Surfing To Sweet Success at Scotch Fir Pt.

When the fast-ebbing waters of Malaspina Strait join with those exiting the great length of Jervis Inlet and meet head-on the swells of a southeast gale pushing the whole surface of the Strait in the opposite direction the resulting chaos is easy to picture as a clash of opposing armies. Cavalric waves rear high up and over their deeply entrenched foe, foamy manes white and wild, eager to over-run the tide and launch their furious assault on the rocks of Scotch Fir Point and the sands of Thunder Bay.

It is no place for small boats, or for even the biggest and best-built log tows harnessed to powerful tugs charged with pulling them through the seas to shelter and safety, in this case behind the bulwarks of Hardy and Nelson Island. Yet both were to be found in those waters in April of ’83.

You’d be right to wonder how that might come to be. It was due to no ordinary set of circumstances.

For starters, it was unusual for five or six log-towing tugs to find themselves arrayed together in the vicinity of Ragged Islands above Powell River.  They had arrived over several days, and were waiting there for the arrival and passing away of a gale threatened by both a dark, lowering sky and an equally ominous ‘official’ weather report. They had come trailing down Johnson Strait and through the Yuculta rapids over several slack tides and now found themselves like thoroughbreds in the starting gate with a long and risky race to run down to Howe Sound and the Fraser River.

Three days they waited there, for the threatened gale was one that might never come. So away they all went, one after the other, down quickly past the Ferry Dock at Powell River and Grief Point below it. Then, as the impromptu fleet neared Kelly Point, the promised gale arrived. Five boats, two places to hide: Frolander Bay on the mainland port side and a touchy sort of a tie-up across the Strait in the slender lee of Northeast Point on Texada Island. Who would stay the course and who would cut for cover?

The tows most likely to survive down to Scotch Fir and into Jervis inlet were those with the most to lose…the biggest and most valuable bundles of logs…..put together with the beefiest and soundest boomsticks, all newly logged and bored, connected by the best of boomchains, their toggles lying, properly, across the grain, the holes beside them stuffed with maul-driven cedar plugs so that they could not turn in rough seas and be sucked jolt by jolt, even inch-wide as they were at the edges, right through the end of the boomsticks.

There were two of these near-to-legendary tows from Beaver Cove, below Port Hardy on the Northeast end of Vancouver Island. Their prime-as-in-the-past logs had been harvested from the slopes along the Mahatta River that runs into Quatsino Sound and trucked overland to the sheltered side of the Island. They were the royalty of logs and, were they like ours, would undoubtedly have taken great umbrage at the indignities they were to suffer. They would carry on into the teeth of the gale, harnessed to the Ballantyne Straits and the Elliot Straits, powerful vessels both, clad in the black and green hues of Rivtow. Also to run the gauntlet would be the Kingcome tug Haida Warrior, hoping to take some shelter from the two heavier tows by staying to their lee side as they made the turn into the inlet.

It seemed a wise course in the balance. A gale such as this could drop away as quickly as it had arisen. Still, it seemed likely that there would be some logs lost, to be pulled from the beaches once the sea calmed, perhaps even later that day.  Carl Viitanen and I, alerted by radio chatter, made our separate ways to the vicinity; he from Pender Harbour and I from my home outside Green Bay on Agamemnon Channel.. There was another salvor or two, perhaps more but they are not germane to my story. I can’t recall their names. If they hear of this tale in this location and let me know, I’ll write them in.

Anticipating the likely need to ‘work the beaches’, I’d come in the twenty-two-foot long, jet-driven Stranger. It drew ten-inches of water at most, with full fuel tanks, and was powered by a three-hundred-thirty horsepower V8 gas engine, similar to the one pushing the propeller on Carl’s somewhat shorter ‘Woodstalker’

We were riding six-foot seas or greater, trough to peak, looking things over watching them roll and churn into the starboard side of the Beaver Cove tows as they began the turn into Jervis.  As the boomsticks rode up, and down and then up again, snapping hard against the heavy chains connecting them end to end, a few bundles, despite their size and height, slipped under the sidesticks to drift free on the windward side of the tow.

I suppose it must have been the combination of the tide coming down the Strait and out of the inlet and the tows being pulled away to port, some influence perhaps from the thrust of the big propellers on the tugs; but whatever the physics, those bundles began to drift broadside, counterintuitively, away from the boom and into the swells. They were big bundles, even one was going to be all that either Carl or I could hope to move through such seas with either of our boats. For that matter, how were we even going to get a line onto them?

In less extreme conditions you’d handle a bundle by shackling one end of a ninety-foot-long, three-quarter-inch-thick poly line to one of the cables holding the logs together. Then you’d take a half-hitch around one of the longer ones sticking out of an end so that you could tow it longditudinally through the waves. Moving a bundle of logs sideways, even in a calm sea, was not to be countenanced.

I think it was the Ballantyne that was losing the bundles. Carl and I pulled up side-by side in the lee of its tow, where the water was virtually calm, and it was decided that I’d go out and see what I could do to get control of a bundle, tow it back to the tail-end of the log tow and turn it over to Carl to secure to the lee-side while I went for another. If I couldn’t find a way to get it done, Carl would give it a shot.

It is true that we could have simply left the bundles to be driven ashore or to drift until the gale blew itself out. We might have even justifiably charged more for recovering them, intact or log-by-log, had we made that choice. It didn’t even occur to us. Over nearly two decades on the water I don’t recall an instance, working alone or in concert with other salvors, when such a decision was ever made.

So off I went, upsy-downsy over the waves, nose down into each dark trough, powering up the wave-face, through the foamy peak and back down and up again, all the way to the first bundle where it wallowed massively, broadside to the waves, now about half-a-kilometre to the southeast of the tow.

With the wind still blowing something like forty knots, trying to get tight to the lee-side of the bundle was a non-starter. The boat would immediately blow away sideways before I could effect any kind of hook-up. On the windward side, theoretically, you could hope to ride the waves in tandem with the bundle, held there by the wind, and perhaps at least get a hook into a cable. If you managed that you could then focus on throwing some kind of a half-hitch around a log poking out of one end and start pulling it back towards the tow.

So, timing it just as the bundle came off the peak of a wave, I hit the throttle, slid in on the windward side of it and dropped the reversing bucket down to direct the jet back under the hull and come to an immediate stop. The next swell slammed into the starboard side of the Stranger, rolled beneath it, lifted it right up over the bundle and dropped it back down on top of the logs.

Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, that was not in the plan. Then over the top of the wave we rode and lay over for the slide down the back side of it. The stranger flopped over on to her starboard chine and I thought for an instant that she might roll right off the bundle into the next wave and fill and sink.

But I’m here to write about it aren’t I, so she didn’t, did she? The next wave broke against the side of the bundle, flooded over it, and I was waterborne again for just enough time to drive the heel of my right hand against the throttle and power my way back into the sea.

I took a moment or two, for the adrenalin to thin out in my veins…..then tried it again. You never know with waves. They are, each of them, so individual. Perhaps I’d caught a bad one. So in I went again, up and on the bundle, again, laying over to starboard down the back side of the wave, again, and blasting off the top of the bundle as the next swell flooded over it; with nothing like the adrenalin shock of the first time. Oh my, what a boat I was so fortunate as to be piloting.

But, clearly I needed to try something else. So I rode up and down there in the sea and pondered for a minute or two; not much longer, for the distance between the loose bundles and the tow to which they were to be returned was growing ever greater.

Then it occurred to me that, even in these conditions, what couldn’t be towed might be pushed. I’d often moved bundles around with a sidewinder at one booming grounds or another or on my own behalf with my own boats. They were all equipped with big teeth extending four-inches or so from their bows at the waterline. If you stabbed into a bundle just slightly of center you could balance the pressure you put on from one side against the resistance of the water on the other and steer the bundle, head on, pretty well as accurately as if you were towing it or pushing on the back end.

I had all that power rumbling away behind me. It could be used nearly as efficiently in reverse as in going ahead.

So I cut back towards the bundle, approaching it from a wave away to windward, slid up on that just ahead of its peak, turned the bow to point straight at the object of all this effort, dropped the bucket into reverse, goosed the throttle to slow my descent down the face of the wave, slid down it in gentlemanly fashion and drove the bow teeth into the nearest log, just as planned.

And that was it. I and my boat and the bundle, afloat on the rolling sea; the bundle turned so as to head nose first to where Carl, waiting at the back of the log tow, could get a line on it and pull it up the lee side of the great mass of logs to where it could be safely tied.We recalled four or five bundles that way .

I think the sea lay down shortly after the tows had moved some way into the safety of the inlet. I think the Elliot Straits, substantially undamaged, might have carried on around Nelson Island and down Agamemnon Channel. It might have been the Ballantyne that turned into Vanguard Bay to effect repairs. It is entirely possible that I don’t accurately recall just who went where. One way or another, after a few hundred logs were pulled from the shore around Scotch Fir and the beaches of Thunder Bay and delivered to Vanguard, Carl and I rented a sidewinder from the Fieldings in Pender Harbor and restowed a big bag of logs from this spill that had also been towed around to the Agamemmnon side.

And that was it. Back to the peace and beauty of my lady and my daughters and our home above the lagoon just by the entrance to Green Bay, where I could contemplate the good fortune by which I came to have a boat like the Stranger and the experiences it allowed me.

Not saying it was so across the board but I don’t know of any log salvors who insured their boats, and some, my own among them, represented a considerable investment for a small business. It was rumored, and one could easily imagine it so, that no one would insure our vessels or that the cost would be out of the question. I know I never inquired. It says something about how we viewed our occupation that most of us considered ourselves uninsurable.

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