So my wife Marilynn and I set out on a sunny morning in the middle of May, happy to be on saltwater again, heading north. Our destination was Pender Harbour in British Columbia, the jumping-off point for the run to Princess Louisa Inlet. The leg to Pender Harbour would require a crossing of the Strait of Georgia. We’ve learned the hard way that if the wind is blowing in the Strait of Georgia, we wait. We allowed six days for the trip but the wind gods were kind. We made it in three.

Although the trip required considerable planning, much of that planning and many of the decisions had to be made on the fly, as time and conditions dictated. The first part of this report explains the circumstances and why we did things the way we did.

For those who don’t know, our boat is a pampered 1979 Tollycraft 37 powered by a pair of 8.2 liter 270 h.p. Detroit Diesel engines. The boat name is Surprise. We’ve had this boat 15 years. To research the Waggoner Cruising Guide brave little Surprise has taken us to Prince Rupert, B.C. many times, and around Vancouver Island. Prince Rupert is the last town in B.C. before crossing to Alaska. It’s a long way from Seattle.

We used to cruise at 15-16 knots. That was until the year we banged a prop far up on the north coast and had to travel on one engine for about 200 miles before we could be hauled out for repair. We found that we liked the slower speed just fine. Helming didn’t take such intense concentration, we could move about more easily, and we still got where we wanted to go. And the fuel savings! The gauges didn’t seem to move.

Running on both engines, we’ve been an 8.5-knot boat since then, except for times when more speed got us through a patch of foul current or away from weather. At the slower speed, however, tidal currents have more effect on us. Imagine a fairly benign 1-knot current. When we run with the current we make 9.5 knots over the bottom. When we run against the current we make 7.5 knots. That’s a 2-knot swing, a 23.5 percent difference. We pay attention to currents.

Day one

Depending on the currents and the tide, our destination the first day would be either somewhere in the San Juan Islands or at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes. If we went directly to the San Juans we would buck a southflowing flood current in Admiralty Inlet on the west side of Whidbey Island, and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The same flood current, however, bends around the south tip of Whidbey Island and flows north along the east side of the island.

This argued strongly for the east side of Whidbey Island and Cap Sante Marina if—if—we could get through Swinomish Channel. The Swinomish Channel is in serious need of dredging, and boats can ground on very low tides. Captn. Jack’s Almanac (the tide book to use for Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands) told us the tide at LaConner, about mid-way along the Swinomish Channel, would be high at 4:24 p.m., just about the time we would be there. We’d have lots of water.

The decision was made. We went up the east side of Whidbey Island, current helping all the way, through Swinomish Channel, and overnighted at Cap Sante Marina.

Day two

We hoped to cross into Canada, but a fresh breeze at the dock made us wonder. Flags at the marina stood out stiff and were snapping. We don’t like a lot of wind. It makes big waves. Fortunately, the breeze turned out to be localized. Once away from the dock the wind died and stayed near-calm all the way through the San Juans, across Boundary Pass into Canada, and north through Swanson Channel to beautiful Montague Harbour, where we anchored. We cleared customs by cell phone in Boundary Pass, a benefit of finally getting our Nexus trusted traveler cards.

We were well into Canada. If the weather held we could make Pender Harbour the following day.

Day three

When we left Montague Harbour at 6:30 the next morning it looked like our luck was running out. The weather broadcast reported 15-20-knot northwest winds on the Strait of Georgia. The Entrance Island light station reported “Seas 3-foot moderate, low northwest swell.” We’ve been in those conditions on the strait. “Three-foot moderate” isn’t moderate enough for us.

We kept going, though, because we wanted to make the 9:43 morning slack at Gabriola Passage. Gabriola Passage leads to Silva Bay, which we’ve found to be an excellent place to keep track of conditions on the strait. Silva Bay has two marinas and a restaurant. When we got there we stopped at Page’s Resort to chat with Gloria and Ken Hatfield, the owners, and take on a little fuel.

It seemed like the wind had been dropping in Silva Bay. Maybe the wind was dropping out on the strait. At 11 o’clock we listened to the weather broadcast. Sure enough, Chrome Island and Merry Island light stations reported lighter winds and lower seas. The big question was the conditions at nearby Entrance Island. Hey! Entrance Island reported light winds and 1-foot chop. Our luck was still with us. We said our good-byes and headed out. Except for a little slop left over from the earlier wind, the crossing to Pender Harbour was easy.

My point here is that every day is filled with uncertainty and decisions. All we can do is look at our choices as we go along and be prepared to change plans.

May Day celebration

We got to Pender Harbour late Friday afternoon, May 18, and discovered the 68th annual Madeira Park May Day celebration was the next day. (Madeira Park is the small commercial village on the south side of Pender Harbour.) Not expecting much, next morning we went over in time for the 11 a.m. parade.

May Day Parade

May Day parade pipe and drum corps

The parade, it turned out, was big. A huge crowd lined the route. The parade went on for at least a half-hour—antique cars, restored classic cars, a pipe and drum corps, an equestrian club (with pooper scooper following behind, laughing and bowing to cheers), a group from the Pender Harbour golf course, two wheelbarrows promoting the hardware store, fire and emergency trucks with horns blasting and and sirens wailing. A truck pulled a flat bed trailer decorated with flowers and a collection of beautiful young maidens in formal gowns, hair done just so, mastering their “parade waves” to the crowd. That’s only part of it. The line of parade participants wouldn’t stop. Candy was thrown to the crowd. It was a happy time.

The parade is such a draw, in fact, that the nearby IGA food market simply closed up. The few customers inside were invited to come back when the parade was over.

May Pole Dance

May Day Maypole dance

Later, a troupe of younger girls performed the traditional dance around a Maypole. Much rehearsed, they carried their streamers round and round, then in opposite directions, interweaving. Four absolutely precious little girls in their finery danced around the base of the Maypole. They were so pleased, so proud, so young-ladylike.

We met Elaine Park at the Pender Harbour Living Heritage Society display. She told us that back in the 1940s and 1950s Pender Harbour was a coastal center (centre in Canada) for boatbuilding. Fish boats, tug boats, work boats, all kinds of boats. She showed us pictures.

We met tall and rail-thin James Douglas from Texada Island, who had built two stunning downhill coasters, using hollowed-out logs turned upside-down for the bodies. The logs—the entire carts, really—were finished to furniture quality. Mr. Douglas (pronounced Dooglas) was pretty special himself. He said he’d lived on Texada Island all his 70 years, making a living at logging, mining, and buying and selling. I got the feeling it had been a life of great originality.

handcrafter coaster

One of James Douglas’s amazing downhill coasters.

We had lunch of wild salmon barbecued on wooden skewers. The crowd and the vendors in the portable shelters seemed completely comfortable with one another. It was like a family gathering, a big family to be sure.

Marilynn and I were at the festivities all afternoon, including a shopping trip at the big IGA. I bought two books at the small but interesting bookstore. We met Howard White, founder and editor-in-chief of Harbour Publishing, the premier publisher of B.C. coastal history and culture. We stocked the liquor locker with B.C.-purchased spirits. In all, an unexpected and delightful day.

Tolly’s bench

As mentioned above, Pender Harbour is the jumping-off point for Princess Louisa Inlet, 40 miles away up Jervis Inlet. We came because of the ashes of Robert “Tolly” Tollefson, the founder of Tollycraft Yachts, were to be scattered there. The Canadian Tollycraft group had purchased a memorial bench dedicated to Tolly. It was installed on a concrete slab, and faced Chatterbox Falls.

Tolly died last year at age 100. His body had failed him but his mind had not. He was alert and crisp until the end. We came because of a shared appreciation—may I call it love—for Tolly and the boats he built. To Tolly, Princess Louisa Inlet was the essence of Northwest cruising. He’d been to Princess Louisa more than 50 times, beginning in 1938. He had played chess with James “Mac” MacDonald, at Mac’s log cabin near the base of Chatterbox Falls. As the Tollycraft boatbuilding company developed he brought customers, suppliers and dealers to Princess Louisa Inlet to demonstrate his boats and the waters they were created to cruise in.

Tolly had a series of personal boats over the years, all named Tolly. The last was a dark blue hulled 48 with a custom hardtop built by Philbrooks, in Sidney. Tolly cruised that boat until he was 90. The fact that Tolly actually used the boats he built is one of the things that keeps Tollycraft owners so devoted. The boats are strong, and they work.

Fifteen Tollys, from 26 feet to 61 feet, made it up from Vancouver, and across from Vancouver Island, and north from Puget Sound. A couple from the Bay area, who have a Tollycraft 48 in California, came up and were guests on one of the boats. A woman from Gig Harbor couldn’t bring her boat, but came as a guest.

Fifteen boats plus two owners might not sound like much, but we pretty well filled both sides of the 500-foot-long park dock at the head of the inlet. We were there for three days, running refrigeration, furnaces and lights, thus the need for generator power. The park ranger wisely removed the sign restricting generator use. It was mostly Tollys anyway, there for the dedication.

The rains came in, cooling the air and hiding the mountain tops. Dozens of waterfalls cascaded from snowfields above to the inlet below. Chatterbox Falls spewed its water out. Princess Louisa Inlet is magnificent.

Princess Louisa

Tollycrafts at the Princess Louisa park dock, made small by mountains and Chatterbox Falls.

To the last, Tolly enjoyed an afternoon cocktail of three ounces of single malt Scotch whisky over ice, with just a touch of water. The rain stopped around noon and sunlight was sneaking in. We gathered at the bench, more than 35 of us, glasses in hand. As the growing sunlight surrounded us, Scott Fultz, who had worked at the Tollycraft plant 50 years ago, had stayed in touch with Tolly, and was Tolly’s caretaker in the last years, joined his wife Elaine in their dinghy and spread Tolly’s ashes in the inlet at the base of the falls. We at the bench joined in a “Three cheers for Tolly! Hip-hip-hooray!” and sipped our glasses of single malt Scotch whisky over ice, with a touch of water.

—Bob Hale

Toast to Tolly

A toast to Tolly. “Hip-hip-hooray!”

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