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Kayaking North Vancouver Island Straits Solo


I had an early morning start; then a quick breakfast, packing up and portaging my dry bags over an extensive space to the launch site. I was camping on a peninsula and had an option of launching inside the bay, on its east side, and then rounding the peninsula, or on the west side, saving at least half an hour of paddling. In the evening before I had decided to launch on the west side. However, I did not realize that the falling tide would open an expanse area that I had to cross many times with my loads to reach the water, in dark. These portages took much longer than I expected; all the time that I had hoped to save avoiding rounding the peninsula was lost, plus an additional half an hour.

Finally, I had departed. It was already the day light. The strait was quiet and covered with fog.

I had passed Telegraph Cove: it was still half-asleep, with very light boat traffic in the area.

I expected this to be the longest paddling day yet: close to fifteen nautical miles, around five hours. If everything went as planned, before the tide turn I was planning to reach the same place near Port McNeill where I camped on my first night. The area along the way was populated, with virtually no camping options until after Port McNeill; it was a day of commuting back to Port McNeill, not exploring and enjoying the scenery. 

I kept paddling as close to the shore as I could; however, I was still seriously concerned about the motorboats. I had observed before that not all of them were noticing me. My path was taking me through the areas with dense boat traffic, and I had to be extra careful. As I paddled along, the traffic had picked up. Most of the time, it was parallel to my heading and, as I was staying very close to the shore, I did not have any problems. However, I had to pass around Nimpkish Bank with its dangerous shoals, especially at this low and falling tide. This would take me close to and into the busy traffic lanes of Alert Bay. 

The boating rules state that a vessel propelled by paddles is a stand-on vessel, while a motor-powered vessel has to give way. The same rules also state that the skipper is responsible for taking all reasonable actions to avoid a collision, and that was what I was doing all the time over my trip. If I stayed on without taking evasive actions, I fear that on more than one occasion these motorboats would have run me over. 

I had always thought that my bright green/yellow kayak with large yellow deck bags was easy to spot. However, over this trip I had learned that I should always assume that the motorboat operators would not notice me. While some motorboats were changing their course well in advance, others would continue heading on, and if I did not stop or make a sharp change of course, a collision would likely have followed. Maybe their operators did not know the rules thinking that they had the right of way, maybe they relied on their radars, maybe they had assumed that if they were moving at a high speed, so could I, or maybe they all had decided to step out to the galley to brew a pot of tea, just when getting dangerously close to my kayak -- I do not know. If any experienced motorboat operator could share with me the reasons, I would be grateful. 

Sure enough, when I was approaching Alert Bay, I got challenged by a motoring sailboat, with sails down and a group of people on deck. The boat kept heading at me at an angle and I could see that, if I would stay on my course at my speed, I would be surely run over. I had stopped my kayak reasoning that, if the boat continued as it were, it would pass in front of me. If it were to change its course toward me, I would still have a bit of time to react and get out of its way. I also hoped that the people on deck would alert the person in charge. I think that this had happened afterwards, as in a matter of seconds someone stepped out of the deckhouse, looked at me and waived – I waived back. Then the boat had changed its course and passed a safe distance in front of me.

As soon as I left the Nimpkish Bank shoals behind and saw the depth increasing, I started heading close to the shore to get out of the traffic zone. Sometime later, I had noticed the fog that was thickening quickly. The Alert Bay – Port McNeill ferry passed some distance away, at high speed and signaling with its fog horn. I sure did not want to be on its way, so I kept moving along the shore, as close to it as I could manage. Soon, I was paddling along Port McNeill that stretched along the shore for miles.

A couple of hours later, very tired but still determined, I was getting close to the point of crossing the Port McNeill bay for reaching my campsite The fog was still thick. I could see the boats close by through the fog, moving at a reduced speed, some signaling with fog horns, most not. I was not so much concerned about them: I felt that with these boats moving so slow I could avoid the collision. I could also blow my whistle if necessary to alert about my presence in the fog. My major concern was the ferry. It had to move at high speed to keep the schedule. Although it was sounding the fog horn all the time, I doubted that I could get out of its way on time without spotting the ferry in advance and seeing where it was coming from. And I did not know its schedule.

While I was struggling over my options, I heard the ferry crossing just in front of me, moving from Port McNeill to Alert Bay, while sounding six blasts, the signal of danger. Fortunately, I did not hear the sound of collision:  someone got lucky this time.

From my previous observations, I knew that I would have about an hour before the ferry returned, enough to cross the bay. The fog had lightened a bit and I could see the opposite side of the bay, but just barely. I took the compass reading and also switched the GPS on activating the GOTO function. This was a very quick crossing: I paddled as fast as I could to minimize the time in the traffic zone. A couple of motorboats passed by, at slow speed and causing no trouble. When I had reached the opposite shore, I realized that the low tide had brought its own challenges: the rocks were sticking out all over, making moving along the kelp line difficult. Finally, more than five hours since the start, I had reached my campsite, dead tired but happy to be at the end of this long journey, and in one piece.

After unloading the kayak and pitching the tent I had cooked my lunch. After the lunch, I had finally taken this photo.

I had envisaged it some twenty days ago, at the beginning of my journey: the rusty chain that I had noticed lying on shore, in the tidal zone, resembling a snake. At that time, I had postponed taking the picture until later in the day, and by then the chain had been covered by the tide.

I had some hopes for seeing or at least hearing the orcas, but the fishing boat traffic in front of my site was very heavy all day.

The rest of the day was dedicated to washing myself with the heated sea water, shaving and making other arrangements to look more civilized. I then packed as much as I could and went to bed early, at 7:00pm: I had to wake up at 2:00am to have enough time to reach Port McNeill, dry up and disassemble the kayak, and pack my stuff for the 10:00am bus back to Victoria.

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