A Swell Experience: Rounding Cape Caution

IMG_2908IMG_2917July 1: We left Port McNeil in tandem, but not for long, with one of the R2AK racers which had stopped for the night and to examine some of the rig. Very soon they were out of sight and we had a nice sailing wind while in the protected waters between Malcomb Island and Vancouver Island. When we made the turn, past a pretty lighthouse into Queen Charlotte Strait, the wind continued from the southeast and we progressed northward. Halfway across, about 5 NM from either side, the wind weakened and on came the ‘iron jenny’ – actually our 27 hp diesel engine.  Along the way we proceeded under cloudy skies as we dodged tugs with tows and lines of rhinoceros auklets.

Soon we were in Blunden Harbor where we holed up from the rain for the night and most of the next day.

Late in the day our new sailing friends, Gregg and Jean, sailed in on Grasal and a perfect rainbow encircled their boat. Leslie had a bit of cabin fever, so we rowed around the bay looking at lots of golden fucus (rockweed – Fucus distichus) covered rocks resting below tall evergreen trees. Suddenly we heard “puhh – — puhh puhh” and were treated and teased by 6-7 Dall’s porpoises. They were likely foraging as they moved in a group and circled in and out, back and forth near us for a half-hour or more. We did an inefficient job of capturing the speedy energy of these active creatures; the result was that we had lots of out-of-focus deleted photos.

We learned from Gregg and Jean, who are quite experienced in sailing in this area, that there are two other boats with very nice crews that are planning to cross the Hecate Strait to Haida Gwaii. They are going to meet on July 16th on a northern island. Perhaps we will join them.

July 3rd: We were both a little nervous about Cape Caution. We’d seen the waves pounding Cape Horn 3 years ago in Patagonia and know that capes are always interesting as currents and tides often meet in curious ways. Many say that Cape Caution is the most significant such spot on the BC coast.  Reading Douglass’s Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia (thanks for lending us your book, Dave and Sheila), we found this:

During strong southwest winds and/or conditions of high westerly swell, swells reflect off Cape Caution causing confused sea conditions for at least one mile to seaward. This condition is accentuated by shallow water directly off the cape.”

IMG_3236So, at 6:30 am off we went, with winds forecast to be light (10-15 kts) from the south to southwest and the swell estimated to be 1 to 2 meters. We motor-sailed a mile or so off the coast into a variety of weather conditions. This must be the raincoast, because the coastal mountains to the east and the backbone of Vancouver Island to the west were draped in grey, bulging clouds which at times dropped sheets of distant rain with blue sky above us as we watched this progression. Approaching Cape Caution, we dodged a bunch of reefs and little islands while paying close attention to our GPS updating digital charts. Once in open waters, the ocean swell appeared and grew until we were plunging up and down over 2 meter waves every 10 seconds or so. This seems to slow our boat down quite a bit. And, we had to keep a very sharp eye out for floating logs and stray masses of bull kelp which become ever more challenging as the waves grow larger. “Log to starboard, one o’clock”, was a common call. Coming around Cape Caution, it seemed that the swell increased to possibly 3 meters and the waves were competing to make us bounce, bang, and bash.

IMG_3226Eight hours later, we anchored in charming Millbrook Cove on Blackney Passage. After a simple dinner, we downloaded our photos and laughed at the disappearing/reappearing sail boat we had photographed. Perhaps the image to the right captures the size and turbulence of the seas off Cape Caution today…..

July 4-5 Fury Cove on Penrose Island

These past two days, Cat’s Cradle’s engine/battery charging system has been acting up. At first, just once in a while, the tone of the motor would change. Val noticed that the battery voltage meter was going up too high – to about 16 volts. Then, in a few seconds, the voltage would go to its normal 13 volts and all was well — until it happened again hours later. After two days, this problem was becoming more serious. Luckily, the wind cooperated and we just sailed and sailed (and worried and thought and worried some more). The alternator is a ‘new’ one after electrical problems last summer. To make a long story short, after a lot of puttering and looking at circuit diagrams and tracing wires and having a pretty darn good nightmare, Val found what seems to be the problem – corrosion on a connector! The boat problems we have had seem to usually have one of two causes: corrosion or vibration.

Corrosion (with abject apologies to Fiddler on the Roof)

If I were a sailor, da da da da da da da

When the wind blows everything is good

But when the engine stops and the coast is looming

We must solve the problem now

The Problem .. Corrosion – The Problem .. Vibration –

Repeat indefinitely…….  .. until we reach Bella Bella and get a new alternator!

Some days earlier, a friendly kayaker had come into the cove where we were anchored and Val was repairing something and noted that, “Boating is all about fixing things in beautiful places”.

Fortunately, we had a nice beam-reach wind on our 15 mile trip to Fury Cove on Penrose Island. We were entering the long Fitz Hugh Sound next to Calvert Island on the west. The motor was not cooperating but the wind was – and, hey, this is a sailboat. So, we sailed by many reefs and islands, making sure we always had room to safely go where the wind would let us go. (Avoid shores that are downwind. Lee shores can be hard to stay away from as the wind and waves push toward them.) We eventually sailed right into the dogleg entrance of Fury Cove and put down the anchor. The next morning, Val found what we hope is the electrical problem and fixed it!

IMG_3356IMG_3360The sun came out and Leslie rowed us ¼ mile across the anchorage to a beautiful shell beach which opens across an isthmus to other rocky and sandy beaches that face Fitz Hugh Sound. We found an unusual nurse log and we climbed up it and soon found a little cabin hidden in the salal and evergreens. This would be a great place to hang out if you really, really, really wanted to get away from the rest of the world. A few boaters had found it and inscribed the wall with names and dates and there was a bottle of wine on the table and another bottle with a candle stuck in it. Really, almost ready to accept visitors!

FireWeedBeeWe held hands – very tightly – very romantic – very important, and walked, slid, stumbled over fucus and barnacle-covered rocks and logs, We crunched lots of Dall’s acorn barnacles and non-edible blue mussels as we walked along apologetically. As we were playing hide and seek with the rising tide, it became more like Colorado mountain climbing as the tide kept telling us to move higher and higher on the steeper and trickier rocks and boulders.

All this hand-holding was worth every minute in lots of ways. And, this is certainly a beautiful landscape of broken shell beaches, knarly rocky shorelines and overhanging trees.


At the lovely beach at the end of the hike, Val tried to exorcize the furies that have been troubling us in our electrical system. Here he is kelping them into better shape:


On North to the Hakai Beach Institute on Calvert Island

Wed., July 6th:  Boat repair continues apace. Leslie winched Val up to the first spreaders on the mast so that he could replace the frayed flag-halyard that holds our Canadian courtesy flag and our radar reflector. Leslie says that Val was very brave to trust her to help raise him using a line around a winch and some pulleys and then to slowly lower him safely down. Pretty good for a pair of 73 year olds!

Leaving Fury Cove, the engine ran perfectly and the voltage remained just where it is supposed to be. Hurray! Yes – for 2 hours! Then, back to its old habit of producing way too much voltage. So, we disconnected the alternator from the rest of the system. In this situation, the motor starts and runs just fine. The only eensy-weensy problem is that the engine battery is going to slowly lose voltage as time goes on! The current answer:  use the solar panels that charge the house battery to also charge the engine battery. Great plan and it worked well – all this sunny (note that word) afternoon here going north along the raincoast.

IMG_3573  IMG_3566After watching some humpback whales in pacific waters, we arrived at the Institute. The Hakai Beach Institute is a beautiful marine research station in this remote location. We will likely hang around here tomorrow and will report later. (If the carving at the right is any example, there may be some fearsome insects here from time to time……..)

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. You guys are having fun! The weather looks and sounds a little bit scary, though! Val, are you conducting Beethoven’s “Jupiter” symphony? Love from K and S

  2. The picture of Val with the whip sums up everything.

  3. There you are, making your way northward…and seems like finding plenty “to do!” Including of course, playing….with bull kelp! 🙂 We are, on the other hand, back on San Juan Island…and guess what…today it’s SUNNY! We are glad. Still trying to really sink into being here and BEING! Hard assignment after so much moving around…at too fast a pace!

    Enjoy! Keep the posts coming….as internet allows, of course!

  4. Good luck fixing your electrical problems,Val! After all your years of electronics, you should be able to cope. I have faith, Barbara

  5. You two are so incredible! Sailing, troubleshooting, rock hopping, beating the furies, oMG. Sending love!

  6. So glad Cape Caution was not too bad. I love finding lots of little protected harbors and shell beaches for walks ashore. Sorry to hear about the electrical/alternator problems but you are able to find fixes underway. I loved the song about corrosion. Corrosion of contacts has been our nemesis on boats for some time. Glad you are finding time to enjoy yourselves. Best wishes.

  7. Wow what a batch of prize winning photos, especially the cover one, blue waters turmoil.

  8. Dear Leslie and Val, Your pix of the open ocean give me such a sense of freedom….so needed now as I am surrounded by boxes, empty walls, and a list of scads more to do….I need a bullwhip like Val to take out some aggressions!!! Anyway, glad you are safely across Cape Caution and we should be safely moved in to our house on Friday, 7/15. Our internet will be down for awhile, but I know we will connect with you later. Sending hugs and well wishes and safe travels of course, Janie and Don

  9. Arrived Tursday in Port McNeil after an uneventful 5-day passage on Corcovado from Friday Harbor. We missed you by a 100+miles! We’ll wait out the strong NWs and celebrate Debby’s B- day Saturday before crossing Q Charlotte. Hope to be exploring Great Bear Rainforest on Princess Royal I next week. We assume your electrical issues are resolved and you have a smooth Hecate crossing. Double check your weather info and go for it!

    Btw we stand by SSB 4146 between 2000-2100 if you have a HF radio.

  10. Please keep writing your beautiful descriptions and posting the wonderful photos. It’s fun keeping up with your
    adventures. The panorama photo from the beach is gorgeous. Makes me remember my time in more remote
    locations up north. That research station is a very impressive building – who sponsors that?

  11. We’ve been traveling in Europe since just after you started this adventure. We are now back home and I am caught up with all the adventures–rather breathtaking in beauty, remoteness, extensive research to navigate tricky passages, painstaking diagnoses and fixes, new and old friends, and all the rest of it that is part of a trip like this. Impressive! I am feeling very lucky to be able to experience it vicariously, thanks to your narrative and pictures, gripping and mesmerizing as always.
    What is Leslie holding up in her right hand in the first big picture in this set, with a boat (fishing boat?) in the distance? It looks a little like a microphone, but I can’t think why it would be… ??
    Very much looking forward to more.

  12. Hand holding and keeping, what could be better? Am so happy to see all the creatures you are seeing as we saw NO wildlife in Norway except seagulls. Eager to catch up on your posts…



  13. Hello from Chicago. Making contact via email would be great! I’ll look through your photos to see all that’s happened through the years.

  14. Hi Val,

    I also went the sailing route, and began saving for an ocean worthy boat the year after graduation. In 1985 I bought a Mason 43, a bluewater cutter with classic lines and one hull instead of two. We have been north to the Magdelaines and south to Grenada. Many trips to Maine and Nova Scotia. Still have her. Doubt we’ll see the PNW under sail though.

    Someone in the Physics Dept once said you should be able to do physics in the sand on a beach with just a stick, no books… was that you?

    Jeff Miller
    eastledge@aol dot com

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