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Sailing the British Columbia Coast

Later we found out we were the only charter to make it across the Strait of Georgia that day. Most boats never left the marina; one sailboat made the attempt but turned back in the face of 10-foot swells. It was not just the height of the swells that threatened but their angle and spacing. Bunched together, rolling ceaselessly from the southeast, they hardly gave a boat a chance to right herself before shoving her over again.

The 25-mile crossing took three hours under power. My father had the helm the entire way. He is 66 and vital, but perhaps not always as certain of his own strength as he once was. When I'd first seen him in Los Angeles, he'd complained of a lingering viral infection and general fatigue. He'd talked about feeling weak in the legs, feeling old. He stood now on the canted, pitching deck, fighting the wheel against the force of each wave. Water slopped over the rails, drenching us. In the distance we spotted a tugboat hauling two tankers, one behind the other, approaching us on the perpendicular. For 20 minutes it seemed we were on a collision course, but we held our line and crossed just a few hundred yards in front of the tug. What we felt was nothing less than victory.

Then we were across the strait, and turning northwest past Savary Island and up through the narrows of Thulin Passage. In the lee of the islands, the waters flattened. We were coming into Desolation Sound, its steep, forested islands and inlets beckoning behind a scrim of light rain. My father stepped down from the helm like a prizefighter, a late-round winner by a TKO, and my brother took over. Matt looked sharp behind the wheel, his red beard set off against the blazing yellow of his foul-weather gear. My father sat down. He'd done it. He was tired, feeling pretty good.

We anchored that first night in Squirrel Cove, tucked up into the east side of Cortes Island, past a small but apparently steadfast Indian community at the mouth of the cove. (There are several Indian reservations on different islands throughout Desolation Sound.) The cove is dotted with rocky islets and is adjacent to a lagoon. Just a week or two later in the season, I'm told, this and other anchorages like it are crowded with boats, but tonight there were few others. We came among them in near silence. The rain had stopped, and the sky had partially cleared. We secured the anchor, removed our foul-weather gear, and each took a moment to test this new, hard-won calm.

Among the many pleasures of sailing, I can think of none greater than the first moments of tranquillity that lie in the wake of a long, hard day at sea. The sails are furled, the lines coiled on the deck, and all has been made shipshape. The rushing sounds and salt taste of the journey are already receding into memory, and suddenly you remember that this was once the way people arrived in the world. An airport is a modern thing, after all, a thing made by machines. But a boat is timeless. And on a sailboat, finally at rest, in the sweet silence at the end of the day, you can still hear the whispering of the old world. It is like a communing of spirits. I think we all felt it that night, a sense of having traveled from our linked yet disparate lives to be just where we were, together.

The following morning, as we lingered in the cove,the sun shone for about an hour. Under its spell and promise, I saw these things: a hundred purple starfish in the shallow passage into the lagoon; a bald eagle staring back at me from a rocky outcrop 50 feet away; 10 turkey vultures revolving skyward on invisible currents like a mobile made of living parts, turning in the wind.

Coming upon this uncharted world in 1792, Captain George Vancouver, hemmed in by drastic tides and bad weather, and evidently in a prolonged state of melancholy and pique, christened it Desolation Sound. Here amid the mountains rising straight out of the fjord-deep waters, the impenetrable cloak of pine forest, the thundering waterfalls, the snowfields above the weather line like frozen heavens–well, perhaps Vancouver had had his fill of wilderness and wildness, of being the only boat out there. But just over 200 years later, it is this unbounded solitude that is the vision for city dwellers like my father and brother and me. To find that it even still exists, and then to put yourself out there–it is a kind of faith. The weather, one might say, is beside the point.

Which leads me to my last confession: in a week of sailing on Desolation Sound, we had only one full day of sun. But I'm not sure I've ever loved the sun as much as I did that day. We woke in Waddington Channel, in perfect Walsh Cove, and for the first time in three days took in patches of blue sky with our morning coffee. Clouds were forming to the north and west of us. We struck out for the blue–Pryce Channel to Deer Passage to Lewis Channel, where the sun and wind finally found us in force. For an hour or two we tacked back and forth across the sound for the simple thrill of it, each of us taking turns at the helm, the sails hauled close, seeing who could pull the most speed from the boat.

Need I say it?The old man won with seven knots.


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