Cruising Desolation Sound - 2013

The Curve of Time

Three Grand Banks Aleutians venture into a timeless, dimensionless place—British Columbia’s Desolation Sound.

Cruising Desolation Sound

On the very edges of the port of Vancouver, towers of chrome, steel, and glass abruptly rise, shading immaculate, tree-lined streets. Indeed, the docks of Coal Harbor Marina, a comfortable little spot on the port’s south side, are virtually part of the city proper and adjoin all sorts of urban delights, which most of us had been sampling for much of the day, each in his own way.

But now, as shadows lengthened, there was expectation in the air. Like wagon-train pioneers poised for a journey west, we were all waiting for the arrival of Sanctuary, a Grand Banks 72 Aleutian RP owned by Susan and Jeff Bland. Bland was the wagon master for our trip—the guy who’d lead our merry band of Grand Banks owners and boats up the coast to the mountainous, fir-studded wilderness archipelago of Desolation Sound. And once there, he’d be the guy to “show us around,” as one of the organizers of the expedition had put it.

Squirrel Cove raft-up.

Squirrel Cove raft-up.

Man of the Moment

I wondered about two things, though. For starters, how was Bland going to maneuver his 72 through the marina to the only spot that remained open, given the maze of protruding bow pulpits, swim platforms, and casually tied runabouts that stood in the way? And then, once he’d managed to negotiate the maze, how was he going to rotate the boat slightly and then sidle up against a decidedly skimpy stretch of dock, with Sanctuary’s stern darn near touching the stern of an Aleutian 53 RP and her bow threatening the underpinnings of a waterfront eatery?

Sanctuary poked her nose around the corner. And then, with Bland on her flying bridge subtly manipulating a remote Twin Disc engine/thruster control box (with the unflinching certitude of a Zen master, from what I could tell) Sanctuary simply eased serenely down the fairway, pirouetted a couple of times to the tune of a few short thruster bursts, and found her berth with the single-minded precision of a top-shelf ballet dancer.

“Thanks everybody,” said Bland’s wife Susan as the couple (with the help of their salty golden retriever Cinnamon) adjusted mooring lines and fenders after a well-attended tie-up. While shaking hands with Bland for the first time, I reviewed what I’d just seen—here, apparently, was a fellow who, despite his casual, barefoot appearance, was capable of an exceptional level of focus. A fellow who was, as they say, firmly grounded in the present moment.

A view of Desolation Sound after rounding Sarah Point.

A view of Desolation Sound after rounding Sarah Point.

The Key to the Whole Thing?

Clockwise from top, Jeff Bland, Susan Bland, the author, and Cinnamon, a happy camper.

Clockwise from top, Jeff Bland, Susan Bland, the author, and Cinnamon, a happy camper.

The next morning, Bland sat loosely in the Stidd helmseat on Sanctuary’s flying bridge as we cruised north up the Georgia Strait at approximately 10 knots. From under the bill of a baseball cap, he scanned ahead through a set of polarized Maui Jim sunglasses, looking for logs and other obstructions. I sat in the companion Stidd to port, keeping an eye peeled as well. Alongside Susan, Cinnamon snoozed on an L-shaped settee behind us, sniffing the salty breeze. Two Grand Banks Aleutians and a 46 Eastbay SX dutifully followed along, like a convoy stretching astern for a couple of miles.

“He was probably sick and depressed,” said Bland, by way of explaining why Captain George Vancouver, perhaps feeling burdened with a boorish crew and a dispiriting mission, had given Desolation Sound such a gloomy name in 1792. “And so he failed to see what a spectacular place it is.”

“Princess Louisa Inlet,” Susan chimed in, referring to a sheer-rocked, 1,000-foot-deep, waterfall-fed fjord almost due north of Pender Harbour, our stopping spot for the night. “It’s a very spiritual place for us—we call it our church. We go up there every year—we haven’t missed that trip for all of 23 years now.”

The steady thrum of a couple of diesels that often passes for silence on a big powerboat ensued as the woodsy shores of Thormanby Island began to manifest ahead—we’d already covered a good portion of our 50-nautical-mile run to Pender apparently. A pair of bald eagles hovered in the china-blue sky in the distance, making great silent loops like harbingers of another realm.

“Ever read The Curve of Time, Bill?—a fabulous book,” Bland asked while tweaking the dial on Sanctuary’s Simrad AP25 autopilot, “written by Muriel Wyle Blanchet. It’s the key to the whole thing, you know.”

Garden Bay Chow

Shortly after arriving at Fisherman’s Resort and Marina in Pender Harbour, we hit the trail (quite literally) to Garden Bay Pub & Restaurant, moving in stretched-out single file, like an infantry platoon in uncertain territory. The food at Garden Bay was tasty—I went with fish and chips myself, mostly because of a lifelong obsession for fresh-cut French fries, which the meal featured. Later, on the way back to Fisherman’s, somebody, either Bob Barker (off the Aleutian 53 RP Second Thought) or Rhonda Groves (off the Aleutian 59 RP GranTurismo), told yours teetotalling truly that there’d been some “interesting” local marques on the wine list.

Sea planes! Cool tug boats! General stores! What true treasures a short RIB ride can reveal.

Sea planes! Cool tug boats! General stores! What true treasures a short RIB ride can reveal.

Of course, after settling into the gorgeously teaky confines of a Grand Banks stateroom of an evening (Disclaimer: I own a Grand Banks trawler myself and defer to the brand with hand-cut-French-fry enthusiasm), you gotta read a book before falling asleep. And Bland was right—The Curve of Time is indeed fabulous, albeit strange. More to the point, from one angle, it’s a straightforward account written by a resourceful and fun-loving woman who in 1927, after her husband had presumably drowned after disappearing from their little 25-foot power cruiser, squeezed her whole family (five children and a dog) into the same cruiser and spent many subsequent summers exploring Desolation Sound and other destinations along the British Columbian coast.

But from another angle? “On board our boat one summer,” Blanchet writes, “we had a book by Maurice Maeterlinck called The Fourth Dimension, the fourth dimension being Time—which, according to Dunne [J.W. Dunne, aeronautical engineer and author] doesn’t exist in itself, but is always relative to the person who has the idea of Time. Maeterlinck used a curve to illustrate Dunne’s theory.”

Hmmm. Obviously, Blanchet had borrowed from Maeterlinck for the title of her book. But was she saying time ceases to exist—or can cease to exist—during a cruising adventure? I checked my watch—nearly midnight. We were supposed to cast off at eight in the morning. Jeesh! Click went the light switch.

Cripes! It’s Freakin’ Cold!

The next day’s jaunt took us another 50 nautical miles to Prideaux Haven on the southern shore of Desolation Sound. At about 1:30 that afternoon, Sanctuary dropped her hook in seven fathoms in Squirrel Cove, an expanse of flat green water near Prideaux that perfectly reflected the towering mountains around it, and the other three Grand Banks vessels rafted up alongside. The idea behind having just one anchor down and no stern lines going ashore, Bland explained, was that the entire raft-up would rotate in comfortable accord with tidal changes. Mild, summertime weather conditions were in the offing overnight, he added, and the holding ground was solid.

The remainder of the afternoon proved deeply nostalgic. It began when Bland launched his Walker Bay Generation 430 Deluxe RIB from Sanctuary’s stern, a move that brought Cinnamon barreling from the foredeck, where she’d been playing quite sportily with loose mooring lines. No sooner had the Walker hit the water than the dinghy-ride-lovin’ dog was in the front seat, ready to boogie. So off we went to find the path to Unwin Lake—four salty guys and an equally salty retriever, with her ears flapping joyfully in the wind.

Unwin was a shock. In fact, it was such a shock that immediately after jumping into its depths from a shoreline rock I was constrained to emphasize with great feeling, “Cripes! It’s freakin’ cold!”

But hey—the longer we all splashed around in the deep, crystal-clear water, the warmer it seemed to feel. And ultimately, two full hours simply dissolved into timelessness, just like the hours used to dissolve when I was a kid, thanks to a little boat I’d built myself, an evergreen-fringed Adirondack lake, and a profusion of summer days that stretched off into eternity.

Five Seconds Flat

There was a mob in Sanctuary’s cockpit the night Bland grilled delicately seasoned salmon and halibut steaks for dinner while describing “something dumb” he’d done years before. The tale began with Sanctuary encountering a giant, cross-ways log while working her way into nearby Baker Inlet on a rip-roaring incoming tide, with her dinghy toodling behind on a carelessly overlong painter.

“So I back down to keep from hitting the log,” Bland says, squinting through rising steam, “but then hey! The dinghy’s passing us on the port side, riding the current. And then it goes across the bow to starboard, which of course pulls the painter under the hull where it’s gonna foul the props.”

“Things were moving fast,” Susan adds. “Our friends onboard knew something bad was happening but they weren’t sure what.”

“So I pull the engines out of gear, don a wet suit, and jump overboard—pretty instantaneously I might add,” Bland says, flipping a thick slab of halibut for emphasis.

“As you can imagine,” Susan states archly, “our friends were concerned.”

“Took three tries,” concludes Bland with a grin, enjoying the crowd’s enthusiastic approbation, “but I got the line cleared without having to use a knife. One of the folks onboard said I donned the suit in five seconds flat!”

A Brief Literary Discussion

Many months after our excursion to Desolation Sound had come peacefully to a close, Bland and I were again talking about Blanchet’s book. I had three particular facets of the excursion in mind during the discussion, starting with the intense focus Bland had brought to the boat-handling extravaganza at Coal Harbor, followed by the complete dissolution of two full hours during our swim at Unwin Lake, and concluding with the timeless instantaneousness his Baker Inlet story had illustrated.

“So Jeff,” I asked, “what did you really mean that day goin’ up Georgia Strait when you said The Curve of Time is the key to the whole thing?”

Once he’d finished telling me how he’d first read the book in the late ’80s when his kids were young and how his family, in a succession of Grand Banks boats, had been more or less following in Blanchet’s wake ever since, Bland waxed philosophical.

“If you’re lucky,” he said, “boats will now and then take you into timeless, dimensionless places. Where all that is is the present moment. I think we all need that sort of thing, don’t you? Perhaps, occasionally, some of us more than others.”