Here is the 10 minute Inside Passage Sea Trials movie – enjoy!:
I know this might sound a little corny or sappy, but sometimes I feel like my actions, goals and general direction in life are being guided by some mysterious force in the universe with the goal of setting me up just to experience it’s beauty. Basically, I feel like the universe is trying to show off to me – it takes a LOT of work and perseverance to get there, but when it happens, I never expect it, and it takes my breath away.
Let me paint the picture for you:
It was early on Friday morning and Bryon and I had departed from Fishermans Port in Campbell River. We set our alarm for 4:30 am because we had calculated that it would take us a few hours to pedal WiTHiN from CR, up discovery passage to one of the most treacherous tidal current areas in the world – Seymour Narrows where the currents can reach 15 knots. A local fisherman at the dock in CR told us that he recently watched a log get sucked into a giant whirl pool, and then spit out 100 yards further down the narrows.
It was cold and dark as we made our way down to the marina. I had to use an old credit card to scrape frost off of the hatches and portlights. With Bryon on the pedals in the cockpit, and me relaxing comfortably in the cabin, we were on our way by 5:30 am. The goal was to stay close to shore and take advantage of any back eddies we could find to help our progress north as we fought through the weakening flood tide.
The magic started right away. The water was like a mirror as we slowly moved along the shore listening to the soft ‘chuga-chuga’ sound that the pedals and prop make. Dusk slowly lifted and we found ourselves on another planet. We were surrounded by dissipating and patchy fog which offered a surreal view of the water around us. The stage was being lit by various lights from shore – some were diffused by the fog, and some pierced through holes in the fog. The sunrise was the icing on the cake. I commented to Bryon that I felt like we were in some James Cameron movie on some alien planet.
As the day warmed, the fog lifted and we made it through the narrows without incident at slack tide. The ebb tide started to build and we reached speeds of 6 knots and were whisked up Discovery passage to the mouth of the Johnstone Strait.
As if to welcome us into the Johnstone strait, we were instantly surrounded by a pod of Orca whales! We counted eight of them. What an incredible sight! They were all around us playing and feeding in the swirling tidal action near the entry of the straight. I even watched one killer whale fully breach as it exploded out of the water, did a half turn and splashed down – right in front of me. At one point Bryon said to me “Hey Greg – listen.. Can you hear some cats?” I stopped pedaling and sure enough, we could clearly discern the sound of a bunch of cats meowing. It was the sound of the Orcas singing which was being amplified by the hollow speaker-like carbon hull of WiTHiN! We popped our heads out of the hatches and it was completely silent! This was definitely one of those rare, magical moments and I will never forget it.
This whole mission that Bryon and I were on had started 2 days and about 90 nautical miles earlier on Tuesday morning at 10:00 am sharp from Brechin boat launch in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Our objective was to pedal my human powered boat called WiTHiN, 218 miles (350 km) up the inside passage from Nanaimo in southern Vancouver Island, to Port Hardy at the north tip of the island.
WiTHiN is a fully enclosed, water tight human powered capsule boat measuring 30 feet long and 4 feet wide. She has two cabins – the cockpit at mid ship which houses a recumbent seat and pedals which turn a propeller mounted below the boat, and a sleeping cabin in the stern. WiTHiN was built to take me across the Pacific ocean from Vancouver Island to Hawaii this summer. As part of a regiment of sea trials, I had decided that a multi-day coastal trip would be a good way to test out the boat, living conditions, electronics, etc.
I am travelling to Hawaii as a solo effort, but for the inside passage sea trials trip, I wanted to partner with my good friend Bryon Howard who used to run a sea kayaking tour company in the Johnstone Strait. I felt that Bryon’s knowledge of the east coast of Vancouver Island would be a crucial element required for a successful journey of this magnitude. Bryon is also an accomplished Ironman triathlete, so I knew he would be up to the physical challenge. Due to the risk of stopping for the night at busy harbors, we planned on pedaling non stop, 24 hours a day by rotating 4 hour shifts between the sleeping cabin and the cockpit until we made it to our destination of Port Hardy.
It was a fully stressful morning. In order to get the boat trailer under enough water, we had to off-load WiTHiN at high tide which was at 7:00 am. It takes a while to pack and prepare, and I was busy trying to manage getting all 1000 pounds of her off the trailer while working around a film crew from Discovery Channel and reporters from Explore magazine, a local TV station, a local newspaper and a paper from Victoria. Adding greatly to the stress, was my worry that this would just end up as another embarrassment like the last sea trials attempt did.
5 months earlier in October, I had announced that I would pedal WiTHiN around Vancouver Island with another friend – Jordan Hanssen. Jordan and I departed from Comox on the east coast of Vancouver Island and after only 4 hours the gear box in the drive leg broke and went dead. There was nothing we could do to fix it, so Jordan and I had to paddle WiTHiN to a nearby island, where we spent the night and then paddled back to Vancouver Island the next morning. We loaded WiTHiN back onto the trailer and headed for home with our tails between our legs. That report is here.
My boat builder Ken Fortney and I fixed the problematic gear box, and constructed a spare drive unit to take along in case of a problem, so I felt like I was prepared for success this time around. that said, I also knew from experience that when you are attempting something that has never been done before, there are no blue prints and trial and error is the way you end up learning. I was done with the ‘error’ part of that learning curve and was really hoping for some success.
We finally got away from the harbor at 10:00 am with Discovery channel in a hired motor boat, and Ryan – a reported from Explore magazine in his kayak following us out to the straight of Georgia. When we reached the straight, The Discovery crew and Ryan waved good bye and Bryon and I were on our own.
By noon, and 2 hours into my 4 hour pedaling shift the wind picked up to 10 to 15 knots and was right in our face. I was surprised that I was still able to maintain 3 knots. The waves started to build a little and the hull was slamming down into the troughs making a loud thud which echoed into our hollow carbon fiber pod. WiTHiN’s wave piercing hull punched through incoming waves periodically sending a splash of water up and over the bow into the open hatches on the roof. But, it all felt very much in control and comfortable, so I was pleased.
The above video was shot by Alan Holder on shore who posted it to YouTube and found the URL decal on the side of the boat. Thanks Alan!
At some point later on in the day, we were approached by a giant naval war ship who contacted us on channel 16. They wanted to know who we were, what kind of ship we were sailing, and what our intentions were. I imagine they thought we might be a submarine or something equally sinister – that’s what most people think when they see WiTHiN for the first time. The war ship was standing guard and providing security for the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver which was happening directly across the straight from us.
Bryon and I continued our 4 hour shifts throughout the afternoon and into the evening. I found the night time very strange and a bit spooky – we couldn’t see a thing through the portlights so we navigated using the GPS moving map. I did bring a spare GPS, so I felt we were covered in case the main GPS went dead for any reason. By dawn, we were feeling very comfortable with the night driving and ready to take on day number two.
By noon the next day, we were approaching Campbell River and the start of Discovery Passage and the famous tidal current area of the Seymour narrows. I was in the cockpit being the motor, so Bryon referred to our charts and tide tables to build a schedule to cross the narrows. Bryon wisely decided to seek advice from his friend David Pinel from West Coast Expeditions who has kayaked the narrows before. They decided that it would be best to pull into Campbell River and wait until early morning to catch the end of the flood tide before venturing into the notorious narrows. Just getting into Campbell river was TOUGH! The flood tide was starting to build and I cruised over to the west shore to try to catch some back eddies. Going was painfully slow – sometimes less than 1/2 knots, but after a few hours of hammering on the pedals and searching for the smallest back eddies, we finally pulled into Fishermans Port in Campbell river, 30 hours after our departure from Nanaimo feeling very pleased with our faster than planned progress.
After a great dinner with friends Shane, Suzzanne and David in CR (check out the amazing photos Suzzanne shot of our arrival in CR), Bryon and I checked into the closest hotel and were sound asleep by 10:00 pm. Our original goal was not to stop at all, but we had to wait for the tide change in the morning and since WiTHiN has only one cabin to sleep in, a hotel for the night was our only option.
A stop in CR worked out well also because by this time, I was badly in need of some sleep. As comfortable and cozy as the cabin was, and contrary to Bryon, I wasn’t sleeping very well. I was always exhausted at the end of a pedaling shift, but my brain continued to speed ahead at a million miles per hour running ‘what-if’ scenarios making sure that we were 100% safe out there. What if the GPS dies – we need to program our way points into the handheld Garmin GPS – I’ll do that in the morning. What if the drive goes dead – I forgot to do a drift test to estimate how long we would have to replace the drive before drifting into shore? What if we hit a log and bend the propeller? What if we snag the keel in some kelp? What if we are struck by a meteorite and a lighting bolt at the same time?
Our third day took us through Seymour Narrows, up Discovery Passage, and we were welcomed into Johnstone straight by our Orca friends. By late afternoon we were making fantastic time with a following wind. We switched positions with Bryon in the cockpit and me in the cabin enjoying the view out of the round port light. The tide began to change, and our progress began to slow to a crawl. To mitigate this unexpected slow down, Bryon navigated to the west shore to find some back eddies. “Look Greg – we’re doing 3.5 knots now!” Bryon was definitely pleased with his eddy finding abilities. I was sitting up, having a coffee and watching a lighthouse on shore move BACKWARDS. I replied: “Bryon – good job man. But we’re doing 3.5 knots BACKWARDS dude”. Bryon moved closer to shore and we started to get caught in some nasty rips and whirl pools that would grab a hold of the keel which is 3 feet below the hull and jerk it sideways which rolled the boat unexpectedly. A bit unnerving to say the least. As we crossed over to the east side, we passed through some pretty wild looking whirl pools – some with clear funnel holes in the middle! At one point, the water was actually HISSING due to the strong tidal currents.
After 2 hours of battling the currents, we finally found some water we could make progress through on the east side of the strait, and started to slowly regain our normal speeds. Later on, we checked our charts and found a large “WARING” that Clive had posted exactly at the location we were stuck in for 2 hours! Clive marked off a route on our charts for us which I entered into the GPS. He warned that this particular location is bad for tidal currents and that we should pull over at Kelsey bay to wait for slack tide. Oops. I guess it’s better to check the chart BEFORE you go, than to wait until after.
I was in the cockpit pedaling as it started to get dark. The wind and seas were starting to build, so we checked the weather forecast on the VHF radio. 15 to 20 knot winds from the south. This was actually good news because a south wind would push us up the strait. I was a bit nervous because we had seen more traffic in the strait and I know that cruise ships sail this strait from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska.
It soon got VERY dark and the seas and wind started to build. The only way you can sense what is going on with the wind is the growing high-pitched buzz of the wind generator, and a little bit of a roll to one side. This was definitely another one of those very surreal moments. I couldn’t see a thing out of the portlights and was navigating by GPS.
We had some pretty decent following seas at night in the Johnstone strait. The wind was on the starboard side (15 to 20 knots), but the waves were from behind. The waves were lifting WiTHiN up from the stern, surging us forward as we surfed down them, and then rolling under. They came in sets of three with the last one always being the largest. Some broke over the stern of WiTHiN with a loud ‘bang’ – which usually woke Bryon up. How he could go back to sleep right after that will always be a mystery to me! Later the waves were a mix from the side and behind.
This was taking some very careful concentration – to stay on course, watch for traffic and to not allow the bow to veer right or left off course after piercing into the wave in front. I also recognized this as an ideal opportunity to really gain some good quality experience, so I asked Bryon if he would mind if I just stayed in the cockpit and pedaled throughout the night. I knew that I couldn’t sleep through it anyhow.
It was strange, but after 12 straight hours managing the boat in complete darkness, I really developed a feel for what was happening with the wind and waves. Watching for other traffic was always stressful, but the other traffic is doing the same and the cruise ships and commercial barges use radar. I found that as long as I could see a solid color (red or green), the other boat would pass by my port or starboard side. A cruise ship even passed by us – that was an experience!
What I found was that it took some effort to keep the bow pointed downwind when surfing down a wave. Since I couldn’t see anything except the gps track, this was a bit difficult at times, because the GPS lags too much. I need to move the compass closer to my head to see it at night. I found that I could occasionally use nav lights from other ships in the distance, or stars through the hatches as guides to indicate my current bearing. If I let the bow go either right or left after surfing down, it would quickly accelerate into the turn and go beam on into the waves. In order to get the bow back on track, I had to really pump the pedals hard and crank the rudder over hard. Not a problem really, and would have been much easier if I had a compass to use.
Breaking waves from the stern or starboard side really slammed the boat, but we felt very protected in there – even with the hatches above open. In fact, Bryon slept through most of it! He would wake up every time I went beam-on into the waves because they really rolled the boat, but he would quickly fall back asleep again.
Aside from a bit of a lean sideways, I had no idea it was windy out except for hearing the wind turbine spin like crazy. I wanted to heave-to for a while and observe what WiTHiN would do. I found that we were still moving along at about 1 knot due to either the side wind or waves from behind or current (not sure which?). The boat did not drift sideways at all, and I could use the rudder to keep the bow pointed forward and on our route. This was a relief because I was concerned about a drive leg failure and being blown to shore. I do have a spare drive leg, but in the dark and rough conditions, it would take some time to install.
I was managing the wind and the waves and traffic well, but there was another concern that was really starting to worry me. What I was not expecting in the Johnstone Strait was all the stray dead wood that we were able to avoid during the light of the day. At night, there is NO WAY to see the wood, and I was very worried about slamming into a huge log doing 5 knots surfing down a wave. And in fact I did hit a log – 4 or 5 times! It starts with a loud BANG, then I could feel the log hit the prop. I have no idea why they always hit the prop, as you would think that the keel post would stop that from happening. But every time, I could feel the pedals lock up. I would stop pedaling, wait a few counts, then slowly start going again. At one point during the night, we hit something that caused the prop to start making a loud clanging noise. This really scared me, but after some back pedaling, it went away. That could have been some kelp getting tangled on the keel or propeller.
When I stopped to pee, sometimes I would stand up through the open top hatch. WOW! Talk about a star-lit sky!!! It was spectacular. I couldn’t believe my eyes – the stars were like a million jewels shining in the sky. Very, VERY cool. Another one of those moments.
And at this time, Bryon was contemplating the strangeness of his situation. He was back in the cabin lying comfortably in his sleeping bag. It was close to freezing outside, but inside WiTHiN, it was toasty warm due to the calorie burning heater pedaling away in the cockpit. He thought; “Well, this is just crazy. Here I am, all bundled up, lying half-naked in my cozy sleeping bag watching TV episodes of Everest Beyond the Limit, snacking on M&M’s with less than 3/4 of an inch of foam and carbon fiber separating me from an environment that would not exactly be conducive to healthy living.”
Those 12 hours taught me so much. I really gained a lot of confidence in WiTHiN and I am forever grateful to Bryon for agreeing to stay in the cabin and sleep through it all. As I said, that would have been pure hell for me. I won’t have a problem sleeping through that when I am on the Pacific because I won’t be near shore, and I can drift through the night without issue. As the night wore on, I started to get very sleepy and actually caught myself falling asleep WHILE pedaling! I’ve often wondered how someone could fall asleep and pedal at the same time and now I know. I woke Bryon up and we switched positions.
The position switch is a very strange dance. In order to keep our center of gravity low, we have developed a very ‘close and personal’ method of swapping positions between the cabin and cockpit while maintaining a stable boat. I will crouch down near the pedals and face Bryon in the cabin. Then Bryon will lie on his stomach and slither – snake-like – through the hatch, down the recumbent seat and stop on the floor with his face mashed down near my feet in the foot well. Then I crawl over Bryon and over the hatch and into the cabin – head first.
I was able to sleep for about 30 minutes until it was light out. Then I made breakfast and coffee for both of us and enjoyed the rest of the cruise into Port McNeil. During the night, I decided that we should stop in Port McNeil rather than going all the way north to Port hardy because the additional distance (only about 20 miles) would have meant more night cruising and arriving in Port Hardy after dark. I felt that it was too much of a risk with the floating deadwood, and dealing with those nasty logs was never meant to be a part of this test. There isn’t that kind of debris out in the Pacific ocean.
As it turned out, we arrived in Port McNeil way ahead of schedule at 11:00 am – another 30 hours after setting out from Campbell River. We spent the night at a hotel in PM, and were met by Discovery channel again in the morning for a wrap up. My friend Murray Comely from Vancouver volunteered to pick up the Suburban in Nanaimo and drive it up to PM to pick us up. We all drove back to Vancouver where we took in the Olympic festivities on Robson street – the PERFECT way to celebrate a successful trip!
In total, we travelled about 170 nautical miles (314 km) in 2.5 days (not counting the overnight stay in CR). That averages out to 5.2 km/hr or 2.8 knots. We had some headwinds and currents to battle, so overall, I think this was a very successful trial. I doubt anyone has ever human-powered (kayaked) up the east coast of Vancouver Island in twice the time it took us. Bryon calculated that we could make it around the entire island in about 8 days. The current circumnavigation record is 17 days.
It was an amazing experience and I am thrilled I was able to share it with my good friend Bryon. The next trials are scheduled for the last week of March during spring break where I will be departing from Tofino and heading west into the open Pacific for a night or two. My safety boat driver Clive McGowan will be accompanying me on that trip.