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Racing, Queen Charlottes & Heading to California

At the end of March, we finally got underway again in the gentlest possible way. We had made a decision that we would have a racing/cruising spring. With the first of two major events, the Southern Straits Race almost a month away, we decided to make a leisurely exploration of the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. The April weather was appropriately spring-like, with rainy spells leavening the increasingly warm sunshine. We revisited Port Townsend, where crafts, wooden boats and 'the sisters' rule and explored Seattle, seemingly crisscrossing most of the City on foot. Vicky insisted that her first visit to a Starbuck's should be in 'coffee town'. A tolerant server walked us gently through the menu and explained the difference between a 'wet' and a 'dry' cappucino (more milk in the wet). Unfortunately the romance of the experience was undercut when Vicky discovered that she had missed her opportunity to go to the very first Starbuck's in Pike's Market. However, there was a compensation to come. We had been searching some time for a copy of Olin Stephens book, 'Lines', in which are published the lines and plans for his 49 favourite designs, with his comments on each. We had wondered whether Olin had included 'Sunstone', nee 'Deb', but rather thought he hadn't, since we had heard nothing from anyone about it. At the Armchair Sailor Bookshop, we found a copy - with 'Deb' included. As vanity always wins over frugality in cases like these, $125 saw us and 'Sunstone' the proud owners of a copy of the book.

Though there were a few exceptions, such as Inati Cove on Lummi Island, we found most of Puget Sound and the San Juans too developed for our cruising taste. In most anchorages it was impossible to get ashore as all waterfront is privately owned, developed and in some cases almost fortified. The smaller towns and villages are pleasant, but moorage is expensive and getting around on foot is rarely easy. There were still friendly sailors and cruisers to be met, but also very large numbers of power boats whose owners and crews seemed only intent on what was going on inside their plastic and canvas 'igloos'.

By mid-April we were headed back up to Vancouver for another brief visit to the False Creek anchorage, but this time without the pressure of Vicky's target for her half marathon. A day or two in the city was enough, before we moved on to the very welcoming West Vancouver Yacht Club to prepare for the Race. As most of our Canadian racing acquaintances were based on Vancouver Island, we had some difficulty persuading them to come to the mainland, especially as the Southern Straits Race has a wide reputation as an early season gear and crew breaker. In the end, we turned over the job of finding crew to our stalwart, Norm Price, who confidently said, "I'll find you a crew." And he did. So with Norm's team of Campbell, Bill and Jack, we shot across the start line, carried by a strong ebb and a very weak, but building, SEly on a zig-zag course seemingly covering most of the southern part of Georgia Strait. In light to moderate kiting, we held on to a good position, until we rounded Ballenas Island at the same time as a weak front tried to pass over. The resulting meteorological confusion left us deep in a black hole, which we thought would put paid to any chances of a good result, especially when the return of the breeze made the next leg a light beat. However, as so often happens with the onset of darkness, it appeared that most of the opposition became complacent, confused, despondent, tired or all four. As a result, after two more legs, with the coming of dawn, we found ourselves well up in our division. With a bit of luck and a bit of judgement, we managed to avoid the worst of the flukey spots on the way back to the finish, to find ourselves after 125 miles with 1st in our division and 5th overall - not a bad result for a cruising houseboat.

Having said goodbye to our well pleased crew, we headed back to Vancouver Island, for a tour of the Gulf Islands, Canada's counterpart to the San Juans. To our delight, we found that these islands are littered with Provincial and National Parks, many conveniently placed right next to sheltered anchorages, with good access to the shore and lots of trails to hike. As a result we set out to visit as many as we could between Nanaimo and Sidney. At Pirates Cove we watched a school-party of teenagers splashing happily about in the Spring sunshine in water only barely warmer than ice. At Walters Island we walked from end to end, hardly seeing another soul on an island which, we were told by the caretakers, would have 5000 visitors during July or August. From Winter Harbour on Saturna Island, we walked to the top of Mount Warburton Pike and were rewarded with an amazing panaoramic view across the whole of the Gulf and San Juan Islands. The weather was clear and warm. It's hardly surprising that we enjoyed ourselves. Though the Canadian Gulf Islands and the American San Juan Islands are right next to each other, they are very different in character. As with most attractive water-front property in the States, everything is privately owned and ostentatiously decorated with "NO" signs. There are even some property owners who will try to prevent "trespassers" from walking on the foreshore below the high water mark. It is generally only possible to get ashore at the few towns and villages or at the few public parks. The Gulf Islands are quite different. Though there is some private ownership of the water font there are so many provincial and national parks, particularly in the anchorages, that it is easy to get ashore on many of the islands. Once ashore there are hiking trails or quiet roads, may of them little more than gravel tracks. Though real estate and housing on the islands are becoming more sought-after, there is some control of development, so that the rural attractiveness of the scenery is largely preserved. In summer, these islands are pretty over-run, not just with local cruisers, but also by campers and day-trippers. However, in the Spring, we had few competitors for anchoring room. During our gentle cruise we managed to visit most of the parks in the Gulf Islands, from Newcastle Island, near Nanaimo, in the north, to Winter Cove in the south. We rounded off our mini-cruise of the southern Straits of Georgia by picking up a mooring at Butchart Gardens. The beautifully developed and planned ornamental gardens here are world-famous and despite our lack of green-fingers and general preference for wilder nature, we were both stunned by the gardens, particularly the sunken garden which has been developed in an abandoned quarry.

Back in March we had missed the return of Tony Gooch from his remarkable, record-setting, solo, non-stop circumnavigation. We had met Coryn, Tony's wife, shore-side support team, partner on thousands of miles of amazing cruising and, ironically, the person who introduced him to sailing. Tony and Coryn have an astonishing record of voyaging, both in their current boat, 'Tanoui', and their earlier and much smaller Arpege. They have been down to the Chilean Channels twice and are co-editors of the RCC cruising pilot for Chile. When we returned to Sidney in May it was a delight to meet Tony, hear of his adventure, pick his and Coryn's brains about cruising in Chile and hear of their plans to go cruising in Alaska.

Throughout the winter we had hired a mini-store, so we could clear away some gear, keep the boat a little better aired than usual and, in anticipation of racing, keep the weight ashore. After a bit of shuffling of gear from boat to store, vice versa and boat to Norm's house, we achieved a balance of sorts and readied ourselves for the main event, the Royal Victoria's Swiftsure Race. This is in fact several Races. The original Race went out to the Swiftsure Bank Lightship and back, giving a course distance of about 130 miles - much shorter than we had originally thought. However, the usual weather conditions mean that the slower half of the fleet are mostly caught out on the Bank as night falls, in a dying breeze and a sloppy swell. As a result, a shorter Flattery Race of 100 miles to Neah Bay and back was introduced. Lately two other even shorter events for smaller yachts have been added. The Flattery is now by far the most popular, with about 100 entries divided in half by power-to-weight ratio and further split into divisions by PHRF rating. We had decided that the Flattery would suit us best. True to their record, John Curtis and Viv Worrall joined us for a further chapter in 'Racing on Sunstone All over the World'. Norm and Lee made six and we were away. -- To a dismal start. The tide tables showed little or no tide at the start. Instead there was 1-2 knots of foul tide and virtually no wind. Apart from a few light fliers, most of the fleet took several anchoring attempts and nearly two hours just to cross the start line. After that the wind filled rapidly and turned into 'Sunstone' weather, a long beat in 20-30 knots, with a few little wrinkles to make it interesting. As evening fell we were clearly doing well, but the wind was going to sleep - something of which it was clear that we would get very little, as we searched for breeze and tried to dodge the increasingly foul tide. Having stayed in better breeze offshore approaching the windward mark, we went back out after rounding. In the light running we found ourselves pulling away from most of the fleet inshore on the American side of the Strait. With daybreak, the wind filled back in, giving us a sparkling spinnaker run back along the Canadian shore, through Race Passage, with the new fair tide and across the finish line. Once again we were delighted to win our division and place 5th among the 45 boats of the heavy class.

 

While John and Viv explored Victoria, we put the boat back into cruising mode and then set off almost immediately. A long day of motor-sailing took us up to Bamfield, in Barkley Sound, by the wee hours of the morning. During the next four days we gave John and Viv a taste of gentle cruising as we explored the anchorages, wildlife and hikes of the Sound. Obligingly, black bears posed, whales blew, eagles soared and the weather was perfect. By the time they caught the 'Lady Rose' to Port Alberni and points east, John was hatching schemes that all involved retirement at an early stage.

The western coast of Vancouver Island is a delightful cruising ground - even if you are doing it in the wrong direction. The conventional wisdom is that in summer, when the NWlies prevail, you go up the east side and down the west. In our usual contrary fashion,we wanted to head up the west. However, we found that apart from a fresh beat around the notorious Estevan Point, we mostly motored in light winds, especially if we made early starts. The whole area proved to be much more developed and populated than we had expected, with signs of logging and fish farming virtually everywhere. It was too early in the season for many cruisers or sport fishermen to appear, but there was still plenty of traffic in the sounds and inshore passages. Nevertheless, we rarely shared an anchorage and there were some beautiful wild spots at the top of Ewin Inlet on Bligh Island, Nootka Sound; in Dixie and Petyroglyph Coves in Kyuquot Sound. Having visited Cook's anchorages and refitting spots in the far Southern Hemisphere, we did so also in the Northern, at Resolution Cove. Though fronts and systems can bring real weather to the coast even in summer, there are numerous really well protected anchorages.

 

By just before the solstice we were ready to head for our major cruising target of the summer, the Queen Charlotte Islands. An easy 150 mile passage from Winter Harbour saw us there and happily exploring the mostly deserted islands. We had very little company throughout our time in the Charlottes. Though the cruisers of the NW are used to a certain amount of boisterous weather, they get little experience of night sailing or passages, because of the huge choice of anchorages and waters protected by the coastal island chain. As a result the Charlottes are seen as a major offshore challenge, which few accept. For those who do come, the protected SE of the Islands is the most common cruising area, with lots of pleasant anchorages. This is also the most accessible part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park, which contains a number of Haida Indian Heritage sites. Vicky's sister Annabel joined us for ten days of tree spotting - oh, another cedar! - as well as gentle exploration of isolated anchorages and Haida sites, including the Hot Springs. She and Vicky scaled Sleeping Beauty, just outside metropolitan Queen Charlotte City (pop 1200), while Tom tended to conveniently urgent engine maintenance.

. Though QC City is little more than a village, it is a major centre for the preservation of Haida culture, crafts and art. Because the Haida have such a geographically protected and well defined homeland, they have been one of the most successful of Native American peoples in preserving their identity and their hold on their homeland. In addition, Haida arts are considered some of the finest among indigenous North American peoples. As sailors we were particularly impressed by the sophistication of their boat building, but much of the carving and weaving was also very beautiful.

 

 

After Annabel's departure, we took advice from Dave, the skipper of the local fishing boat, "Banker", took heart and ventured through the perils of Skidegate Passage. It was no pussycat, but not as bad as its reputation - and we did have good advice. The west coast was rugged and wild, though the weather was generally benign. We gingerly explored a few uncharted areas - of which there are surprisingly many - to get accustomed to the feeling when we get to Chile. We put off our visit to Anthony Island until the end and were glad we did, as it was something of a highlight, with its decaying, but evocative memorial totem poles. Though all things human are transitory, it was quite special to be able to see this world heritage site, before it returns to nature. A decision has been made not to attempt to preserve the decaying poles and structures of the ghost village, which means that despite the care taken of them, they will probably all be dust in another couple of decades.

By the third week in July, we were becoming increasingly conscious, that a cloud of work was looming on the horizon. We had originally planned to be back in Sidney by about 21 August to haul out and begin our big project of wooding the topsides and replacing all the varnish. The more we thought about it the more we felt it would be good to get an earlier start if we could. As a result, we headed back down the western coast of Vancouver Island rather than the Inside Passage, as we felt we could make bigger hops and faster time that way. This also allowed us to visit one or two anchorages which we had been sorry to miss on our way north. Vicky was particularly pleased with our visit to Columbia Cove, just south of the Brooks Peninsula, where a sea otter led her a merry chase around the anchorage, posing at every opportunity.

Our series of quick hops got us back to Sidney by 7 August. By the 14th we were out of the water and setting up scaffolding around the boat. There followed three weeks of very hard work, scraping off the old varnish, making good any failed splines, oxalic acid treating stains, machine sanding to restore the colour of the mahogany, then hand sanding. We tented the boat on the original premise that we didn't want any rain to get at the bare wood. In the event, not a drop fell, but the tent was just as useful in keeping off the sun in one of the hottest and driest summers on record. At one point we were worried that the boat might start to crack lots of splines in the heat. However, we managed to start getting varnish back on quickly enough to avoid most problems and by 6 September 9 coats had gone back on to what was by then a richly reddy-brown coloured hull. The effort was worth it. But it would have been very difficult without the moral and logistical support of all our Sidney friends, particularly Lee, Daryl & Diane, Campbell & Jen, Ewing & Morag and Bryan. Our last ten days in Canada were a flurry of visits to all the specialists who would cost us twice as much in the USA, doctors, dentists, opticians, etc. In addition, we had to empty our store and refind all the holes into which the gear was supposed to fit. Sunstone's boot-top sank once again to real cruising level. On 20 September we sailed from the The Royal Victoria Yacht Club, departing from Canada for the last time, at least for the foreseeable future. We had thoroughly enjoyed our time in BC, where we had not only enjoyed its wonderful wild beauty, but been befriended by many hospitable Canadians. BC is a wonderful place to live and we were sad to leave.

For our trip down to San Francisco we were joined by Campbell Good who wanted to get some offshore passage experience to add to his many racing miles. Unlike some of our more recent experiences, we were cleared in to the USA at Port Angeles by two delightful, friendly and efficient officials and set off next morning on what we hoped would be a straightforward passage to the Golden Gate. It started that way. After motoring all day through fog through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we picked up pleasant weather and a good breeze the other side of Cape Flattery and made good time southward. The breeze faded at the two thirds stage of the trip just north of the Mendocino Ridge. As we motored on, there were two heavy thumps on the hull and Vicky watched with some alarm as a 20' log popped out from under the hull. We checked the bilge and other tell-tale indicators for damage and found none - until we tried to make a major course alteration. It then became apparent that all was not right. Head down inspection with a diving mask revealed that the skeg had been hit hard enough to cause a two foot vertical split, effectively jamming the rudder. Fortunately in the calm conditions it was possible to rig the Monitor to act as a jury rudder, though we knew it would not be up to the task if the wind and sea rose.

On inspection of the chart, we decided that motoring the 90 miles to Crescent City was our best option, as continuing to San Francisco was too risky. The calm weather held, though we had to motor through thick fog across shipping lanes. Just after dawn we rendezvoused with the local Coast Guard just off shore of the harbour. We managed to steer our way in, all but the last couple of right angle turns, which the CG rib helped us negotiate. Though Crescent City is not what you would call a hub of yachting activity, everyone was extremely friendly and helpful, freely giving advice and tools. We were hauled out almost immediately and managed to get to work on the repair the same day. After one or two false starts occasioned by discoveries of the excellence of Scottish yacht construction, we settled on Plan B2, putting heavy stainless straps on either side of the skeg and squirting epoxy into the dried out split. We reckoned that by the time we finished, four days later, the skeg was considerably stronger than it had been to start.

Our trials were not entirely over, however. As Campbell had to return to BC, we continued south in our usual way. Half-way through the first night the engine temperature alarm went off. There followed two hours of trial for Tom as he traced first a fresh water hose problem and then a saltwater pump defect. In the meantime, Vicky had her own trials on deck as a large pod of gray whales decided to enliven the night with their antics. Several came so very close and even under the boat that Vicky had spray over her face from their blows. It was a relief to get the engine going, which as usual moved the whales further away. Though we missed the tide to go in the Golden Gate on the evening of 1 October, we had a good night's sleep at anchor in Drake's Bay and took the tide into Sausalito the next morning, where we anchored among cruising friends and could begin plotting the next episode.

 

Having settled into the friendly houseboat neighborhood of Berkeley Marina and put a further two coats of varnish on the hull, we were ready to go. We had decided some time earlier that we would probably do our inland travel from San Francisco rather than San Diego. Our enquiries about berthing in San Diego confirmed this, so we agreed with Bill and Jane McLaren from 'Vagrant of Clyde' to share the expense of a car and the chore of driving 2000 miles to the Grand Canyon and back via Yosemite National Park. It was a wonderful trip, despite the long hours in the car, driving through desert landscapes, which were not altogether featureless, but not particularly interesting, nevertheless. The spectacular impact of the Grand Canyon is enough to make up for any other tedium. We saw it at all times of day and from down in the Canyon as well as from its rim. Vicky was determined to take the hike at least most of the way to the bottom and the rest of us acceded, with only mild misgivings. Fortunately, though the weather was still quite warm, it was only really hot at midday in the bottom of the canyon, so the hike, 3000' down and up, was relatively comfortable - though Jane might not altogether agree.

On the way back from the Canyon we took a more scenically varied route up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. This brought us close past Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in North America outside Alaska, and to the eastern side of Yosemite. This allowed us to take the road up through the 10,000' Tioga pass in the Sierra Nevada. Yosemite is filled with huge slabs and domes of granite, all carved by the ice age into an amazing landscape. Each turn in the road brings another stunning view, as did our walk up to Vernal Falls, though the most spectacular outlook is probably that from Glacier Point, overlooking the whole of Yosemite Valley and the western side of the mountain range. It was quite a trip, not least because of the entertaining and enlightening conversation of the company.

 

 

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