Ketchikan Stories and Tips

3: There the sea I found

An eagle Photo, Ketchikan, Alaska

There the sea I found
Calm as a cradled child in dreamless slumber bound.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley -

Before leaving Bella Bella the following morning, there were errands to run. We had to stop by the Marine Centre at nearby Shearwater to see if they could repair the alternator, plus we needed to stock up on provisions at the small grocery store in Bella Bella. I also needed a fishing license – a whopping $40 for a five-day permit, which I didn’t begrudge paying as so far as I could tell selling marine equipment and fishing licenses or catering to sport fishermen was about the only moneymaking proposition in Bella Bella.

We made the run over to Shearwater in the skiff. Coming up the ramp from the dock, Jay paused to point out a bald eagle perched in a dead tree. Bald eagles are a common sight along the British Columbian waterways, and while I’d seen them elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and even on the East Coast not far from where I live, I doubt I’ll ever see them again in such concentrations. The man who had driven me into Bella Bella the day before had reported seeing thirty-five of them in a single day.

While Jay was consulting with the repairman about the alternator, I passed the time looking over boating supplies at the marina, essentially clueless as to the purpose of most of the items. By midmorning we’d finished the provisioning and repairs, but there were still further mechanical preparations that needed to be made. Finally at around noon we were able to weigh anchor. I made a modest contribution to this procedure, standing in the forward head and making sure the anchor chain was stowed properly. The Viking Fjord’s lugger engine made a surprising amount of noise. For some reason, I had conceived of the voyage as essentially a quiet affair, but this was definitely not the case when the engine was running.

More surprising, however, was the smell of diesel fuel wafting up from the engine room into the saloon. When the saloon windows or doors were open, this effect was minimal, but then it invariably became quite chilly. I must confess that one of my many faults or peculiarities is a hypersensitivity to smell. Merely spending a few minutes’ time at department store perfume counter can bring on a splitting headache. As a consequence, I spent much of the voyage out on deck or up in the wheelhouse, both blessedly diesel fume free.

Of course, during the first few hours of the voyage the last thing I wanted to do was sit in the saloon. Merely leaving Bella Bella behind, then rounding a bend and viewing what seemed like an endless broad channel ahead, seemed quite an accomplishment. My only disappointment was that there were so few on hand to observe what I deemed our stylish departure. Only a sprinkling of small craft were near Bella Bella, and soon we left these local watermen behind us. We would see only a few vessels over the next few days. The sense of isolation, of being beyond reach of man's help or hindrance, grew increasingly profound as we progressed.

The gentle movement of the boat, not quite up and down or side to side, but flowing over the water with faint jostlings, exerted an almost hypnotic effect. Then came that curious sensation, so pronounced on boats, of things slipping by, almost as if – and this has never made sense to me, yet it always seems so – the land were moving and not us. Part of this may have had to do with the stillness of the water and smoothness of the run. Yet we were indeed moving, as the throb of the engines and the broad wake spreading behind us testified.

Heading for the Milbank Sound, we cruised at a moderate pace of about 7.4-8.4 knots, the speed measured in nautical miles per hour, a nautical mile being approximately 1.2 miles. The distinction between nautical vs. land measurements and terms has long fascinated me. Of course, by virtue of reading Patrick O’Brien, Horatio Hornblower, and suchlike, I at least knew starboard from port, but I felt completely baffled when I first glimpsed at one of the boat’s nautical charts. Latitude and longitude, depths and bottom contours, tides and hazards – it was all quite beyond me. I might venture that after several weeks if not months of diligent effort that I might make some vague sense of it, but on the whole I was simply glad that there would never arise any conceivable occasion when I’d be called upon to actually read a chart.

Several hours out of Bella Bella, I received a bit of a shock when bringing Jay some coffee up in the wheel house.

"Thanks," he said, accepting the cup. "I needed that. Here. Would you mind taking the wheel for a bit? I need to go check how the engine is doing."

"But..but…" I sputtered. "I don’t know how!"

"Just follow this line on the GPS tracker, " he said, indicating a line on a map displayed on the laptop next to the wheel. He then gave a two-minute crash course on how the GPS system worked. Our course had been laid into a laptop running a global positioning program. The person at the helm simply followed the line shown on the screen. A small red icon represented the boat, and all that was necessary was to keep the boat icon aligned with the line representing the course. It was almost mindlessly simple, really.

But during the first few minutes alone at the helm, I felt utter panic. With exaggerated vigilance, I scanned the channel ahead for the one thing that I'd been warned about - stray logs. Each minute or so, I’d nervously flick my eyes downward to check the computer screen, making sure I was following that sacred line.

After a quarter hour or so, it miraculously transpired that I had not sunk the boat, and I began to breathe normally again. I found that steering was largely a matter of reacting to whatever currents were affecting the boat, and that I could feel the tension against the wheel and steer to counteract it. What I found hardest was reconciling the shape of the channel and surrounding terrain with what was shown on the GPS screen. It was as if the shapes on the map were more real, more easily understood, than the indisputably concrete but less easily analyzed vista before me. I was just beginning to feel uneasy about this incongruity when Jay re-entered the wheel house and I happily relinquished the helm.

At around 7 p.m., we turned into Kynoch Inlet, a deep channel with spectacularly steep cliffs on either side. The forest seemed to close in purposefully, almost menacingly, as the channel narrowed. The endless forest was monotonously uniform, consisting mostly of dark conifers relieved by an occasional stand of birches. Punctuating this dense greenery were numerous waterfalls, varying in size and spilling from the snow-capped peaks of the coastal mountain range. An hour and countless waterfalls later, we reached the base of the inlet and began to look for an anchorage.

The word "anchorage" has such a solid, reassuring sound, but I soon found that, as in all things have to do with boats, there is seldom any certainty. I’d assumed that anchoring the boat would be a simple thing: just find a likely spot and drop the anchor. However, the channels and inlets of the Inside Passage can be extremely deep; often the drop-off from the land is immediate, with a spot just offshore being several hundred feet deep. Finding a spot that is shallow enough to drop anchor and yet not too shallow can be a tricky business, especially as it may not be clear whether the anchor has "set" or not.

We let out some 375 feet of chain at a spot that, according to the nautical chart, was about 90 feet deep. It was then a matter of watching the depth finder and chain to see how far we drifted. There was, of course, a considerable radius of drift for a boat anchored on 375 feet of chain, and so there was the suspicion that perhaps the boat wasn’t anchored at all, that it was merely drifting. Only when it became apparent that the boat was drifting within a circumscribed radius could some measure of certainty be gained.

(continued in Part 4 . . .)

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