Our log entry that August day read simply: “Today is Nakwakto day.” A brief sentence, but it meant this would be the day we had anticipated for months— Carl’s dream of going through Nakwakto Rapids—the destination of our cruise, about 220 miles north of the Greater Seattle area.
Nakwakto Rapids are among the fastest in the world and can run up to 16-20 knots on a maximum ebb current and up to 14 knot on maximum flood currents, with just six minutes of slack water.
Nakwakto Rapids is a narrow rocky passage on the British Columbia mainland about seven miles southeast of Cape Caution and then east for six more miles through Slingsby Channel. The rapids connect Queen Charlotte Strait by way of either Slingsby or Schooner channels to the rapids. Inside the rapids is a maze of about 130 nautical miles of remote fjords and inlets. The area is often by-passed by cruisers heading north to Alaska.
Narrow, fairly shallow Schooner Channel is the usual approach from the south to the rapids. The channel runs along the east side of Bramham Island. Ebb currents sometimes reach five knots in the three mile long channel.
Slingsby Channel runs east from the Strait and is susceptible to strong westerly winds, which, when combined with a nine knot ebb current, can produce enormous seas.
We’d heard and read stories of boats sunk or damaged by out-of-control whirlpools, and of other marine disasters in the rapids, notably by those who didn’t keep close to the six minutes of slack and were unable to cope with the currents. We talked with several people who had spent one tidal cycle on tiny Turret Rock, locally called Tremble Island, in the middle of the rapids. They said the island did indeed tremble during a strong ebb.
So why go there?
Once “inside” the rapids there are about 130 miles of largely uninhabited, seldom explored beautiful cruising in isolated Seymour and Belize inlets, and Nugent, Mereworth and Alison Sounds, an almost magical, peaceful area. It was only partially charted in the early 1950s and finally surveyed and charted in 1982. That was the reason we decided to go to Nakwakto. Carl had cruised to the Nakwakto area in the late 1940s in his 24’ schooner Condor, but didn’t go through the rapids into the fjords as the area had not been charted at that time, which discouraged many boaters from attempting to cruise there. He had spent a long time planning this cruise, pouring over charts and reading everything possible about the little-known area. His 35-foot Chris Craft sailboat Scheherazade, with more amenities than the little Condor, was well-outfitted for the trip.
Our basic resources were all the nautical charts we could find on the area, plus British Columbia Sailing Instructions (South Portion), Cruising Beyond Desolation Sound by John Chappell, The Curve of Time, by Muriel Wylie Blanchet, Tide and Current Tables and even a bit from British Columbia Coast Names by Captain John. T. Walbran.
We spent the first part of our cruise sailing north through all our favorite places: the San Juan and Gulf Islands; then an 85 mile windless run up the west side of Georgia Strait to Desolation Sound, where we gunkholed about in Squirrel Cove, at Mink Island, Okeover Inlet and so forth. Desolation Sound is a glorious area of great sailing, good anchorages in delightful bays (true gunkholes) especially during the “shoulder seasons,” when it’s not too crowded.
Finding absolutely no desolation and certainly no “awful silence” as Capt. George Vancouver did in 1792, we anchored our last night there in deep water at the head of Frances Bay on Raza Island, along with five other boats. A few years before that, we were the only boat in the bay.
The next morning, instead of going through Arran Rapids as Vancouver did, we elected to go through Yuculta, where we caught the tail-end of the flood, playing the back eddies as we worked our way north. We passed Big Bay on Stuart Island and sneaked into Gillard Passage under the watchful eye of a “guard eagle.” We powered on through Dent Rapids without any problems, caught the slack water and easily swept north and west along Cordero Channel, riding the ebb. Next were Greene Point Rapids at the T-shaped intersection between Cordero Channel and the Thurlow Islands, then through Wellbore Channel, Whirlpool Rapids and finally anchored in Forward Harbor along with about 15 other boats. A glorious rainbow broke through the gray skies, a lovely ending to a great day.
As planned, we started at Yuculta near the end of the flood, slipped into the slack and rode the ebb through Whirlpool and into Forward Harbour, a 29-mile trip almost all in one ebb tidal cycle. Had we encountered adverse weather or extreme currents, we could have laid over at any of several locations in route.
Beneath dripping skies, the west portion of Johnstone Strait offered us a piece of Vancouver’s described “desolation.” Only occasionally could we see the tops of mountains, while the somber greys surrounded us until we headed up Havanah Channel and then up narrow and shallow Chatham Channel.
The further north we went the more we were surrounded by the remoteness of majestic evergreens, deep blue-green waters, and mountains reaching from sky to sea in one gigantic sweep. We had flat calms, heavy seas, strong winds, light breezes, churning channels. We were often the only boat, the only people, in all this magnificent wilderness. Peaceful silence was broken only by the sound of the wind in our sails, water foaming past the hull, and by the plaintiff cries of loons, gulls and eagles overhead.
We stopped at marinas or resorts only for needed supplies like water, fuel, eggs or fresh fruits and vegetables; baked our own bread, ate from our large supply of canned and packaged food, caught seafood and swam for baths. We checked charts carefully, searching for tiny bays and coves with enough water for anchoring, but with room for only one boat at a time and with protection from the prevailing winds.
The vast rugged wilderness area became more so the farther north and west we traveled. Now and then a crew-cut hillside appeared, with a floating log camp moored against a steep bank below. A few tugs and log tows traveled the channels, while occasional loggers in fast boats buzzed about. Other than that it was quiet.
North through Queen Charlotte Strait, past the Raynor Group, Blunden Harbour, Jeannette Islands, the Southgate Group and into Allison Harbour, we’re now just four miles from Nakwakto. The harbour was once a bustling logging community. It was a regular Union Steamship port-of-call until 1952. At one time J.B. Allison had a supply center for logging camps and operated a nearby sawmill in the harbour.
The chart showed City Point, but nothing remained of any “city.” We hiked around and found the remains of the old post office and one charming new little house. It was a delightful anchorage and we gunkholed by dinghy, finding good places to swim and dig clams. It’s now mostly a booming ground for loggers, an occasional overnight anchorage for fisherman or an anchorage for tugs waiting to run Nakwakto.
Tidal range inside Nakwakto is only about four to six feet, while “outside” the range is as great as 16 feet, thus the considerably faster ebb currents.
We planned to go through Nakwakto at near slack the next day at 12:50 p.m. That would be after the maximum 10 knot ebb at 9:15 in the morning. Maximum flood current would be at 8.2 knots at 2:10 p.m.
The plan when running rapids, especially unfamiliar ones, is to go near the end of a current when it is against us so we can maintain some control over what is happening and back off or turn around if need be.
Our anchorage in Allison Harbour felt like a very long four miles away from Nakwakto. Nearly three miles of that distance would be bucking the current through Schooner Channel. At first glance on the chart the channel is just a long narrow passage connecting the Strait with Seymour Inlet. On closer inspection, the channel is foul with rocks on either side, so passing through narrow places becomes a game of “dodge ‘em,” with disastrous results if we lose.
We raised anchor the next morning about 9:45 after untangling our stubborn stern line, heading south out of Allison Harbor. We rounded Roy and Ray Rocks at 10:06 a.m. and turned north into Schooner Channel. The next hour and a half was spent powering against a couple of knots of ebb current as we slowly made our way north through the channel. This was shortly after the 10-knot ebb at Nakwakto.
Water in Schooner Channel formed whirlpools, backeddies and overfalls near the edges. We could see it actually running downhill like a river. Kelp covered many rocks, but not all, so we couldn’t count on it to warn us of underwater demons. In places the water’s surface dimpled under rain that also ran into our eyes and down the back of our necks.
The chart was good and we used the radar to help corroborate our visual reckoning of distance off. Jo was a bit apprehensive when the rocks looked overly close and said so several times. Carl would listen, take what she ranted about under consideration and then continue on, sometimes making slight course changes, sometimes not. He seemed to accept there was no longer a skipper aboard Scheherazade, only a committee of two. We drank vast quantities of hot coffee to offset the weather.
At 11:30 a.m. we were near the north end of Schooner Channel. We could see the rapids and moved slowly toward them. Turret Rock divided the flow of water as it rushed around both sides of the small island. The water’s surface boiled with froth. Water raced toward us and to the west to Slingsby Channel. We felt so CLOSE to everything. It really is a small area. We were actually at Nakwakto Rapids—a heady feeling.
We reached Butress Island at a snail’s pace and decided the current was still too strong to attempt passage through the rapids. As we were still over an hour from slack, we slid into the outer bay at Cougar Inlet and steamed around in circles. On the rock walls there were painted names of other boats which had obviously waited out the currents. We ate lunch to help pass the time, wondering just how long it would be before we would try to make it through. That six minutes of slack loomed hugely in our minds.
Finally, Carl could stand it no longer. At 12:05 p.m. we left the calm of Cougar Inlet and headed out into the channel. The current was still running against us but had calmed down greatly. There were only small amounts of foam on the surface, and the whirlpools and eddies had disappeared or diminished in size.
We pulled up again past Butress Island and headed for the west side of Turret Rock, the preferred passage through the rapids, staying clear of the rocks which angled west off the southern tip of Turret.
At Nakwakto and moving easily ahead, we looked over at the rock, trying to figure out where we might land our skiff and sit out a trembling tidal change—someday. The tiny island had a fair number of hand-painted signs of boat names nailed on trees, including that of a tug we’d seen in Allison Harbour. We held our breaths as we passed close to the island. Then, all of a sudden, we were through the rapids and in Seymour Inlet. It was almost disappointing after all the preparation and trepidation. It was just so easy. Happily, we have no horror stories to tell of our passage through Nakwakto.
Our log entry read: “12:20 p.m. Cleared Nakwakto Rapids!”
We had done it, accomplished Carl’s long sought goal, and were now free to cruise some of the fjords and inlets in this wonderful remote area. That night we anchored in beautiful Strachan Bay in Mereworth Sound.
That first cup of coffee the next morning in the cockpit in the exceedingly calm, quiet bay, was the first day of 10 in a veritable Eden of sailing through this extraordinary area.
During our cruise we saw only two large boats and one runabout from a logging camp. At that time there were no floating resorts in the “inside,” just bays for anchoring and fish for catching. We sailed into Nugent Sound, Alison Sound, Belize Inlet, finding spectacular waterfalls, incredible rocky cliffs dropping straight into the water, forests everywhere, snow-topped mountains, warm swimming, great sailing, reasonable fishing, good anchorages, unbelievable peace and quiet. Although we had been told to watch for bears, we saw no sign of them.
On our last afternoon “inside,” it rained, of course, and then a marvelous rainbow filled the sky, showing us that we had earned our pot of gold. We had indeed been in a magical place.
We passed through Nakwakto Rapids again during slack and were once more back “outside,” headed back to our own extraordinary San Juans and Puget Sound, by way of numerous stops, including Mamalilaculla on Village Island. But that’s another story.
Jo and Carl are authors of Gunkholing in the San Juan Islands, a Comprehensive Cruising Guide Encompassing Deception Pass to the Canadian Boundary, and Gunkholing in South Puget Sound, a Comprehensive Cruising Guide from... Both books are available by calling 48° North, 206.789.364, as well as at bookstores and chandleries for $24.95. Jo & Carl are members of Northwest Outdoors Writers Association. They can be reached at 206.323.1315 or at firstname.lastname@example.org, for slide show presentations of Northwest waters, the Kingdom of Tonga and a 120-knot hurricane off the west shore of Australia.
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