Monday, July 26, 2010
Sailing the Dean Channel
Old friends invited us to Bella Coola for a week of sailing on the deep water channels reaching out to the Pacific.
Our mixed group, a New Zealand yachting family on the 28' Emerge and our group of six with Janice, our Bella Colla based skipper, on the slightly larger Wind Dancer headed out on a rising tide under brilliant sunshine and glistening waters. Lessons on nautical nomenclature (genoa, cleat, head, helm a'lee) moved us into the art of feeling how to sail.
A full day of tacking into the wind gave us confidence, not so much in our new skills as in the forgiving nature of a boat designed to stay upright under a wind load of sail. While our linear progress might have appeared slow, it was hard to know if we`d actually made any "forward" movement on some tacks, Janice reminded us that in sailing you are always in the right spot where ever you are. I believe this might hold as a general rule for all boats.
Handling Wind Dancer was an ephiphany. I am unaware of an experience comparable to helming a sailboat. Watching the sails full of air, feeling the pressure on the helm as the wind varied and shifted, listening to the wind sough among the steel cables anchoring the mast and the taut ropes snapping with the sails when you let the wind get away and feeling the pitch and yaw of the boat under your feet as it quartered (ideally) across the closely spaced waves characteristic of inland waters was an exhilerating explosion for your senses.
Down below in the saloon it was more like being on a runaway express train on a roller coaster track. Joy, however, didn't seem to notice and calmly read books, prepared meals and finished off sudokos there between her stints at the helm.
Most days we were alone. But our stop in Bella Bella brought us into the main channel of the Inside Passage. Large ferries moving between Alaska and Washington state navigated the narrow channel with huge barges servicing isolated communities, float planes and fishing boats crowd the local docks.
We meet a Heiltsuk fishing crew on the docks. After a twelve hour trip they'd returned with crabs, a few black cod, some salmon and a pair of large halibut. We traded fishing stories and they gifted us a salmon for our dinner. Friendly and hospitable, Bella Bella was a delightful stop. See the Heiltsuk Tribal Council http://www.bellabella.net/aboutus.html.
In the Labouchere Channel we ran into Pacific White-sided Dolphins. Their performances were both fascinating and elegant to watch. Some leapt several times their length into the air doing backflips and all of them seemed to move in teams of anywhere from two to seven or eight in number, broaching the water's surface in beautiful simultaneous arcs alongside our boat, effortlessly cruising in the shadow of our bow and generally enjoying being water mammals feeding amid what we guessed was a big crowd of migrating salmon down below.
A few days later our path crossed with a pod of whales. In the distance we saw the sudden spume as one, then another whale blew off. We slowed and gently ran parallel but opposite course to the whales. One whale raised its tail and slapped it down on the water. We saw the splash and a second or two later heard the sound of the tail, the whale repeated the movement several more times before our separation dropped them from our sight.
Late afternoons we cruised into safe anchorages for the night. The channels are deep, apparently bottomless according to our depth finder and their sides are steep. There are few places to safely anchor your boat, a critical action where a strong wind or sudden storm can run your boat against the hard stone walls of the channel. Eucout Cove with its locally maintained hot spring pool looking out over this hidden anchorage was popular.
A nearby bay proved fruitful. We caught five Dungeness crabs there, learned how to sex them and creating what we hoped was an accurate 165 mm measure to ensure we only cooked up mature males for our jumbelia dinner(fisheries regulations protect all females and juveniles). The bay had been the site of a lumber service camp, the remains of a large raft hosting a store, fuel tanks and warehouse still floated serenely at the end of the bay, obviously still used for bbqs by passing sailors. In the evening we watched bald eagles and a family of river otters playing along the shore with a pair of seals cautiously periscoping our activities from time to time. At Cape Rattenbury there was a rare beach amongst the islets sheltering our anchorage. We enjoyed a fire, Janice played an array of fiddle tunes and we sang some folks songs - Jan and Joy, fresh off their performances at the Powell River Kathaumixw choral competition (www.kathaumixw.org) added a sad romance of ice bound whalers in Frobisher Bay.
Our own place connected more with Emily Carr and the Group of Seven.