Thursday, September 19, 2013

Private Vessels Vs. The Canadian Timber Industry

An exciting day on the high seas! Today we headed through a narrow cut between two islands, called Dodd Narrows. We were on our way back to Nanaimo, British Columbia, after successfully circumnavigating (sailing all the way around) Vancouver Island over a three-week period.

The tides in this region rise and fall as much as 9 feet at a time, causing significant currents where the water races through narrow passages between islands. The currents can reach 14 knots (about 20 mph) in the Vancouver Island region. The strong currents and roiling waters can quickly drive a boat up onto the rocks; especially one like ours with a maximum motoring speed of about 8 knots. For a sailing vessel to pass through narrow channels safely, it's necessary to time the passage for "slack tide"--a short period when the tide stops flowing in or out and is in the process of turning around. Much anguish, research, and calculation goes into figuring out the exact time of slack water by sailors striving to avoid a slow descent into Davey Jones' locker.

In Dodd Narrows, between Mudge Island and Vancouver Island just south of Gabriola Island, the normal current is 6-7 knots (about 9 mph). Slack tide this morning was scheduled for 10:22 a.m.

We rose at 6:30 and headed out of our last anchorage in Clam Bay, a delightfully quiet wooded cove surrounded by Thetis Island, Kuper Island (a First Nations Reserve), and a couple of tiny islands, one of them privately owned. The evening before, a member of the Penelakut tribe on Kuper paddled over in his canoe with his young son, and sold carved wooden sculptures he had made, of a salmon, raven, and hummingbird, to our crew and the crew on neighboring boats.

Heading out of Clam Bay, we sailed briefly, but were forced to add engine horsepower in order to reach our target on time. There is a grace period of 15-20 minutes before and after slack water in which the currents are still manageable, as long as you are going in the right direction.

We pulled up before the pass, along with other boats headed in the northbound direction. Thirteen boats came through from the opposite direction--a veritable flood of traffic, catching the last vestiges of southbound currents just before slack water.

As the southbound traffic cleared, we crept closer to the pass, waiting for the tide to turn. But wait, here was a strange vision--what were these piles of logs floating in our path??!!

Just ahead, beating us to the cut, were four tugboats also waiting their chance to lug/pull/push/manipulate their massive loads of timber through the tiny passage: "booms" holding hundreds of floating logs, tied together and divided into sections.

Picture a very narrow cut between rock cliffs covered with evergreens. The cut is wide enough for two boats to pass comfortably at slack tide. But a pile of logs is a barely manageable beast! Here's how it works: one tugboat latches onto a cable in front, pulling the whole contraption forward. A second tugboat races around the back and sides of the boom, pushing the sections of logs into place and keeping them from escaping or washing up on the rocks and helping to move through the center of the passage.

Still, the logs are unruly and try hard to escape, the sections swaying from side to side in the channel. Definitely not something a sailing vessel can safely pass. And our time was a-wasting! The captain of our boat frantically called the tugs on the radio, seeking guidance. Looked at his watch. Fretted and sweated.

We watched the phenomenon with awe, amazed that such an enterprise was attempted (and allowed!) in such a narrow passage with heavy traffic.

At one point it looked as though the tugs had cleared the way on the left side for boats to pass, and we started forward--but as we came aside, the tug captain shooed us back. "I woudn't try it for another 15 minutes!" he warned. So we threw the engine in reverse, retreated to a safe distance, and circled a while longer.

When the tide turned, the northbound current helped move the log booms faster through Dodd Narrows, finally opening the passage for other vessels. On the other side (where many more boats were waiting to pass), we understood why the timber industry needed to move its raw materials through this particular spot: a massive timber mill located just on the other side of the cut. A freighter loaded with logs was preparing to leave the dock-bound for overseas, perhaps?

Yes, an exciting day on the high seas. And our last day--tonight we pulled back into Stones Marina in Nanaimo, where we began our journey, safe and sound, tired but satisfied.

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