While I have yet to have a true offshore sailing experience, I have had many adventures on the high and low seas in and around Vancouver Island. Before the Salish Sea was even a twinkle of an idea, a dear friend and I thought we would circumnavigate Lasqueti Island in his 21′ Driscoll gaff rigged sailboat. Now I can already see several of you roll your eyes, scoffing at the idea of so minuscule a goal. After all, Lasqueti is only about 13 kilometres long and a third of that in width. But we had a first class seafaring adventure nevertheless.
Now my dear friend, Alfred, was in his 70s at the time and had done a fair amount of sailing, including a 6 week return trip to Tahiti from Vancouver on a 30′ sailing vessel, using only a sextant as a navigational aide. He also enjoyed whitewater rafting, kayaking and then had lived in semi-seclusion on Lasqueti for about 30 years. He was extremely self-sufficient and weekly made his own style of 18-grain, wholewheat Bavarian bread in his wood stove.
However, his little Driscoll was sadly neglected. He pulled it out of the water each fall on skids and launched it in the spring. But of late, he was getting tired of doing regular maintenance. So when I looked at it, I had a passing wonder about the strength of the stays and the integrity of her sails. But then again, what could go wrong? Right?
But as with all adventures, what you anticipate to fail holds fast, and what gives way under pressure amazes.
Alfred and I thought it would take about 3 days to complete our circumnavigation, even without the use of his sextant. The books were out of date anyway. If we were prudent, we would be able to keep the Island within sight. It was a fine summer morning and there was a light breeze from the northwest. We loaded up the two ancient wheelbarrows and meandered down the steep hillside, along a sheep trail to the beach. It was a laborious effort to load the boat. First we had to drag the dinghy out of the bush onto the rocky beach and to the water’s edge. Then unload the wheelbarrows and hand-carry them across the rocks to the dinghy. We paddled out to the boat, shifted the goods and safety equipment onto 92. She had never been formally christened, much to the chagrin of “Rules and Regs” aficionados in the government. So she remained merely a number, which appealed to the highly obscure sense of humour that the Bavarians seem to have developed. Then Alfred rowed ashore to hide the dinghy in the bush again and paddled back in his kayak, which we planned to tow behind us for the trip.
I had stowed the gear and assembled the sails by the time Alfred had returned. We raised the sails by mid morning and rounded the point out of Jenkins Cove, heading north into the wind. No wait… As you have guessed it, we had to spend hours tacking half way to Parksville and back to make way towards False Bay. But the sky was blue and the breeze warm.
A half hour into the sail, Alfred noticed that our kayak had escaped. The old line had finally worn through. We came about and surprisingly found it bobbing happily along another track. We re-captured her, but now Alfred wanted to go back to shore to get a better line. We sailed home; tied up to the can; I watched as he paddled to shore, climb the steep hill and disappear into the bush. Thirty minutes later he returned with fresh line, paddled back and climbed aboard. With the kayak better secured, we set sail, once more retracing our long tacks to False Bay. The more perceptive of us may have recognized this minor event as a forewarning, but not us intrepid adventurers!
We blissfully tied up in a tiny lagoon in the Finnerty Islands, northwest of False Bay in the evening. We ate well, drank some wine and congratulated ourselves on a great first day. We settled into our respective bunks, Alfred under a tarp in the cockpit and me on a narrow, thinly cushioned bench in the wheelhouse. Its fine carpentry had included a rake; that is, it lay at an angle, so I risked falling out with the slightest of shifts in weight. A mosquito kept me company, feasting on my person for a long time, and sleep seemed to elude me. We could hear the rhythmic thumps of an all-night rave from over the hill. Ah, nature at its finest.
The mosquito finally had her fill, and I realized that I had found a nice nook in my bunk and was comfortable. One last look at the stars and I was going to close my eyes. Wait a minute, something was off. In my semi-slumber, I slowly came to realize that the earth had tilted. Yup. It was off by a good 20 degrees. The horizon had actually shifted! And silently too! Then the truth dawned on me. WE had shifted. I called to Alfred to alert him that HIS vessel was heeling over. All he replied was a desultory, “I know.” “Well, we ought to do something”, I thought, so I got up to inspect the problem. Earlier that evening we had spent a good deal of time tying 92 to shore with various lines, so she would stay sweetly in the centre on the lagoon. It appears that this is the precise point at which the only rock in the lagoon had also decided to take up residence. And we were now sitting on top of it. Thankfully 92 had a centre board, which we had retracted. But the boat sat precariously at a rakish angle. It was a lovely moonlit night and the tide was going out. The lagoon’s water was crystal clear and you could see the tiny crabs meandering on the rock just along side of the gunnels. The hull was wooden and had several through bolts holding bracing strips of oak. One of these had pulled through and a 3” geyser was merrily spouting forth, slowly filling our cockpit. Alfred wasn’t worried because we couldn’t sink…because we were already on the rock. Such is Bavarian logic.
Alfred readily agreed to my offer to stand watch and scrambled onto the bunk I had vacated. It was perturbing to watch the geyser merrily bubble along. After some discussion and the rest of our wine supply, Alfred suggested I plug the hole temporarily with some of his fantastic fix-all, 18 grain Bavarian bread. It would make a good plug. It had been a long-standing joke between us that his bread was the best and my store bought bread was good-for-nothing. I had my doubts about this repair solution, but got out a slice of the Bavarian, balled it up and pushed it into the hole. The result was porridge in the bilge! The bread simply separated into its original components and floated around. I then took matters into my own hands and balled up a piece of white store-bought bread, pushed it into the offending hole and completely plugged it. My white bread did have a use, and a great boating use. I figure a slice of white Wonder Bread ought to be vacuum packed and kept for emergencies on board all boats. The bread held all night and I stayed awake until the tide turned at 3am. We stepped lightly out onto the rock and gently pushed 92 free.
Now that the emergency was over, we took inventory of our supplies. All the bread had either been used in the dramatic night saving of the 92 or had gotten wet in the process. The wine was gone. Our bedding and clothes were wet as well. Over breakfast, we discussed our options. We could tough it out and continue, or abort and sail home. But first we had to properly fix the hole and assess the weather conditions. A twig quickly repaired the leak and Alfred paddled out of the lagoon and reported that there was a good breeze from the NW. He did not want to call it a day, but I thought that perhaps we should lick our ego wounds and get home in time for a beer at the pub. As soon as I said this, he jumped at the idea. I thought that he was a bit eager to agree with me, but did not want to be the first to quit, so I didn’t mind.
Off we went, the sails were up and I was looking forward to having a lively run back to Jenkins Cove. We rounded the corner and found ourselves in a blow. The wind was from the NW, but more than a slight breeze. It may have been blowing close to 20 knots, gusting 25, with seas building behind us. A tiny 21′ boat is easily pushed around in seas such as these. Our little vessel had all sails up and there was no way to reef as the waves were building and washing over the stern. I was on the helm as we surfed with great gusto along the coast. We were soon soaked. Then there was the irregular banging and smashing. Our little kayak was a-feared for her life, and was trying to jump on board. Between the waves and the length of the painter, the kayak would ride on the crest of a wave and come crashing down on the stern. Alfred did not want to lose her or damage her, so decided to bring her aboard. Bare foot and holding on to those stays of antiquity, he crept along the stern deck and grabbed a hold of the painter. He managed to get himself and the kayak amidships and started to bring her on board. 92 was pitching every which-way according to the whim of the waves. Despite this, Alfred twisted the kayak up towards him, it resisted and swung on its own out and over the gunnels, then next it was cock-eyed in the cockpit. For a desperate moment, Alfred stood directly in front of me, facing forward, holding the beloved kayak cross-ways in his arms, all the while I struggled to keep a particularly nasty wave from whipping us off course. Two things impeded my efforts, my view was obstructed and Alfred’s legs were astride of the tiller. Remember a small boat has a small cockpit. This was less than four feet long. My rudder was effectively locked. I yelled, he shifted in a way I’ll never see a second time in my life. In one motion he stepped to the left raising his right leg gracefully, yet speedily, over the tiller, torqued his body, pulled back and pushed in. In a split second I could see and steer and the kayak was safely stowed in the wheelhouse.
What had taken us eight hours to sail the day before took us one hour to return. We were drenched and tired and yet somehow had the energy to unload, retrace our steps up the hill along the sheep trail, and take off for the pub down the road for a cold one and a chance to cement our adventure, in its retelling, into a whale of a tale.
Disclaimer: No vessels were fatally damaged in the telling of this tale.