The first published account of the challenging rapids awaiting any sailor or paddler headed north of Desolation Sound appears in an 18th century Spanish document, the English title of which is A Spanish Voyage to Vancouver and the North-West Coast of America, Being the Narrative of the Voyage Made in the Year 1792 by the Schooners Sutil and Mexicana to Explore the Strait of Fuca. The narrative was probably written and illustrated by José Antonio Cardero (1766-1801), who had been a cabin boy with Captain Alejandro Malaspina during his circumnavigation of the world. Obviously talented, Cardero was quickly promoted and served as artist, pilot and draftsman aboard the Sutil with Captain Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano. Galiano was sent in 1792, along with Captain Cayetano Valdés and crew on the Mexicana, to investigate the claim, dating from 1592, by Greek mariner, Apostolos Valerianos, called Juan de Fuca by the Spaniards for whom he worked as a pilot, that a Strait indeed existed between 47˚ and 48˚ north latitude.
Beyond that entrance, or so the story went, was a “much broader Sea” extending to the NW and SE, in which Valerianos claimed to have sailed for 20 days. (Most historians today don’t believe he ever did any such thing, but who knows? His account does seem a fairly accurate description of the waters we know as the Strait of Georgia.) This “broader Sea,” filled with “divers Ilands” was, Valerianos seems to have hoped, an entry to the fabled “Straits of Anián,” the search for which was an older variant of the search for the Northwest Passage. The “Straits of Anián” was a reputed passage from Florida or other eastern sections of the North American continent to the Pacific coast, reported to exist by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca—he suggested he had reached it during the course of his long march from Florida to Mexico—and then reinforced by tall tales retailed by a variety of sailors. Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado had even sailed the passage from one end to the other, it was said.
Galiano and Valdés and their crews were ordered by the Spanish government to explore and chart that opening called Juan de Fuca and the seas beyond it in 1791. In the preceding decades Spaniard Juan Pérez had confirmed the location of the entrance to the strait in 1774; Captain Cook missed the passage in 1778, but in 1787 Captain Charles Barkley identified the opening and named it after Juan de Fuca. Following Barkley’s voyage, Vancouver was dispatched in 1791 to lead an exploratory survey of those waters. Thus the race for access to lands in the Pacific Northwest between the two great western European naval and imperial powers of the age, Britain and Spain continued, alongside American, Russian, Aleut, Polynesian, French and others, as if the priority of already resident First Peoples–Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, Oowekeeno, Heiltsuk, Haisla, Tsimshian, Haida & Tlingit among others–never existed and meant nothing at all.
Vancouver and Galiano and Valdés were rather shocked to meet up in Howe Sound in the spring of 1792; Vancouver, in particular, was unhappy to find that the Spaniards had already ably charted some of the ground he’d hoped to be the first European to cover. Still, they met as respectful equals, and were ordered by their various superiors to collaborate on their surveys—Vancouver, in fact, had been sent to the Pacific Northwest to make peace between the English and the Spaniards on the west coast of what came to be known as Vancouver Island after an international scandal, called the Nootka Affair, had blown up. The explorers continued to travel together to Desolation Sound, where they split up, Spaniards to the East, British to the west. They shared results of their surveying tasks and then, on July 13, 1792, parted ways.
Thus the great Spanish adventure with the rapids north of Desolation Sound began, for although there are several ways to go, you cannot make any passage further north without passing through various sets of rapids.
“On the twelfth [of July 1792]…the English commander told us that it was his intention to leave the channel in which we were anchored [near Teakerne Arm, probably Lewis Channel, which the Spaniards called “La Separación, to commemorate their parting with the English] in order to follow another…to the southwest…more suitable for ships…He added…that the one which we proposed to follow was very dangerous, since it was full of shoals and had many currents and eddies. We explained to him that the small size of our vessels made it practicable for them to navigate this passage….”
The Spaniards called the rapids they were determined to pass through “Angostura de los Comandantes” (Captains’ Narrows) after the formidable “Angostura de la Esperanza,” the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of South America, and observed that “the current of Angostura de la Esperanze in the Strait of Magellan is seven and a half miles an hour near the shore, and its velocity is much greater mid-channel. Nevertheless, the difference between the two currents, which can be noticed at once, is so great that it is no exaggeration to say that the current in Angostura de los Comandantes has a velocity of twelve miles.”
They went on to explain that “the sight is most strange and picturesque: the waters flow as if they were falling from a cascade; a great number of fish are constantly rising in them, and flocks of gulls perch on the surface at the entrance of the channel, allowing its rapid flow to carry them along, and when they have reached its end, they fly back to their original position and repeat the experience [–a phenomenon that we also observed as we transited rapids north.] This not only amused us, but it also supplied us with a means by which to gauge accurately the force of the current.”
Careful observations and local knowledge supplied by Lekwiltok villagers who lived beside the rapids, today known as the Arran Rapids, ultimately enabled Commanders Galiano and Valdés to run these and subsequent rapids successfully, but not without a little excitement.
“The Indians, indicating the course of the sun, signed to us that the favourable moment for which we longed would come when the sun was near the peak of a high mountain on the continent. The time passed quickly with the entertainment afforded by watching the rush of waters, the many trees that were washed down by its violence, the continual passage of the birds, and the play of the fish which churned the water where we were anchored.
“The natives…explained to us the method which they followed in making this navigation, and the continual mishaps which they none the less encountered, ending by making signs that the size and power of resistance of our vessels could not promised us any better fate, but rather one more unfortunate than that with which they met in their canoes…
“At three o’clock the current began to lose force, and we observed that four was the moment for putting our hands to the work. We availed ourselves of the opportunity with all due energy [this means that they paddled their two 50-foot schooners], being accompanied for some while by our worthy friends, who also did not fail to warn us of the opportune moment or omit to escort us to mid-channel. From there, however, they returned hurriedly to their settlements, since the current began to gain strength. They still left a canoe with a man and a woman in it to afford us some guidance, without our having forced them to do so or by any insistence on our part.
“As soon as we were in the passage of the Angostura we appreciated the necessity of not omitting to take every precaution against some unfortunate accident, in a place of which we had no sufficient knowledge to be aware of its dangers, and to take all means for avoiding such mischances….We endeavoured constantly to follow the right shore, with the aid of oars, but the current carried us forward, bringing us sometimes to this shore and at others driving us to mid-channel, without our being able with all our efforts to avoid these variations of course. The Mexicana finally made the desired anchorage, but the Sutil was caught by a rush of the current and was not able to achiever the same result, and sailing more than three cables nearer the shore was almost caught on the rocks which jutted out from it. She entered the channel…, allowing herself to be carried by the violence of the waters, since the resistance which had been made had proved to be useless, and adopted the course of continuing on her course under light sail to await the Mexicana. She soon afterwards set sail and followed the Sutil, experiencing the same fate, appearing as if she were out of control.
“The schooners made the passage of Angostura with extraordinary speed, taking the wind with the studding sail, as it was blowing strongly in the opposite direction from that of the channel. The Sutil having steered to a point near an island, changed to the opposite course, and being caught by the force of a strong eddy, turned round three times with such violence that it made those who were in her giddy. Her crew freed her from this danger, rowing with all their might, and both schooners steered towards the right-hand coast with the intention of finding there a place to anchor before night came on, that being already very near, since then the current would gain its greatest force and increase the difficulties and dangers of this voyage.
“The continual cross currents and eddies, sometimes in favour and sometimes against the schooners, now driving them back and now driving them forward, making it always impossible to control them and leaving them at the mercy of the waters, alternately raised and mocked our hopes of making a creek which was very near. The Sutil attempted to reach with the boat a point which was to the east, but at that moment was caught by another violent whirlpool and again carried along, breaking the end of the cable which was just being made fast. Finally at half-past nine at night we succeeded at finding an anchorage at Refuge Creek, both vessels lying under the shelter of a point which protected them from the wind, which had falled, the anchor being in twenty fathoms [120 feet] with a shoally bottom and moored to the land.
“Much later the wind increased in strength, so that we heard it whistling through the plants above us and through the trees on the mountain. At the same time, the violent flow of the waters in the channel caused a horrible roaring and a notable echo, this producing and awe-inspiring situation, so that we had so far met with nothing so terrible.”
This story is then repeated several times as the Spaniards made their way through the successive narrows and rapids leading them north and out towards the sea via those bodies of water we know today as Johnstone and Queen Charlotte Straits. They do learn how to transit the raging waters, which is to say, how to watch for slack currents. Some days later, and in relation to a subsequent rapid, the record states that:
“On the twenty-third, at six in the morning, the Sutil renewed her effort to leave, and with the experience of the previous evening and the knowledge gained concerning the character of this place, she rowed along in calm water near the coast, made Eddy Point, passed out of Aliponzoni Creek and on sighting the Mexicana at once joined her. With a fresh north wind in our favour, we then navigated along the lefthand shore.”
A similar path remains to mariners today transiting the Dent Rapids; they are advised to transit at slack water and to favour what the Spaniards called “the lefthand” or Sonora Island shore as they pass through the rapids and into the cooler, foggier waters of the Cordero Channel.
Interestingly enough, Cordero is an English cartographer’s corruption of the name of José Antonio Cardero, mentioned in the beginning of this entry, the probable author and illustrator of the Spaniards’ narrative.
Note that the full text of the historic English translation of A Spanish Voyage to Vancouver and the North-West Coast of America, Being a Voyage Made in the Year 1792 may be consulted here: https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/bcbooks/items/1.0375745#p4z-6r0f: