The Nahwitti Bar
Vera was a glowing little island surrounded by drizzle and fog. I could just make out the sickly yellow arc lights on the loading dock where the fishing boats had delivered their catch the night before. It was 4:45 in the morning, and I hadn’t slept much. Hatsumi made coffee and poured it into a thermos; neither of us ate. We put on our rain gear. Then I started the engine; turned on the radar, the GPS, and the depth sounder; and crept over the slippery deck to get the anchor up.
“Can we do this?” said Hatsumi when I rejoined her in the cockpit. Her voice sounded small. She put the engine in gear and Vera began to slide forward.
“I’m not waiting here another day,” I said. “I can’t stand it.”
We felt our way out of the anchorage. It was still pitch dark, and the fog erased the meeting of boat and water. By the time we reached the mouth of Bull Harbour, the sky had begun to lighten, but our surroundings were still a uniform grey. We were almost at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Somewhere in front of us was the Nahwitti Bar, the obstacle I’d been obsessing about for months. According to the chart, we were only a half mile away. Soon we would turn toward the shore, find the opening in the rocks that the locals swore by, and follow the edge of the kelp through this inside channel. This was the plan: we would bypass the bar and its multiple hazards altogether, then zip around photogenic Cape Scott, admire the surf exploding on the headlands, and congratulate ourselves for reaching the west coast at last. The home stretch. Nothing to it.
But following the inside route meant you had to see where you were going. I hadn’t thought of that. GPS and radar couldn’t see kelp, and kelp told you where the shallow spots were. I grabbed the binoculars and did a quick, frantic sweep where I thought the horizon should be. Nothing.
“We have to turn!” Hatsumi was inside, glued to the GPS screen. “We’re running out of room.”
“Keep going.” I felt the Pacific swell lift us. “Don’t turn.”
“I can’t see the channel. I can’t see anything.” I grabbed the binoculars again, and for a moment, maybe five seconds at most, a hole in the fog revealed something. But it wasn’t the inviting, kelp-fringed escape hatch I expected to see. It was a grey wall of water, smooth and undulating and evil-looking. The Nahwitti Bar, the thing we thought we were avoiding, was straight ahead.
This was the choice: go blind into confined waters or go blind into that wall. The third and most sensible choice, to turn around and go back, existed for about as long as it took me to hand the binoculars back to my wife. The wall was a lot closer than I thought.
“We’ll just go through it,” I said. “How bad can it be?”
In an instant, I’d done the equivalent of taking off my clothes in a snowstorm. Would Hatsumi have done it differently? For all my railing at Japanese inflexibility, this was one situation where Western-style improvisation was a mistake. We were entering the Nahwitti Bar at peak ebb tide, the worst possible time; behind that grey wall would be a field of standing waves that would take us, how long to get through? Ten minutes? An hour? I had no idea. And as Vera lifted into the first of them and I felt the weight and size of it, I knew that, once we were into that field, there was no way we could turn and run. If the engine stopped, if the blue goop I’d bunged into the leaking driveshaft two days earlier suddenly let go, if Vera reared so high the sludge at the bottom of the fuel tank got sucked into the fuel line, we would be driven, wallowing and helpless, onto invisible rocks.
These weren’t ordinary waves. They weren’t wind-driven and marching predictably at us; instead, they were gunmetal-glassy and weirdly stationary. Vera had to climb each one, and as we got deeper into the bar, I had to hold hard to the wheel to keep from slipping backward. Charley, clipped to a line that kept him on the cockpit seat and out from under Hatsumi’s feet, cowered and scrabbled with me. Charley was a miniature schnauzer. He couldn’t swim. Vera reared, climbed, and fell sickeningly into the next trough.
After a half-dozen waves, I gave up steering the course Hatsumi kept shouting to me and concentrated on keeping our bow more or less perpendicular to the crests. We were on a road, even if it led straight into the rocks, but I felt an overpowering need to just get through it. The worst part was the lack of a frame of reference. There was just enough visibility to see two or three waves ahead; everything else — land and sky — was greyed out. It was like being blindfolded and beaten in a locked room. All our planning, three years of progressively longer cruises, the courses, the reading, the conviction that circumnavigating Vancouver Island was the logical shakedown before a true offshore voyage — how did we end up in this mess?
“Are we okay?” Hatsumi kept asking. Where she was stationed, braced in the companionway, the view astern must have been just as bad. She wouldn’t see the bow climbing to the sky and shedding sheets of water down the decks, but she would see me trying not to tumble backward off the stern. Every few minutes, she blew violently into the ancient brass foghorn I’d found in my father’s effects and brought along as a memento. That was what you were supposed to do in fog, wasn’t it?
“We’re fine,” I said. But I was seriously scared. When I suddenly found myself clutching a stanchion and vomiting violently over the side, I didn’t know if it was seasickness or fear. I’d never been seasick before. I’d never been this frightened either. Except once — and that was a long time ago.
I first saw Zero Rock on a summer weekend when I was eight years old. A number of things came together then, and because of those things, I was sure I was going to die. The things were: my father’s impatience with the limitations on his time, his determination to learn new skills, a southwest gale, and a fishing fleet.
We had no business being anywhere near Zero Rock in Frou-Frou. She was a Lightning Class racing boat, nineteen feet long, open except for a few feet of foredeck under which you shoved spare life jackets, a paddle, lunch. The cockpit took up most of the boat: slat seats bracketed the centreboard box, a raised slot that penetrated the hull and through which the retractable keel protruded. With a good wind behind you and the centreboard pulled up, a Lightning planed like a surfboard. You raised and lowered the board by hauling on a block and tackle, an arrangement that allowed the racer to fine-tune lateral resistance and unfortunately allowed my father to conclude that a Lightning could be beached for a weekend’s camping.
Our Lightning was painted a cheerful yellow. Her ridiculous name, which we never changed, was picked out in black plastic letters screwed to the transom, one “Frou” on either side of the rudder. That rudder is important to my story. It hung by two oddly named bits of hardware whose names I have never forgotten: the pintles, vertical pins attached to the rudder, and the gudgeons, two brackets like crooked fingers screwed into the transom. You lowered the pintles into the gudgeons, male meeting female with a solid bronze thunk, and there the rudder dangled and swung. What happened to this handy system was the first unravelling of my father’s plan.
Zero Rock is in the middle of Haro Strait, a sizeable chunk of open water between the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the American Gulf Islands. Haro was Gonzalo López de Haro, a pilot on Manuel Quimper’s Princesa Real, which passed through in 1790; his is one of the “Spanish names” on the coast of British Columbia, as opposed to the “British names.” Two seafaring countries, two legacies. The actual mapping was done a few years later by the other team, led by the dour and dyspeptic George Vancouver, for whom the island and its largest city were named.
Haro Strait is a busy corridor. Freighters and bulk carriers trail mile-long smudges of diesel exhaust down its shipping lanes. Haro connects the Strait of Georgia with the larger Juan de Fuca Strait, which cups the southernmost end of Vancouver Island and connects to the open Pacific, where the really ugly weather comes from. But Haro Strait can be ugly enough; it’s eight nautical miles at its widest point and wide open, north-south, for twenty — plenty of what sailors call “fetch,” the open area required for a wind to really cock its fist and hammer you. Haro Strait is a complicated place for wind, fielding whatever comes from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound and turning it into a baffling brew that can make for great sailing or chewed fingernails. The southwest is where the prevailing winds come from in summer, which means they’re behind you going north and in your face heading south. A fine day in Victoria is a blue sky etched with mares’ tails and a southwester steered in from Juan de Fuca doing its best to take the top off Haro Strait. On the day I thought I would die, this was how it looked.
My father was a neurosurgeon, and he didn’t take holidays, not when I was eight. He was always on call. Evenings and weekends, the phone at home rang constantly because the hospital knew where he was. Most of the time, whatever he was doing when the phone rang — rewiring a light socket, knocking out a wall, developing a roll of photographic film, or varnishing a boat rail — simply stopped or went on without him while he went off to change out of his old clothes. But somehow, this weekend, he’d gotten free. Maybe he had an unprecedented opening in his schedule, maybe he just decided on the spur of the moment to make a run for it and hope nobody drove their motorcycle into a wall or had a massive aneurysm in the twenty-four hours our jaunt was supposed to take.
Our plan (his plan) was to spend Saturday night camped on Sidney Island, about fifteen miles north of Victoria. There were a number of problems with this plan — the wrong boat, no idea of the weather forecast, we knew almost nothing about sailing — none of them too surprising from a man whose previous experience with water was confined to the swimming hole by the railroad tracks in rural Alberta and a few lakes in Ontario. The really remarkable thing was that we were going at all. It wasn’t even the entire family; my older brother and I got to go, but my mother and sister were stuck waiting at home. They ended up waiting for a lot longer than they’d expected.
The first thing I remember about the trip is the moment things started to go wrong. The north end of Sidney Island, where we intended to camp, is a long, curving spit of sand, an unmissable target. But it shallows abruptly, and we hit the bottom going fast, the southwester behind us, and the sails dropped too late. The centreboard swung up into its case, as it was designed to do, but the rudder, overlooked, caught the bottom and tore loose. The tiller must have leapt suddenly in my father’s hand, and I can imagine his shock and the metaphoric slap to the forehead as he found himself suddenly dragging a floating rudder behind us. The gudgeons, of course, ripped out of the transom and slid silently into the sea.
The part of the story my father preferred to remember was how he actually found those two brass gudgeons at low tide the next morning; how he pounded bits of driftwood into the screw holes in the transom and reattached them; how we pushed off when the tide came back in and headed home. And it is a good story, especially the bit where he strode ashore after we’d crash-landed, emptied my army surplus knapsack, stuffed it with sand and pitched it out to where we’d hit the bottom. The bag was there when the tide went out, marking the spot where those gudgeons had to be.
But my own memory is uninterested in his quick thinking, preferring to jump forward to the point where I knew I would die. Here, in the southerly transit of Haro Strait, is where my details are.
I remember the sun. It was a beautiful day, cloudless from start to finish. But the wind that had sent us scooting up onto Sidney Spit was in our faces now. Poor Frou-Frou’s flat bottom slammed into the rapidly building seas with a sound you felt as much as heard. Voices were snatched away and blown astern. I heard my older brother, who was sailing the boat, yelling about the engine, but my father was bent over the lurching transom, fumbling with the thing, a surgeon trying to slap the machinery into life. Maybe he was checking those reattached gudgeons too, wondering when they would pop out of their new holes and the rudder would fly away astern and Frou-Frou would flounder and flip. When he turned and shouted at us, we heard nothing. “What?” he seemed to be saying. “What?” His mouth opened and closed silently, like a fish’s.
My brother clutched the mainsheet in one hand and the tiller in the other and fought to spill the wind each time a gust threatened to slam us flat. The engine was useless. Our doughty British Seagull, all three horsepower of it, looked to have been the first of us to drown. Water spun off the drum when my father tried to start it, wrapping the cord again and again around the flywheel and yanking furiously with hands that would probably be navigating a hemostat through a tangle of cerebral blood vessels the next day. Finally, he decided to operate. We soldiered on while my father knelt on the pitching stern deck with pliers and wrench, one arm crooked around the wire backstay to keep him from falling off. I think he was trying to extract the spark plug.
By now Haro Strait was a field of beaten silver and white, a beautiful sight for anyone standing on the cliffs and taking in the view of the strait and the hills of San Juan Island and the distant peaks of the Olympic Mountains. We would have been a merry yellow dot. “Hell of a sail,” they might have said, nodding in appreciation before ambling back to their cars. But for me, out there in the howling centre of things, it wasn’t beautiful at all, just heaving green water that kept coming at our little boat, at my father, my brother, the British Seagull, me.
And so I concluded I was going to die. What was worse, I was going to die in a boat called Frou-Frou. I crawled forward, under the small shelter of the coaming, curled up and waited for the water to punch through the plywood next my ear and keep on coming. I prayed, for the first and (so far) the only time in my life.
Then I spotted the trollers. Back then, commercial salmon fishing was still thriving, there was good money in owning a boat and steaming out to meet the sockeye and the chinook as they zeroed in on their coastal rivers after four years getting fat in the North Pacific. There would be another two decades of good times before the only salmon fishermen in Haro Strait were weekend warriors in plastic speedboats. In the ’60s, the fleet was still made from B.C. timber and the boats would move from one hot spot to another, racing for the next place where the Department of Fisheries had announced an opening.
And there they were! I could just see them between the boom and the heaving deck. They were big, thirty-five feet or longer, most of them a blinding white, forging unconcernedly through the whipped-up mess of Haro Strait. They were close enough that I could see the long trolling poles waving like insect antennae, and the occasional brilliant orange teardrop of a topside fender. I lifted my head just enough to keep them in view as they crawled past us, one every minute or so, each one, I felt certain, about to go hard to starboard and head for us.
“Good God,” I imagined a skipper saying, peering through a spattered wheelhouse window. “Over by Zero Rock, it’s a . . .” He reaches for binoculars, claps them to his eyes, whistles. His eyebrows go up under the hairy woollen watch cap. “It’s a kid out there, hangin’ on for dear life. Poor little guy. Hold on, we’re goin’ in!” Over the wheel would go and on she would come, the Lucky Lady or the Pacific Marauder, rolling wildly in the broadside swell with a white bone in her teeth, closing the gap, saving us.
But none of them broke ranks, and after an eternity, the procession was past, the transom of the last one vanishing but its long poles still visible, swaying mockingly above the tops of the whitecaps for at least another minute. Then we were alone again. I couldn’t believe it. I went back into my hole and stared miserably at Zero Rock. It lurched past in slow motion, draped in shiny seals. How long had we been out there? To me, it felt like days; given the conditions, it was probably more like three hours. We were only halfway home.
My father went on with his futile dissection of the outboard, and my brother sailed the boat until the hand holding the sheet was a claw. The foresail exploded in Baynes Channel, the final gauntlet before Victoria. We coasted into a tiny cove near Ten Mile Point, a place of waterfront houses with kelp beds, not petunias, out front. I was sent ashore. It was almost dark. I remember slipping on seaweed-slick rocks and realizing I couldn’t get any wetter, making my way, still wearing my life jacket, up a pocket beach toward the lights of a house. A woman opened the door.
“Oh dear,” she said. “You look like a drowned rat.” I dripped onto her welcome mat.
“Can I please use the phone?” I said. “I’m supposed to call my mother.”
After my father died, I spent an afternoon driving up the western shoreline of Haro Strait, nipping seaward whenever I saw the triangular “Beach Access” sign. Somewhere, I felt certain, there was a rock ledge or crescent of shingle where relatives could gather and release his ashes into the ocean. The cliffs near Cordova Bay (another of those Spanish names) would have been ideal. But the logistics of tide and wind were wrong, and although older relatives might have been able to scramble down to the water’s edge, we would have had to winch them back up.
So I kept looking. Closer to Victoria, I took a turnoff I’d never noticed before and found myself in a pocket cove you could barely squeeze a boat into. There was a house on the rocks, looking out over Baynes Channel, and in the moment of realizing the place was too public for scattering a person’s remains, I also realized I had been here before. As a drowned rat.
I really wished those fishing boats had stopped. One of them should have; even in the absence of a radio Mayday, maritime law dictates that a vessel in obvious distress be assisted. Somewhere on this coast there’s at least one ninety-year-old ex-skipper mumbling and farting in front of his TV who remembers too. And don’t tell me you couldn’t see us; we were bright yellow.
I don’t know what happened to Frou-Frou, except that she was replaced by a succession of larger boats as my parents struggled to figure out how to sail. I learned to sail too, but I stayed scared. Four hours hiding under the foredeck in Haro Strait, tossed around like a marble in a tin can and waiting for the end, left me with the kind of knee-jerk fear that a place like the Nahwitti Bar brought back with a vengeance.
My fear didn’t keep me from sailing; as a teenager, when I was old enough to take the family boat out alone, I would push it to the limit, carrying too much sail and driving the rail down into green water. Rough sailing didn’t bother me. But deciding to go out, watching those trees lash and sway and then stepping into the boat, that took me back under Frou-Frou’s foredeck every time. It still does.