There are a few perks to being a sea kayak Instructor/Guide. Like being invited to join a focus group run by Mustang Survival. In Canada, Mustang has long been a go-to brand for recreational boaters, commercial fishers and racing sailors. But, with the exception of a manual inflation vest that’s popular with paddlers who can’t find a foam PFD that fits their body shape (or who just find foam PFDs too warm), Mustang’s products haven’t been top-of-mind in the sea kayaking market. They’re gunning to change that. Which is why I found myself, along with three fellow instructors, doing dawn patrol on a crisp, sunny fall morning. Continue reading
July 2, 2010
Back in the day, Butedale was a thriving, company-owned fish canning community of several hundred people. “The day” ended in the 1950s. Since then, the rain forest has been relentlessly reclaiming the town. Today, only a few buildings remain habitable. Lou, the 65-year old caretaker, lives in one, and he rents out rooms in a couple of other cabins to recreational fishermen and the occasional kayaker.
We “broke camp” at the hotel in Port Alberni about 7AM and hit the logging roads in my Subaru. Enroute, we took an unplanned detour down the wrong fork of the multi-branching and sparsely-signed roads. This was moderately embarrassing given that both Chris, my paddling partner, and I teach kayak navigation. In fairness, that’s all about navigating kayaks on the water, not on a roof rack. Despite the magical mystery tour, we reached our put-in at Poett Nook just before noon.
Though I’ve been kayak touring for decades, I’d only used ruddered kayaks on tour. My skeg boating had been limited to daytrips, guiding and teaching, so I was very excited to have a borrowed skeg boat for this multi-day trip. To my chagrin, I hadn’t been nearly ruthless enough in winnowing my gear to fit its narrower holds. Despite a hour of playing Tetris with the cargo, I still wound up with a couple of drybags lashed to my rear deck, and looked more like a peddler than a paddler. (In my defence, since we were headed out to a possibly arid archipelago, we were carrying a full week’s worth of water. Touring down the wet coast, I’m more used to carrying just a couple of day’s worth.)
We launched about 13:25 and paddled with the inflow wind and waves on our port quarter toward the San José Islets. (Yes, we knew the way to San José.) Both Chris and I were frustrated to find our skegs were jammed and wouldn’t lower via the slider switches. Luckily, we could “buddy up” and reach under each other’s sterns (of the kayaks, that is…) to pull things down into place. Having made our turn east at Tzartus Island, we had an excellent run before the wind to Fullerton Point. There we had to turn into the wind and waves for the final leg to the Studd Islets.
It was at this Point (so to speak) that things began to go a bit pear-shaped. My cockpit turned into a bathtub, with several inches of water sloshing around my butt and thighs (hurrah for drysuits!) My (also borrowed) handpump sucked. Or rather it didn’t – so I had to bum Chris’s in order to bail the boat. Afterwards, I made very sure the skirt was well sealed to the coaming, but still had to pump the boat out again before we landed. If 30 years of kayaking and various Paddle Canada courses have taught me anything, it’s that the water is meant to be on the outside of the boat.
Every trip has a theme, and the theme of this one was quickly emerging: meeting equipment challenges. Oddly, this didn’t bother me. I’ve been touring long enough to have confidence in my ability to adapt, improvise and overcome. So I was perfectly at peace as we pulled our boats up the beach at the Studds. They were just as beautiful as I remembered them from my last visit 20 years before – the water over the sand shallows still the near-tropical turquoise colour, the view to the Pacific horizon as lovely. And amazingly, we had this paradise all to ourselves.There was clearly some kind of leak in my boat, but we had a safe harbour, food, water and the time and materials to find and fix whatever the problem was. For now, there was camp to make and supper to cook. It was “sufficient unto the moment.”
My Zen state held even as I shook out my tent and was enveloped in a blizzard of flakes – the waterproof coating had delaminated with age. It was all good; I had a small tarp I had brought as a second roof. Originally, I’d intended it to reduce condensation in the tent. Now it would serve as the main rain barrier. This was, as I’d realized, the Meeting Equipment Challenges Trip.
Sloshing water around in the cockpit quickly ferreted out the leak in my kayak: it was at the juncture between the tubing that houses the skeg cable and the box for the slider switch. We patched this with two-part putty from my repair kit.
Cooking dinner was a co-operative affair. My veggie-choizio pasta was well received, which was especially gratifying given that Chris was a professional cook in a previous incarnation. My dessert offering was chocolate pudding in cups, generously splashed with Cointreau, and eaten while watching the moon and Venus rise into the clear sky.
Up a bit before 8AM. After a leisurely breakfast of hash browns and bacon, we romped down the west coast of Tzartus for a daytrip. With a bit of an inflow headwind on the outbound voyage, I was glad the boat was only partially loaded and that we’d fixed the leak. The sun was out and the paddling was glorious.
The run home was before a diminishing wind but an increasing swell and included a dogleg to pass behind a tug and its long tail of log rafts. As expected, we had sitemates back at camp – a very friendly group of older paddlers.
The equipment challenge theme continued with the discovery that my VHF radio had somehow got turned on and the battery was completely drained. Fortunately, we had Chris’s VHF and the barometer in my watch for weather forecasting, and I had a PLB on the shoulder of my PFD in case of an emergency where I was separated from Chris.
In turn, Chris learned that his new Pocket Rocket stove offered two options for cooking in any kind of breeze: crank it up and cremate your food, or turn it down and enjoy a paleo diet. Fortunately, I had enough spare fuel for my wind-shielded stove to cook all our meals for the trip if needed.
Up as planned at 6AM to catch the forecast. With 15-20 Southeast winds predicted for later in the morning, we decided to make an early run for Diana Island. We experienced virtually no headwind until we were abeam of Robber’s Passage, when we hit a strong, steady breeze, and large but non-breaking swells. Mostly non-breaking, that is: there were some truly impressive boomers to our north.
We landed on the lee (east) side of Kirby Point just before noon, and made camp quickly as we were uncertain about what kind of weather might be coming our way.
After lunch, we followed a bushy trail to the other side of Kirby Point, finding a headstone with a sunken grave (remnants of the small European settlement that once existed here), a native burial site and a “Hobbit Lean-To” that someone had constructed out of driftwood propped against an uprooted tree. We also wandered out along the edges of the bay, exploring the tidepools.
In an effort to make the crusts really crispy, I slightly burnt the bottoms of the supper pizzas. But maybe “blackened” pizza will be the Next Big Thing for jaded foodies on a constant quest for the new and novel? Either way, it was still quite edible and we had leftovers for the next day’s lunch. Curiously, though we were full of pizza, we still had room for shortbread cookies.
By mutual agreement, we didn’t paddle today – the wind was strong from the west and the seascape heavily punctuated with whitecaps. I took advantage of the spare time and fuel to have a hot shower. Then we had a leisurely pancake brunch under Chris’ large and excellently-rigged kitchen tarp.
The afternoon was spent in general sloth: reading and napping in our respective tents.
We later discovered the racoons on the island are particularly clever. They’ve helped themselves to our whiskey – the line in the bottle is several inches lower than we remember it – and even resealed the cap in an attempt to cover up their crime.
It rained periodically through the night. We were up about 7:30 to breakfast on oatmeal with chunks of fresh apple and candied ginger, then launched for a daytrip about 10:30.
We made our way along the west sides of Diana and Edward King under low cloud and with a light following breeze and incoming swell. The supposed campsite on Edward King looked landable if you tucked far into the northeast corner of the shallow bay, but launching in any wind from southwest to northwest might be pretty dodgy, with reefs tripping the swells into breaks.
The oncoming swells grew larger and steeper as we got further west down Hammond Passage. We periodically lost sight of one another on opposite slopes of moving liquid mountains. At the Bordelais Islets, the most seaward rocks in the archipelago, great grey seas swept in, exploded impressively against the rocks, hurled geysers of foam into the air, then fell back like repelled invaders before renewing the endless assault. We arced well out to sea to avoid claptois reflecting off these rocky ramparts.
The southeast coast of Edward King was dotted with sea caves and sea arches. Chris got slightly too bold in the entrance to one and had to backpaddle and brace as a “seventh wave” tried to surf him into the cave’s far wall.
We landed for lunch on the southeast corner of Haines Island about 13:00 hours. The weather kindly opened up into a warm haze, so we didn’t need to rig a tarp. I discovered more than a gallon of water in my bow compartment, and assumed I’d failed to seal the hatch properly when we launched that morning. Just as we were wrapping up lunch, the heavens opened up and bombarded us with everything they had. No problem once we were buttoned back into our boats.
Arriving back at camp about mid afternoon, I found about a quart of water in the bow compartment. Since I’d sealed the hatch very carefully after lunch, we did a leak test with more water. Drips revealed a crack right through the keel. Providentially, the break was 4 ½ inches long – just short enough to be safely overlapped by the 3 x 6 patch in my repair kit. Also fortunately, the sun came out to cure the UV-activated resin in the patch. And I had just enough putty left in the repair kit to put a reinforcing bead along the outside of the keel.
We supped on Pad Thai, with steamed pudding and custard for dessert, then lingered over a campfire and Bowmore’s til about 23:00.
The incoming weather brought cooler temperatures – I zipped up my sleeping bag for the first time on this trip.
Up shortly after 7. We carried the boats to the edge of the sand, just where it gave way to slippy, seaweed covered rock. This let us pack as the tide rose towards us, and launch at 11:50. (No deck cargo on the voyage home; we’d eaten and drunk our way into the boats.) Enroute home we checked out the Ross Islets – a large pod of kayakers was already encamped there.
We explored the southeast coast of Fleming Island, but with the wind rising, about half way to Robber’s Passage, we opted to make a beeline across to Nanat Island. This way, we had the seas on our stern quarter rather than on the beam.
The wind and waves rose steadily during the crossing so that on the final third we were regularly surfing. I was very glad to have caught and repaired the bow crack. With a loaded boat working in these seas and under the pressure of surfing, it would have flooded heavily and probably submarined the boat as I rode down the wave faces.
Once around Nanat Island, we were in the lee of the waves, with just a pleasant tailwind to push us home to Poett Nook, where we landed about 13:20. Another happy flock of kayakers was already packing up to launch, chattering cheerfully, their boats and gear strewn across the shore like tidewrack. We wished them as fine a time as we’d had.
Back in the day, I had a bombproof kayak roll. But gradually, I fell out of the habit of practising it. When I first abandoned whitewater and surf paddling in favour of exclusively ocean kayaking I kept it up. But over the years, I persuaded myself it wasn’t really essential for sea kayaking and probably wouldn’t work anyway with my sail on the boat. Besides, my brace worked fine (except when it didn’t.) Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that age made it unlikely I could recapture my roll.
But this year, one of my personal and professional goals is to regain my roll. And to do it like a girl.
Off-the-shelf kayak lights are an excellent way to increase safety when night paddling. By raising your light a few feet above the deck you can ensure it remains unblocked by your body and visible through the full 360. Plus, it won’t nuke your night vision by shining directly in your eyes. Continue reading