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Racing through Canada, I

September 22, 2012

September 7 through 10

Departing isn’t so sweet or sorrowful as it is frightening. Even with two years of departures, arrivals and more departures under our belts, a cold water runs over my heart when I lean to release Murre’s lines. Then, and always, as she moves into the offing, heaving in rhythm with the swell, heeling, stiffening, then settling as the sails take their bite, I realize it is only out here that the boat is sure of herself. At dock she is a horse tethered in a stall; departing is what she longs for–the fear is all mine.

In Ketchikan a day of sunny summer weather has given way to a low sky and a sharp north wind forecast to increase in the afternoon as a gale slowly develops west of Graham Island. It looks like rain. I hesitate. Our passage across Dixon Entrance is open to the ocean. Should I wait a day?

Joanna laughs at me. “You spent a month at sea to get to Sitka, and now you are scared of a few hours?”

I try to laugh too, but without success.

Wind flows strongly down the last of Tongass Narrows as does the tide, and as we pour out into Dixon Entrance it dies. The sky clears. I switch on the auto pilot and peel off jacket and fleeces.

That evening and forty miles south we hide in Port Tongass, nothing but a scrape in the lee of an island seemingly too small to have been, at one time, both a Tlingit village and then a western fort. Early next day we are underway in dead calm and a low southwest swell and pass into Canadian waters almost immediately. I replace the dour Alaskan ensign at the spreaders with the jaunty maple leaf. We are passing Green Island Lighthouse, and while still tying off the new flag, I notice dark spots on the water ahead. I check the chart and find that, in my haste, I’ve laid a course right over Connis Rocks, now three elephant backs head-high on the ebb. I reset course, tutting my stupidity.

We squeeze through tight and twisting Venn Passage on the first of the flood and are docked at the Prince Rupert Yacht Club by early afternoon.


“Hello. Sailing Vessel Murre, US registered, arriving from Ketchikan bound Seattle calling to check in,” I say into a pay phone at the head of the dock. A young woman with the customs office has answered the line.

“That’s strange,” she says, “I don’t show you in our system.”

“I arrived Alaska via Hawaii,” I say.

“Ok,” she hesitates, “but shouldn’t you have checked into Canada on your way north?”

“No, Sitka was my first port of call after Kauai.”

“Usually US yachts headed to Alaska pass through Canada and so must register with customs in one of the southern ports.”

I try to explain I was 2000 miles off shore when I came abeam of Victoria.

“Is that done?” she asks.


“Well, I’ve never heard of it. Can you state for the record that you couldn’t phone in from your location for remote clearance?”

“Quite easily,” I say.

“Sir, you’ll need to say it.”

“I swear.”

We move on to the usual list of questions.

“Guns aboard?”




“Fireworks, mace or pepper spray?”






“Illicit drugs.”

“I have some aspirin.”

Never ever joke with customs officials. I hear her spell in a whisper as she types “A-S-P-I-R…”

“OK. How much alcohol?” she continues. “Any wine?”

“Four boxes,” I say. I have stocked up in Ketchikan thinking (wrongly) that such essentials will be more expensive in Canada.

“How many bottles is that?”

“About 16.”

“And Beer?”

“About a case.”

“Case of 12 or 24?”


“Well,” she says, pausing to tally the results. “You are allowed four bottles of wine tariff-free–on others we need to charge a tax penalty.” She pauses. “But as it’s Friday, I’m not worried about your alcohol quantities. Let’s move on. Fruits and vegetables?”

Again, I’ve stocked up in Ketchikan. Assembling the list mentally I begin, “Some bananas and some Fuji apples…”

“Ok. It’s really only the apples we worry out. It’s the cores, you see. We don’t want the seeds in Canadian soil or interfering with our agriculture, so you can freeze the uneaten portions or promise not to throw away the cores until you pass back into the US.”

“I promise.”

“And as it’s Friday, there won’t be any boat inspection today. Welcome to Canada.”


The book says of Prince Rupert, “a vibrant port city.” Surely it is the closest thing to a city we have visited in months, but compared to Alaskan towns, I find it positively plain. Gone is any hint of the frontier swagger and braggadocio that is the norm up north. Houses are small, neatly kept, and most appear freshly painted. Lawns are cut and trimmed. Sidewalks are clean as if after a rain. Even on a Friday evening there is a sense of orderly quiet outside the subtly lit restaurants on the wharf. All of which suggests that the citizens of Prince Rupert are intent on nothing but work and the raising of families, neither of which are advanced by declaring a flashy, pioneer past.

What a relief, I think.

Next day this hunch proves true when I encounter in a central park the town patron rendered in bronze, a Charles Melville Hayes, dressed in a wool suit, topped with a bowler, a worldly man. Below his expensively-shod feet is a plaque describing Hayes with provincial awe as “our city’s benevolent founder” and “visionary promoter with a remarkable talent for raising vast sums of money.” Hayes built Prince Rupert as a port city at the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad (for which company he was president) and for the express purpose of competing with Vancouver for trade with Asia. But Hayes went down with the Titanic before his dream could be realized. Trade Prince Rupert had, and still has, but compete it could not. Without Hayes’ visionary leadership, it has settled into a prim mediocrity.

I spend a day walking this pleasant, quiet town and find that one day is enough.


Back at the dock, I ask my neighbor about some of the anchorages in the Grenville Channel, the next long leg south. He is a stoutly built old man in jeans supported by rainbow colored suspenders laying over a crisp, white t-shirt; his silvery hair is trim and his face smooth. Likewise, his converted troller, “built here in 1937,” he says, appears equally well cared for–her paint and bright work fresh, cabin neat.

“My book suggests there can be some good stretches between protection in Grenville,” I begin.

“Your book? Damned cruising books!” he says, “My wife got me one of those things for Christmas a couple years back. I’ve been on the water here most of my life. Now that I’m retired she thinks I need a book about where to anchor. Then for a while it was ‘the book says you’re suppose to be behind that rock,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m behind *this* rock because the wind’s going to turn west in the afternoon and the book don’t know that now does it?’ First weekend she was at her sisters I threw the damned thing overboard. But you were saying?”

I restate the question, omitting any reference to a cruising book, and get a fistful of anchorages to take Murre and me across Douglass Sound.


A few provisions before departure. The large grocery in Prince Rupert is a Safeway, remarkably similar in size and layout to the Safeway in Ketchikan. And in the produce section, a stack of Fuji apples remarkably similar to the stack of Fuji apples in the Ketchikan store. The only noticeable differences are the respective stickers: the Ketchikan apples attained their majority in nearby Washington State, whereas those in Prince Rupert have traveled all the way from New Zealand. Pleased as I was that the Friday-minded customs official forgave my alien apples, now I look askance at my growing bag of browning cores.


One Comment
  1. Unintended permalink
    September 23, 2012 1:41 pm

    I don’t understand how anyone can travel anywhere without fireworks, or why they’d want to…

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