Great story, Winderlust, and very well-written. Thanks!
We dropped sail shortly after sunset, as we rode the dying winds into a narrow, protected inlet a few hours north of Bella Bella on the Central BC coast. As was our practice, we had the engine up and running before we brought the sails down, to ensure that it would run, and to let it warm up a bit before use. And it did run, and ran well, as it had done reliably through the whole trip.
However, when I push the gear shift lever into "forward" the whole thing breaks right off in my hand; the screw connecting the lever to the bar going into the binnacle has sheered off cleanly at the bar, leaving no purchase whatsoever to shift with. I stare at the thing dumbly before casting it aside. The transmission has, at least, gone into forward gear prior to breaking, so I have some headway; this, at least, is different from the scenario which springs immediately into my mind, which is a cold nightmare based on the last time this happened, which didn't involve the lever breaking, but rather the cable snapping inside the binnacle, and didn't shift into gear at all, and didn't take place in a remote Canadian wilderness with navigable waters ahead, but rather mid-way beneath the open leaves of the Fremont Bridge. But that's another story.
At any rate, with steerageway from the prop and no bridge in front of our mast, I am not too worried; just another routine boat problem, ho-hum. I call for Mandy on deck and have her fiddle with the bar for a while, but neither she nor I can get purchase with any of our tools to lever it back into neutral, or to reverse, which we will need to properly set our anchor shortly as we reach the head of the inlet. My thinking is that we will simply continue to motor into the anchorage, slowly, and pitch the anchor over at first without setting it; that will glue us in place at least for a while to work on a fix, and the cove we will be in is extremely protected and safe enough to sit on an unset anchor for a while.
My next concern is that it is nightfall, and the entrance is very narrow already--too narrow to turn around without reverse--and will become more narrow yet, and several rocks in it are noted prominently on the chart. I have already threaded my way past several, but I put Mandy on the bow to watch for any uncharted or misplaced boulders. The two prominently marked with asterisks on the chart are both at the starboard side of the channel, so I hugged the port side... failing in the dim twilight to notice the less prominent color gradation to port which marks shoal waters.
Nonetheless, I had one eye on the depthsounder, and it didn't look suspicious; it was holding at around 7 feet, which isn't a lot of clearance for a boat which draws 5'5", but which was the controlling depth marked on the chart, and thus expected. So I was a little surprised when Mandy hollered back from the bow, "What depth are we at?"
As a practical matter, a depthsounder is a device presenting information of mostly historical interest. Mounted on the hull to the rear of the keel, it's better for confirming that you have, indeed, just run aground, rather than warning you that you are about to do so. While it's often of use poking around an anchorage at a knot or two looking for a likely spot to drop the hook, at anything over a couple knots you may as well look up what happened in tomorrow's paper for all the good the depthsounder will do you.
I find this out now, awkwardly...
I've never had us on the bottom before but I figured it was only a matter of time. The old saw says that there are sailors who run aground and those who never leave the dock, and now I've clearly left the dock. Mandy has already grounded her once, when I wasn't along thank god, in the mud flats off West Point, and I gave her hell for it and have been waiting ever since for my comeuppance. It has arrived now, as we bump twice and grind to a halt.
The usual mad hash of events follows: I can't get out of forward gear to try to reverse off so I kill the engine, and we try to pole off from the bow; no good. We set a kedge out back along the channel, and haul on it madly; we get back an anchor full of salad... the shallow bottom is a sunlit haven for vegetation amongst which our anchor will find no purchase. When, finally, we hit upon a technique likely to free us (running a line to a massive old-growth fir on the opposite side of the channel) the tide has reversed and fallen and we are well and truly stuck.
The next high tide is at 0900. We come to rest on our starboard side, high and dry, and settle in for an uncomfortable evening canted at 45 degrees. I plug up all the thru-hulls and hop off to inspect things at 0300. Surprisingly, there is little damage to the keel, some scrapes mostly and a small divot of lead missing from the leading edge. The hull and rudder, such as I can see of them, are pristine. I climb back aboard, take a leak over the starboard rail and admire the phosphoresence as it trails off and dissipates in a glowing cloud in the current, with little random flashes as whatever glowing bacteria are activated in the process have a particularly strong reaction. I wonder what Mandy will do, with the head effectively unusable, but she's already asleep in the V-berth. Rather than crushing in on top of her, I take the starboard settee and fall into a fitful slumber.
I awake with the chill of the North Pacific lapping at my back around 0600; the tide is coming in, and the boat is flooding.
It's a rude surprise; I desperately scour my mind for possible sources even as I wake Mandy, unstow the manual bilge pump, and fire up the VHF. The hull was fine at 0300... had I missed a thru-hull somehow? Was the rudder stock or prop shaft bent and leaking? This is a lot of water... but I can't figure out where it's coming from, and it's already deep enough that I can't feel a current or spot any upwelling. I pump and send Mandy to put our ditch bags ashore; no worries here of drowning, at least.
As I am pumping, I get on the radio and try to raise Prince Rupert Coast Guard. Any icy ball forms in the pit of my stomach as I receive no response after three calls on two different channels they should be monitoring. Our mast, and therefore the VHF antenna at the top of it, has tipped quite a bit lower than it was the previous evening... has it sunk too low to transmit out effectively? I switch my battery selector to “ALL” to chain both banks of batteries together and thereby increase my available transmit power and try again. I finally get a response, but it is broken and hard to read. I can only hope that they can copy me better than I can copy them.
Mandy returns and we get into a rhythm of pumping and bailing; we'll fight for the boat as long as we can. There's nothing adequate to describe that time in between making the call, and help arriving (or sinking). It's long, it's quiet, it's entirely too much time to oneself, to think, to consider the consequences, to regret every little step that led you to this point in your life. Although I feel a degree of culpability, I am surprisingly free of self-recrimination. We are where we are, and all I can think of is what I need to do next. I don't fear for our lives at any point... I feel confident we can get ashore if the boat should go under, and that we can survive there for as long as we need to. Even if no help were to arrive, I have what I need to hike out to a main channel and hail someone. I know we're going to be fine. But I know things are vastly different now, that our trip is something other than it was ever supposed to be or what we could have imagined it would become.
And finally, in these moments, I realize that there is one important thing aboard that I haven't consigned to the drybags, that I haven't somehow made safe or secured ashore.
In planning for the trip, I had envisioned some lovely evening right at sunset, birds chirping, a cool Pacific breeze, stunning mountains and trees surrounding our idyllic anchorage, when I would finally pop the question. In preparation for this event, I have procured, and hidden in a bundle of socks, a rather expensive ring; the socks, and this ring, are now two feet below the waterline in a drawer, and if the boat goes down, the ring will go with it.
I am suddenly torn, and stop bailing. Mandy is right there; if I go dig out the socks, she will either think I have gone completely over the edge, or she will know what is inside and my surprise proposal will be no surprise. We're knee deep in freezing water and it's pouring rain outside, and we're watching our boat and vacation disappear one inch at a time as the water inexorably rises. It's hardly an idyllic moment. But I realize, in the span of a few seconds, that it's now or never. I cast aside the pump and dig through the drawer until I find the socks, and present them to her.
"I would kneel," I say, "but, you know..." She still looks confused. I go back to pumping as she peels the wet socks away from the box. It's swollen shut. "Trust me, there is really a nice ring in there, and will you marry me? You don't have to answer now, just bail." She starts crying, but she also starts bailing again, which is how the Coast Guard finds us almost an hour later. They probably think the tears are over the boat.
There is more drama as they haul us off and we discover the hole in the hull below the waterline, and try to rig a makeshift patch, and get a tow back through the storm to the nearest travel lift, and their gas-powered pump runs out of gas halfway there, and so forth. But these things, and the rest of the complications that come with a holed boat in the BC wilderness, are a sideshow compared to the "what will she say?" drama playing out in my head for the week that followed.
It was yes. But in the vows I have to promise to let her steer next time while I go to the bow and look for rocks.