Johnstone Strait, the Rapids, Blind Channel

At the end of Report No. 1 I said Johnstone Strait exacted a price for our earlier, calm, crossing of the Strait of Georgia. It wasn’t only Johnstone Strait, it was Port Neville, too. Everything worked out, but we were taught a lesson in the strait and we learned some disappointing news about the supposedly good anchorage in Port Neville.

We had begun the day early from Blind Channel (more about Blind Channel later) to carry the last of the ebb through Greene Point Rapids. As it turned out we got to the rapids about a half-hour early, so we motored slowly back and forth, not wanting to go through when they were swirling and overfalling. I try to follow the flyer’s maxim: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.” I’m already old. I try not to be bold. Anyway, an hour before the turn we swept through Greene Point Rapids, impressed with the power of the current but never threatened. Chancellor Channel threw a curve at us, though: we were in fog. We’ve often had to avoid drifting pieces of wood, even entire trees, floating in Chancellor Channel, but the fog obscured our view forward. Eyes moving between the radar screen and the water just off our bow, we made our way along. Happily, the fog ended shortly before the turn to Wellbore Channel and a transit of Whirlpool Rapids when it was completely slack, and we hadn’t hit anything. Sunderland Channel and Johnstone Strait lay ahead.

Now the question: The weather forecast called for the wind in Johnstone Strait to rise to 20 knots northwest by noon. The Fanny Island automated report had the wind northwest at something like 15 knots, but that was an hour earlier. We wouldn’t get out Sunderland Channel to Johnstone Strait until about 10. We could see a few whitecaps in Sunderland Channel. All good judgment said to be conservative and hide out in Forward Harbour, at the end of Whirlpool Rapids, until we had a weather window. Except the wind wasn’t that strong, at least yet, and we really wanted to put Johnstone Strait behind us. Besides, if Johnstone Strait was too rough we could turn in to Port Neville, famous for being out of the weather.

As you’ve probably figured out, we went. Sunderland Channel had whitecaps but small waves. No problem. Once into Johnstone Strait the waves were bigger but they weren’t what we call big. Even cautious Marilynn said they weren’t any worse than many days on Puget Sound. Unlike the waves in Puget Sound, however, these waves got larger, and the wind was freshening. Our Tollycraft 37 is an outstanding seakeeping boat. It has a wonderful, fine entry that eats those kinds of seas, but only up to a point, and we were reaching that point. Our windshield wipers were running steadily. We never took green water on deck, but we sure took spray.

Somehow, I let us get a little close to shore. We weren’t in danger of going aground or anything, but a point of land was dead ahead, and we had to go around it. Marilynn was in the galley, moving the coffee maker off the counter and strapping cupboard doors together. I hadn’t anticipated what the water was like on the other side of that point. The wind-driven surface current bounced off the face of the point and set up a nasty tide-rip, and suddenly we were in that rip. Now, the seas that had before been bigger than we liked but still manageable, took on a menacing quality. Ahead, I saw a high, steep black sea with a curling crest, and we had no choice. “Hang on!” I shouted to Marilynn. Up went the bow, over the crest and down into the trough, with another steep, curling sea immediately ahead. Up again, and down – hard. And up, and down, and we were through. Although the rip thankfully was behind us, the wind was building and the seas were larger than before. Johnstone Strait is a stern teacher and school was in session.

The entrance to Port Neville was just ahead. A “What do you think?” conference was not needed. We went in. Two boats already were anchored in the middle, off the public dock. Not wanting to tie to the dock with the current running and the wind blowing, we anchored with them. The anchor went down and chain went out. I locked the windlass, the chain stretched out in front and we stopped, solidly anchored. We were emotionally tired, hungry for lunch, and glad to have the drama behind us. We’d give Johnstone Strait another try the next day.

Then, a short time later, the rumble. The anchor chain was dragging across a rock as we swung. There’s no sound quite like the rumble of anchor chain across rock. It’s a low, groaning moan, beginning slowly as the first links make contact, and increasing in intensity as more links are added. The rumble vibrates. It insists. It stops conversation and interrupts sleep.

This would never do, so with regrets, we started the engines, brought up the anchor and moved a short distance away. Again the anchor set solidly (love that Bruce). Again I rigged the bridle, to take strain off the windlass and put nylon rope between the anchor chain and the boat. All was quiet – for a while. Then we heard it. The rumble. Oh, to hell with it. We were tired. We’d live with it.

We heard the rumble just once during the night. Next morning, however, the chain came in only so far, and stopped. It was either wedged under a rock or wrapped around it. I’ll never know which, because with some steady upward pressure the chain came free. When the anchor was up we found it coated with the thickest, least yielding clay we’ve ever encountered. The holding was wonderful but the rocks on the bottom make the outer section of Port Neville a less than ideal anchorage. Next time we’ll follow the Hamilton’s suggestion in the Waggoner and try the bottom near the head of the inlet.

The wind had dropped to nothing. We had a flat run the rest of the way to Havanna Channel, where we left Johnstone Strait.

Although the first day’s run in Johnstone Strait was a mistake, the too-often result of asking too much, trying too hard, I’ll stand by it because the mistake was ours alone. We had made our own decisions, we had run our own boat. Maybe it was our experience in the Yuculta Rapids that emboldened me. Because we ran our own boat in the Yucultas, and we were wildly successful.

Northbound from Desolation Sound, a series of five rapids must be negotiated. The first three – Yuculta Rapids, Gillard Passage and Dent Rapids – are close together and typically are taken in succession. Timing is the challenge. Dent Rapids, at the far end, turns to slack first. Then Gillard Passage, and finally Yuculta Rapids. (Yuculta Rapids, by the way, often is referred to as “the Yucultas;” Yuculta is pronounced “Yu-cla-ta,” much as Puyallup is pronounced “Pyu-allup” and Sequim is pronounced “Squim”). Of the three sets of rapids, Dent is the most dangerous. A violent whirlpool called Devils Hole sets up when the rapids are running. Devils Hole has taken many lives over the years and is reluctant to give up its dead. Devils Hole claims its victims and the bodies are never found. We do not play games with Dent Rapids.

To reach Dent Rapids at slack water the Yucultas must be entered early, before their slack. The question becomes “how long before their slack,” and the answer is “about an hour.” We had left our lovely anchorage in Squirrel Cove amply early to reach the Yucultas – too amply early, it turned out. We arrived at least two hours before slack, the only boat there. We idled back and forth and finally turned the engines off and drifted. Sometimes, as when stalled in traffic on the way to the airport, time flashes by; sometimes, as when waiting for the surgeon at the hospital to emerge with a report, time drags. Seconds take minutes to go by. The clock advances reluctantly. Drifting, we were in time’s slow-passage zone. We drifted and waited, drifted and waited.

At last, dots on the horizon to the south. Other boats were approaching. The accumulation was about to commence. With the approach of the other boats the clock speeded up. Soon a dozen or so boats were waiting, idling in place. When to go, when to go? At about 50 minutes before slack I said, “We’re on our way,” and pushed the throttles forward, the first boat to enter the rapids. Well, not rapids, really. Most of the turbulence had ceased. We were twisted this way and that, but only a little. The run through the Yucultas was uneventful, as was Gillard Passage. Dent was flat. It was nothing.

We’d done it right, and we did it by running our own boat, not waiting for confirmation or affirmation from other boats. We make better decisions when we’re responsible for those decisions, even when (as with that first morning in Johnstone Strait) the decision turns out wrong. This doesn’t mean we ignore other boats’ decisions; we pay close attention. But we don’t follow blindly. We go because we decide to go, not because they did.

Blind Channel. Every year for at least 20 years Blind Channel, with its wonderful restaurant, has been our overnight stop before running Greene Point Rapids and Whirlpool Rapids on the way to Johnstone Strait. The Richter family has owned Blind Channel since around 1970. They built the resort from nothing. Dinner (Annemarie’s splendid German dishes) was served in Edgar and Annemarie’s kitchen, with dishes done late at night after guests had gone back to their boats. Edgar is a relentless builder. He designed and built the structures at Blind Channel. From nothing, Blind Channel now has a busy fuel dock, city-style restaurant, post office, store, liquor agency, washrooms and showers, guest cabins, and water taxis. Four generations are there: Edgar, now in his 80s and mostly retired from the family business; Edgar and Annemarie’s son Phil and his wife Jennifer; their son Eliot, and Eliot’s two small children, Jonah and Charlotte.

And they work. One year, when an unsatisfactory chef had to be summarily dismissed, Annemarie, recovering from surgery, went back in the kitchen and served out a limited but excellent menu to guests. She never missed a beat. After supper, she and Edgar visited each of the tables, a personal touch, a caring for their customers. With Annemarie’s passing a few years ago, Edgar did the table visits alone, always genial, remembering guests from visits a year, two years or more earlier. We were there. We saw it. We experienced it.

Now it’s Eliot’s turn. Among many other duties, Eliot manages the restaurant, serves as barkeeper, and visits guests at their tables, sometimes bringing the kids along for admiration. The kids came in when we were there this year. From early age, Jonah and Charlotte are learning the drill.


Eliot Richter with Charlotte and Jonah.

It used to be Eliot and Laura. If ever there was a perfect package of young womanhood, it was Laura. She was just above medium height, slender even after producing two lovely children, refreshingly, openly attractive, with gorgeous eyes and a way about her that endeared her instantly. Then cancer.

Blind Channel got a new boat this year, a handsome all-aluminum landing craft with inside seating for nine and outside storage space for a mountain of supplies. Its name is Laura K.

Robert Hale

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