An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
It's been a busy few months for Island Prism's crew. We've been tied up at Causeway Marina, opposite the historic Empress Hotel. Prism's engine has been being difficult and cantankerous, requiring hoisting out and extensive repairs. Jim's replaced the leaky seals that were causing all the problems, and given an extensive overhaul that will hopefully (maybe? perhaps?) give us a summer of smooth operation.
My painting has been far steadier than my blogging over the last few months. The static boat, frigid weather and state of busyness led to a bit of a wordifying block. I have been creating regularly, especially with my watercolours, but my sketching has been pretty sketchy. Thank goodness for the local Urban Sketchers group, whose regular meetings stopped me from getting too rusty! The details of my creative flow over the last few months could (and probably should) be a blog post of its own, but my recent paintings have been a huge reminder of how important sketching is to my creativity. I've been pulling out my sketch books and revisiting my favourite West Coast spots by turning them into full sized watercolours. Some of them are on display at the Delta Ocean Pointe hotel in downtown Victoria, where I'm the resident artist for the month of May. I'm demonstrating watercolour painting every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this month, so please pop in and say hi if you're in the area! I'll be joining in the Hatley Castle Paint-In on Mother's Day too.
We'll be in Victoria until the end of the month, when we'll untie the dock lines and embark on a summer of sailing! The sail plan is to make our way up to Telegraph Cove for adventures with friends and family, and then to explore the secluded nooks of the Broughton Archipelago. I'm sure there will be plenty to paint!
Whether it's spring or autumn where you are, I hope you're enjoying balmy days that are just the right temperature. I'll be back very soon with more details of boat repairs and arty life, and I'll leave you with a few more paintings to enjoy!
Our sail from Broughton Archipelago to Desolation Sound was beautiful- and required some very careful timing. The current carried the boat through a succession of narrows as our speed topped ten knots (unheard of for sturdy but heavy Island Prism)! The passes we went through were only to be attempted round slack tide- whirlpools and rapids made them treacherous at other times, and the currents were too strong for Island Prism to ever stand a chance of going against them. We took turns on the helm so that I had the opportunity to sketch as we cruised, though I had to move my brush fast as the landscape passed us by.
Desolation Sound was the kind of cruising ground which could provide years of sailing all by itself. A maze of passes and islands stretch between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with the Coastal Range as a dramatic backdrop. We regularly saw humpbacks and bald eagles, and plenty of seals and sea lions cruised the waters or sprawled on the rocks along the shore.
Shoal Bay was a special little anchorage. The community there is tiny, but there is a wharf, and in the summer resident Mark opens his deck and living room as a pub. We dropped the anchor in 13 metres of water and rowed ashore for a glass of wine. The pub was full of yachties, and the communal tables create an easy way to meet people. We soon got trading stories. Tales of cruising Alaska caught my imagination, whilst bluewater-sailors-to-be Jake and Patricia listened to our stories of Polynesia and gave us some great information about local anchoring spots. We wound up on Prism with dinner and a night cap or two, and arranged to meet up again the next day in Phillips Arm.
Phillips Arm was part of the mainland, and was known to be a good spot to see grizzly bears- so much so that the local residents didn't recommend walking long distances ashore without bear bells and a rifle. We were keen to see a grizzly but preferred to do our searching from the water. We piled into Patricia and Jake's spacious tender and made our way up the Phillips River. A herd of elk were grazing in the grass just above the high tide line as we approached the river, and there was a healthy population of Canada geese. A shallow section by the river mouth, full of fallen trees, was a favoured haul out spot with seals, who 'mermaided' with nose and flippers in the air in what I always assume is an attempt to keep out of the water. Their poise and ability to maintain the pose for ages reminds me of yoga.
Salmon jumped as we continued down the river, and we saw a couple of herons keeping vigil on the riverbanks. The bears were sadly absent, but we took a stroll along the shore to talk to some researchers and volunteers who has spent the day counting the annual salmon return. The day was rounded off very nicely with an excellent dinner cooked by Patricia, and they were kind enough to gift us with a cruising guide to the area.
We next made our way to Cortes Island. Getting there was a little bit magical. Our day was carefully timed to get through the Yaculta Rapids at slack tide- the rapids would be so powerful that we wouldn't stand a chance of going against them, and we'd heard that they weren't a picnic even if we rode the tide through. Our timing meant that the experience was uneventful, and we were soon at a white sandy spit. It looked almost tropical, and was covered in sailing dinghys as there was a race meet on. The little anchorage was crowded with the sail boats and power boats that were accommodation for the competitors. We kept going as this wasn't our destination, instead approaching the steep cliff face of Cortes. Like something from Indiana Jones, as we got close the rock wall revealed a narrow opening. We squeezed through, painted rock towering above us on both sides, until the gorge opened out into a lagoon fringed with a few houses and a marina.
We anchored in front of the marina and campground, and rowed ashore. Here we found hot showers and a swimming pool. A few dollars bought us a day pass. It was late in the day, but we still had a few hours to soak- and the final hour was adults only. We had the hot tub to ourselves then, with a great view over the anchorage. When a live music performance began, we had the best seats in the house- and when the pool shut we moved to a bench to carry on listening and enjoy a dinner of local tomatoes, bread and goats cheese bought from the little store.
We enjoyed it so much that we extended our stay by another day. There was lots to do- the island has a busy art community and I enjoyed poking round the galleries and excellent farmers market at Mansun's Landing. At Jimmie's suggestion, we went oyster gathering- carefully checking that the fishery was open and safe. Jim's fishing license let us collect twelve oysters a day- and these were beauties. Between the number of oysters and the huge population of sand dollars, it was hard to find space to put our feet as we selected our shellfish. They grow them big here- and with a bucketful of a dozen oysters bigger than my hands, we returned to Prism. I helmed as Jimmie shucked them, and I was treated to a late lunch of Jim's oyster burgers (especially excellent with bacon- but then, isn't everything)?
The wildfires burning around BC were still having an effect on the air quality. There was usually a slight haze around, and the sunsets were particularly pink. Combined with the wildlife we saw, the colour combination inspired a series of paintings. The first was of one of the loons from Village Island. I selected quin rose to achieve the bright pop of pink I wanted for the sun. I found quin magenta makes beautiful greys and blacks with jadeite and perylene green, so chose these to round out my palette. I'm not normally a particularly pink person, but the effect was very harmonious and I was able to create rich, deep blacks for the loon and a huge range of soft greys and greens for the vegetation and reflections. Part of my fascination with loons comes from a version of a West Coast Native myth called How the Loon Lost her Voice. It explains how gentle loon lost her beautiful song when trying to help Raven regain the stolen sun. Raven was ultimately successful, but Loon cries plaintively every day at sunset, saying goodbye to the sun and remembering what she lost.
After my tribute to Loon, I got thinking about the elk and geese I'd seen. I wondered if they ever paid each other any attention when they share the same grassy swathes as they did in Phillips Arm. Adding a brown to my palette, I painted a meeting of species- 'Connecting'. In 'Together' I got thinking again about the close family bonds of flocks of Canada geese and pods of orca, and wanted to represent these. I snuck in Moonglow- a wonderful granulating watercolour paint which is perfect for orcas. It toned in beautifully, and I used it again for 'Exuberance'- a breaching orca of Telegraph Cove- and 'Seal Yoga'. 'Guardian' was a tribute to the bear we met in Mamalilikulla (see my previous blog post if you haven't read about that close encounter), and 'In Flight' was based on a photo I took of a great Gray Heron at Phillips Arm. 'Elementals' celebrates the Pacific white-sided dolphins and bald eagles of the Broughton Archipelago.
I found there were advantages to using a limited palette. Because the colour choices were already made, I could focus more on tone and composition. Bright colour couldn't save the day, and if I hadn't planned the picture well, nothing was going to provide a distraction. I worked on my colour mixing and my use of value (light and dark). I think the series has helped me become a better painter- and I've extended it beyond the initial series of five images I set out to create.
The original paintings from the series are currently being exhibited at Coast Collective's Gifts and Wishes show and Port Moody Art Centre's Winter Treasures exhibition.
If you're looking for an extra special Christmas gift for a loved one (or a winter treat for yourself), limited edition signed giclee prints of 'Guardian', 'Elementals' and 'In Flight' are available from my Etsy shop. I've also had a range of blank greeting cards printed, with a range of designs suitable for winter birthdays, festive messages, or just to drop a note. There are also some new original paintings and limited edition giclees in the shop! Gift wrapping and world-wide shipping are available if you want to take the stress out of Christmas shopping and give a unique gift- or give the gift of a commission for an affordable yet truly personal gift. Finally, whilst I don't run sales often, as a thank you to my readers I'm giving 10% off all original paintings between 19 and 25 November. I hope you see something special!
It was mid-August and we were back in Telegraph Cove. Island Prism had sat quite happily at the dock whilst we bussed to Parksville. Jim's son Peter had married the lovely Keelie and now the whole clan was in convoy to Telegraph Cove for a family adventure by the sea.
Prism was put in service as the family whale watching boat, whilst brother-in-law Tim's powerboat was responsible for hunting and gathering seafood. We went out every day and were rewarded with sights of acrobatic humpback whales. Seals perched on tiny rocks in mermaid poses, trying to keep clear of the frigid water, whilst sea lions cavorted in the waves. We had brief glimpses of small shy harbour porpoises, swimming at the surface with a distinctive tumbling motion. We witnessed Pacific white-sided dolphins skimming over the sea, raising a huge spray. We even saw a few Dall's porpoises, black and blunt-nosed with strange right-angled dorsal fins- a species I'd never seen before.
The orca were playing hard to get. Our first day out was orca-less, and on the second we didn't see any orca from the boat, although the resident pod swam past Telegraph Cove as we barbecued dinner. Then our final day of family explorations rolled round. Entering Blackfish Sound, we saw the pod being trailed by a research boat. They were a long way away, moving farther off at high speed, so we kept our course and went to look for humpbacks.
We were rewarded by a pair of breaching humpbacks, and a spectacular display of tail lobbing and fin slapping, sending huge plumes of water high into the air. Scientists think that this behaviour is used for communication- if so, this humpback looked like he was grumpy about something. We were happy to be at a distance!
We kept our eyes peeled for grizzlies, which sometimes swim out to the Broughton Archipelago, but we were unsuccessful. It wasn't a huge deal- the scenery was lovely, and we did find another humpback who swam parallel to Island Prism for a while. Eventually we turned around, ready to head back to Telegraph Cove. Exiting Blackfish Sound, Peter spotted a breaching orca- and the rest of the tribe were hunting nearby. The water was full of swirling dorsal fins as the orcas engaged in a complicated ballet. When three Pacific white-sided dolphins went steaming into the fray it seemed extremely foolhardy- were they about to end up as part of the buffet, gobbled by killer whales? The water spun and frothed and smaller dorsal fins appeared amongst the big ones. In an incredible example of team work, the dolphins were cooperating with their larger cousins. I was glad I wasn't a fish!
Stuffed after their fishy banquet, the orcas turned towards Telegraph Cove. This gave us lots of viewing opportunities as they surfaced to breathe. Their pace was slow and once or twice we found ourselves overtaking them. We stopped to let them catch up. Island Prism's yellow hull then caught their attention, and one of the orcas peeled away from the group and came speeding towards us. I turned Prism away, very mindful of orca viewing regulations, but the orca changed course as I did. In the end, I put the boat in neutral, and Peter, Keelie and Michelle were rewarded with an incredible view as the orca swam across the bow of the now-motionless boat, then inspected our port side before rejoining the pod. I hope we passed the inspection.
After that, the whales were happier to obey the 400 metre viewing regulations and we returned to Telegraph Cove without incident. Whilst we'd been playing with cetaceans, the Davidson portion of the family had been hunter-gathering themselves- the result of which was enough crab to make a very respectable barbecue. I'd never tried crab before, other than the odd white and pink stuff marketed as 'crab' in sushi (I'm not a fan). At uni, my housemate had been sent a prepared crab, but in my memory the meat was brown and unappealing (twenty years may mean I've got this wrong)!Tim and Robert's Dungeness crabs were a huge eye opener. It turns out that crabs don't have to be boiled alive (I felt much happier knowing that my dinner had been humanely dispatched), and that crab tastes absolutely amazing. It reminded me of very good king prawns or crayfish. I was in seventh heaven.
The next day, most of the family returned to their various corners of British Columbia and Alberta. Peter and Keelie sailed with us to Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island. There is a large First Nations community here, and it is fascinating. Totem poles fill the graveyard, and along the waterfront are shelters topped with beautifully carved emblems- one shelter for each of the main family groups here. One of the locals, Michael, explained that shelters like these would once have been where families would meet and solve disputes and problems. There's a move today to go back to these ways of healing issues within the community, talking them through and fixing what's broken. It seems like a healthy option for the society, at least when it works.
The old net lofts are still in use, despite many holes in the roof. Hopefully the floors are in a more solid state! Other old buildings over the water have been renovated and are now shops or small hotels. Many of the houses on the other side of the road are brightly painted, and some feature beautiful native carvings. Up the hill, in Gator Gardens, skeletons of tall trees drip moss above swamps full of skunk cabbage and black, peaty water. I don't know what ecological change turned this from healthy forest to equally healthy bog, but it wouldn't be out of place on the outskirts of Mordor.
The highlight of Alert Bay is the Umista Cultural Centre. Canada has a dark history of trying to destroy native culture. Children were sent away from their parents to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages. Potlatches (ceremonies and meetings) were banned, and the masks, costumes and other objects associated with these rituals were confiscated. The items were then scattered around the world, dispersed to museums. Umista represents part of the healing process of revitalising the local Kwakiutl society. It houses weaving, bentwood boxes and carvings, biographies of local people and guides to the language. Videos play of cultural ceremonies, songs and dances, and if you arrive at the right time you might be able to see a dance or take part in a workshop. There are even masks and costumes you can try on.
The centre is housed in an enormous long house, surrounded with totems. Once you pass the glass cases, stroke the surprisingly soft bear skin, read the histories and marvel at the vast number of things that can be done with red cedar, you enter a dark room. Hundreds of eyes stare at you, in painted wood, copper, glass and metal. Mouths gape, grin and grimace. This is the home of the potlatch collection, where wandering artefacts have been returned to their people. Each mask or costume was once part of a particular dance, giving its wearer a connection to another world when they danced it- or perhaps bringing the other world here. The syncopated drum rhythms add to the atmosphere, and visitors are welcome to sit at the large slot drum and join in, whilst the eyes gaze on.
A final return to the historic Telegraph Cove was the scene for some apple whisky and a few sore heads. We said goodbye to Keelie and Peter, then returned to Alert Bay. I was allowed to sketch inside the Cultural Centre, and then walked up to the long house on the hill to paint. Kind Tracy brought us dried salmon to chew as I sketched, and the ravens circled and squabbled nearby, picking over the fish carcasses left for them in the car park.
And then the fires started. They were on Vancouver Island, on the West Coast- many miles away. They were no danger to Cormorant Island, its art or inhabitants- but they sent their smoke, so thick that we extended our stay as visibility on the water reduced to a few metres. The sun struggled to penetrate the cloud, appearing a pale, milky white at midday and an angry red in the late afternoon. It seemed incapable of heating the air, and all its efforts tended to focus, like a heat lamp focused on a single spot of my head or shoulder. We wrapped up in jumpers although it was still summer, and passed the time sketching and watching the ravens scavenge fish scraps on the shore.
Eventually, the air cleared enough for us to feel safe leaving. The orcas came by, swimming through waters which sparkled red beneath the baleful sun. We anchored in solitude at Mamelillikulla, just us and the eagles and the ravens. And the bear.
The next day we had company on the island when a cruising yacht from Seattle arrived. One of the yachties enjoyed the view from his paddle board, whilst the other went tramping through the bush. Very sensibly, he had taken anti-bear measures- though we probably should have told him that you're not supposed to sound off your bear horn every two minutes in case there's a bear- you use it to frighten them off when you actually see them. When Jim mentioned that we'd seen the resident black bear on our previous visit, the horn-sounding frequency increased to one-minute intervals. By the time he was back on his boat, I assume the bear was either immune or had swum to another island to get away from the racket.
The weeks were ticking on- it's incredible how quickly a summer can go. We said goodbye to Mamallillikulla and took one last spin through the whirlpools and rips of Blackfish Sound, to let the Johnson Straight sweep us south on the tide.
Our journey from Vancouver to Telegraph Cove took us through part of the Inside Passage. Our daily hops were dependent on the current, leading to some early mornings and a few long days. Mountains on both sides made it a very scenic voyage. Each night we'd find a little bay to anchor in, sheltered from the north westerlies and roaring tides.
We left Vancouver at 6 am to make the most of the tides. After a full day of sailing we stopped at Scotty Bay at Lasqueti Island. This community revels in its isolation. There's no car ferry, and life there is off the grid. I'd have loved to explore, but our visit was short and sweet- supper, sleep, then up anchor and off towards Texada. Here we had a wonderful surprise- a humpback whale. She was quite a distance away, and soon swam off on whale business. We pressed on, entering Quathiaski Cove but leaving without anchoring- the wharf looked busy and though it is possible to anchor here, the strong current rushing through made us feel that Gowlland Harbour, a few miles to the north, would be more secure.
Gowlland Harbour was very pretty, and is somewhere I'd love to go back and spend more time. There was a healthy seal population, who spent their time in pursuit of the plentiful fish. My harbour seal sightings have usually been sedate, so it was exciting to see them porpoising out of the water and splashing about. I also saw my first loon, with graphic black and white plumage. I made a quick sketch with the help of binoculars- one day it will become a larger painting! Legend says that Loon lost her voice when she tried to steal the sun back from the ice giants. Her throat was crushed as they threw her from their frozen fortress, and to this day she cannot sing but gives a haunting cry when the sun goes down. The sun was finally rescued by that trickster, Raven, whose white feathers were burnt black in the attempt. Loon appears on the Canadian dollar coin, which is affectionately known as a loonie. There seem to be less puns about this than I would have thought.
My sketch of Gowlland Harbour was hastily done, and resulted in a splodgy mess which at least captures the colours of the golden islets. These were named with a sense of whimsy- Mouse Islets being the smallest, working up through Wren and Raven to Fawn, Doe and Stag. I think a return to this lovely sheltered anchorage is in order.
On we went, through the treacherous Seymour Narrows (less terrifying in these days of GPS and tide tables). In the Johnstone Strait we met another humpback, who was in an acrobatic mood with a series of breaches and tail slaps. Then he got in motion, but didn't seem to be on a schedule. Prism ticked along at her lowest speed and we enjoyed half an hour of hanging out with the whale, who would pop up at varying distances, sometimes swimming parallel to the boat (at a nicely whale-friendly distance).
The wildlife watching continued at anchor. We stopped in lovely sheltered Billy Goat Bay, and watched seals jumping and hunting as the sun went down and the temperature dropped to the stage where I don't have enough jumpers to stay outside.
We were then able to wind down a bit. We were almost at Telegraph Cove, and had a couple of days to enjoy the area. The region around Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago is paradise for whales, and today we were not disappointed. Five humpbacks were swimming through, seeming relaxed and in no rush to be anywhere. They took turns surfacing, so there was usually someone on the surface. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but lunch was calling and we wanted to see if the orca were in Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. The pod was there- along with some fishing boats. Tourist and recreational boats are not allowed in the reserve- but purse seiners are, if they have a permit. We saw the orca hunting- then were shocked to see two purse seiners pay out their nets just a short distance away. The orca vanished and I was fuming, my sketch of the bight abandoned half way through. We turned of the engine to sit and eat and rant. We drifted a few metres over the edge of the reserve- keeping to the boundary seemed less important now that we'd seen people taking fish from the whales' mouths and I was too angry to care about regulations. But other people did- a zodiac with two wardens arrived to ask us politely to move. We moved- politely- whilst making our displeasure at the fishing known. The reserve feel like a bad joke. I abandoned my ideas of sketching orca as inspiration hit. “The race to catch the last fish” became a theme for a series of paintings- with ideas for more to come.
On our first night we found a secluded anchorage where I finally heard Loon's mournful farewell to the sun. The next day we passed the First Nations settlement of New Vancouver with its Big House and brightly painted totems. Continuing on to 'Mimkwamlis (Village Island) we stopped at Mamalilikulla. This was a walk through history. The village was abandoned by 1972, left for the forest to reclaim. Massive posts for an unfinished long house still stand, vast trilithons staring out to sea, the decorative axe marks still clear in the wood. Two standing poles have nursed new trees, the old life giving way to the new as roots grow down through the ancient trunks and aged wood splits from the pressure of the vibrant life growing within. Nearby, a fallen totem provides a home to ferns and saplings, its carvings now unrecognisable as it returns to the earth.
Jim told me of a wolf carving he remembered from younger days. I set off down a narrow trail, between the salal berries and the brambles. The trail narrowed , closing in, the blackberry-rich scat of a large bear warning me to go no further. If the wolf was indeed this way, prudence suggested I left him and his guardian in peace.
I didn't make the trek to the residential school, a relic of the days when native children were torn from their families, banned from speaking their language, barred from the dances, stories and rituals of their culture. First Nations artifacts were stolen along with the children, scattered between private collections and the museums of the world, relics of a culture being slowly strangled. I preferred to sit quietly with those huge beams being reclaimed by the forest. They gave me more hope. They belong to their people once again, and they are home to Bear and Raven through choice, part of a tradition where old things are allowed to fade and join again with the soil. The village may be abandoned but the people are nearby- with their brightly painted Big House and their colourful, confident totems carved with pride.
I painted the view, then crunched along the shell-strewn beach to the dinghy. As well as the shells, this midden was full of shards of crockery and broken glass. It's forbidden to take anything or excavate, but interesting to see what has floated to the surface and wonder what stories they could tell if they could talk. Above the beach, wooden poles are all that remain of an extensive boardwalk which would once have stretched in front of a row of longhouses.
We launched the dinghy and were rowing away when I saw something black moving on the foreshore. The bear was foraging for supper. She was big- grown fat on her summer diet of seafood and berries. She turned over hefty logs and big rocks, intent on gobbling the crustaceany goodness underneath. Sometimes she'd hear our oars and look at us, but we were of no concern to her and she continued munching her way along the pebble beach. Jim thought the water was a decent barrier between her and us and kept trying to get us close- so near that I could hear her snuffling- but I did point out that, because of the way he angled the dingy, I was closer to her than he was! With a bit of encouragement and the threat of no dinner if he didn't behave, he finally paddled us a little farther out. Oblivious to all this, the bear continued to ignore us until the beach ended and she padded off into the forest, perhaps to rustle up some berries for dessert.
The next day, Telegraph Cove was just a short skip away. We were given a berth on the fuel dock, tucked out of the way of the busy tour boats, then made the most of fresh carrot cake and the chance to catch up on laundry before we caught the bus down to Parksville to see Jim's mum and enjoy a family wedding.
Victoria is often described as being the most English of all Canada's cities. It definitely retains a strong British colonial feel, evident in the architecture of buildings like the Empress Hotel. There is a wealth of things to sketch, but my time in Victoria was busy and my sketchbook mainly stayed in my bag. Instead I painted my way through a pair of exciting commissions, and filled in a pile of much less exciting paperwork.
I managed a couple of quick drawings of the little water taxis which ply the harbour and the stag which reclined on the front lawn. One day we cycled into the city, past lovely beaches and views across the Juan de Fuca Straight to the USA and snow-capped Mount Baker. Once upon a time Mount Rainier was visible too, but is now unsketchable- Bill said that these days it's always obscured by Seattle smog. In the heart of Victoria I made the most of a five minute break to sketch the state legislature, and grabbed time for a few quick drawings of the totems by the museum downtown. A young heron in the park modelled for me beautifully, though the older birds in the nest above made me nervous- the white state of the pavement suggested that I shouldn't linger too long.
I managed to snag a few hours to visit the annual Moss Street Paint Out. The entire length of this street is closed to traffic for the day, as cars are replaced by hundreds of artists, many of whom were painting in situ. Maybe one day I can join them!
I knew I hadn't given the city justice, but I'm sure we'll be back and perhaps then I can explore more thoroughly. After dinner with Peter, Jen, Bob and Leslie- four cruisers who we first met up in Tofino- we hauled the anchor and sailed overnight to reach Steveston, just south of Vancouver. The grand plan was to be there for breakfast with Harold and Dan, two of Jim's favourite partners in crime.
Currents provide the greatest challenge to cruising between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Vast quantities of water enter the straits between the two land masses- and then gush out again when the tide changes. It's a bit like the passes of Polynesia's atolls- if there's too much water going the wrong way, you're going nowhere fast, as demonstrated by our experience the week before near Race Rocks. Jim had checked the currents and tides before we planned our departure. But the best laid plans can go awry- we thought we'd get a nice push as we sailed out of Victoria, but the current was no help and we pottered along at our usual 5.5 knots. Shortly after entering Active Pass the current was against us, and we had to hug the shore and use back eddies to make progress. Our chances of making breakfast became increasingly slim.
Things didn't get any better as we made our way to the Fraser River. Herons, eagles and seals provided a much needed mental boost as we struggled along, rearranging social engagements and wishing we'd had more sleep. Finally we chugged into Steveston's marina, tied up and went to find Dan, Diane, Harold, Jenny and some much-needed caffeine.
Steak pie and coffee at the Buck'n'Ear soon perked me up, and Diane managed to sweet talk the waitress into bringing me a pre-birthday slice of sticky toffee pudding. The British pub grub left me feeling appropriately ship-shape and Bristol fashion, and we had a great catch up, reminiscing about the various ways Jim, Harold and Dan got in trouble back in the day (thankfully they have Diane, Jenny and I to help them behave themselves now).
Steveston was a great town, with charming buildings and lovely walking along the dyke trails. We ended up extending our stay another night so that Jim could go and get into more trouble with the boys and I could stop and sketch. The buildings were tempting but the dykes really caught my imagination, with beautiful wildlife, intensely-coloured plant life and wide blue skies. Mountains fringed the flat landscape and I was spoiled for choice of what to draw!
Casting off the mooring lines, we headed north to Vancouver. This time the tides were on our side and Prism reached 9 knots as she smoked along the Fraser River. From there we puttered through English Bay to False Creek where we would be anchored for the next few days.
Vancouver is a vibrant city. Like any place with a large population, there are places you don't want to venture on a dark night (or even a moderately gloomy day), and the signs of homelessness and drug use were heartbreaking. But Vancouver has a lot of good points. Like Auckland and Sydney, you're never far from the water and there are lots of charming, arty neighbourhoods. And art stores. Yes, I was happy. We moored Prism at Granville Island for three free hours, had lunch and found the art store.
All too soon, it was time for Jim to drag me out of Opus (an art store big enough to get lost in). We motored a little further and dropped the anchor just a short dinghy ride from the city. Perhaps not the quietest of anchorages, but the traffic noise was tolerable and we enjoyed watching the daily parades of water taxis, dragon boats, kayaks, seals and floating barbecues. It was easy to get ashore and the city has a great bus network, so our first expedition was to the Museum of Anthropology at the university. We spent hours in the Great Room alone, surrounded by incredible First Nations carvings and learning about the history of the west coast. It was a sketching paradise!
Jim's niece Katherine and two of her friends joined us for the Symphony of Fire. This is an annual competition where three countries explode things to music over three nights. We motored out to English Bay. There were hundreds of yachts already at anchor, and a number of people who thought they owned the entire bay (“You can't anchor there! Your mast will get in my photos even though I'm a huge launch and tower above your deck!”). Eventually we dropped the hook and fell back to a spot where we were not annoying the overprivileged too much. The fireworks were spectacular, ranging from exuberant to beautifully subdued depending on the music. My favourites looked almost like leaping fish, with pretty showers of glitter a close second. I've come a long way since I was a small child who used to cry at the noise!
I was also lucky enough to meet Bob Altwein. He's a local urban sketcher who had offered to show us a bit of the city- he's also a very kind and knowledgeable man, and fascinating to talk to. He introduced us to Jesse, who is 24, not at all Millenial and sailing his 19' sailboat round the West Coast. We enjoyed dim sum, then a leisurely drive around the neighbourhoods of Chinatown and Strathcona. Cantonese-style buildings made Chinatown feel like I was back in Hong Kong, and Strathcona had a great feeling of community. The residents have worked hard to regenerate this area, which is green and full of neatly painted heritage buildings. We had coffee and delicious bakery treats at the Union Market- and were amazed to find that this charming little cafe and grocery was also very reasonably priced. No wonder it was busy! Jim and Jesse talked about sailing whilst I drew the cafe and Bob drew me. We were having so much fun that we invited Bob and Jesse to help us move Island Prism over to the Vancouver Rowing Club, where we were going to enjoy two nights of hot showers and Stanley Park.
After mooring and a hasty change of attire, we met Diane for a pre-birthday dinner at Prospect Point. It was a lovely evening, the mussels were amazing and suddenly we were the last diners in the restaurant.
The next day was my birthday- the dawn of a new decade (I think I'm still in denial). We celebrated with an adventure to Whistler. The drive along the Sea to Sky Highway flew by with an endless procession of gorgeous views. In Whistler, we bought lunch from the grocery store to eat on the mountain. $58 let us explore the lofty heights by gondola and chair lift. The views from the top were stunning on such a clear day, and the suspension bridge at the peak emphasised quite how high up we were. The Peak to Peak gondola took us to Blackcomb, with a great vista of the lakes and little town nestled far below us. It's almost tempting to come back in winter- so long as I don't have to ski. Jim also wants me to tell you all about the white wine cocktail he bought me. Bright pink and in a glass as big as my head- I was merrily 'trundled' (to quote my hubbie) as we got the bus back to Vancouver.
Stanley Park was our only real disappointment. On our previous visit I'd loved the totems and we'd spent a great day exploring. It seems like summer at 10 am is not the time to go- the tourist hordes had descended with selfie sticks in hand and all atmosphere had vanished. We cycled away from the crowds, but you're not allowed to pull over on the cycle path and take photos, even if no other bikes are coming (really- I got yelled at by a custodian when I tried). We didn't want to cycle the whole of the park but the entire cycle system is one way. Eventually we braved the custodian's wrath and peddled the wrong way to the Aquarium and its beautiful Bill Reid Killer Whale, before making our escape back to Prism and returning to the relative calm of anchoring at French Creek. At least the only people yelling at us there were the geese. A visit to the art gallery to spend a few hours gazing at Emily Carr's beautiful paintings was a good antidote to park insanity, and soon it was time to begin our journey north, up to Telegraph Cove.
Our sail from Ucluelet to Tofino was more of a motor trip. We peered through the thin shroud of fog as Prism rolled over the Pacific swell. Amphitrite Lighthouse was glowing away, a reassuring supplement to the clanking navigation aid and our trusty GPS. As visibility improved, we could see the stretches of golden sand that form a series of surf beaches, separated by rocky headlands. Mist hung about them even as the sky cleared- the spray tossed up by the rolling breakers obscures these beaches slightly no matter how bright the day is.
I was hoping to see a sea otter, but Jim told me this was very unlikely, These shy creatures were slowly building up their population on the west coast, but didn't venture as far south as Tofino. We turned away from the Pacific to begin our approach, past the lovely Chesterman Beach, where houses cling to rocky peninsulas, perfectly placed for storm watching in the winter season. I saw something in the water. A seal? Or a sea lion? It looked pretty big. Jim passed me the binoculars- the long whiskers, golden sideburns and characteristic incredibly cute floating-on-its-back pose were unmistakable. It was a sea otter! It watched us as we motored into the island-filled inlet leading us to the town.
We'd been assured that there would be space on the public dock, but this turned out to be rather optimistic. Once again we needed to raft up to another boat. The visitor's pier, E dock, housed two other sail boats and a flotilla of small craft. Slowly cruising past, we confirmed that there were indeed no spaces, but some of the small boats didn't appear to move much- we could raft up to the cruising yacht at the end of the dock, move a small barge and create enough space for Prism to fit in, out of the currents in the channel. I checked the depth sounder and started to turn. Nothing happened.
Jim told me I was stuck- but the depth sounder showed 2.5 meters of water beneath us. We draw less than two meters so there shouldn't have been a problem- but Jim was right. Whatever the depth sounder was telling me, I wasn't going anywhere.
Jim tied a line from Prism to the dinghy, hoping that we could pull Prism off the sand bank. Rowing gave him a great workout, but Prism couldn't be persuaded to leave her nice comfy sandbank. There was nothing to do but wait a few hours for the tide to finishing ebbing. Slowly and gently, Prism laid down, much to the entertainment of everyone on the dock. Cooking became interesting as we heeled over. The rice worked fine, but as the gradient of the stove grew steeper, I found myself having to hold the frying pan to stop it slipping off- and even then it was impossible to get an even heat. It was not my most successful curry ever, but thankfully it was vegetarian, and eventually I decreed it to be warm enough to eat.
Time passed, the tide changed, and we slowly worked our way back to an upright position until we were finally afloat. I was glad it was dark, though I'm sure my cheeks were glowing as we took Prism in to the dock. The other liveaboard residents were waiting to help us with our lines, and to share stories of their encounters with my little sandy hillock. Thank you Bob, if you read this, for helping my poor bruised ego!
Safely moored on the public wharf, we were able to set about exciting things like taking warm showers (at $1 for 2 minutes, I may have achieved a new personal best for speed showering). The weather was wet, but this isn't unusual on the West Coast, and the town and its surroundings were still beautiful. I was excited to find that Tofino now has an art supply store, and once I'd purchased some much-needed paper I wandered around the downtown galleries to absorb some creative inspiration.
Built out of cedar, the Roy Henry Vickers Gallery is an olfactory experience as well as a visual one. The rich, warm scent of the wood greets you as soon as you open the doors. Inside, benches and sunken seating throughout the long house invite visitors to linger amongst the artwork, and massive wooden carvings enhance the indigenous setting. My favourite paintings are Vicker's sunsets, often complete with his magical 'shadow images'- shimmering designs which appear as the viewer walks past. These shadows often depict native imagery, and add a spiritual side and a sense of history and culture to the wonderful land and seascapes. Just down the street, the Mark Hobson Gallery delights in realism, full of hunting eagles, luminous waves and twisting seaweed. Photographing the work is encouraged, and Mark was there, apron on and paints set up, hobnobbing genially with visitors.
Tofino is relatively bike friendly, and when the sun came out we decided to make use of the multi-purpose path that heads out of town to the Botanical Gardens. Around the cafe are pretty cottage-style flower beds and a community garden, along with a beautiful lily pond. The garden path soon enters woodland, full of native trees and plants. As the forest grows denser, the trail becomes a boardwalk, full of little side paths with views over the Clayoquat Sound. The tide was out, but the sun had transformed the mudflats into an expanse of sparkling silver, with stripes of vibrant green seaweed and blue water. We found a pebbly beach to enjoy the vista whilst hummingbirds and dragonflies buzzed round us. Finally hunger set in, so we returned to the cafe and munched croissants whilst listening to a talented jazz pianist.
Jim's brother Bill drove out to join us on Prism. His car gave us all the chance to explore further, so we made expeditions to Chesterman Beach, Wickanninish, Combers Beach and the suitably named Long Beach. Bill and I walked along the sand whilst Jim rode around on his little fold up bike, which worked really well on the hard sand close to the water. The ocean spray cast its usual magic, reflecting the sunshine and creating a light mist across the golden sand. We strolled the length of the beach and crossed the headland to poke around the bustling tide pools of Combers Beach, which were full of darting scalpins, lumbering crabs and a host of colourful starfish and anemones. We could have stayed there all afternoon, but hunger set in so we drove to Ucluelet for a late lunch.
After five blustery days, the weather calmed. We provisioned up and took Prism out to spend a few days on Flores island. We motored through swirling mists and thick fog, thankful for our GPS which let us know exactly where we were. Strong currents ran through the maze of channels. They played havoc with our speed, accelerating us to six knots before slowing us down to four. It didn't matter- the sun was slowly increasing the visibility and we were too busy watching the jaunty flocks of rhinoceros auks and looking out for sea otters to mind a little bit of a slog.
Five otters later, we turned into the long inlet which cuts into Flores Island. A few small fishing boats whizzed past us and a sea plane buzzed overhead. We passed the little village of Ahausat, with its century-old general store, and poked about the various arms of the inlet until we found a place to anchor. It was a secluded spot- away from any signs of habitation. The ravens greeted us with a chorus of 'ki tok's, and the bald eagles seemed to be giggling about something, as bald eagles often do. Our hopes of seeing bears at low tide were not rewarded, but a seal came to visit and one of the eagles gave us a display of how to fish bird style.
Bill and I tried to follow a walking track through the woods. We were well-armed with bear bells, a bear horn and bear spray (which apparently ISN'T for helping to style their fur). Sounding a bit like Santa's reindeer, we jingled our way along a twisting trail which was a clamber rather than a walk. Over and under fallen trees, through swathes of sticky mud which tried to steal my boots- it felt a bit like we'd fallen into 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. Eventually we decided we'd had enough of scrabbling through the mossy forest and bushwhacked through to the beach. This was slightly easier going, though the muddy patches shared the kleptomaniac tendencies of their forest cousins and insisted on trying to relieve me of my footwear. We crossed the foreshore and wandered through crab-infested grass to a shallow lagoon where three herons were keeping their eyes open for afternoon tea. We called for our taxi (also known as Jim in the dinghy), and tried to wash off the worst of the mud before we returned to Prism.
The calm waters created a great place to row. Our inflatable dinghy is a little cumbersome as a row boat, but we were still able to poke around in hidden corners and paddle up to the mouth of the tumbling stream which entered the inlet. The clear water gave us a great view of the fishy denizens of the inlet- presumably it helped the eagles too. We all enjoyed the slow pace of life for a few days before returning to busy little Tofino. Once again, the sea otters were out in force. Most of them stayed away from Prism and her rumbling motor, but a few came close. One was busy tucking in to a tasty breakfast of red rock crab, and another was having his morning wash, bobbing along on his back as he scrubbed his whiskery face with webbed paws. A third surfaced a few meters in front of Prism. She was just drifting along in neutral, but the otter quickly turned tail and dove. 14 tons of sail boat was not what the little creature had been expecting.
Our return to Tofino was much less eventful than our first arrival. We tied up to the dock, offloaded crew and took on ice and vegetables. Soon Bill and his little blue electric car were speeding off towards Victoria. Jim, Prism and I were heading that way too- at a more leisurely pace and via the islands of the Broken Group and the inlet of Bamfield.
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Occasionally, you get to a place and feel like it resonates with something in your soul. Cornwall, Winchester, the Tutukaka Coast and Tofino have that effect on me. I soon felt the same way about Ucluelet. Friendly folk at the Small Boat Harbour, an artsy vibe round town and an abundance of great walks and beautiful views- it's not hard to see why the place caught my imagination.
The West Coast of Vancouver Island is known for its wet weather. It's still beautiful in the rain, with its misty greens and subtle greys, and the rain tends towards a steady drizzle. Very English, really. Mostly, though, the sun came out for me, and I made the most of it, leaving Prism at the marina whilst I hit the Wild Pacific Trail
The trail is in two sections: a loop at the very end of the peninsula and a return track further on. The loop takes in the aptly-named Inspiration Point, Amphitrite lighthouse and a fascinating section of bog, full of twisted trees, thick pillows of moss and sinister sundews just waiting for bugs to fly into their sticky clutches. I love carnivorous plants! The trail was easy, with plenty of viewpoints and lots of information about the flora and fauna. Most of the signs were close to the correct plants, so I soon learned to tell the difference between deer ferns and sword ferns, and could pick out the skunk cabbages- which thankfully had not yet reached pungent maturity.
Plenty of sketch breaks and a few side trails meant it took me a while to complete that section of the trail. The next day I got up early to complete the second section, starting with a peaceful stroll along Big Beach, where I was soon distracted by the lush seaweeds and a crow trying to smash open a tasty bivalve. Having the beach to myself, I tried painting the hazy light and vibrant golds and browns, until I'd filled a spread of my sketchbook and realised that I'd been there over an hour. Time often stands still when I'm making art.
The trail led me through a resort, to beaches strewn with enormous logs carried in by the waves and bleached to bone white- skeletons of the giants of the forest. I followed a series of Artists' Loops, with plenty of benches and viewing platforms over the pebbly beaches and pounding waves. Even on a calm day their power sent spray flying. I could see why storm watching is a popular winter pastime here- though not one I'd like to try from Island Prism!
Of course, it would have been rude not to make the most of the sketching opportunities so kindly provided, and I was keen to try and paint the wonderful light and the many shades of green. My palette holds some lovely mineral greens- green apatite, serpentine, amazonite and jadeite, but I found I was reaching for my blues and quin gold to mix my own. It seemed the best way to capture the distance, depth, light and shade; after years of being a lazy colour mixer I felt redeemed.
Time check- almost three. I completed the Ancient Cedars loop and was determined to make the Rocky Bluffs which mark the end of the trail. This was well worth it. The waves grew wilder and the vistas back down the coast were expansive and impressive. My pen was running out of ink, my water brush was down to its last dribble having already been refilled, and my water bottle was also down to its last few sips. The trail halted and I turned around, pausing only briefly to enjoy my favourite scenic spots and photograph a few banana slugs- which are indeed banana yellow and seem to get browner as they get older. Unlikely as it sounds, the native slugs are rather interesting- including the implausibly athletic-sounding jumping dromedary slug, which presumably are the ninjas of the slug world. They certainly had stealth mode enabled, as I didn't see any.
Ucluelet held indoor attractions too. The Mark Penney Gallery held some beautiful work, and Mark was happy to talk me through his latest work in progress and give me tips on how to paint realistic reflections (in the reflection, the lights are darker than object they're reflecting, whilst the darks are lighter than on the original). Wonderful First Nations creations filled the Cedar House Gallery, and next door the Den housed a studio and a small shop filled with prints, jewelry and weaving. I fell in love with a tactile weaving which was taking form in the studio, and with difficulty tore myself away from the squishy balls of locally spun wool available in the shop. Crossing the street, we moved from art to natural history and entered the aquarium. The fish are all local and everything gets released at the end of the season; fish, octopus, scallops and sea urchins all return home and the aquarium is scrubbed, cleaned and closed until the spring. The staff were all young and very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, answering my questions about sea pens and jellyfish. I watched the wolf eel devouring crabs, tickled a sea anemone (which grabbed my finger with its sticky tentacles) and stroked a starfish- it always amazes me how hard their pillow-like bodies actually are.
We spent the whole afternoon there, with Jim making the most of the well-stocked reading corner whilst I sketched and sketched and sketched. My pen ran out of ink- then committed hara kiri by throwing itself nib-down onto the floor. I managed to straighten it but it wasn't quite the same. Closing time was near, so we thanked the staff and wandered back to Prism.
The weather forecast ahead was poor, and if we wanted to make it north to Tofino we needed to leave before we faced thirty knot headwinds (no thanks). Classic Ucluelet fog and drizzle had moved in, which made the place soggier but gave it a mysterious beauty. I finished a couple of loads of laundry, splurged on a pair of slippers for my poor chilly toes and completed a watercolour sketch of a fishing boat in the mist. Then we cast off from the boat we were rafted to and motored through the thick, still, chilly air to the open ocean, once again watching the bald eagles who soared above the boat.
On our final day in Oahu,we refueled Island Prism and sailed westwards along the south coast. Away from Honolulu, the steep hillsides became less sparsely populated and the strips of golden sand had not yet gained fringes of houses and towers. A small pod of dolphins cruised past us a little before dark, when we passed the most westerly point of the island and pointed the boat north.
Our first few days were rather rocky as we beat our way into the wind- the penalty for trying to cross the Pacific the wrong way! We were well-stocked with ice and I'd precooked our meals for the first few days, which made life in the galley much easier. Jim and I quickly fell into our usual pattern of taking turns with six-hour watches. There wasn't too much to see once we lost sight of land- in the beginning both days and nights were cloudy, the full moon occasionally visible through the haze. I didn't feel up to painting to start with, so decided to try a small watercolour sketch each day. Painting the sea and sky would let me play around with techniques and colour, and I'd build up a record of our passage.
I pulled out an old sketchbook which I started a couple of years ago and barely used. It's a Strathmore 400 series field notes book, with a sheet of thin cartridge paper between each watercolour leaf. Originally I felt like the cartridge paper got in the way, and the spiral binding got in the way of double page spreads. However, on passage the binding made the book more compact and easy to handle. I could use the cartridge paper to keep a log of each day and to make little sketches in biro. I also stopped being precious, and if a cartridge sheet seemed superfluous I just tore it out. As I regained my sea legs I was more inclined to paint, and began creating some full page paintings. There were also days when the light was constantly changing and one quick sketch didn't seem enough. I decided that my 'small painting a day' would be a minimum, and told the story of the weather using multiple boxes if I felt like it.
We motored for a day as we passed through the doldrums. The seas calmed down as we moved farther north, though we still had a good stiff breeze. Although we were still traveling upwind we were no longer beating into the waves, the gentle swells made life pretty comfortable and we cruised along at a respectable 6 knots. Prism seemed eager to get back to Vancouver Island!
We crossed a few shipping lanes, populated by ships journeying between Asia and the US or Mexico. The sea feels enormous and empty when you're floating alone, so we enjoyed our brief radio chats. The captain of Morning Margarita even found Prism's Facebook page and sent us a lovely message for when we reached port.
The only other signs of life were the sea birds who skimmed the waves in an endless, effortless glide. One night a small petrel decided that the cockpit would be a safe roost. It was rather disgruntled when Jim had to adjust the wind vane, and flapped off into the darkness. The waning moon faded to nothing, and rose later and later, so the nights were truly dark, especially when cloud obscured the stars- we could have been sailing through a pot of India ink. Cold and cloudy days made us really appreciate the GPS- with no sun to take sightings, we'd have been totally lost without modern technology.
16 days in, the wind vane broke. It's a wonderful, simple and effective piece of equipment with a sail and a water rudder which steers Prism using the power of the wind. Without it, we have to hand steer- which quickly becomes tedious in the open ocean. Initially Jim thought that one of the lines had broken, but longer inspection revealed that a bolt had rusted through. Thankfully Jim's Big Bag o'Bolts contained a perfectly-sized replacement (this almost never happens, even though he has enough hardware to supply a DIY store)! We sailed onward, snug inside as the temperature decreased daily and we piled on increasing layers of clothes.
Three days from Canada, the wind vane broke again. This time the welding on the quadrant broke. Jim lashed the offending join with twine, but the opposite side soon followed. As the seas grew rough, we were faced with days of hand steering and pounding into the chilly waves. A heavy stream of freighters poured out of Seattle and Vancouver, waves breaking over them and throwing up towers of spray higher than the ships. Prism seemed more sedate- whilst our ride was far from comfy, we rose up and down with the swell rather than cutting through it.
Then land came into sight and the wind and waves died down. We motored for the final day, as Vancouver Island drew closer. Some of the mountains were topped with blobs of snow, and I donned hat and gloves. Two Pacific white-sided dolphins cruised past, and I was excited to see a large white sunfish basking on its side, trying to absorb what little warmth was on offer. It gaped at me as I steered past it, close enough to see its beady eye and waving pectoral fin.
By evening, we were approaching Trevor Channel. Twilights here were long and lazy, and the russet sky let us see our way into Bamfield where we tied up to the Coastguard dock, ready for Customs in the morning. The stillness was delightful but disconcerting, and my body felt as if it was still rocking.
The sun was well and truly up in the morning when we had a knock on the hull. The coastguard had arrived for work- and informed us that Bamfield was not, after all, a port of entry. It seems things have changed since the publication of our cruising guide. We were politely but firmly invited to depart, so made our way through the Broken Group- scattered shards of rocky islets and small tree-covered islands. They were lovely and almost deserted, except for the odd fisherman and a colony of somnolent harbour seals. Turning towards Ucluelet, bald eagles soared above us and as we moored a river otter hopped out from the water onto a nearby dock. Whilst we waited for the RCMP to come and inspect the boat, kingfishers swooped by and a Stellar sea lion swam past. It wasn't warm or sunny, but it was a kind of paradise, as was my long hot shower when we reached Ucluelet Small Boat Harbour. Our Pacific crossing was finished, and a summer of cruising Vancouver Island stretched ahead of us.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.