“You won’t get any thanks for this, you realize?”

My brother-in-law John is talking to Mickey, a Gabriola Island buddy with a 35-foot sailboat and the willingness to tow us home.

“Not the damsels-in-distress routine, you mean?”

“God, no, that’s not going to work. Won’t go over at all well.”

Gill's Martin 29 with an engine c. 1974
Gill’s Martin 29 with an engine c. 1974 (Pix: Alison Bate)

Gill and I are on her veteran Martin 29 sailboat, with a dead engine and limping in light to zero winds back to Degnen Bay after four nights in the Gulf Islands in Canada.

The rusty but usually reliable Volvo engine, circa 1974, had a couple of starting hiccups before we set sail. But nothing that Gill – my twin sister – didn’t think a good engine run wouldn’t solve.

The first day, we beat south on “Pelegrin” from Gabriola to Prevost, a quiet island opposite Saltspring.  A steady five-knot SE kept us sailing and happy all day, before dropping anchor in Glenthorne Passage around 7pm. The biggest decision of the day? How much carrot cake to eat.

Our engine woes began the second day. After an early morning row to James Bay, we upped anchor and motored past all the criss-crossing ferries at Active Pass, down Navy Channel, and into Plumper Sound. Suddenly, Gill noticed the RPM counter was flickering and the batteries weren’t recharging. She stopped the engine and, when it wouldn’t restart, hand-cranked it. Under way again, we were trying to make Georgeson Passage at slack tide when smoke began pouring out from under the engine cover. Not a good sign.

Gill stopped the engine in record time, I unfurled the jib and she raised the mainsail.

“Guess we shouldn’t go through the pass.”

“Guess not.”

We looked at the chart again and realized Winter Cove, off Saturna, was really close. At the helm at the time, I headed over there, relieved there was just enough wind to fill the sails, and we dropped anchor in relief.

The engine was still very hot and Gill gave me rapid-fire instructions on how to use the extinguishers.

“I don’t think it’s going to blow up, but just in case,” she said.

Boat Pass, Saturna Island
Boat Pass, off Saturna Island, is known for its strong currents

It was a beautiful little bay, and the sun was out, but we were too tense to enjoy it at that stage. We loaded our daypacks, portable marine radio, first-aid kit, juice and some bread and tomatoes into the dinghy and rowed to a little park. We ate lunch at a picnic table, wondering all the time what to do. After a short walk through trees to Boat Pass, shuddering at the currents, we returned to the park and Gill decided to check on the engine.

“Want me to come and pass you tools?” I asked.

“No thanks.”

Burning foam and tape

Such a shame. As I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the sun, Gill stuck her nose in the engine and hacked away at some foam and aluminum tape that had been burning inside the engine cover. Gill and John, discussing the problem by phone, both thought the generator was likely to blame.

With a dodgy engine, we decided to head toward home the next day, and abandoned plans to visit Cabbage Island. A Bellingham couple in a Catalina 36 had kindly offered to tow us past Active Pass the next day, but we decided to see if we could make it by ourselves.

Ferry in Active Pas
Dodging ferries in Active Pass

The next day, the engine did start but overheated, so we quickly turned it off and instead drifted gracefully backward down Navy Channel. Finally, we limped out into Active Pass, where we looked around anxiously for ferry traffic. Fortunately, a light breeze took us slowly across and there were no nasty five-hooters.

“Hey, we made it!” we said, sipping white wine and pineapple juice to celebrate.

That afternoon, the blue and yellow spinnaker pushed us up Trincomali Channel and we anchored in Clam Bay, enjoying the herons on shore and the contrast between Kuper and Thetis Islands.

Drifting in drizzle

The fourth day was the most frustrating, as light to zero winds kept us drifting in drizzle off first Rose Islets and then Valdez’s Shingle Point. After staring at the same abandoned beach shack for hours, I took one of the dinghy oars and began paddling, canoe-style, over the port side.

“One-and, two-and, three-and. . .”

“Are you singing, Ali?” Gill, at the helm, sounded surprised.

“No, I’m counting. I feel like I’m on a slave ship.”

It was a good workout trying to paddle a 29-foot yacht, and I’m really not sure how much it helped. But Gill made encouraging noises, and eventually a trickle of wind allowed us to reach the beach and drop anchor. We knew the land belonged to Lyackson First Nation, but there was no way we could have made it farther that day.

On the fifth day, the generator totally shot, we put the sails up and waited for wind to carry us off the anchor. The first two hours were slow-going, but the southeaster picked up. By the time we were opposite Ruxton, we were making a good three knots up Trincomali and feeling exhilarated that we would likely make it home by ourselves – triumphant against the odds.

It was at that point that Gill checked her messages and got John’s voicemail that he’d lined up Mickey and another Gabriola guy to help tow us home at 2pm. Gill was not happy.

John was in a sticky position: He’d called out the coastguard one memorable time when Gill was sailing her Tasar dinghy single-handed all the way around Gabriola. He started to worry when he couldn’t see her from land. Turned out she was just fine, just stuck in a hole in False Narrows, waiting for wind. The incident has never been quite forgotten. Whatever he did this time was likely to be wrong.

And in contrast, Gill and I would not call for help even if a hurricane were smashing us up against the rocks.

Six knots of current

So anyway, there we were, near the entrance of Gabriola Pass around 11:45 am, with more than six knots of current ready to shoot us through. The main question was whether we would be able to make the sharp turn left across the current to enter Degnen Bay.

Gill knew her local waters exceptionally well, so I just nodded while she discussed various bolt-holes and scenarios.

“The worst that’s going to happen is that we’ll miss the turn and get shot out the far side,” she said. “What we really need is wind in the pass, so we can steer. I think we just have to go.”

Gill took the helm and as we neared the pass, the wind shifted from a broad reach to a beat. We hardened up as we shot into the pass, and made a quick tack near the Gabriola shore.

“We’ll tack again just before that back eddy,” she shouted. “Ready about.”

We tacked over and glanced at the next hazard: crossing the current close to the east side of Degnen Bay, to avoid the underwater shelf of the island in the middle. In record time, we’d sailed through it and entered the relative calm waters of our final destination.

Still under sail, I was totally impressed when Gill managed to catch the mooring line from the stern. Until she told me it had caught on the rudder, so she just picked it up and cleated it.

“Should have got the mainsail down first,” she muttered as we sorted out the line afterward.

“I thought you did just great,” I retorted. “We’re here, aren’t we?”

*              *             *

After relaxing at Gill and John’s Gabe home (and quietly admitting we were both knackered), we were discussing what birthday presents to buy each other.

“Do you still want the flag and stainless steel frying pan for Pelegrin. Or is it toast now?” I asked in my usual delicate fashion.

“Yes – of course!”

A very good sign, I figured. Pelegrin wasn’t ready for the nautical equivalent of being put out to grass.

(Posted by Alison Bate on July 3 2013)

MAY 2021 UPDATE: Pelegrin is still going strong, eight years later! Now has an outboard…