Follow The North Star
…she attempted to tie herself to a wall in the rolling galley.
The thought of leaving Shearwater by sea is too traumatic. If I am jumping ship this is my last chance to do so.
Shearwater is located on Denny Island across the water from Bella Bella, a native seaside community located on the coast of B.C., Canada. My escape vehicle could be B.C. Ferries, which makes a scheduled stop at Bella Bella. Or I could jump into a small floatplane and fly into Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. I would be safe and have to live with the fact that I deserted my ship and my Captain. I am still considering it.
An eighty-foot tug registered out of Juneau, Alaska has been our phantom companion since we left Prince Rupert more than a week ago. As they vaporize in the fog, so do our communications with them on our none too stable radio. They are a ghost ship that offers the small condolence of “someone else is out here.”
With the surge of storms we have seen little life moving on the raging seas. Tucking into Oliver’s Cove we wait for our chance to make a break into Sea forth Channel and run for Shearwater and civilization. B.C. Ferries have quit running and the tugs are hiding out with their bows stuck in bights, the storms of November are early. Days later we made the break for Shearwater.
The big Juneau tug follows us into Shearwater. Waiting at the payphone for a chance to call my kids before we take on our next big crossing, Queen Charlotte Strait, I notice the Tugboat Captains wife is ahead of me; there is little privacy in the area surrounding the payphone.
It is wrenches my heart listening to her talking to children and grandchildren in the southern U.S. Trying to keep tears under control she bids them a final farewell. She is certain that once back onboard the Tug she is motoring to her death. Crying softly she hangs up the phone and attempts to quiet her sobs, she passes me with head hung low. Such bravery in such a diminutive woman, would you climb on board a vessel that you were positive was carrying you to your grave? My mind is reeling, how often does that float plane leave for the outside world?
During their previous crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound, the Juneau Tug struggled with gigantic waves cresting on top of 20’ swells. The Captains wife attempted to tie herself to the wall in the galley to prevent battery of herself within that confined and dangerous area. A rogue wave presents itself on already colossal rollers and nails them directly on the beam. The impact causes the commercial-sized fridge/freezer to slam to the floor and wedge up against the door. Her access to the outside world is cut off until a crewmember can think to look for her.
She is beaten around in the galley for four hours before any of the crew can leave their posts to recue her. No windows and no escape; she is in her coffin on a roller coaster ride in the black. When the tug arrives at Campbell River she is treated for minor injuries and major physiological trauma. She is about to face her demons again, in this winter of storms.
What I had not realized was that this crossing of Queen Charlotte Strait was Captain Ricks nemeses as well. We had survived Dixon Entrance and were alive if badly shaken after the threat of being ground into the rocky bottom of a shallow sea in Milbanke Sound, and how about grabbing a wave that lifted us over ragged rocks by Ivory Island. Wasn’t that enough, haven’t the dues been paid? There is no mercy in the sea, no such thing as having paid enough dues.
I had lost feeling in my arms after the terrifying encounter with Milbanke Sound; this leaves me with another concern. This is the point that I refuse to get back on the boat.
I am the only crew; it’s the two of us against this literal craziness. My arms are working again, but I am afraid that I could possibly have a stroke or a heart attack if we get pummeled again. The Captain is an amazing guy. If I did have any of the above he would have to deal with three temperamental ladies: me, Mother Nature and Audrey Eleanor. I know that if I am having a heart attack or stroke it isn’t because it is a calm sunny day. Even he is not that good. My concern is that I could end up being more trouble than is worth the risk.
Coming up Seaforth Channel my hands had been shaking so uncontrollably that I cannot hold on to anything to stabilize myself. I suggest that he call one of the boys and have them come to replace me as the crew
There is wisdom in drinking too much beer. Shearwater was having its Halloween party this night. The Captain insists that we go ashore, this would be a great opportunity to relax, engage in conversation with people other than ourselves and swill beer.
Such a great time! People here are glad to have someone new to talk to as well. The night carries on into the dawn. Everyone is swept up in an alcoholic haze; we will be best friends forever and all of that wonderful stuff.
The next morning I am praying for a swift death. That man has his moments, he knows I get sick as a dog and hope for death after a night of great social activity…I am back on board the Audrey Eleanor, listing in my bunk with a major hang over and en-route to Queen Charlotte Sound.
This is the time to take on the Sound and the Strait. I watch the moons, the barometer, hold my mouth just right and sniff the salty breeze. I will walk on water to avoid crossing a Strait or a Sound at tide change, not at slack but at the change. I believe if there is an opportunity for a rough crossing this is when it will happen. Our famous crossing of Dixon Entrance sickens me to this day. At this moment if I think about that crossing and close my eyes, I am falling out of the saloon door and into the trough of the wild seas. There are times when you have no choice in the matter, but the tides are in our favour for the next two days.
In order to time our crossing perfectly we are anchoring at Hecate Island tonight and then running for the safety of Vancouver Island early tomorrow morning. Goldstream Harbour on Hecate Island is our destination. It is a difficult passage to distinguish and tricky to navigate. With a narrow and rock strewn entrance to the inside, we swing up and in on the crest of a building sea.
An eighty-pound hook is dropped and we settle in for the night. A full moon strikes a mirrored path on the calm waters of the Harbour, the stars; I can tickle their bellies. Standing on the flying bridge I hear the thunder of monster waves crashing against the small natural breakwater, which creates this bay. White froth and foam of cresting waves shimmer and are accentuated in the full moon; tons of water smash against the little wall yet again. I am feeling very unsure that this damned big ocean is going to stay on its own side of the Island.
Huge rocks, crowned with old growth trees, stunted and malformed assure me that they have managed to hang on by twisted and gnarled roots for decades. I look back at the surreal calm in the anchorage and there in all of its solitary glory sparkles the reflection of the Big Dipper with the gleam of the North Star. None of the other stars are apparent to me, but in crystal clear view is the Big Dipper. I am thinking, this is a sign, we need to turn around and run as fast as we can to the Yukon, we should not do this crossing.
First pale and pink light creeps across Goldstream Harbour as we prepare to weigh anchor. I hand crank the 80 pound anchor and 200 feet of rope and chain that make up our rode. I cannot haul the anchor up past the 40-foot mark, this is our water depth, the anchor is sitting on the bottom refusing to leave. I finally yell at the Captain that if he thinks that he can do better, he should.
When the Captain manages to pull the anchor free of the seabed, we see that a huge boulder has lodged itself on the anchor flutes. My active mind is whirling, another sign, my god we need to turn back, I don’t want to do this crossing. Yeah well, “god hates a coward,” and we leave our little haven and turn to starboard.
Securite’, securite’ breaks up on the radio weather channel…we know this chant by heart. Swells are beginning to build as we nose our bow out into Queen Charlotte Strait and beyond Cape Caution. We now have to run as far and as fast as our eight knots per hour will carry us toward Gods Pocket, there is no turning back.
Swells are building and carrying us towards Vancouver Island. Audrey climbs the walls of water and we coast 12 feet down into the trough and up we go again. Very pleasant, if only I could relax and enjoy it. A black line on the horizon signifies that a storm is moving in; god let us be off of the wide-open ocean by then. Up we go and down we glide, we are on a gigantic powered surfboard. I can see Vancouver Island! This is the warm and gentle south; this is where we want to spend the winter aboard the Audrey Eleanor. This is safety. It doesn’t matter that nirvana is still miles away, having the visual no matter how deceptive the concept of safety is, is wonderful.
Up and down, up and down, closer and closer we get. We are at God’s Pocket (fantastic diving) and the seas are such that we are going to continue on to Port Hardy. There is nothing physically wrong with my heart when Mother Nature is not terrorizing me. We are almost there!
P.S. we never saw the tug from Juneau Alaska again. Knowing their cruising speed and with the size of the waves that we watched from the security of Goldstream Harbour I can only assume that they had another extreme crossing of Queen Charlotte Strait. Once the Captains wife gets to her home in the southern part of the U.S., I truly wish that she never had to make that crossing again. This storey is for Willie Olson. Join us again for another ADVENTURE OF THE AUDREY ELEANOR.