The same cruise in the opposite direction doesn't have to be the same cruise.
We were relaxing in the main cabin, enjoying one of the last few evenings of our 27-day northbound voyage from Seattle to our home in Ketchikan, Alaska, when Bina, our dog, started growling. I looked to see what she was growling at and quickly saw the object of her attention. Several people on the large cruising yacht anchored nearby had run up on the foredeck, carrying cameras and binoculars, which could mean only one thing: Something on the beach was worth looking at. We turned to look at the beach — the same beach on which we had taken our dog for a walk 15 minutes earlier — and saw a lone wolf prowling the area. Our 13-pound Cairn terrier would have made a nice snack for him.
We were anchored in Lowe Inlet, Nettle Basin, about 60 nautical miles south of Prince Rupert, on our way home after departing Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina about three weeks earlier.
The trip was the culmination of an idea that had its beginnings during the winter of 2015. My wife, Lisa, and I had decided to run our 34-foot Mainship trawler, Faraway, from Ketchikan to Seattle, approximately 800 miles, in late August 2015 and leave it in a boatyard over the winter for maintenance and upgrades. Then, after the work was complete, we intended to run it back to Ketchikan in the spring of 2016. We chronicled the trip south in the February 2016 issue of Sea, “Cruising Faraway for Repairs.” The time had arrived for Faraway to come home.
We made the southbound voyage in 16 days, a pace that many would probably term “leisurely.” The Alaska state ferry makes the run from Ketchikan to Bellingham in three days and two nights, nonstop of course. Lisa and I had both retired since the southbound trip, however, and we were not constrained by work schedules anymore. We wanted to stop at some places we hadn’t seen before, and we wanted to take our time and enjoy the upgrades and maintenance that had been done to the boat over the approximately eight months it was in the yard.
Our voyage began May 4, when we departed from Shilshole Bay Marina in light northwesterly winds and scattered showers. We had spent about two weeks in Seattle prior to that date, taking possession of the boat again, provisioning for the cruise and spending time with family in the area.
Our first couple of days were short, easy cruises, in calm, protected waters — a good way to start a long voyage. We stayed in Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island the first night, and at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes the second night. Both marinas were new to us. Services and accommodations were wonderful.
Out of Anacortes we transited Swinomish Channel, past the community of La Conner. Most of the time, the depthfinder showed less than 10 feet. As one can imagine, I paid very close attention to that as we made our way through the channel. During the southbound trip, we had come through Deception Pass, which was a challenge, so we wanted to try Swinomish Channel on the northbound trip.
The next stop was Friday Harbor, in the San Juan Islands, where we spent three nights. One of our goals for this year’s voyage was to spend a little more time in the San Juan Islands. When we were in Friday Harbor last year, the Saturday farmer’s market got blown out by a massive wind storm, so we wanted to make our return visit on a Saturday, which we accomplished.
One aspect of cruising in May and June is that it is considered early, or sometimes even pre-season. In nearly all cases, we found the marinas almost empty. We made reservations in places where we later discovered they were clearly not needed. One marina charged half the normal moorage rate because it was still on pre-season rates, which was something we noticed all along our route.
We also enjoyed a night in the famous Roche Harbor Marina, on San Juan Island. It was during the short run to Roche Harbor that we discovered a glitch. Whenever I keyed the mic on the brand new VHF radio, the brand new stereo clicked on. Apparently I missed a few things during the sea trials and while testing the new systems. Fortunately, I had a couple of handheld VHF radios aboard, which got us through until I could rewire the power sources to both the stereo and the new VHF radio on the flybridge.
Roche Harbor Marina was wonderful — there is no other word for it. Lisa said it was her favorite stop on the trip. We had the guest floats to ourselves, and the resort has a dog park in which we let Bina run off leash. And the 40-acre sculpture park was also terrific. We had it to ourselves, so it seemed like another dog park to Bina.
The ceremony of lowering the colors and firing the cannon at the end of the evening marked a wonderful time here, although Bina did not like the boom!
We received a little adrenaline burst on the short 24-mile run from Roche Harbor to Victoria B.C. It was a beautiful sunny day, with calm seas, and we were all on the flybridge, cruising along under bright sunshine. Suddenly an ear-splitting alarm sounded. We had several new systems on board, and I was at a loss to figure out which one was in alarm mode. I started looking around under the flybridge helm when it sounded again. This time Lisa pointed toward the stern, where I saw the U.S. Customs and Border Protection patrol boat, complete with four 250 hp outboards.
We did not have our radar on, since weather conditions were excellent, and the CBP boat was not broadcasting an AIS signal (for obvious reasons), so I missed it running up directly behind us. We were only a few miles from the Canadian border, which was probably what instigated the encounter.
The crewmembers were very polite. They asked a few general questions about us and the boat, and then were on their way. They were so fast I didn’t even have the opportunity to take a quick picture.
Victoria’s Inner Harbour is a very tightly controlled area, with vessels of all sizes coming and going at all times, including large military vessels, cruise ships, numerous harbor ferries and floatplanes. Therefore, there are defined travel lanes for incoming vs. outgoing vessels and planes, as well as different lanes for the larger vessels. Lanes are marked by colored cones. It is an efficient system, and we had no issues entering the harbor.
Our CANPASS certificates from last year were still valid, so all it took was a quick phone call to clear Canadian Customs and head toward our moorage, which was in what is called the Causeway Floats, directly in front of the Empress Hotel, right in the middle of downtown Victoria. Once again, I had made reservations far in advance, but the guest floats were only sparsely occupied.
Visiting Victoria had been one of our cruising goals for quite some time, so being there checked off an important box. We enjoyed three days in the area, and the highlight was undoubtedly our visit to Butchart Gardens. I am not usually impressed by flowers and plants, but the gardens were wonderful, and I highly recommend them to anyone who visits the area.
When originally planning our itinerary, I had considered stopping at Stuart Island after departing Victoria. Upon closer examination, I realized that, due to the somewhat unusual placement of the U.S./ Canadian border in this area, Stuart Island is actually in U.S. waters. To stop there, we would have to clear out of Canada and into U.S. waters for one night, and then immediately reenter Canadian waters the next day. I decided instead to go to Poets Cove Marina in Bedwell Harbour, and I planned the route specifically so we did not stray over the line into U.S. waters en route.
Almost immediately out of Bedwell Harbour, my primary navigational unit, a Garmin 3210C chartplotter, failed. It just powered off and went black. I had Coastal Explorer running on my laptop, so navigation was not the problem; lack of a depthsounder was the real problem.
I powered it back on, and it immediately powered off again. While I was working the issue, I intentionally stayed in waters where I knew depth would not be an issue.
I have a smaller Garmin unit as an independent backup, and I had it set up (I thought) to be able to be used at either the upper or the lower helm station. I quickly brought the unit up to the flybridge and just as quickly discovered that the wiring harness was not sufficiently set up to use it there. Worst case I could use it at the lower helm; however, visibility is not nearly as good down there, so I prefer to pilot from the flybridge. Plus, this smaller unit does not support radar or AIS.
I ran in deep waters for an hour or so while I let the 3210C unit “rest.” When I turned it back on, it worked flawlessly, until we got to Prince Rupert. More on that later.
CHECKING MORE BOXES
Another of our goals for the northbound voyage was to see just a little bit of Desolation Sound. I had read a lot about it, and we definitely wanted to poke our nose in there. Initially, I thought we could spend a few days among the closely situated anchorages, but a little bit of “GetHome-itis” was starting to hit, and we ended up spending only one night in Grace Harbour, which was our first night on the anchor.
The next day we made a short 25-mile crossing to Discovery Harbour at Campbell River, a nice marina with full services and access to shops, restaurants and more. We restocked the larder, and I enjoyed a great burger and onion rings at A&W.
Campbell River is the place where, on a northbound voyage, one stages for Seymour Narrows, which is a short seven and a half miles away. The current can run as high as 14 knots in the narrows, and vessels and lives have been lost there. For small boats such as ours, it is critical to time the transit at slack water, which we did.
We transited Seymour Narrows without incident and made our way up to Blind Channel Marina and Resort, where we had stopped on the trip down, but only for one night. This year we wanted to stay a bit longer and hike some of the trails that are accessible from the resort grounds, one of which is named Big Cedar Trail. It didn’t take long to figure out why. I have been hiking, hunting and fishing in southeast Alaska since 1965 and have never come across a cedar as large as the one we saw on this trail. It was indeed quite impressive.
It was while we were at Blind Channel that we became aware of the Waggoner Flotilla. Most cruisers know the “Waggoner Cruising Guide” is published each year with updated information on cruising in the Northwest, from Puget Sound up as far as Ketchikan. Waggoner also sponsors a flotilla that, for a fee, cruisers can join and make the voyage together. The Waggoner folks add value by planning the stops, providing weather reports and go/no-go decisions, helping with mechanical issues, getting spare parts delivered and installed, and more.
The flotilla, eight boats of varying sizes, came into Blind Channel Marina while we were there; in fact, we ended up in the same place with them for several of the succeeding nights of our voyage. Port Harvey Marina, such as it was, was our next stop after Blind Channel. I write “such as it was” because last winter the barge supporting the restaurant and the store sank. You can imagine the effect that had on the operations of the marina. They had moorage, fresh water and shore power, but that was about it.
Our next stop at Port Hardy was the jumping-off point for the long, exposed, open-ocean crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound. After our southbound voyage last year, I thought long and hard about what I could do to make the northbound voyage less stressful and more enjoyable. Weather jumped to the top of the list. I tried various approaches to getting better marine weather forecasts, but in the end I enlisted the aid of a professional weather router.
We made the crossing around Cape Caution and up to Fury Cove (Penrose Island) in conditions that were not as smooth as I would have liked but nowhere near what could be termed dangerous. It was a comfort to know that once we got out there, past the point of no return, it was highly unlikely to turn for the worse. We pulled into Fury Cove and set the anchor with one of the two open ocean-crossings behind us.
DRAMA TIMES TWO
From Fury Cove, we made our way up Fitzhugh Sound to Shearwater Marina and Resort, but we had a little drama along the way. The Waggoner Flotilla was running a few miles behind us when a passenger on one of the boats passed out. I overheard the conversation over the VHF radio and even relayed some communication from the coast guard for a few minutes. There was a retired doctor traveling with the flotilla in his own boat, which was very fast. They transferred the patient to his boat and the Canadian coast guard escorted them (at 30-plus knots) into Bella Bella, which was the nearest location with medical services. I learned later that the patient recovered fully and even rejoined the flotilla, so the drama had a happy ending.
In Prince Rupert, we stayed at the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club, where we had yet another exciting moment while attempting to get into our slip. Most cruisers will acknowledge that unless one is fighting unfavorable or dangerous sea conditions, maneuvering the boat at sea is relatively easy. That changes, however, when you get inside a tight harbor with a bit of wind and current thrown into the equation.
We had just left the fuel dock and received our slip assignment from the harbor representative. I started toward that slip as the representative came over the radio and loudly and rapidly gave me a different slip assignment. I turned that direction just as the wind picked up, and we clipped the anchor of a sailboat just as we turned the corner toward the slip. I felt the jolt from the flybridge helm, and from below, Lisa yelled, “What was that?”
After we got into our slip, we of course had a dialog with the owners of the sailboat. They spent about an hour carefully reviewing their boat for damage. They initially said I had bent their anchor pulpit railing. Some quick measurements proved that to be impossible, however, as the damage was much too high for my boat to have inflicted it. Eventually they agreed there was no damage to their boat. Our boat had a small crease in one vertical railing, but that was it.
Dodged a bullet on that one!
WAITING FOR THE HOME STRETCH
On the advice of our weather router, we
spent three nights in Prince Rupert, awaiting favorable conditions in Dixon Entrance, which was fine, because it is a pleasant place to stay and the downtown area is a short and easy walk from the harbor. It would have been even more pleasant if the shore power had not failed, forcing us to run the generator from time to time.
On our southbound voyage, I had avoided Venn Passage and run the extra miles going south around Digby Island, but this time I wanted to go through the passage. I had studied the charts thoroughly and had confirmed that at the time of our departure the tide would be high, giving us plenty of water in the narrow and generally shallow passage. What I didn’t count on was the problematic Garmin chartplotter acting up again. For most of the transit, I had no depthsounder. However, I was following two other boats, the tide was high and I had good GPS charting on both the Garmin unit and on Coastal Explorer — no issues.
Our weather router really proved his worth this time, and we enjoyed the smoothest crossing of Dixon Entrance I’ve ever made. Lisa didn’t even get seasick. The only real excitement came after we had been in U.S. waters for only a few miles. The U.S. Coast Guard boarded us for a safety check. Actually, I’m kind of glad they did. We passed with flying colors, and now, if we are approached for a safety check any time within the next year, we simply need to show the boarding report.
We pulled into our home slip in Bar Harbor at about 4 p.m. on May 30, after a journey of 27 days and approximately 800 nautical miles. We quickly cleared U.S. Customs and began the process of unloading and getting settled back at home.
This voyage was the completion of a long-dreamed-of plan. As with any voyage of 800 miles in a small boat, we had our issues, but overall it was a very enjoyable trip. The next part of the plan is to enjoy our first summer in retirement in our newly renovated boat in our home waters, which we are very much looking forward to.