Every decision we make comes cloaked with balance and sacrifice. Traveling by sailboat is racked with decisions; tiny choices made each day that can have drastic impacts on our comfort, safety and experience. Will this anchorage offer protection from coming storm winds or accelerate them down its steep hills into the bay? Should we hoist the dinghy or tow it? Can I hit snooze and still make it through the narrows on a slack tide? Should we leave now or wait for the weather to change?
When we arrived in Sandspit at 3:00pm on Wednesday, we had traveled 675 nautical miles in 13 days with only 1 day of rest (when we went bushwhacking with bears). The adrenaline of leaving Seattle had worn off, and fatigue was setting in. We all craved a day or two free from the restrictive confines of a small vessel and the tedious rumble of an unremitting engine. But there was a weather window ahead of us, and it was closing fast.
Our next passage, up Hecate Strait and across Dixon Entrance, was a challenging one. Hecate Strait is a shallow gulf of water between the northern half of Haida Gwaii and the islands that dot mainland Canada. When the ice sheets weighed down the west coast of Canada 12,000 years ago, and Haida Gwaii, sitting on the fun end of the see-saw, heaved skyward nearly 150 feet, Hecate Strait became a sand bar that stretched nearly across to the mainland. Today, the deep disturbed waters of the Pacific come screaming into the Strait on the backs of big storms and strong tides and generate a washing machine-esque effect for little boats. Once clear of the shallows of Hecate Strait, we would encounter Dixon Entrance, one of the few compulsory unprotected stretches of the entire inside passage (from Seattle to Southeast Alaska). While it is considerably deeper than Hecate Strait, it is completely exposed to the whims of the Pacific to the west.
So we wanted to choose our crossing time carefully. Ideally, we would leave with light southwesterlies and low swell, timing our departure to enjoy an outgoing tide as we rounded Rose Point, the northeast corner of Haida Gwaii renown for strong uncomfortable currents. But “light” and “southwest” are very seldom heard together in a forecast in the pacific northwest. The following morning offered the next best thing; 10-15 knots from the northwest with settled seas. By the afternoon, the wind was expected to build to 20, then on to 25 and 30, where it would remain for the foreseeable future. We had a window, it was short, and it was closing. To make good on that forecast, we’d have to turn and burn from Sandspit, motoring out of the harbor by 11 that night, a disappointing 8 hours after arriving in town, and a mere 4 days into our Haida Gwaii exploration.
We circulated the iPad (with the charts), the iPhone (with the weather report) and the Douglas Guide (with the descriptions) around the huddle in DogBark!’s cockpit, discussing our options. We could leave that night and run for Alaska, taking advantage of the most favorable forecast on the horizon. But the whole crew was weary from a string of long passages, and unsatisfied with such a short visit to these extraordinary islands. On the other hand, there was no better weather window in sight. If we pushed off the departure, we might be in for an uncomfortable, or some might go so far as to say miserable, passage later. But we were ahead of schedule, and due for some lay days. On the other hand, while we all wanted more time to explore, with the strong winds predicted we would be caught in a harbor and unable to sail the coast. “City” time was liable to make us all a little stir crazy. But spending time in Haida Gwaii is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it would be sacrilege to truncate our time unnecessarily. On the other hand…
The discussion went round and round. A friendly conversation with a local fisherman dropped a third option onto the table: navigate through the extremely narrow and shallow passage between Moresby and Graham Island, nicknamed “the gut”, and sail up the west coast of the islands, where there would be a more interesting shoreline, better fishing, and no Hecate Strait.
The cruising guide dedicated a page and a half to all of the reasons a sailboat should never attempt a transit of the gut. The channel shifts and is hard to identify; some sections drop to a meager 2 feet of water at low tide; currents run up to 8 knots; tight corners require slalom-style steering. The fisherman shrugged all that away. Hit it at a high slack tide, stick close to the channel markers and take it slow, he said, and you’ll make it just fine.
Graeme got excited. That west coast contained some world class salmon fishing he wanted to check out, and the sailing would be better with the steady Pacific winds. But DogBark! draws almost 10 feet of water, and her bow, stretched nearly 60 feet in front of her small but insistent rudder, likes to stray and weave with the wind.
Hula Girl, requiring only about 4 feet of water beneath her, and with two engines well in control of her squat bow, had no qualms about going through the gut. But the idea of the open Pacific swell rolling along the west side of the islands didn’t sit so well with her. She stays true to her name when the seas get lumpy, dancing and undulating to the beat of the ocean until the coffee maker hits the floor. While Hecate Strait is wily, the protection offered on the inside of the islands must be more comfortable than the open ocean for a little trawler, right?
We went round and round some more. I kept reading the same extended weather forecast, hoping it would look a little better if I just read it again. We needed to start taking options off the table. Eventually we decided that while “the gut” sounded mighty exciting, it was a risk not worth taking with such a big endeavor ahead of us. It was the more conservative option to stick to the east side of the islands and try our hand in Hecate Strait, rather than risk DogBark!’s deep keel in the gut and Hula Girl’s hula-dancing nature in unobstructed pacific swell. We had narrowed our decision to two immediate choices: leave now to ride the moderately good forecast or rest and explore in Sandspit until the next weather window opened.
Do we stay or do we go? Dinnertime was approaching, and we were weary of all the hemming and hawing. The weariness of making the decision compounded our travel weary bodies, and we eventually settled on staying. Sometimes, the act of reaching a hard-earned decision injects new energy and anticipation, but not this time. A wave of relief and exhaustion swept through the cockpit.
We made the most of our bonus time in Haida Gwaii. John, Graeme and I went for a wet and wild fishing expedition in the dinghy, in which we transited the gut and witnessed the stunning raw beauty of Graham Island’s west coast but received not a single nibble on our fishing lures. All nine of us piled into a rented minivan and toured Graham Island’s road (singular) for a day. We sped along the coast of Hecate Strait, toured a quirky old logging museum, hiked up to a lookout, and ate a late lunch at Sheri’s Gas Bar & Grill, the best food in town. We did our laundry. We took naps.
And twice a day, when the updated marine forecast was issued, we poured over those little arrows and suggestive numbers. NW 15-25 building to NW 25-35 in the afternoon, then become NW 20-30 overnight. Not yet. We stayed another day, and the buffer built into our otherwise tightly scheduled journey evaporated.
We returned the car, fueled the boats, hoisted the dinghy on the bow, and stowed the galley. And listened to the forecast again. There was a short lull in the strong northwesterlies the following morning, like the quick intake of a breath before resuming a loud whistle. The seas wouldn’t have enough time to calm from their 2-3-meter state, but it was our best shot (well, maybe second-best shot, but the first one was a few days behind us). On Hula Girl, we battened down the unbolted chairs, made a big pot of pasta, and donned scopolamine patches (miracle sea sickness prevention, if remembered and applied some hours before departure).
The passage was fairly miserable. To hit Rose Point on a slack tide, we ran with a following current into strong winds in Hecate Strait, bashing and lurching through the washing machine seas. The projected weakening wind, that quick breath before the strong winds returned, was forgotten in the confused lumpy waves that dominated the landscape and absorbed every inch of our focus. Both boats had issues in the night that added stress and anxiety to the already unpleasant passage.
Once in the protected waters of southeast Alaska, we had miles to make up. We only had a week to travel from Ketchikan to Sitka, a 300 nautical mile distance. We pulled many 12-14-hour days in a row, soaking in the surrounding beauty as we motored by. Glaciers streaked right into the sea, waterfalls plummeting hundreds of feet, craggy peaks dotted with snow, even a few feeding whales and lumbering bears. It was stunning, even if we did witness much of it from the window of a moving boat.
The “what ifs” haunted me. What if we had left that first night in Sandspit. Would the passage have been calmer? Maybe we wouldn’t have had stressful midnight boat issues. Maybe we could have spent an extra day soaking in the hot springs on Baranoff Island, instead of blasting by to get to Sitka on time. What if we’d gone through the gut. Would the seas have been more predictable? Maybe the winds would have been lighter than predicted. Maybe we could have caught a pile of salmon.
Or maybe not. That’s the thing about making a choice. The other options soon disintegrate into illusions, draped with “should have’s” and “good thing’s” and “what if’s”. We made the best decision we could with the knowledge we had in the moment, and it led us along down a weaving winding path of experiences unique to that choice, like the current that pushed us along our fish-less dinghy slalom through the gut.