I think the technical term is a pea souper. The fog surrounding Aretha is so thick you can barely see 30 metres ahead of you. The salty air and the moisture fills your nose as you strain your eyes scanning all around. Back on land, you just make sure you are wrapped up warm and wait for the fog to lift. It’s another matter entirely when you are on a small sailing boat and you are in one of the busiest shipping lanes on the West coast of America with huge 6 knot currents barrelling through here.
Its intense. My senses are dialled up to the maximum. Eyes and ears straining for the signs of cargo ships, fishing boats, fishing buoys, thick floating trees of kelp, submerged logs, rocks and local wildlife like Orca’s. I’m helped by the extensive electronics on board to identify what’s around us. They are devices to support instinct and good decision making and not a substitute. I have the foghorn on deck ready to sound to make other vessels aware of our presence.
It’s without doubt one of the times at sea when I’m at my most alert and the adrenaline is running. You are aware of everything around you - the slightest noise or sight or inclination warrants attention. The dangers of running into another vessel or a rock don’t bear thinking about.
We are in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. It’s the 14 mile wide waterway that separates Canada and America in the North Pacific Ocean. International trade flows in and out of Seattle and Vancouver in these waters. When we arrived here some two weeks earlier we were a four strong team of highly experienced sailors. A fresh team that came together in San Francisco and bonded to form a cohesive, safe and playful team for the 1,000 mile passage North along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington before making landfall in Victoria in British Columbia.
This time round I have a very different team. There are five very different experienced sailors on board. It is of course the original crew of Team Aretha - my wife Nichola and my three children, Bluebell, 12, Columbus, 10 and Willow, 5. It’s the first time they’ve been on an ocean passage for over a year now and we need time to blow out the land cobwebs and get used to being at sea again. Nichola in particular needs to rediscover her sea legs too as the ocean swells have welcomed her back to sea with a dose of seasickness.
For now, I’m single handing Aretha whilst my team rest and acclimatise. The intensity of being permanently switched on is in sharp contrast to the relaxing that the past two weeks in Canada.
After the high in my last blog of joining the Symphony Splash in Victoria and a few days in the Gulf Islands, my first crew of Jani, Pete and Ellis headed home leaving an empty Aretha. It wouldn’t stay quiet for long. Nichola and the children together with my sister Jess were all flying into Vancouver to enjoy time around the stunningly beautiful and remote islands of British Columbia.
I’d last seen Nichola and the children some three weeks earlier. I’d departed from the UK to spend two weeks getting Aretha, our Oyster 53 sailing yacht prepared and ready for sea. That was followed by a week at sea with the boys crew heading North. Although Aretha had been keeping my hands full, I’d forgotten how quiet life is without three excitable children around all the time.
Nichola and the children hadn't sailed Aretha for close on a year now and the excitement levels were off the charts to be coming back “home” to Aretha. I set off to meet them as they arrived off the plane. I’ve always loved that line in the film Love Actually where if you want to see Love, go and spend a little time in the arrivals lounge in an airport to see the emotions of loved ones meeting again. I couldn’t be more excited to be seeing them again.
The day started at 5am with a taxi to Swartz Bay to get a ferry to Vancouver. These inter island ferries are a slick operation as they deftly pick their way through the islands to get to the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen. It’s well organised and efficient - great breakfast and wifi with the most stunning scenery of islands literally hundreds of metres away from you and the strong possibility of seeing Orca’s.
I had a few hours before they arrived and headed for the Vancouver waterfront - buses and trains popped me out by Canada Place where I walked the waterfront and explored marina possibilities for bringing Aretha into at a later date. Like everything else I’d experienced in Canada, it was clean, well organised and with super friendly and helpful people wherever you go. You can understand why lots of people I know hanker to come and live in Canada.
One of the most distinctive things you see in all the ports out here are the seaplanes. I’ve never seen so many of them in my life. The waterfront in Vancouver is no exception and there were lines of them neatly organised ready for the short hops to the surrounding islands. You become tuned into the roar of the propellers as they take off and land - especially as many of the larger anchorages have “runways” very close to where you are moored.
I got to the airport an hour early and enjoyed sitting in arrivals and watching the emotions whilst waiting. Flights were all running on time and when Nichola and the children came through the gate it was our wonderful family moment to all reconnect with 16 conversations all happening at the same time.
We headed back to Aretha via the same route of trains, buses and ferries and at Tsawwassen we met my sister Jess who had flown in the night before and who’d be sailing the British Columbia islands with us for the next 10 days. We had plenty of adventures ahead of us.
We arrived back on Aretha late afternoon. The children were besides themselves with excitement climbing all over Aretha, in and out of the hatches, on the mast and into the boom, and rediscovering their treasures and toys in their cabins. Nichola’s words were simple and to the point “I feel like I’m home again”.
The previous day I’d reconnected with some friends we’d last seen in Grenada - Leo and Karin on their Oyster 62, Bubbles and we’d arranged they’d come over for evening drinks. The perfect way for Nichola and Jess to kick off their holiday - drinks on deck with great conversations on our different sailing adventures since we’d last seen them. The setting sun in front of the Empress hotel in the centre of downtown Victoria watching seaplanes landing provided the ideal backdrop.
With limited time and so much to do and experience we wasted little time heading out the following morning. We slipped lines from the marina and motored out past the colourful ferries that dance every day choreographed to music - as Willow calls them - the dancing boats. We kept strictly to the port side of the channel - the seaplanes regularly landing and taking off are the reminder why!
Flat seas, sunshine and Orca’s were waiting for us as we rounded the harbour wall and we set a course for Poets Cove on Pender Island. It doesn’t get much better than this - especially when you want to re-introduce the family to sailing and plan more adventures for the future. The Orcas have three modes we spotted, the first being the blow holes, the second being the fins, straight in the air moving at speed and the third the spectacular leaps out of the water. Just stunning.
Sailing these waters takes very careful navigation. Hazards abound and you are regularly reminded of these as you have the VHF on Channel 16 in the background with boats needing assistance. Strong currents flow between the islands - get it right and you are speeding along at 11 knots. Get it wrong and you are grinding it out doing 4 knots.
The tides races between the islands are powerful - with no wind and still waters they are so distinctive. You can see the turbulence on the water as you approach them and as you enter the rough areas, you can feel Aretha being thrown to port and starboard as she gets bounced around.
These are waterways you only sail by day. By night you won’t be able to spot the deadheads. The submerged logs floating vertically that you really don’t want to run into or the large clumps of kelp that float between the islands.
We spent two nights at Poets Cove and connected with long lost family whilst here. My Dad’s older brother Wilf emigrated to Canada when we was just 17 and who I was now meeting for the first time with his wife Lin. Together with his daughter Celene who I’d met in the UK some 20 plus years earlier and her lovely family could not have been more welcoming and we made plans to visit them again and spend the day with them. I knew this adventure would a journey of building different teams and experiencing a raft of different adventures. I didn’t know it would a journey of family discovering and learning more about my past and forebears. A true unexpected highlight and we’re all looking forward to coming back here and reconnecting again.
We moved to Port Browning and anchored in the most idyllic setting away from other yachts. From here, we could lie on deck at night and watch the stars complete with shooting stars and clear skies. By day we explored by dinghy motoring the channel between North and South Pender Island. We saw a family of otters, countless birds as we spotted Eagles and explored Medicine Beach - an archaeological site dating back some 5,000 years. We collected drift wood and with Jess to supervise, the children made carvings and pained Aretha boat signs for us to keep on board. Port Browning also provided a pool for the kids to play in and the opportunity to meet Wilf and the family again. We swam in a fresh water lake and were made to feel very welcome at Wilf’s home where he showed us his workshop where he makes clocks.
The days flew by. We visited Prevost Island and Ganges Harbour on Saltspring Island. We barely scratched the surface of what there is here and have been planning future trips. Our minds were now starting to turn to our trip and to preparing both the team and Aretha for a fast 5 day sail South with strong winds expected on the way. Safety is always my number one priority on board. Our rig checks - with Nichola going up the mast identified a problem. One of our spreaders needed repairing as the pin securing it was coming out and bent. The spreaders are the part of the rigging that come out at right angles to the mast and hold the rigging wires in place. If a spreader fails, the rigging will fail and the mast is likely to come down. This is stuff to take seriously. With a rough 1,000 mile passage ahead of us, whilst we could have made a fix, we wanted an expert to do the work. Better to have found this now that 1,000 miles out at sea!
We headed ashore for wifi to research where we could find a rigger. Nichola researched local riggers online. I contacted David who we’d met in Victoria at the Symphony Splash and who was previously commodore of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club. Within an hour, David had replied and Nichola had done her research. All roads were leading to Brent at Blackline Marine in Sidney - a 2 hour sail away. I contacted Brent who responded immediately and starting working out how to fit us us. We headed off shortly and by the end of the day, we were in the first Van Isle Marina and Brent’s rigger had fixed the problem. Canadian efficiency and customer service as its very finest. What could have been a big issue quickly resolved.
Our time was now running short. Two days back in Victoria for some day preparation, provisioning, a little sight seeing and we are ready to head back to sea again. Our final evening was a wonderfully civilised affair. Kathryn (from Symphony Splash) and her husband Read invited us over for drinks and supper with David and Marianne. We sat on their balcony looking out over the Gulf Islands in the most perfect setting with red wine, a beautifully cooked rack of beef and flowing conversations. It left us all with strong reminders of the warmth and generosity of the people we’ve all met in this scenic paradise.
We slipped lines the following morning, waved goodbye to Jess and headed out into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, ready for the sail South. The next part of the adventure was just about to begin. I have my usual Aretha team of Nichola and our 3 young children - now aged just 12, 10 and 5. We have a lot of sailing ahead of us and we need to be in the zone to be safe and happy. This next passage is no walk in the park.
Team Aretha sailing the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Out.