26 June 2012
Dwelling on a challenge without actually meeting it can make it all the more fearsome. Once we waited for weeks before crossing the Tehuantepec in Mexico, a gulf of justifiably redoubtable reputation for winds, until the prospect seemed fraught with fatal pitfalls.
We’d had a year to contemplate the Yacultas, for last August we were on the verge of transiting the rapids, but the constraints of work forced us to return to port.
The guides are replete with warnings that seem biblical in tone and consequence. Boats can be spun around in circular eddies and swallowed up only to be spit back out in pieces minus their passengers. You must wait until absolute slack tide. Some rapids can run from 7-9 knots, while the very most fearsome run from 13-15 knots, as the tides force huge volumes of current through narrow bottlenecks. Indigenous villagers had warned Spaniards Valdes and Galiano not to run the rapids in their sailing vessels, the Mexicana and the Sutil, but they did anyway, and were spun around and shot off to shore a few times before actually making it through the first set or two of swift water.
We finally passed through the Yacultas—and four other sets of rapids on the same day—with our friends Rick and Dawn Burkmar, who went ahead of us in their sailboat, Kalagan. They’d made the run many times before, and were old hands at pulling off the timing, which is quite tricky since you cannot run every rapid in a sequence of several at slack, but must start early and end late if you are to get anywhere at all.
They instructed us: “arrive at Kelsey Point half an hour before ebb, then swing over to the western side of the channel and pass the Yacultas and Gillard Passage rapids mid-channel.”
We saw whirlpools, but the water was pretty settled, although it did build as we moved along. Most amusing were the seagulls settled on logs in back eddies, waiting for the excitement to begin, like children getting strapped into a rollercoaster. Most amazing were the numbers and extent of the sports fishing lodges along the shores, catering to salmon fishermen, who flocked like the gulls to these shores when the salmon were running. (Reputedly salmon run hardest where the water runs with the greatest force.)
From the Yacultas and Gillard Passage, we hurried along to the Dent Rapids, which you must take at dead slack—or the beginning of the ebb if you are headed northwest, as was the case for us. We passed over the infamous “Devil’s Hole” without incident, although our knot meter steadily climbed.
On Dent Island, in Mermaid Cove, we noticed trees covered with signs—these were the names of tugs with log booms in tow, which had stopped there again and again to wait for the rapids to ease. To pass the time, crew carved and painted boards with their vessels’ names or images.
From Dent Rapids we were carried along by the ebbing tide through the Cordero Channel. All along the channel we noted eddies and whirlpools—they played with the bow of the boat, nudging but not really deranging our course.
If you go by the books, one is supposed to wait for slack tide at the Greene Rapids. We saw a lovely anchorage by the Cordero Islands where, clearly, several boats were following instructions, but our guide boat insisted that we’d find no danger if we continued that day.
We headed after Kalagan like Dante in Vergil’s footsteps, aimed at a gravel quarry then turned center channel. Finally, a challenge! Some real rapids! Quoddy’s Run encountered standing waves, drop offs and whirlpools that made the helmswoman fight to keep the bow from spinning, all the while speeding up to 11 knots over the ground. Whoo hoo! White water keelboat sailing! What a rush!
Once we were through, our pilot Rick radioed back to us. “How did you like that?”
“We loved it!”
“Good,” he says, “but don’t try it if it’s running any more strongly. We ran Greene Point once at around 13 knots and I nearly lost control of the boat.”
Only one more chute to run.
The Whirlpool Rapids in Wellbore Channel were indeed whirling when we arrived, but nothing to worry about. Old hands too by the time they’d arrived here, the Spaniards had given these rapids a name that had pretty well stuck on anglo settlers’ charts: Galiano had called the space the “Canal de Nuevos Remolinos”—the Channel of New Whirlpools.
More worrisome than the rapids at this point was the wind—a northwesterly was piping up in Johnstone Strait and the Sunderland Channel. We decided we’d travelled far enough for one day, so we hung a right at the end of Wellbore Channel into Forward Harbour, where we anchored. There was even time for a walk across the Thynne Peninsula to Bessborough Bay along a trail marked by beach flotsam.
There, we saw that the waters of Sunderland Channel were settling—it looked like the next day would be ideal for a run north through Johnstone Strait and into the Broughton Islands.
It had been a pretty easy run. But we had also had a wonderful guide; too, we had followed the guidebooks, and passed the most dangerous rapids as close to slack as possible. Best of all the day had been clear, without fog or rain or excessive wind, altogether perfect really.
For an excellent set of directions for slower vessels like sailboats through the various rapids here described, see chapter 9 of the Dreamspeaker Cruising Guide #2 by Anne and Laurence Yeadon-Jones, Desolation Sound and the Discovery Islands. Pender Harbour: Harbour Publishing, 2000.