We motored out of Vancouver, British Columbia, where my in-laws, Art and Nancy Millard, moor their 27-foot sailboat. Once out of the harbor we put up the sails and headed across the Strait of Georgia, the formidable piece of water that lies between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland.
We had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. to make sure we hit the tides right on our way across the Strait. Like the North Coast, tides play a big part in water travel. However, the tides up north are generally more pronounced so you have to be particularly mindful of the changes.
Another thing I found interesting about the Strait of Georgia is how the tides move. Here, if the tide goes out, it goes west. If it comes in, it moves east. Along the Georgia Strait, it's a different story.
At about the halfway point of Vancouver Island, there's a place called Desolation Sound. When the tide goes out on the east side of Vancouver Island, if you're north of Desolation Sound the tide goes north. If you're south of Desolation Sound when the tide goes out, the water moves south. Water at Desolation Sound is basically stationary and therefore it is a lot warmer. In fact, it's about 70 degrees. (Pretty amazing, considering the fact that you're a good ways north of the Canadian border.)
Even though we hit the tides right, as we made our way into bigger water, things started to get a little lumpy, but we kept on sailing. In the cabin down below, there's a bell that hangs from the wall and rings occasionally when the boat heels over. On this particular day, it was ringing constantly, as we plowed our way through some big waves. My spouse, who is not a big fan of rocky water, tried in vain to find a place on the boat that agreed with her stomach. Her sister Nancy, a longtime sailing veteran, was also feeling a little queasy, which is pretty unusual for her.
Our trek across the Strait of Georgia was nearly 30 miles. I'm sure it seemed even longer for some aboard. We sailed all the way to Galiano Island, a long skinny piece of land that runs parallel to the Strait. We motored through Active Pass which runs between Galiano Island and Mayne Island. We made our way around the south end of Galiano to picturesque Montague Harbor where we would spend the night. We tied our boat to one of the floats there and rowed ashore in the small dingy they keep tied to the stern. A nice hiking trail follows the coastline snaking its way through orange-barked madronas and pines.
That evening Art and Nancy's friend Tom McMahon joined us. Art recognized McMahon's boat in the distance as he entered the harbor and tied up at the far end. Pretty soon we saw his little one-man dingy coming our way. McMahon is in his late 70s, but is still content to sail his 26-foot boat on his own. He rowed up alongside us.
"Permission to come aboard?" he said, with an elfish twinkle.
McMahon grew up in Ireland and spent much of his working life in England. Eventually he and his wife moved to Canada where he got a job as an engineer. Tom is the one who got Art interested in sailing, nearly 50 years ago. In fact, McMahon sold Art and Nancy their boat. After an hour or so of storytelling, McMahon decided it was time to get back to his boat. He slid over the side and into his dingy and made his way back in the darkness. He had forgotten to bring his flashlight, so I guess it took him quite awhile to find his boat.
The following morning we headed out of the harbor together.
The 60-year-old wooden boat McMahon sails is really a piece of work. It was basically on the discard pile when he got a hold of it and nursed it back to health.
The boat is a little quirky, which is fitting considering the skipper. McMahon has several potted nasturtiums hanging at the stern. He's set up an "auto-pilot" system that's linked to his compass for when he's motoring. It enables him to sit on a deck chair at the bow and enjoy the scenery. Down below he has a working woodstove for cooking. Aromas of past meals mingle with the faint smell of the diesel that powers his big one-banger when there's no wind. A brass plaque from his daughter hangs from the wall. It reads, "No opium smoking!"
We headed for Ganges, a lovely little resort town on Salt Spring Island where Tom and his wife lived for a number of years. Ganges Harbor was packed in anticipation of the Saturday Market the following day. When we arrived, all the slips had been taken and people were beginning to tie up two abreast. We pulled in beside a 70-foot wooden sailboat. The skipper helped us tie to his boat. He said we were free to walk across his deck to get to the dock - as long as we wiped our feet off first.
It turns out the silver-haired gentleman was a retired trumpet player from the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Though he was in his early 80s, he lived on his boat fulltime and had been doing so since the 1970s. Evidently, when the weather starts to get nasty, he motors south to Mexico and ties to a dock down there. When the weather starts getting nice up north, he heads back to Canada.
Checking out the salesThe next morning we got up and wandered through the market. There was a woman selling cheese she'd made from milk she'd gotten from the goats she raised on her farm. Another woman was selling sweaters she'd made from wool she'd collected from her own sheep. A lot of woodwork on display. A number of pieces incorporating madrone, a local hard wood. All sorts of pottery. Musicians wandered through, playing guitars and singing. Aromas of freshly baked bread and rolls drifted through the air.
We spent the night in Ganges and the next morning got up and motored around Salt Spring Island and on up to Maple Bay which is located on Vancouver Island. The next day we motored to Telegraph Harbor on Thetis Island. Then it was on to Silva Bay on Gabriola Island.
The pace during the trip was just about right. Daily schedule: Get up, grab a cup of coffee, watch the sun rise. Eat a leisurely breakfast then walk around the harbor town or go for a hike. Take an afternoon nap aboard the boat listening to the breeze blow through the rigging on the mast. Listening to the ocean lap against the side of the boat. Eat a nice dinner at one of the local restaurants or barbecue something on board. Play cards and tell stories till it's time to go to bed. Let the ocean rock you to sleep.
On our trip back across the Strait of Georgia we were able to sail all the way. Much to the satisfaction of my spouse, things were a lot smoother this time. When we reached Vancouver, we had spent close to a week on the water. More than 100 miles of sailing. It took nearly a day for the ground under my feet to stop swaying.
Mark Mizell is an English teacher at Seaside High School. His column runs the first Thursday of each month in The Daily Astorian.