts. Low pressure left over from Songda created strong outflows from the feeder fjords that met us at right angles suddenly turning a close hauled tack into a broad reach. On short tacks up the narrow Salmon Inlet, for example, unreadable microbursts of wind shot down at us. To hold our heel angle steady, Gier would drop the main traveler as Jon simultaneously feathered the helm into the lift. Like a gazelle in sea boots, Steve danced between the jib sheets to keep the telltales flying while Carl paced the deck from stem to stern (giving us his best Captain Bligh), eyeing the bend in the mast and barking for more backstay tension or adjustments on the halyards.

“Going through the gears like a sports car,” Carl called it as we all eyed the “official Beneteau speed table” mounted on the binnacle and told us a TWS (True Wind Speed) of 14 knots at 20 degrees of heel should give a Beneteau First 36.7 an optimal Velocity of 6.4 knots. We were making 7 knots pointed right into the wind.

Then it would be “helm’s to lee!” a release on the jib sheet, and we’d all jump to the other side as ClaraALLEGRO swung through the wind to find her new tack. Reaching the top of Salmon Inlet we bore away, eased sheets and hoisted the spinnaker. With the wind and tide both at our backs, ClaraALLEGRO screamed back down through that cold gray water with the chilly thrill of a downhill luge run.

Alas, for all her charm and beauty, Sechelt could be a bitch when her mood turned. A long run down to the town of Sechelt for provisions and, maybe, too long of a layover at The Lighthouse Pub, found us making a late-night run back up the arm through a log-strewn harbor and a steady rain (thanks, again, to Songda). Our reference points disappeared as the water, the mountainside and the sky faded into the exact same pitch of black.

Even with flashlights, we had no visible markers. It was too dangerous to post a lookout. Steve, at the helm, couldn’t even see the on-deck instruments through the rain, so Carl called headings from the nav station as I stood in the companionway wiping rain off the gauges and calling out what appeared to be our actual bearings as Steve steered by intuition and prayer. We had two harrowing hours of this cold, white-knuckle sailing before we made out the welcoming light at Salmon Inlet. After that came, even more, hours of dodging logs and speculating as to the location of the shoreline before we found our moorage, secured the boat and collapsed in our foulies.

Eight days out—eight days of wet clothes and missing socks—and we made ready to get ClaraALLEGRO back home. This time, though, the tides at Gibsons were not in our favor. I was skipper on that leg, and Jon was my navigator. The marine weather forecast crackled from the speakers as we crowded, once again, around the nav station, poring over the tide and current tables and tweaking out possible routes on the chart-plotter. When we did get back into the straits we would have the wind on our nose: southeastast at 20-30 knots.

Geir catches a rare break as we beat up the Strait of Georgia

Geir catches a rare break as we beat up the Strait of Georgia

“Not enough water over those shoals until mid-morning,1000 earliest. We’ll miss our window south,” I observed.

“Still, we could cheat those shoals if…” our ever-confident risk accessor said and laid a string of waypoints across the plotter. “Up the sound at first light. Count on these north shore mountains to block the easterlies early in the day, then we could round the top of Keats Island, here. As the day warms, we ride the outflow from Howe Sound out here. Collingwood Channel, just like we learned to do up in Sechelt, right out into the strait.”

“Then it’s short tacks all the way into English Bay.”

Jon smacked his hand against the hull. “Oh, but you know how she loves to point into the wind.”

It would be a brisk day with the wind in our face. We calculated a five- to six-hour run (again allowing our 30 percent safety margin) and shoved off from Gibson with the town’s lights still twinkling through the morning mist. All went as planned at first, rounding the top of Keats Island with the first streaks of sunlight shooting over the snowcapped peaks to the east. After that, we were all cocked and ready to get pushed through Collingwood Channel between Keats and the big chunk of Bowen Island.

With Gier’s slow hand on the helm, we picked up the outflow on a broad reach and stepped out from behind Bowen Island where we were welcomed with the confused chop of the open water. The full blow of a fresh south-easterly stung our cheeks. Reef the main, furl the genoa, balance the boat—we scampered about our tasks. Gier tacked us back east toward the shore. As we cleared Cowan Point, Bowen Island’s southeasterly outcrop, we picked up the northeasterly outflow from Howe Sound and I took the helm.

We got the telltales lying straight back against the genoa and the nose pushing down into the waves that bawled over the foredeck. We had a strong and steady go of it. I could feel the rudder pushing back hard against the wind. Beating hard to windward, ClaraALLEGRO dug into the sea like the blade of a skate biting into the ice. We found ourselves flying through the blue sky and the cold water of the Strait of Georgia, holding our line and letting the combined forces of wind and water do their work. 

As a kid, Marc Hess raced sunfish with his brothers on Lake Ontario. He grew up to race J/24s out of the Waikiki Yacht Club in Hawaii and Beneteau First 36.7s with the Vancouver Sailing Club.

July 2017



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