Finally, the day came to use the gathered shavings and dust. I packed my press with the mixture and placed it in a small bucket. I tightened the nut on the cap, drawing the washer at the other end into the pipe, squeezing out excess oil, and compressing the waste wood. I compressed it as much as I could and then set it in the coolest corner of the basement in the lodge.
Welcome to Episode III of Sailing Infidels: Looking In from the Outside. This is the tale of the Sailing Infidels and how the COVID-19 lockdowns impacted us, even in the remote and secluded paradise that protected us so well. While the world around us was grappling with the challenges of lockdowns after only a few weeks, by that time, we had already been isolated from society at large for nearly eight months. At the onset of the pandemic, we believed our oasis to be the safest haven imaginable. However, little did we know that it had an expiration date.
We left off last episode having made a makeshift press for our Sea Lion Oil-infused fire logs. Over the next several weeks, using scraps of teak, oak, mahogany, and cedar, I dove into several woodworking projects that had been on the to-do list for a long time, including a gimballed cradle for our new induction cooktop and new fridge and freezer lids. This also generated shavings and sawdust for my fire log project.
At the end of the lodge’s fishing season in 2019, we said farewell to the crew and our former boss, Jordan. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he would soon be promoted to manage the company’s flagship property on Langara Island. While Jordan was generally a decent guy, our relationship had its challenges. He had a “no-nonsense” approach, which is a good trait for a manager. But then again, his favourite mantra was “I don’t know, I don’t care,” which certainly does nothing to inspire his subordinates. It struck me as an odd thing for a leader to keep repeating.
So I wasn’t particularly forlorn to learn that he would not be returning to our lodge. Instead, I was eager to meet and get to know our new boss, Todd. Just before the pandemic hit, Jordan introduced me to Todd via email. As the weeks passed and the pandemic unfolded, Todd and I began to interact through my weekly Monday morning “hello world” email. Though he was mostly unable to answer my pandemic-related questions, it was still refreshing to have someone actually send a response.
As summer approached, Todd expressed his intention to bring in a relief caretaker so we could have a brief holiday. However, by that time, we had already decided that we didn’t want to leave at all. Todd insisted, citing our mental health. Though I suspected the real reason was that somebody wanted to fly in for a retreat and to do some fishing, “cabin fever” was always a real concern among management. In the past, a former caretaker had gone a little stir-crazy after running out of fuel and experiencing some food poisoning, then shooting out one of the large plate glass windows with a shotgun before being rescued in an emergency evacuation.
Given the length of our isolation so far, we didn’t argue the point too much. We decided we could sail to Prince Rupert and gather the materials needed for the new dinghy we wanted to build.
We were spending many of our days enjoying the warm sunshine amid unusually long periods of beautiful weather, doing boat projects, fishing, and, of course, soaking up sunshine and beer. When we arrived in late August of 2019, we had with us twenty 24-packs of our favourite beer. That was long since gone by spring, and we were well into the fifty 24-packs that were left over from the 2019 fishing season at the lodge.
And then one day during the second week of July, a boat quietly motored into the cove and tied up at the dock. On it, there was a lone man; he was one of the regular fishing guides. His name was Colin, and he was to be the relief caretaker while we took our holiday.
Sea state and weather would dictate when we could leave, and Colin had arrived just ahead of a little bit of a storm. It would be a few more days before we could leave. Colin assured us that he understood and that our safety at sea was paramount.
On the day that we finally left, the weather was just settling down from gale-force conditions. I would have preferred to allow another twenty-four hours for the seas to settle, but there was another gale approaching, and this was limiting our weather window to only a few days. The passage normally takes about 36 hours, nonstop.
Colin and I took a ride in his boat to see what the conditions outside of the cove were like. The seas were fairly large and disorganized, but the wind was not too strong; it was in our favour and would be tapering off over the next few hours, so I decided we would go. It was about 15:00 hours when Wendi and I finished packing our things into Cosmic Debris and were ready to leave.
The seas were confused, but so too was the world we were living in, so we packed all of our belongings, just in case things changed while we were gone and our plans to return would need to be scuttled.
We motored out past the seaward islands and into the swell. It wasn’t too long before the sails were out and we were sailing northward. Though everything was going as planned and running smoothly, I had an uneasy feeling and was constantly scanning our surroundings for trouble.
We had been away from the dock for more than an hour and were sailing in large and confused seas a mile from shore in an area known as the Chicken Patch for its abundance of smaller halibut. I looked at the bow roller, and I noticed that the seventy-three-pound Rocna anchor that normally adorns the bow roller was no longer there. It had jumped off to the side, and the chain was jammed between the roller and a length of line that served as a temporary guard against exactly this kind of situation. It was doing its job, but it wasn’t going to be long before it would chafe through, letting the anchor fall.
Normally, I secure the shank of the anchor back to the capstan and tie the flukes to the bowsprit rail above in order to keep them from sliding forward or falling if the chain slips in the windlass. This time, in my haste and preoccupation with the sea state we were facing, I had forgotten. Now it had to be fixed in rough seas, and we had no time to waste.
I pointed to the problem at the bow, and Wendi quickly volunteered to fix it. The fact that the anchor weighs almost as much as she does meant that this was not a job for her. I furled the heads’l and turned the bow through the wind to heave to. Then I donned a harness and my life-jacket and headed for the bow.
There were two distinct sets of swell that day. One dominant from the southwest and one lesser from the west or northwest. It made for an unstable platform to work on, to say the least. Just getting to the bow was challenging enough—I belly-crawled most of the way—and lifting the anchor back up onto the bow roller was going to be a serious challenge. On my way forward, I opened the port-side chain locker to retrieve a couple of short pieces of line and then continued my crawl to the bow.
I inched out onto the bowsprit on my belly. The anchor was hanging down with the fluke, almost beyond my reach, and while the hole for the trip line is big enough to accept the five-eighths-inch line that I had, it is also small enough to not make it easy.
Hove to, Cosmic Debris was sitting pretty well still, in that we were not drifting much at all. But as far as pitching goes, she was anything but still. Every wave and large unscheduled swell that would seemingly come out of nowhere and everywhere all at once would elevate the bow and then let it drop as the waves continued, unimpeded, on their path to shore.
I was lying on my stomach with my chest pressed hard against the bow roller as I reached to thread that line through the hole in the anchor’s fluke. I felt the bow begin to rise as the swell passed beneath. The bowsprit rose and rose until the feeling in my stomach told me that it was time to grab onto something solid and hang on. From my position at the end of the bowsprit, the view to the depths of the trough below appeared as though I were looking through an eyeglass in reverse.
I grabbed ahold of the sides of the bowsprit and closed my eyes. I held on with every ounce of strength I could muster. When the drop of doom was over, I heard the loud slap of the bowsprit on the water, and I felt a huge shudder that I’m sure could have been felt from stem to stern and from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast. I was instantly soaked from head to toe, but I was still on the boat.
I started again. I’m not sure how many times I went for that ride or how many attempts I made at threading the line, but I finally succeeded. I got the line through the hole, tied a stopper knot, and brought the line up and over the bottom rail of the bowsprit and tied it off. And I had managed to do it just in time for the Dyneema guard to break.
All I had left to do was get the shank back on the roller, and I’d be done. That probably wouldn’t have been such a challenge if the shank wasn’t caught below the roller, with the chain keeping it trapped there. I inch-wormed my way in reverse back to the windlass and released about a foot of chain. Once the shank was free to flop around below the roller, I was able to easily put the chain back up onto the roller.
The only problem remaining was that, in my prone position and with waning strength and a sore chest, there was no way in hell I’d be able to pull that anchor up by hand. I cranked my neck around to see Wendi standing at the mast pulpit. I shouted for her to bring me the windlass switch. All the while, the rise and fall continued. When she returned with the switch, she slid it to me across the surface of the upside-down dinghy that was strapped to the deck. I plugged it in and hoisted the anchor safely into position. I applied the windlass lock and returned to the bowsprit to finalize the securement lines.
Finally, after an hour and a half on the bow, I slithered back to the safety of the cockpit and got us back underway. Wendi brought me some dry clothes and took my drenched, soaking wet ones below. Remember, kids, never leave the dock before you’re ready!
With dry clothes on and hot meals in our bellies, we continued on into the night.
We had a couple of hours of sailing before the wind died out, and then we called up the steamin’ seaman—Green Garth—the monster that lives behind the stairs—the engine.
We powered through the entire night, unable to navigate Parry Passage with a favourable current due to missing the tide. We altered course and passed over the top of Langara Island. As daylight emerged, Langara Island became a distant sight, and we found ourselves motoring through Dixon Entrance in calm waters with no wind to fill our sails.
Around midnight, we entered Cow Bay in Prince Rupert. The government-run dock was full. Instead, we secured our boat at the Prince Rupert Yacht Club.
We awoke the next morning thinking that we had better get up to the office and check in quickly. When we arrived at the office, though, the doors were still locked, and there was nobody around. Indeed, the normally busy area suddenly seemed devoid of life. In addition to all the signs of COVID-19 restrictions, closures, and regulations, there was also a note on the door with a number to call if in need of service. We made several unsuccessful attempts to raise someone at that number. It was starting to feel like we had come to a ghost town.
Finally, near noon, we started to see dock workers down on the docks and then found a manager. He wasted no time in telling us, in no uncertain terms, that they were closed and could not accommodate us. This contrasted well with the very long, very empty dock that we were currently tied to and were standing on at the time.
Instead, he directed us to another government-run facility and provided their phone number. I called to book a slip, and then we left.
Once we were tied to the dock, we got right to work, ordering our supplies and materials and getting our COVID-19 vaccinations.
Between waiting for parcels to arrive in the mail and sourcing what we could locally and swapping out that transmission, we were done in about two weeks and then started to look for weather for our return trip.
I kept Todd and Colin in the loop as we saw weather windows appear and disappear as forecasts changed.
During our little holiday, there were some significant developments back on the islands. Relations between the Haida Council and the sport-fishing charter operators that operate there became strained. Those companies, which included our employer, decided to ignore the wishes of the Haida people and open for a limited season for a few weeks. This led to protests, open clashes on the water, and provincial government intervention, all while we were trying to get back to the lodge. The one thing no one (including us) thought of when they were coercing us into leaving was that the islands were, and still would be, closed when we needed to come back. That is exactly what happened. However, as the largest ocean on the planet, the Pacific Ocean is also an excellent place to go unnoticed.
It was late in the afternoon on a sunny day when we left the dock at Prince Rupert. Once again, we had only a short window of weather. This would give us enough time to reach Langara Island, where we would have to sit tight and wait for another favourable day to finish the trip. We motored out of the harbour, with Cosmic Debris laden with a stack of plywood and lumber on deck and much more cargo below. We sailed on a course due west across Dixon Entrance and overnight past the north side of Langara Island.
The sun had risen the next morning to find us still to the north-east of Langara, and as we turned south later in the morning, the winds began to freshen, as forecast. With winds in the mid-twenty knot range and a large windswept westerly swell, we sought refuge at the company’s main lodge. We slipped in that afternoon, stayed for four days, waiting for weather, and then slipped out, completely unnoticed by anyone beyond the staff at the lodge.
During our stay, we learned that Colin had already gone home and that the generator had been left running for the past week, 24 hours a day.
After an eight-hour passage down the west side of Graham Island, motor-sailing all the way, we arrived back at the lodge.
With autumn quickly approaching, we began decommissioning Cosmic Debris and preparing to put her back on her winter mooring. I also began to inquire about fuel, food, and firewood.
Todd coyly avoided my unrelenting questions about the fuel barge but said they would provide deliveries of food via floatplane every three months and that they would send some firewood to us by boat from the lodge on Langara.
As the Labour Day weekend faded into memory, I knew that if Todd hadn’t addressed my fuel inquiries by this time, it did not look good. When the lodge is up and running in the summer months, the generators run 24/7. They receive fuel in May before they open, and again in mid-summer. In 2019, they had shut down the lodge by the end of August, so the last fuel delivery would have been around the 3rd week of July—more than a year earlier.
The barge’s monthly fuel run to Haida Gwaii was scheduled to leave the Vancouver area on the 18th of September and would have arrived a week to ten days later during typically calm and favourable conditions. Though I knew it would be impossible to make it through the winter without a delivery soon, I also knew that that was exactly what they were going to expect of us.
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Captain Clown Boy / Wonder Woman
SAILING INFIDEL: Def. An unbeliever, heathen, pagan, heretic, agnostic, atheist, non-theist, freethinker, libertine, dissenter, or nonconformist of the sailing variety