Published in The Northern Sentinel in 2 Parts November 2018 (under a different title).
Photo above: Wally Bolton, Hartley Bay, BC Resident at the helm on a trip down the Grenville Channel.
Now I know how the people of Gilligan’s Island must have felt. What started out as a leisurely, two day sailboat trip from Kitimat to Prince Rupert, turned into a four day adventure none of us will soon forget.
Early in the morning on Friday, September 27, 2018, three women loaded their gear onto a sailboat and set out from MK Bay Marina in Kitimat for what was supposed to be a fun filled trip up the Douglas Channel with a right turn into the Grenville Channel and head north until we docked in Prince Rupert. Sounds easy, right?
The first sign that this trip was to be anything but leisurely was when I reached for a coffee mug, turned the wrong (or right?) way and promptly dislocated two of my ribs. We hadn’t even cleared the marina area yet.
The pain was immense. My ribs play these little tricks on me from time to time, so I gritted my teeth, took some anti-inflammatories and sucked it up. I was not going to be the one to ruin the trip by making us turn around and go to a hospital!
We stayed true to our course and set out down the Douglas Channel as the sun rose over the mountains that surrounded our beautiful town, bathing the ocean with droplets of golden sparkles. What a perfect day for a sailboat cruise!
As we puttered along at a mere four knots, which was our maximum speed that we could go with the existing motor, me and my two companions were thrilled to see many whale pods breaching the surface and spraying water high into the air from their blow holes. While we didn’t see the whales jump into the air and splash around in the sea, we did get treated to two whales showing us their enormous tails – almost as if they were waving at us. Giddy with delight, we waved back.
There was no one else on the ocean. Not one single other boat or ship in sight for miles. Us three ladies enjoyed every minute of the solitude, quiet and glimpses of whales and birds along the way. It was truly a wonderful day to spend on the water, laughing and talking the miles away.
In the mid-afternoon we reached Hartley Bay and decided to top up the fuel tank. At this point, there were decisions that were made that changed the course of our trip from that moment on. In hindsight, we should have stayed in Hartley Bay overnight and started out again the next morning. If we had of done that, the rest of the trip would have probably been fairly boring and straightforward. Where’s the fun in that?
The decision was made to press on into the Grenville Channel and see how far we could get by sunset. This left us approximately five hours to travel and find somewhere to dock for the night. None of us were worried one little bit about spending the night on the water. After all, two of the ladies were experienced boat owners. I had zero experience on the ocean except for a couple of snorkeling trips on vacation and a few fishing excursions, but had complete faith in my companions that all would be well and safe.
After a few hours of sailing the Grenville Channel and just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, the wind picked up, almost on cue, as a call out came on the CB radio from the Coast Guard. There was a gale force wind advisory for the Grenville Channel that was to last all night long. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sure didn’t sound good.
We picked a spot that we felt would keep us out of the traffic of the channel and far enough from the shore to prevent any bashing about and damaging the boat. Once the anchor was set, we enjoyed an amazing seafood linguini meal prepared by the boat’s owner and then prepared our beds to bunk down for the night. We were to leave at sunrise to put as many miles behind us as possible and hopefully reach Prince Rupert by nightfall on Saturday.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the boat ended up drifting from the spot where we thought we were securely anchored. Thankfully, the boat owner had set her alarm every hour to check on things and noticed our position change on her third time on deck. She managed to find another spot to anchor (no easy feat in the pitch dark) and prepared to sit up all night to monitor our position.
Since I have no clue how to drive a boat, I took the night watch and let the boat owner go back to bed to get some much needed sleep. The wind was really howling by this time and warnings were crackling out of the CB Radio with regularity.
I could hear the wind before I could feel it; first the sound of the wind roaring over and through the trees on the mountains right before the starboard (right side) of the boat would swing far over and then *BAM!* the wind would fling the boat to the opposite side like a tetherball hit with maximum force! To say I was terrified is a gross understatement.
Each time the wind whipped the boat into a full 180 degree spin, I would fall to the floor, grab onto the seats for dear life and pray that the boat would stay upright, anchored and not be flung into the open water. This went on for hours.
During those dark hours, alone and scared, being at the mercy of Mother Nature and not knowing a darn thing about boats or sailing or the ocean and with no cell service or internet to distract me, I experienced pure fear and found within me a stern determination to get through this night, come hell or high water. I was blissfully ignorant of exactly how perilous our situation had become.
Finally, the sun started to come up over the mountains. I was dead tired, my side was burning and sore from exertion, and my mind and body were severely stressed from the constant influx and dispersing of adrenaline being continuously pumped through my system. I woke up the ladies so that we could get our day going. That’s when the real panic started.
We had no idea where we were. When the boat had dislodged during the night, we had drifted clear across the Grenville Channel and docked facing the opposite direction of where we had anchored. How we managed to not get hit by a passing barge, tug boat or some other large vessel is completely beyond me.
Getting through the night was one thing. Our real challenges were about to start. Somehow, the anchor had become tangled or caught on something deep in the water and after almost two hours of trying to get it loose, we decided to cut the anchor rope because we were wasting precious sunlight and needed to get moving. No one wanted to spend another long and windy night on the Channel.
The wind was still going strong enough to make little water tornados all across the channel for as far as the eye could see. We knew we were going to be in for a rough ride and since we now didn’t have an anchor, we had no choice but to bear down and get to our next spot without stopping.
For the next six or seven hours we battled rough seas. The sailboat ended up on its side at one point because the wind and waves were battering us relentlessly. All I could do was grab onto something, anything I could find to hang onto and pray that the boat wouldn’t tip over. The terror just kept coming throughout the day – I have never prayed that hard, for so long in my entire life.
I have to hand it to my travelling companions. They both took turns steering the boat through the rough seas and gale force winds. Somehow we made it through the Grenville Channel and into open water, where the sea, wind and waves got worse, not better! I think that was the point where I started to cry.
There was a moment when I looked to my left and saw a mountain that looked very familiar. I remembered it from the day before because we discussed whether it was a mountain, a dormant volcano or if it had possibly been hit by a meteor at some point in the past. I went so far as to check my camera because I was positive we had seen that mountain on our way from Kitimat. How is it possible that we travelled all night and day and here it was again?
After some furious map checking and a tremendous amount of cussing, it was determined that we had spent the entire day travelling in the wrong direction. We had sailed south on the Grenville Channel back to the Douglas Channel instead of north towards Prince Rupert.
Many of you experienced boaters are scratching your heads and thinking, but what about the maps? What about GPS? What about a compass? All very valid questions. Let’s just say “women drivers” and leave it at that.
Finally, we spotted another vessel and managed to flag them down to find out exactly where we were. Hartley Bay was our closest stop so that is where we set our sights and puttered along in the wind and rolling waves for another two hours along the shoreline until we could reach the docking area.
I spent the previous night chain smoking cigarettes to pass the time and to keep my nerves in check. I had run out of smokes and desperately needed one now that we were safe and sound. It was a rough, scary and horrible day of travel. I was on a mission to find cigarettes, a glass of wine and an anchor.
While wandering around the sprawling boardwalks of Hartley Bay, I managed to find someone willing to sell me a couple of packs of smokes. On my way back to the docking area, I asked anyone I could find if they knew where we could get an anchor. After about an hour, a wonderful angel and our personal saviour, Wally Bolton, showed up and he did, indeed, have an anchor for us!
I’m not sure what kind of bargaining and begging took place, but Wally was convinced to escort us the rest of the way to Prince Rupert the following morning. We were all incredibly thankful and grateful to have a much more experienced sailor taking the helm for the remainder of our journey! That night, with a new anchor on the boat and us tied securely to the dock, we filled our bellies with incredible food, drank some wine and slept like babies.
Early Sunday morning, before the sun started to rise and the birds started to sing, we set off in the dark towards the Grenville Channel, once again. Wally was born and raised in Hartley Bay and could, literally, navigate through the pitch dark without worrying about running aground or interfering with other boat traffic.
The three of us ladies relaxed and enjoyed the mountain scenery and lapping waves as the sun came up. For 15.5 hours we travelled up the Grenville Channel and listened to Wally tell us stories of his childhood and his family, of the traditions and honor of his people and heard tales of what is it like to live in the area alongside other First Nations settlements in the area.
We talked about Sasquatch sightings, ancient folklore told by Elders, overnight camping and hunting trips, fishing and mountain community living. Wally knew the boats coming and going by the size of the wake left by the boat or by the color of the ship or by the height of the masts. His knowledge of the area was impressive and vast.
Wally is 68 years old and has mid-stage Parkinson’s Disease. His strength during our trip to keep us safe and his resolve to live his life to the fullest is what I find the most inspiring about the whole trip. The memory us ladies hold onto the tightest is the wide and beaming smile on Wally’s face as he told his tales and navigated our vessel through the sea until we could dock safely in Port Edward. Despite our good intentions, we never made it to Prince Rupert.
There were so many things that could have gone seriously wrong that weekend. Without the proper navigation tools, knowledge of the area and waterways, the inability to properly understand and read the maps to identify where we were and the tremendous storm that we not only survived the first night, but sailed directly into on the second day, things could have gone much, much worse.
We found out that if we had of continued back to Kitimat on Sunday, without an anchor, we would have gotten into very serious trouble as there was a massive wind storm on the Douglas Channel that left much more experience sailors stranded for hours on the shorelines. Just one more ‘near miss’ that destiny, fate, God or Angels steered us away from.
In the retelling of this story many times in the past week, one person commented that we must have been protected and watched by our guardian angels. My reply to this was, “We had a damn battalion of angels watching over us and thankfully, they sent us Wally to guide us to safety!”
Many lessons were learned that weekend – mainly that life is to be lived and enjoyed to the fullest each and every day. If we are lucky, people like Wally Bolton come along and save the day while throwing in some fantastic storytelling and laughter along the way.
When we asked Wally what he told his wife about suddenly taking off for a two day boat trip with three strange women, he smiled widely and told her, “I’m going to save the Golden Girls”.
From the bottom of our hearts, Wally, thank you. You sure did save us all.