Week 3: Summer cruise to Desolation Sound

Week Three

Here’s an overview of Desolation Sound (screenshot of Google Maps).  We started the third week anchored in the east part of Desolation Sound, anchored on a bay on the mainland of BC.

Desolation Sound overview

Desolation Sound

We also thought those of you not familiar with this area might want the big picture of where we’ve been.  Here’s another Google Maps screen capture from Seattle up to Desolation Sound (Desolation Sound roughly between Campbell River and Refuge Cove, and our home base in Seattle on the lower right of the map).



Saturday, July 11, 2015. Tenedos Bay. We woke up to rain – all day. Regardless, Nancy circumnavigated the little island in the middle of the bay via kayak (it was high tide), and tried her hand at a jellyfish video (inspired by Jacqueline’s efforts earlier in the trip).   She agrees that it’s a skill that needs more practice.

Jellyfish in Tenedos Bay

This was the changeover day. Week 2 guests were leaving and Week 3 guests were arriving. We left the Gyr at 9:15 am with the Wisdoms to get to Refuge Cove in time to pick up Randy and Peggy – who had flown over on a floatplane from Campbell River. This was our second trip to Refuge cove, so we knew the drill.  Randy and Peggy were good at photographic documentation (a much appreciated attribute in our guests), so we’ll use their photos to show you Refuge Cove, albeit in the rain.


This is the coffee shop and snack bar.


This is the store where we reprovisioned and did a load of laundry.


The dock on the left is where the float plane lands. The shed on the right is where David left his ukelele.

I had asked Randy to bring some chicken, since we had not been able to bring any across the Canadian border at the beginning of the trip – due to concerns about avian influenza. Randy had bought chicken in Campbell River at the Walmart – we grilled it that night for dinner. The Wisdoms’ plane didn’t leave for a couple of hours, so they bought souvenirs and had a snack at Refuge Cove. David put his ukulele in a dry shack on the seaplane dock for safekeeping. When he got back to Seattle, he realized the uke was still in Refuge Cove. A flurry of emails ensued, and he and his uke were eventually reunited.

Back in Tenedos Bay, it was too wet to hike or swim or kayak. Unfortunately for Randy and Peggy, it was supposed to stay that way all weekend.  But the rain was good for the area–it has been a very dry summer.  So Peter did what he does very well–channeled Tom Sawyer and got Randy to polish brass.


Sunday, July 12, 2015. Tenedos Bay to Pender Harbor (via Little Bull Passage). We left early, hoping to catch some sun farther south. We cruised for most of the day.


From Tenedos Bay down the east side of Texada Island



South of Texada Island and west up to Little Bull Passage

In the afternoon, we decided to anchor in Little Bull Passage off Jedidiah Island southwest of Texada Island.  To maneuver to the anchorage, Nancy was turning the boat in the harbor by reversing the port engine and putting the starboard engine in forward, with the rudder over to port.  Despite this approach, the stern of the Gyrfalcon seemed to be rapidly approaching the rocky shore (and some alarms began to beep loudly).  Thinking that the boat was being pushed by some local currents towards the rocks, Nancy tried to turn more rapidly, giving more reverse engine on the port side, and more forward starboard engine.  To no avail–the rocks got even closer.  At this point, we glanced at the tachometer in the pilothouse and realized that the starboard engine was not responding to the throttle–basically, we just had one engine in reverse, and one in neutral.

Long story short–the alarms indicated that  the starboard actuator was dead, and we had no way to control the starboard engine from the bridge.

The actuator is a box in the engine room that transforms the electrical impulses from the control unit in the pilot house into mechanical activity. One part of the actuator controls the clutch in the transmission, and the other part controls the throttle on the engine.


This is the control unit.  It’s in the pilothouse and controls both engines


This is the starboard actuator.  Note the “N” that Peter wrote on the casing.


It was the clutch part that had failed. Putting the port engine in forward stopped our imminent demise, and then Peter managed to get manual control of the starboard engine in the engine room. We tried for a while to get the actuator to reset, but it kept alarming. Peter also noticed the transmission oil pressure was low, but he was more worried about the actuator.


Here you can see the actuator (upper center) with the cables running down to the transmission and the throttle (lower right) for the starboard engine.

After we realized that we could get out to the middle of the larger bay between Boho Bay and Little Bull Passage, and manage to stay in one spot, Peter called Ben at LUBR (Lake Union Boat Repair), and tried to figure out what was wrong.  As Peter was checking to see if the transmission for the starboard engine was hotter than the port (it was), the engine decided to make itself clear and overheated, and spewed hot antifreeze into the engine room. Peter managed to quickly turn off the engine, and then discovered that the fan belt on the impeller pump (required to pump raw seawater to keep the engines cool) had come off its pulley. Total disaster.  In any case we were down to one engine. This is probably something we should have found out before–how well does the boat do on one engine.  We now know:  the boat steers well in forward and cruises at around 7.5 knots, but does not back well at all.

It was a very tense day for both Nancy and me, but we worked well under the pressure. Randy and Peggy were very understanding as we tried to figure stuff out.  We all read manuals together and tried to diagnose the problems.  Being that all 4 of us are veterinarians, diagnosing was something we felt comfortable doing  (Of course, Peter and Randy, being anatomic pathologists, can only diagnose things after they are dead.  On the other hand, Peggy and Nancy, being of a more clinical bent, can diagnose while the patient is still living).  We considered our anchorage options should we need repairs before returning to Seattle, and decided to backtrack and limp back to Pender Harbor, a protected anchorage where we anchored in Hospital Bay for the night (all the marinas were full).


From Little Bull Passage back east, south of Texada Island, and up to Pender Harbor



Our anchorage in Pender Harbor


Monday, July 13, 2015 – Pender Harbor to Nanaimo. Randy woke us up – even though we had not dragged anchor, somehow during the night we slipped between 2 small boats tied to moorings.  I think that Randy had been up most of the night, re-reading the manual for the controller system and actuators, trying to figure out what went wrong. We still can’t figure out how the boat had shifted. Perhaps we had a lot of chain lying on the shallow floor of the bay, and during the night, the chain uncoiled and we moved.


From Pender Harbor, across the Strait of Georgia, to Nanaimo

We left Pender Harbor at 5:30 am, since we were awake and it seemed to make sense to get to some place with more repair facilities where we could get help if we needed it.  Besides, we were in a much calmer state in the morning (5 on a scale of 0-10 where 0 is totally freaked, and 10 is a zen-like state) compared to the night before (2 on the same scale). The Strait of Georgia had just a small amount of chop and wind – a little lumpy but not too bad. We got to Nanaimo early, so there was plenty of room to anchor.  We set the anchor two times, and finally got to a place where we (1) could swing freely and not hit other boats and (2) would not need to back up to get off the anchorage in the morning.  We sent Randy and Peggy off to kayak and hike on Newcastle Island.


Randy and Peggy kayaked and explored the area

Nancy and I reset the anchor twice more before we were happy.

By now, enough time had passed since the disaster of Sunday afternoon that I (Peter) felt ready to tackle the engine problem. I took the protective shroud off the starboard engine, and discovered that we had actually lost 2 belts. One of the alternator belts had broken, and the impeller belt was off of its pulley but intact. I replaced the impeller belt, and it showed no signs of wear – nor had the tension on the pulley slipped. The only explanation that we could come up with was that, when the smaller alternator belt broke, the loose end of the belt got wedged under the impeller belt and lifted it off the pulley. Without the impeller belt, the engine rapidly overheated. I have no idea how this related to the actuator failure. My guess is that after the actuator failed, we manually moved the transmission from forward to reverse rapidly many times in an attempt to regain control, and that stress may have caused an already compromised belt to break. Fortunately, the actuator is designed so that when it fails, it automatically goes into neutral to prevent further disasters (hence the lack of control–starboard engine in neutral when we thought it was in forward–in the initial panic in Little Bull Passage). We also learned that you can manually control the transmission/throttle  from the engine room, but it is not as smooth as using the controls in the pilot house.

In any case, I replaced the belts, put the shroud back and started the engine. It ran smoothly and cool, and the transmission pressure was normal. This was one of the happiest moments of my life. I had fixed the problem, and we did not have to rebuild the transmission (Ben had gotten a quote for around $25,000 for a rebuild.)

After Peter solved most of the engine problems, we went onto Newcastle Island and took a hike to the lake. Several folks from the Canadian CYA came over to visit us in the afternoon.


Boston Whaler full of Canadian CYA members

Later in the afternoon, a fellow came by in a small boat and set some crab pots. I asked him if this was a good spot (we had not had too much luck with crabs on this trip), and he said this was his secret spot – totally reliable, and that if he was planning a crab feast, this was the spot he came to. We had heard this kind of fish story before, but we set our traps anyway. Randy and Peggy came back raving about what a cute town Nanaimo was. The four of us took the GFB into Nanaimo for dinner. There are a lot of nice restaurants in Nanaimo, but by the time we arrived, most of them had closed. Fortunately, an Indian restaurant was still open.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 – Nanaimo to Sidney Spit.  First thing in the morning, Randy, Nancy, and I went out to check our crab traps – we had 14 keepers. I now swear by local knowledge!  Here are some photos of the experience

Our crabpot and the catch.

Crab details….

Nanaimo to Sidney Spit

Nanaimo to Sidney Spit–a beautiful cruise

We left Nanaimo in the morning, went on the eastern (outside) of the Gulf Islands, came back into the Gulf through Porlier Pass at slack and then cruised on to Sidney Spit, one of our favorite anchorages in the Gulf Islands. The anchorage is wide and shallow. There are always lots of boats close to shore, since it is so close to the town of Sidney, but we tend to anchor deeper, so we seldom have close neighbors. Randy and Peggy took the kayaks and explored the island for most of the afternoon.


The beach at Sidney Spit


At Sidney Spit, we boiled the crabs for dinner.


Crab Feast in the Pilothouse

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 – Sidney Spit to Reid Harbor, Stuart Island.  Today we had to re-enter the United States. We were still anxious because we felt disabled with only one engine, and were not sure how much control we would have when docking. The closest Port of Entry was at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. Nancy called them on the phone and explained our situation. They responded that they had a half dozen boats in line, and that it would not calm down until late in the afternoon, and that if we were disabled, we should call Vessel Assist to tow us into customs. They suggested we go to Friday Harbor (halfway around the island), since they are generally less busy. That turned out to be great advice – not only did we get in with minimal waiting, but the Customs dock is long and we had it to ourselves.


We left Sidney Spit, passed by Roche Harbor (on the north end of San Juan Island, went to Friday Harbor, and backtracked up to Reid Harbor, Stuart Island


Just north of Roche Harbor, we experienced some amazing currents.  We can be cruising along with hardly any current, and then suddenly enter an area where the water is almost boiling, and where it moves the 167-ton Gyrfalcon around as if it were a toy.  It’s hard to show that in a photo, but maybe these give you some idea of the currents and chop.


Boiling water north of Roche Harbor

Customs is funny. They generally don’t want anyone off the boat until the captain has cleared customs. With our issues, I hopped off the boat to tie the spring line, so that Nancy could bring the boat in on one engine. A sailor who was moored across from the Customs Dock came over and helped me with lines. Nancy did an absolutely superb job of bringing the boat right to the dock.  As I was tying off the lines, I looked over and saw that the (crippled) starboard engine was actually in gear rather than neutral, and was pushing the boat forward. The mark for neutral on the actuator is not correct – and you can’t tell when the boat is underway if the propeller is turning or not, so instead of coasting in the dock, we were actually making around 2 knots. After we turned the engine off, and I told her what had happened, Captain Nancy responded, “I thought there was a strong current today.” She is definitely getting this captain thing down.

The Customs Agent – Agent Heater – watched us dock. Afterwards she apologized for not helping (she had heard about our predicament), but explained that agents are not allowed to touch a boat (liability). She said, “I’ve been around boats all my life. That was a beautiful docking.” Captain Nancy is still beaming.


She wasn’t quite beaming at this point, but definitely more relaxed than earlier.

After we cleared customs, we cruised back up the eastern side of San Juan Island, and spent the night in Reid Harbor on Stuart Island. Randy and Peggy took kayaks to explore the island.  It’s a great place to explore by on land and on water, with a place to beach kayaks, and lots of trails.


Peggy heading off in a kayak


Beached kayaks at the head of Reid Harbor, Stuart Island


Wildlife sighting


Peggy and Randy with Reid Harbor in the background

After Randy and Peggy were in their kayaks, Nancy took off with her camera in one kayak, and I followed her a few minutes later. I found her close to shore. She motioned me to come over quietly. She had found a family of river otters. The mom had caught a Dungeness crab, and was feeding it to her pups. It was very cool to see, and even though the light was very dim, Nancy managed to get some great shots.


After that, we paddled around the bay. We checked out an old wooden boat there, and talked to the owners. It turned out that the owner had been a mate for Bob Jacobson on the DuPont Dynamite boat in the early Seventies. Jacobsen, when he wasn’t delivering dynamite to Alaska for DuPont, was also the owner of  the Gyrfalcon at that time. Once again, wooden boats are a small world.  And then there was the DuPont connection–Randy currently works at DuPont, and Nancy worked there before moving to Seattle.

There were also lots of belted kingfishers and the typical harbor seals.



And then it was back to the boat for a little R&R, at least for Nancy.



Nancy in Reid Harbor.  Much more relaxed now that we’re through customs

Randy, Peggy, and Peter got down to work and cleaned the remaining crabs (we were not able to eat them all last night). We had over two pounds of crab meat that was delicious.



Randy and Peter picking crabs


Thursday, July 16, 2015 – Reid Harbor, Stuart Island to Port Townsend.  We are now finally headed back towards home.


The inset gives details about Port Townsend.  We’ve come full circle.  During our first day out on this trip, we had collected provisions from Island Fresh, which is on Marrowstone (one of the islands to the east of the PT anchorage)


We had decided in the last few days to slow the itinerary because of the engine trouble, but to still enjoy the trip. Although we have often made it between Stuart Island and Seattle in one day, we decided to break the trip up this time. We made a relatively short run to Port Townsend. We anchored in our usual spot off from Haven Boat Works, and spent the afternoon visiting Port Townsend (Peggy and Randy), talking to the Haven Boatworks folks (Peter and Nancy) and generally relaxing.  We had a last farewell dinner on the Gyr, and a beautiful sunset.


Port Townsend heading towards our anchorage


Our last night at anchor.

Friday, July 17, 2015 – Port Townsend to Seattle.  The last anxiety-raising tricky bit was going through the locks in Seattle.


The final leg from Port Townsend to Seattle

The locks are never easy – on a “normal” weekend, you sometimes have to wait an hour or more for your turn through. In addition, there are always currents that push the boat backwards and sideways. Our last few days had given us greater understanding of how to handle the boat with only one fully functional engine. The first thing we did was radio the lock keepers and explain that we had limited maneuverability, and requested the small locks.  Under normal conditions, a non-commercial boat is not supposed to contact the locks, but we did it as a courtesy call, hoping that they’d understand that our limited maneuverability would make the large locks difficult.   The small locks are much easier to maneuver through compared to the large locks, even with a fully functional boat. The lockmaster told us that they would accommodate us, but we would have to wait until they were through with a full load in the large locks.

The problem was trying to keep the boat facing towards the locks and not drifting over towards the outflow of the large locks (where big ships were about to exit).  With one engine in reverse, the boat pulled strongly to starboard, so the result of jockeying back and forth was to move closer and closer to the path coming out of the large locks.  After Nancy tried for a bit to keep the boat in the right location,   I went down into the engine room where I could control the starboard engine manually. (After the Customs experience, I had marked the spot where neutral actually was with a Sharpie.  Remember the N in the photo of the actuator). This was our system:  Nancy would call a command out (Reverse, low rpms) to Randy who was standing at the Pilot house door, to Peggy who was standing at the top of the engine room, to me who was at the controls. It was a lot like the game of telephone, with the added excitement of the noise of the engines making it difficult for me to hear. We got the commands right almost all of the time. I yearned for the days when the boat had a speaking tube and a telegraph in the engine room.


Ladder looking up from the engine room

After 40 minutes or so of jockeying for position, we were called into the small locks (where there were about 4-6 guys with long boat hooks, just in case).  It turned out that we didn’t need any special help; we locked through with no trouble.  We had called LUBR to tell them of our arrival time, and when we got close to LUBR (just west of the Ballard Bridge) we pulled into the linear dock.  It’s a starboard tie facing west,  requiring turning 180 degrees to come into the dock, and there was a bit of wind, but the docking was flawless.  Ben said to Nancy: ” You used to just drive this boat.  Now, you’re a captain”.   Our July 2015 journey was now officially over.


We have to give a special shout out to our friends Peggy and Randy. They are not boat people, and really came along for a relaxing cruise.  We’re certain that this trip was not what they expected, but they were real troopers: they rose to the occasion and were a real help during this, our first real trial about the Gyrfalcon, as well as being great guests/friends and providing many of the photographs for this blog.  And Peter learned Peggy’s technique in making delicious breakfast burritos.  In the end, we think they still had a good time. Thanks, guys.


POSTSCRIPT: It turned out that the actuator failed because a $6 potentiometer burned out.  Here’s Mark from LUBR taking the offending actuator off the boat for repair.





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