The Sorry Saga At Southeast Rock
A barren rock, roughly forty meters in circumference distances itself by some thirty meters from the northeast extreme of North Trail Island, a kilometer off the shore of West Sechelt, in Georgia Strait, on Canada’s West Coast. The top of it clears the water by two to eight meters, on the rise and fall of the tide. A topknot of brush struggles to survive in the dip at its crown. Canada Geese have been known to nest there. Oyster Catchers will lay their speckled grey eggs in the open cracks in the rocks; good fortune, camouflage and distracting tactics all that keep them from becoming a meal for gulls or crows.
It is not named on any marine chart that I have seen but is known as Southeast Rock or simply ‘The Rock’ to every skipper who tows logs down the length of Georgia Strait from the Ragged Islands to Howe Sound or the Fraser River.
Half a dozen or more large galvanized-steel eye-bolts are deeply imbedded in holes drilled in its westerly slope. In many a southeast gale heavy cables run from them to the head-ends of log tows sheltering from the swells in the staggered lee of the four Trail Islands.
From the southeast comes the most consistently cruel of the winds that hit Georgia Strait. Records have it rising as high as one-hundred-twenty kilometers per hour, gusting to one-hundred-eighty, generating seas of up to twelve meters in height. At half that it can substantially damage a log tow. At eighty-kilometers-an-hour it can utterly deconstruct one.
It might have been sometime in the winter of 1985 that I pulled some twenty strung-out ‘jags’ of salvaged logs, four hundred or so in all, out of Halfmoon Bay to secure them to the shoreward-side of a tow of bundled timber being pulled down to Howe Sound by the tug Dauntless. Skippers often accommodated salvors in this way, in my day at least. It saved us fuel and long boring hours at the end of a towline.
The quid pro quo was usually little more than a daily newspaper retrieved from a shoreline retailer and someone other than the crew to talk to. A boomstick might break, generating the loss of a bundle or two and a salvor with logs alongside could quickly make a recovery, do a quick restow and repair while the tug and tow carried on, at no charge unless it turned into a more substantial event. On one occasion I had to transport a crew member to an ambulance at the shore. Not a big deal, but a convenience and a saving for the towing company. One way or another though, allowing us to tie alongside was a kindness.
I was towing with the twenty-seven foot long Stray, but also had the Stranger along…. my twenty-foot jetboat. We would be moving slowly down just the kind of shore it was designed to get close to and to pull logs from. An oil stove kept the cabin of the Stray cozy in most any weather. While the bunk wouldn’t warrant a hotel rating, it was comfortable
The late afternoon was cloaked in a steely-grey sky, the kind that could loom for days, threatening a storm that might or might not arrive. There could have been no warning to be heard on the VHF radios that ceaselessly monitored the airwaves. Had there been, the Dauntless would have pulled into Halfmoon Bay rather than pass it by on the way down to ‘The Rock.’ Nor is it likely that I would have ventured out to join the tow had there been any forewarning of a storm to come.
There was in fact so little motion once we passed Reception Point that, the tide being high, I was able to work my way in through the big rocks along the shore and recover a remnant low-float bundle of pulp logs, wrapped with two rusty steel cables. It might have slipped under the sidestick of a previous, passing tow or drifted, barely visible, all the way up from the Fraser River.
It seemed at the time like a small blessing that would bring in a few extra dollars. I shackled the foremost bundle cable to the front of my tow and added a ninety foot connecter-line to it with which the whole, long string of logs, the the bundle at its head end, could be towed.
The expectation was that we would be just off the gap at Gibsons around daybreak the next morning. I would detach my string of logs from the bundle booms and make the long run with them up to Gulf Log Sort, just North of Port Mellon in Howe Sound. But in the space of an hour or so the sky began to darken with something more than approaching night, the surface of the water began to stir restlessly and the skipper of the Dauntless got on the radio to say that he was pulling into The Rock for a wait-see.
The head-end of my own tow of logs was shackled to the bundle-tow a hundred feed or so back from the its head-end. I had run fifteen-foot-long doglines at several points along its length over to the boomsticks that framed all those bundles so that my logs couldn’t swing out in the tide and catch more motion than was good for them, if indeed the weather turned bad. That done, I idled back to the end of the log tow, tucked myself into a jog at the back of it, used the front yarding-line to secure the nose of the Stray to a tailstick. I tied the Stranger alongside, let myself drift back so that there would be no banging against the sides of the bundle- booms and set about making something to eat. It wouldn’t be the first time I had ridden out a blow in the lee of the Trail Islands.
By morning it was clear that we were not going anywhere soon. The wind was strong enough to drive remnant swells through the gap between North and West Trail Island, rolling them through the back end of the log tow, gusts pushing my boats over to bang against the boomsticks that framed the bundled logs.
There was no structural risk to the boats. Heavy internal framing supported bottoms and sides of thick aluminum plate, allowing them to bang around among logs and even off rocks, unharmed. But it was noisy and bumpy. I separated my two vessels, securing them well apart from one another. I secured the Stray with long lines from port and starboard cleats, leading to log booms on either side, to keep its nose into the wind and motion.
One day of it….a night….another day. I would idle up to the Dauntless and tie alongside, share a cup of coffee and conversation with captain and crew….sometimes lunch or supper, then drop back to the tail end of the tow, eyeballing my own logs as I passed them to and fro. They seemed to be holding their own, plastered to the side of the bundle tow by the remnant waves of giant swells crashing full-force into the southeast side of the islands and the powerful surface current set up by them. The wind had become steady a something like ninety kilometers per hour, regularly gusting another twenty or so.
On the third day a bundle of hemlock sawlogs popped out of the back of the tow and I got my first taste of the waves away from the protection of the islands as I went out to recover it, bring it to the tail-end of the tow and secure it with a couple of doglines. It was a different and mighty watery world even back half-a-kilometer from the close-protection of North Trail Island. Steering from the roof to keep the bundle in sight, at the top of each swell I had great, grey holes bottoming out five meters below eye-level to the fore and aft of me.
That evening a tug running light with an empty barge below Point Upwood at the bottom of Texada Island reported winds of one-hundred-twenty kilometers per hour and gusting. But all in all I still wasn’t too uncomfortable tucked away in the lee of the islands and the log tow…. if you discount the omnipresent atmosphere of chaos that permeated the atmosphere.
The next morning the sky seemed a touch lighter, the wind a bit brisker. Taken together, that can signal the last kick at the cat for a storm such as we were suffering through. That’s what I was thinking, breakfasting on a couple of eggs and a sausage, when I looked out the windows of the Stray to see the front end of my long string of logs break loose, the parted ends of a blue, poly connector-line fly up into the wind and one jag of logs, then another curl out away from the bundle tow, caught up in the wind-driven water streaming past.
The lines I’d used to snug the length of my tow to the bundle boom didn’t have a chance; one after the other, snap….snap…snap, they either pulled free or broke.
Move as quickly as I might, in the minute it took me to skid the dishes and pots away, toss off the connecter lines running from each side of the Stray, start her up, throw off the bow line and come out from behind the bundle tow, my four hundred logs, gathered over six weeks, were undulating like a snake across the swells, two hundred meters into open water, moving fast, the odd piece already breaking loose to drift off alone towards the rough and rocky shore.
Surely I should have let them go, you might be thinking. It must have occurred to me to do so. But out we wallowed, the Stray and I, heaving back and forth, my legs braced wide, hands clamped tight to the wheel at the rooftop steering station, easing close to my logs, scanning for the free broken end of the lead connecter- line.
I spotted it, drifted in close to it, clambered down onto the rear deck and fished for it in the swells with a pike pole. Well out and away from the lee of the islands now, roller-coasting up and down the big swells, it still proved possible to hook up the broken end of the connecter, take a hitch around the towpost, turn into the wind and waves, push the throttle to the maximum I allowed myself to tow at and settle for a long up-and-down return to the log tow.
But I could make no headway at all, could barely in fact hold my own. If anything the wind had picked up. The surface current was running so hard through and past the islands that the Dauntless, pulling full-throttle ahead on his tow to prevent it breaking loose from the lines securing it to Southeast Rock, could not get any slack in them. He could not cut loose to come to my aid.
The question was….how long would I have to keep towing? I had started out with full tanks, but towing hard for hours on end was not something they had the capacity for. In seas as rough as these the constant slopping of fuel back and forth inside the tanks could stir up enough sediment to plug the lines carrying fuel to the engine and render me dead in the water.
I had been pulling hard without getting any nearer the log tow for about three hours when the wind kicked up another notch or two and the bundle of hemlock logs I had earlier recovered and secured to the back of the tow broke loose and came sailing back towards me. At some point I had secured the Stranger to it and now the two quickly covered about half-the distance to me, into heavier and heavier seas that soon parted them from one another. Much lighter and higher, caught by the wind as it rose to the peak of each wave, the jetboat would soon be slipping past me.
I swung to starboard in an attempt to intercept it and get a line on it in some fashion, quickly losing headway as the Stray began to take the thrust of the waves on her port side, falling back into heavier and heavier seas. But with four-hundred logs dragging at my stern I couldn’t get to it. It went sailing by.
So, did I drop my long tow of logs, leave them to their fate and go after the Stranger encumbered only by the waves? I did not.
With my logs still behind me I turned squarely abeam of the swells, intending to come fully around to place them on my stern and use both power and drift to catch up to the Stranger and get a line on it. Wallowing in it all as I was, at the peak of each swell the Stray would be thrown towards my logs, the towline to them going slack for just a second or two. Then the propeller would take a fresh bite, drive us on and pull the line tight again. I well knew that every time that towline went slack it could get caught in those spinning blades of stainless steel churning the water beneath the stern of the Stray.
Could it have been any more evident that my good luck was off consorting with another? Is there any greater way to prove oneself foolish to oneself than to play the cuckold, hiding in the denial of it. “None at all, you blithering idiot,”said the great thunk that rose momentarily above the sound of wind and water, all the more emphatic for the measure of relative quiet to which I was treated as my engine came to an abrupt stop.
It was the worst of possibilities made real. The one-inch line back to my logs now ran from my towpost back and tight over the stern and down to where it was wrapped like a python around my propeller, from which it lead back to my logs. All of it adrift and powerless in mountainous swells: All of it heading for the big rocks standing just off the bouldery beach that stretched southeast from Reception Point.
I did not go, physically to my knees, but in my soul I surely did. “Oh Lord, get me out of this and I will be a better man in every way,” I thought but did not say. Even in such circumstances, it flashed through my mind that I would almost certainly fail to do so and that if there is a Creator who really might intervene in our lives, I would need both saving and forgiving.
So there we were, my boats and I, rising high and sinking low, sometimes in sync, sometimes not……the Stranger was a mere fifty feet away from me, the span of three swells. The wide swim-grid at the back of it looked so tempting. Oh, to be once again empowered to the tune of three-hundred-horsepower and not drifting helplessly back into the ever-more chaotic, bunched up tangle of logs and lines that had once been my tidy, half-kilometer-long tow.
Oh yes, I did imagine myself stripping off, diving in and quickly covering the distance to the Stranger, heedless of the bone-chilling cold. I had been in winter-water on more than one occasion and stood it. I would claw for a grip on the checker-plate of the swim grid, heave myself up on it and scramble over the stern. I would fire up the ignition and feel the blessed thrust of power as the impeller within the aluminum casting of the jet bit into the water pressing up through the grid in the bottom of it. I would hunt down the end of a long connecter-line that I’d secured to the bow-cleat of the Stray and set adrift before making the swim. I would take a double wrap of it around the horns on the Stranger’s towpost, leaving the full length stretching back to the Stray as a shock absorber. I would not think of my logs, the wasted cost and labor of gathering them as I climbed and fell all the way back to the lee side of North Trail Island, to water that rippled but did not heave and roll.
I did not imagine myself dead and entangled, pounded to jelly on the rocks, as would almost certainly have been my fate had I tried such a mad thing.
Instead, I wrapped a dogline around my waist and secured the other end of it to the towpost. The wind against the superstructure of the Stray driving, her towards the tangle of my logs, meant that the line back to them from my propeller was somewhat slack. Knife in hand, I went to the stern and leaned over and down as far as I could, heedless of the rising and falling, got a handful of slack line and sawed through it.
I did not cut through the length that ran tight up and over the stern to my towpost. I wanted it to stay tight as I starting the engine, engaged forward gear and the throttle at just the same moment knowing it would stall the engine. Again…..start the engine, drop it into reverse as the engine roared then stalled. Again…..start the engine, drop it into forward. Over and over and over….forward then reverse. Incrementally, the propeller began to chew its way through the rope that stifled it….and finally broke free, the line running back from the tow post and over the stern springing slack.
I don’t recall how long it took, but once free I was able to idle away in forward gear, for all that stern of the Stray shivered and shook and wagged itself like the rear end of a dog greeting a much beloved master, due to the damaged blades of the propellor and the remnant rope choked around it.
My logs of course would be lost, but the Stranger could be recovered. She was a couple of hundred meters away now, rising high and then disappearing in the troughs of the waves. Still, it took only a minute or two to wiggle alongside her. The wind into her open-backed cabin kept her stern square to the waves. Attempting to jump to her from the Stray was not advisable. It took several tries, the boats careening into one another, then bouncing apart, before it proved possible to get the big hook at the end of a long chain on the heavy line I used to pull logs from the beaches choked around the cleat on the bow-deck of the Stranger.
I could then let out some slack and work my wobbly way slowly around, point up into the wind and make the slow, but oh so welcoming journey back to the log tow and the shelter of North Trail Island. In the calm water below the cabin on the rocks from which the chimney-smoke still streamed, was a float of some fifteen meters by three, moving only slightly, cross-chained into a long notch running back into the rockface. A ramp from the inshore end of it lead up to a long pier. I pulled in to it, tied up to it…….and let all the fear run out of me. Oh the blessed, blessed stillness.
But life moves on…and in this case, in only a minute or two, mine was to begin to faintly sketch the understory for a whole new chapter that would become a decade spent living with my family on the very island in the lee of which I now took shelter.
It took me some time to get around to writing of this experience, although I long intended to. It was only as I started to do so that I realized I had been avoiding revisiting the bone-deep fear experienced at that time. I have told the story of course, in conversation, feeling always that came up far short of communicating the intermittent sense I had, during the most violent parts of the experience, of having the palm of one hand raised to fend off soul-rending panic while with the other I turned the wheel, thrust a palm against gearshift and throttle, sliced through rope.
It never occurred to me to quit log salvaging in the aftermath of all this, ‘though it was thought by some that I would. In a stretch of calm days following the loss of my logs I was able to quickly get the Stray up on the sand beach at Coopers Green in the belly of Halfmoon Bay. With the tide down I swapped the bent shaft and propeller for the spares my lady brought down to me in our truck. The Stranger was a little battered at the gunnels along the bowdeck but not affected operationally in any way. It too several days for my lady, my daughters and I to pull from the bays and beaches the logs that had not drifted off and away through Welcome Pass. There was many a tangle to tangle with. In an unusual gesture of consideration and courtesy, not a single other beachcomber arrived in the area to contest my recovery of the logs I had lost.
In the calm, immediate aftermath of this experience I discovered the low grade bundle of pulp logs still secured to the Dauntless’s bundle boom by one thirty-meter-long connector line. It was the line leading back from the foremost of the two steel cables wrapping it that had parted after four days of repeatedly rubbing, rising free, then rubbing again against the cable behind it as the bundle rocked fore and aft in the passing waves.