Putting the \”Shake\” in \”Shakedown\”

I took Murrelet out for a shakedown cruise this weekend, to Plumper Cove, a local marine park on Keat’s Island on the Northwest side of the entrance to Howe Sound. It’s an easy day sail from here, about five hours in typical conditions.

spring evening at anchor a family of river otters sculls silently toward shore their small heads poking above the water's surface

spring evening at anchor
a family of river otters
sculls silently toward shore
their small heads poking
above the water’s surface

There was a strong wind warning up Saturday. Out in the Strait, there were winds gusting up to force 7 on the Beaufort scale, which looked a lot like this: the long streaks of foam are what really distinguish it from 5-6 in my mind.

But before getting to that, I had to get out of the north arm of the Fraser.

As the Fraser approaches the sea it splits in three: the south arm contains most of the river, but the middle and north arms have plenty of traffic, both industrial and recreational. The north arm is protected by a breakwater on the south side, and runs along the coast toward Point Gray, exiting into the ocean at Wreck Beach.

One of the fun things about sailing in Canada is some of our most popular sailing grounds have some of the nastiest water. I know a guy who has sailed all over the world, including off South Africa, and he says for his money the water between the mouth of the Fraser and Howe Sound is the worst in the world. I tend to agree: the confluence of waves, winds and currents mean that there are multiple patches of disorganized waves, or steep, short waves that make for a very rough ride. I got the latter exiting the Fraser, the former as I crossed over toward Howe Sound.

Murrelet is a 29 foot sailboat, with a nicely sized Yanmar diesel that never seems to do much work but moves the boat pretty well in all conditions. I was grateful for it Saturday morning as she dug her nose deep into wave after wave while I bulled through the transition from river to ocean. I’m a reasonably fit, strong, man who knows how to ride a boat well, but even hanging on to the steering stanchion and doing my best bobbing and weaving rather than fighting the motion, it was work. There was lots of crashing from below as things I hadn’t stowed quite well enough came out of their assigned places.

The tenders were a bit loose on the foredeck, despite my having tied them down earlier. I hadn’t anticipated quite so much bouncing. They did stay in place, more-or-less, although it looked like I might lose one overboard at one point. I simply ignored them while conning Murrelet through the mess. A sailor’s priorities are very simple: keeping the ship matters; nothing else does.

I saw a number of boaters turn back at the transition zone, and reasonably so. And I talked to a guy on the docks today who did the same. Knowing your boat and your own capabilities are critical to safety.

After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only five or ten minutes, I was through the worst and got the jib up, which hardened the boat up a lot. Sailboats want to sail. The wind being what it was, I cut across to Point Atkinson through more dirty, conflicted water. Unlike the stuff at the river mouth, this was just disorganized, with large waves moving in several directions at once. We take this stuff for granted on the West Coast, but it really is something that most places don’t have to deal with. Lucky them.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

On the good side of the ledger: Murrelet came through with flying colours. She handled easily and took as good care of me as was possible under the circumstances. She bucks and screws pretty hard under the right circumstances, but she’s predictable, which is really important.

I did learn some things about her:

1) The autopilot motor should be mounted pointing forward. If you put it on backward it not only gets in the way, the poor electronic brain thinks port is starboard and vice versa, resulting in uh… sub-optimal performance.

2) It is surprisingly easy to lose the manual bilge pump handle overboard when you do not properly seat it in the pump bellows, which results in it flipping out of your hands on the up-stroke and spinning through the steps of the pulled-up swim-ladder, to be lost to the ocean somewhere off Bowen Island. The shear elegance of this event is not to be under-estimated: if it hadn’t been spinning end-over-end in just the right way it wouldn’t have made it through the ladder steps. It was really quite entrancing. Although it does mean I have to buy a new pump handle.

3) The windlass for the anchor has a separate switch under the chart table, outboard. I knew there was such a thing but could not for the life of me remember where it was, all while drifting in Plumper Cove in the hope of anchoring. Anchoring theater is something sailors live for, and I’ve seen people spend twenty minutes trying to catch bottom, to the quiet amusement of all around. I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I did what any confident, capable sailor would do: I called the previous owner, and said, “Hi Lillian, it’s Tom. I’m trying to anchor Murrelet. Where’s the breaker for the windlass?” Fortunately she was home. Note to new boat-owners: always keep the previous owner on speed-dial. My last boat I got a call about six weeks after she sold, adrift off Sidney, wondering if there was some trick to getting the engine started (there wasn’t, although I hope the advice I gave him about checking the electric fuel pump was useful.)

4) The anchor rode is marked every 25 feet with red paint and yellow zip-ties. It’s all chain, so you can’t tell when the anchor is on the bottom because the chain always hangs vertically under its own weight instead of going slack like nylon does. Every boat I’ve had with all chain rode has 25-foot markings. Maybe it’s some kind of ISO standard I don’t know about. If it is, it’s the only thing about sailing that is standardized.

5) I cleverly double-reefed the main before leaving port, as I knew the wind was high, but I’ve literally never reefed a sail before (other than roller reefing a jib, which doesn’t count) except to practice. It turns out you want to make sure the out-haul is taunt before you tie the reef-points, or you wind up with something pretty creased and ugly (see picture, above.)

Overall, it was a really good first trip. Despite heavy use of sunscreen I got way too much sun on my face, but there are much worse problems to have.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

I think Murrelet and I are going to do well together.

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
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