West Devil Rock and Barren Island Light

We were sailing without our motor, it having suffered a catastrophic failure and we had not had winds for days.  So when we finally caught a nice breeze building out of the south we were grateful.  Being well behind schedule I had called the Canadian Coast Guard on the radio to inform them that we might be reported over due.  They had asked for a phone number and called my wife, reporting to her that everything was fine but that we had been delayed.  They then called me back to report having made contact.  This was wonderful and I thanked them for doing so.  

We still had to cross Dixon Entrance.  Dixon is a legendary stretch of water that separates Canada and Alaska.  It is open to the west, the open ocean and yachts typically anchor in an anchorage where they can jump off to get across as soon as weather conditions allow for it.  We had been in flat water for days and this breeze from the south was not enough to get Dixon Entrance worked into a frenzy.  I wasn’t in the mood to work my way in and out of a small anchorage under sail anyway.  So we were committed.  Evening was coming on and we had 70 miles or so to go to get into Ketchikan. 

We got perhaps halfway across the 40 mile opening and the wind died again.  Completely.  Just like somebody shut it off.  So there we were floating around on glassy water with night coming and the fog decided to roll in.  It got thick in a hurry.  You have to remember we were using dead reckoning for navigation, but we had gotten bearings off of some different islands before the fog rolled in so I had a clear idea of our position.    I got out the reference books, one of which was tide currents and discovered that according to the information I had and based upon our current location that some time in the middle of the night we were likely to drift down upon West Devil Rock.  An unmarked spire of rock sticking up in the middle of nowhere. 

“West Devil Rock”.  It certainly has an ominous sound to it.  I sat there looking at the chart trying to decide what to do.  Part of this is an intellectual process by which you look at options and facts at hand.  The other part is intuitive.  How does this situation feel? We were presently in deep water.  So we couldn’t anchor.  West Devil Rock is not the kind of place where you would notice the water getting shallow and thus be able to throw out an anchor before you crunched up against it.  It is a spire that rises over a thousand feet and barely breaks the surface on a medium high tide.  A rock like this in very calm water presents little hazard to a drifting boat on a rising tide.  You don’t want to bump into it, as its never a good idea.  Damaging the rudder is always a concern, but if the water is calm the boat is likely to just bump along on the rock.  But in a dropping tide the boat might fetch up on it.  Then when the water goes out the weight of the boat resting on pinnacles of rock can do serious damage.  And we had a dropping tide.  Alaska has big enough tide ranges that a boat could actually tip completely upside down.  A chilling idea. 

There is always a chance that the tide will sweep you around a rock as the current parts around it.  Relying on that possibility seemed like a bad option.  Not only that but once a boat starts drifting with tide and current it becomes nearly impossible to determine her course and speed and thus you lose track of your position.  I didn’t much like the sound of that.  I talked with Jim about these things, figuring it was best to lay it on the table.  He had his solution right off.  “Call the Coast Guard and tell them to come and get us.” 

Mariners are supposed to be self-sufficient.  There is a long standing tradition of not calling the Coast Guard unless all other options have been exhausted.  However, waiting to call them after disaster has risen and it is too late for them to respond has been the end of more than one self-sufficient mariner.  I could see that Jim was tired, he was outside his comfort zone and was missing his friends at the diner and his Salisbury steaks.  He also had very little control over any of the situation, and I am not without empathy.  However, I was not going to call the Coast Guard and ask them to rescue us either.  I had enough experience to know they would tell me to call a tug for a tow and I wasn’t worried about our situation enough to justify that kind of fee.  Jim was adamant in his request to be rescued.  He’d had enough, he wanted to go home. 

We can’t discount the effect the fog was having on him.  We had already sailed for days barely moving and surely sometimes washing back with the tide, but we’d always had good visibility and deep water.  Suddenly we were inside a dome.  A small one.  And the tide current wasn’t predicted to carry us in line with our course as it had in Hecate Strait.  I wasn’t sure how much this was going to be a factor.  Previously we hadn’t had to worry much about it as we either made ground or didn’t.   

This is all part of the learning process for any skipper.  How to process the information.  How to deal with the crew.  I took the responsibility of his safety and the vessel’s safety seriously.  I was worried at how rapidly his emotional state was deteriorating.  It wasn’t going to help the situation at all.  I didn’t want for it to become infectious either.  Night was coming on, the fog seemed to be getting thicker by the moment.  It’s no wonder the old sailors were such a superstitious lot.  

I needed to take some action just to break the spell that was being spun.  I told Jim to give me a few minutes to get the boat squared away.  We knew from our previous days of sailing on end with virtually no air at all that Leda would respond to slight breezes.  I just had to find one.  I told Jim that I would then call the U.S. Coast Guard and inform them that we might be reported as overdue.  I knew this would be a lie as my wife had already been informed, but it would give me an excuse to make them aware of our situation.  The idea being that should things deteriorate, the Coast Guard would already know about us and it would help facilitate a rescue.  I think this was a falsehood as well but at this point I was more concerned with quelling a potential mutiny than I was the need for rescue.  

Satellites and GPS have changed the world considerably.  In 1990 Garmin was a brand new company.  GPS receivers cost somewhere in the vicinity of 2500 USD.  I had not purchased one.  It would be a few years before I even got to play with one.  I was familiar with Loran, which uses the same basic idea as GPS but it used land based stations instead of satellite.  Loran technology was on the way out so I hadn’t run out to buy one of those either.  Not only was technology a lot more primitive in those days, it was expensive.  For our trip north I did have a radio direction finder as amazingly the Canadians maintained a few stations at that time but we were too far north for them to be any good and they hardly gave pinpoint accuracy.  Dead reckoning is a bit of an art.  The navigator uses the speed and direction of the vessel to figure out where it will be if it continues on a track over a given period of time.  But has to take into consideration current and wind and how they are affecting the boat.  This last part is the art.  I felt confident in my basic skills as a navigator and typically plan my routes so that I could verify my position using lights or land features. 

What I needed to do was find what little breeze there was and plot a course that would hopefully allow me to verify my position.  But it had to be in a direction that allowed for the current, so that if we were carried off course we would still be in safe water.  I dropped the main sail as it was doing no good at all and I was concerned it might blanket the Genoa.  I certainly didn’t want to have it up in the middle of the night if the wind returned.  I stood on the foredeck rotating slowly to try to feel the breeze on my face.  Your face is actually an incredibly sensitive tool for this.  Lucky, as mine isn’t much good for anything else.

  I was finally able to detect some moving air and get some shape into the sail.  It is sort of the process of holding the sail out to see if the air will keep it there and by dropping a crumpled piece of paper over the side of the boat, I verified we were moving.  Not much but moving.  I picked a course based on the sail shape more than anything else but found that I could keep shape in it and point at Barren Island about six miles distant.  It has an 85-foot tall lighthouse on it.  I had no clue how long it might take to get there but I figured if I was going to verify my location the lighthouse was as good a reference as any as I might actually be able to see it.  And if the current carried us west and I missed it, there was deep water for another four miles.   The dangers in that area had some shallower water so that I should be able to tell by depth that I was approaching that area.  It seemed like a sound plan.

There are times when a navigator has lots of information and can predict with relative ease where the boat is and where it will end up.  There are other times when the primary job of the navigator is to make sure that the boat stays in deep water.  There was lots of deep water around us and in fact this whole process would not have been much of an ordeal at all other than the fact that West Devil Rock is completely unmarked.  In good visibility we could have sailed right up to it.  Choosing to sail toward Barren Island is an example of what I call “navigating to a known danger”.  This seems to imply to people that I am intentionally putting my vessel in harms way, but it is actually just the opposite.  In navigation it is unknown dangers that are the problem.  Barren Island had deep enough water that I could sail right up to it without hitting anything.  This is good.   I just couldn’t be sure how much the tide current would affect our position seeing as how the predicted current was about three times the speed I was making.

So, I had the plan and as promised called the U.S. Coast Guard in Ketchikan to report our situation.  What I didn’t know was that once contact is made, their protocol was to call back every hour for an update.  This turned out to be a lucky thing.  I was tired but knowing they were calling back gave me something to focus on, otherwise I suppose I might have fallen asleep in the cockpit.  I had gotten Jim into a bunk and told him to sleep.  I ensured him that there was nothing he could presently do and that I needed him fresh in case the situation changed.  Mostly I wanted him out of the way.  The Coast Guard telling us they would contact us hourly had a calming effect on him as well and I was grateful for that.

I made a big pot of coffee and climbed into the cockpit.  I wondered if I had a clue as to what I was doing.  It was completely silent and dark.  The fog is funny stuff as it seems to muffle both sound and light.  Sensory deprivation.  I could see only about as far as the bow of the boat from the cockpit.  The only light coming from my own tiny navigation lights.  
I was floating inside a black bubble.

In order to understand this story, a person has to understand what Leda feels like.  I believe that inanimate objects develop their own energy signature dependent upon what kind of energies are focused on them during their “lives”.  Wood is good at absorbing energy.   I’ve noticed over the years that when people climb on board Leda that you will find them touching her with their hands.  For whatever reason, its something people seem compelled to do.  I don’t think it is to test the surface quality of my paint job.  People like to run their hands over her timber.   The boat resonates.  It feels safe, confident and secure.  I’ve mentioned I’m a bit superstitious about boats.  Maybe more than a bit.  But unless you’ve felt this, I don’t know how else to tell you about it.

Sitting out there in the dark surrounded by nothingness I was completely at ease.  Our boat knew what to do.  That is how it felt to me.  Crazy or not.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had an experience to equal that night.  The Coast Guard called me back every hour.  I plotted a position based upon my best notion of course and speed.  I’d picked up enough breeze to be making about 3/4-knot or about a foot per second.  At this rate I would theoretically find Barren Island before sunrise.  It was reported to me by the Coast Guard that on the side of the island opposite my approach that it was actually possible to anchor.  The chart of Dixon Entrance is not intended to provide this much detail and this was nice to know.  

Mostly for something to do, I would get out of the cockpit and go forward.  I’d check on the bow wave, a slight stream really, down each side of the bow.  I’d feel the sail, for something to be doing.  I’d peer into the fog like maybe from the bow I could see something I couldn’t from the cockpit.  But mostly I just sailed along in complete nothingness.  Not even enough swell on the water to be sure we were floating on the ocean.

Some time very early in the morning, I started making more precise calculations as to what time I might see Barren Island light.  It has a rotating white beacon with a four second interval.  At one point I calculated that it should be 30 minutes out.  I still wasn’t sure how far the light would penetrate the fog.  Thirty minutes came and no light.  I started counting off the minutes.  If I did not find Barron Island I could continue on the present course for perhaps another four miles before there were unmarked dangers.  But at some point doubt would creep in that I had any kind of idea where I was at all and it would be nearly impossible to choose a new course of action if I couldn’t verify where I was.   I went up to the bow, 32, 33, 34, and there, was that a light?  Or did I imagine it?  No, it was really there about one compass point off the starboard bow.   I’d found Barren Island after all.  I just couldn’t tell how far away I was.  

I was seriously exhausted by this point.  I really liked the idea of working my way around to the opposite side and dropping the hook.  But as I tried to figure out how to do this I started hearing breaking water.  Not booming breakers, just the sound of water lapping on a shore.  I couldn’t feel any swell at all but knew that was pretty much impossible.  An ocean swell that only rises an inch or two might have a very long period between crests and still carries a lot of water.  This is what I was hearing on the rocks of the island.  It sounded like water washing up a long rocky beach and trickling back.  I lost my nerve.  I couldn’t tell if that beach was just a hundred feet away or half a mile.  This was the first sensory input I’d had for hours and it was more than I could stand.  

So, abandoning the idea of anchoring I at least had my position verified.  I chose instead a point of sail that would carry me well until after daylight in a direction of deep water and fell asleep for awhile sitting next to the radio. 

Well sunlight came, fog eventually lifted and we were able to more easily establish our position.  A good night’s sleep had done Jim a world of good. We did finally get some wind.  About twenty knots right on our noses as we clawed our way into Ketchikan.  But we got becalmed again, this time within sight of the town.  We were drifting back and forth in the tide for hours.  Eventually, the team of Coasties that had all been chatting with us on the radio came out in one of their small boats, an unofficial act as they were supposedly on a morale break and had said they were going fishing.  In reality, they knew we would have trouble getting into the harbor without a motor and they decided to help us out.  They helped us into a stall in the harbor and did a brief check of the boat so that they could fulfill their duties.  

Jim and I called customs and then headed toward the pizza parlor.  Two very happy sailors.  The trip from Port Hardy to Ketchikan is about three hundred miles and it had taken us at least ten days.  We were exhausted but happy.  In the morning I got Jim on a float plane back to Canada.  He’d had enough of America and enough adventure.  I got busy trying to figure out what to do about my broken down motor.

This story isn’t much of a sailing adventure really.  It was more of a spiritual adventure.  I felt like I bonded with my boat that night.  I trusted her to take care of me and she had.  Maybe she bonded with me that night too, knowing I would take care of her.