My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Savouring a small personal achievement.
With good reason, rounding Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America is still regarded as a major accomplishment for any sailor. Storms (one category above mere gales!) can rage for days with waves reaching 80 – 100 feet high. Numerous ships and countless sailors have lost their lives in this place where the winds that screech around the southern half of the planet unimpeded by land masses must funnel between South America and Antarctica.
Another cape – Cape Whittle on the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada – is not in any way famous, except very locally; it is not buffeted by the storms of folklore and is not even that much to look at. Yet, in a very modest but deeply personal and satisfying sense, for me rounding Cape Whittle a few days ago marks a small accomplishment on a long and gradual learning curve.
Cape Whittle is a long red rugged cliff about 100 feet high and stained white with the droppings of cormorants. It’s where the weather is said to change and where the east-west northern shore of the Gulf turns sharply north-east.
I rounded the cape on a clear day with light winds. A few days earlier the captain of a tug had showed me a photograph of his tug and lighter rounding the cape in a gale – only the top of a container on top of the lighter is visible above the wave about to overtake his vessel. So my rounding was extremely easy but, for me, still marks a small triumph on the long road to gain experience, competence and confidence.
Sometimes rough and anxious experience
No-one is born knowing how to sail or handle boats or anchors or understand weather. Each skill must be learned and honed through sometimes rough and anxious experience.
Don’t trust the charts!
On this 400-mile coastline from Sept Iles to Blanc Sablon even the official government charts say not to trust the charts! It’s a rugged coast with many seen and unseen dangers and quickly changeable weather. “Not surveyed to modern standards. Uncharted shoals or rocks may exist”. We’ve been warned. Sailing alone means that I must anchor to sleep each night. The rocky coastline is too near to the north and too near to the shipping lane and Anticosti Island to the south to be able to let the boat drift for a few hours while I sleep.
A few miles east of Sept Iles, I had to abandon my sailbecause of strong head winds; I was making too slow progress to reach anywhere at all. So I ducked in behind an island and anchored for two days to read and write a short story.
Avoiding a lee shore
When I set off again at 6 am in the morning, the day was clear and calm. By mid afternoon after a easy broad reach and speeding at more than 5 knots (5.5 miles/hour), the seas were building with a south-west swell. This made the entire coast a lee shore –tending to drive a vessel towards the rocks. “One mile offshore there are many rocks, above and below water, therefore it is advisable to remain outside the 73-metre (depth) contour when passing along this stretch of coast” according to the Sailing Directions. It adds, “There are many shoals with the 18.3 metre contour line and they lie between 0.5 and 1.5 miles offshore.” However, I needed to find an anchorage for the night and I very cautiously approached the coast. I didn’t like what I saw as the seas were pilling up and crashing over rock ledges and offlaying sandbars. The approach to Riviere au Tonnerre was typical of all the possible safe spots to stop for the night: “The harbour entrance is bordered by rocks and west and south winds bring a heavy sea making access difficult. Drying rocks and shoals obstruct the harbour,” warned the Sailing Directions.
I decided that the safest course would be to remain at sea and to continue through the night if necessary. However, I would not be able to go on forever without sleep. Fortunately I’d managed to get the auto-pilot working just a few days earlier which meant I didn’t have to stay in the cockpit during the cold night. With thermal underwear, two layers of clothes and rain gear and a woolly hat, I was able to keep warm standing on the steps in the companionway, checking navigation and keeping a watch for any other vessel. After 22 hours I finally reached an open bay with only a few rocks along the sandy shore. I came in, dropped the anchor and 40 metres of chain and went to sleep. When I woke at noon, the day was completely calm – blue sky and the sea almost like glass. However strong easterlies were expected by nightfall. What I should have done is move immediately and try to motor to a safer anchorage. Instead, I convinced myself that the bay was protected from wind from the east. It was, but I hadn’t accounted for the sea!
Living on a see-saw
Early next morning I was woken by the boat pitching up and down in the swells. I let out more chain, convinced I had 85 metres of chain in the locker. Imagine by surprise and horror when the end of the chain came up, only secured by a short length of rope which the riding on the swell could easily snap – taking all my chain and anchor. However, in less than a minute, I was able to secure three rolling hitches around the chain to reduce the strain. And I then as the chain went slack as the bow of the boat plunged down, I was able to pull some chain back and get it wrapped four times around the Samson post. (This stainless steel post is welded to the steel deck and welded to a shaft that’s welded to the keel; so not likely to be wrenched free before the chain broke!)
Though it has often seemed like overkill, I have insisted on doing things “properly” every day on the boat as a way to make best practices my normal habits rather than extras. This is why I had line to hand and could tie the rolling hitches very quickly. The easterly wind and the easterly swells continued to pitch “Kuan Yin” up and down for two days. It was like sitting, cooking, reading and sleeping on a see-saw for 48 long hours. Although sitting in the fulcrum of the boat eased the motion somewhat, the noise of the chain dropping slack on the deck as the bow fell into a trough, that pulled tight as the bow surged to the top of each wave was both frightening and tiring. I got up many times to make sure everything was okay. What I should have done – and will know for next time – is to have reanchored the boat in the calm and used a 30 metre nylon snubbing line tied to the 50 metre chain, so that such a long nylon rope would have stretched as the boat pitched and taken the strain off the chain. (My thanks to Mick on “Hanna”, who I met a few days later, for this advice.)
At the time, I must admit the experience was quite daunting, but has left me with much stronger faith in anchor, chain and the boat. The winds died on the third day and I sailed to a delightful horseshoe anchorage in the Mingan Archipeligo National Park. After several days of a wonderful sailing I finally began to relax. I found my new arrangement of reefing lines allowed me to reef the sails within a few seconds as winds increased, thus slowing the boat, reducing the heeling and retaining control. Using the mizzen sail with the headsail allowed me to balance the boat so that she stayed on course with hardly any correction from the auto-pilot.
Waiting out the next easterly
When the next easterly blow was forecast I stayed in Kegaska harbour to wait it out, counting my infinite blessing not to be at sea in such conditions. I was on deck at midnight checking my mooring lines for chafe when I saw the steaming light of a sailboat coming into the harbour. I waited in the rain – wearing a sou’wester that kept my neck and face completely dry – to see if the vessel would anchor or need assistance coming to the dock. They dropped the hook away from any hard objects and came alongside in the morning.
Avoiding rocks by running over them
While in Kegaska, a fishing community of 200 people with no road connection to the rest of Canada, I discovered that my GPS chartplotter was not showing my position accurately. According to the chartplotter, “Kuan Yin” was on the wharf not beside a floating dock 50 metres away. Just the next day, after leaving Kegaska, I was coming into Wolf Bay looking for a safe anchorage and had good reason to be thankful I’d discovered the error in my position. According to the chartplotter I was running over rocks awash when I could see them clearly 200 metres away to starboard. This was safe enough on a calm, clear afternoon. But in fog I might very easily have navigated to avoid the rocks on the chartplotter and run directly into the rocks in the water!!! Until I figure out how to correct the error I’ve decided not to attempt any correction. Better to know it’s not accurate than imagine the error has been correction when it hasn’t.
All these minor incidents are no more than the normal course for any sailor in summer weather. But dealing with the situations on my own has deepened my experience and strengthened my confidence. I’m still very cautious but at least the anxiety that marked most sailing days last summer has mostly disippated and I’m able to enjoy the sailing much more. These last few weeks have given me much more faith in “Kuan Yin” as a strong sailing vessel well able to make a safe voyage to Ungava Bay and back. And for me, rounding Cape Whittle has strengthened my own commitment to the voyage and added more each day to my competence and to my confidence that the dream is attainable.