With such nice weather we had a pleasant ride down from Ketchikan to the Pine Island Pilot station. Not the wobbly weather that we had last cruise southbound when I had to cancel Ketchikan due to strong winds. Now we had a nearly smooth sea. The smoother the sea, the easier it is to see Whales and other wild life and we spotted flipping tails on several occasions. The ships speed was too fast for porpoises to enjoy themselves by riding the bow wave but we saw them later in the afternoon when we entered Johnstone Strait via Blackney Pass.
As mentioned before, the scenic cruising that we do in the BC Inside passage is all dictated by the times of slack water at the Seymour Narrows. The earlier the slack tide, the faster I have to go to get through Johnstone Strait to be on time. If the early tide is too early, then I have to take the late tide and that will happen next cruise southbound. This time the early tide was still preferable but earlier than last cruise, so I had to take a slightly different route. That route is called Black Passage. It does not go by the Indian Village of Alert Bay, as that requires a long period of slow –no wake- speed but it has the interesting attraction that it is much narrower and you can see the current eddy’s twirling around the ship.
I had set my pilot boarding time for as early as possible which in this case was 14.00 hrs. as the pilots had to come from the Seven Seas Mariner which was going Northbound. The pilot boat was on station to facilitate the transfer and by 14.05 hrs we were on the way. We saw some sea lions while nearing Blackney Pass, including one that showed the whole world how to catch and eat a fish while at the same time keeping a leery eye on a large blue cruise ship coming by. Nature in full action.
Blackney Passage is not difficult to navigate. It just means paying careful attention to the way the ship is pushed off-track by the current. There was about 3 knots of ebb flowing through the passage but as it turns into eddies while the water is pushed through, the set of the ship is by no means in the direction of the average current but sometimes even opposite. Thus we slow the ship down a little bit otherwise it might list when we have to give a sharp rudder command and for that we also have the stabilizer out. Normally takes only two large course changes to get through and the ship is in Johnstone Strait.
I went through here for the first time in 1982 when I was a starting 3rd officer and the pilots were the real old timers from the days before Radar and GPS. They navigated on a magnetic compass and visual bearings and listened to the fog signals from the large and small lighthouses along the coast. I remember the first time when I met one of those pilots and saw him in action on the bridge. His name was Captain Wodzyanik and he was by that time already close to retirement. We called him the teacher as he was always trying to teach us things the old way. He hated radar and if he had half the chance he would switch the machine off, when we looked the other way. He would point out the hills, the trees and the rocks that he used as reference points for course changes and even did the trick with the echo of the whistle when going through a narrow passage lined with mountains on both sides.
Those tricks I still remember and sometimes still use, also in Blackney Passage. Here when you have to make the second turn, there is a sight line that can be used. If a little beach comes just into view from behind a rocky ledge, then you can never run aground if you make a normal course change. In the early days that is what you did and it went well, now you can check it on your radar to see if the ship is on, and stays on the track line. The little beach came just in view when the pilot made course change and indeed the ship lined up exactly for the next course. Only later on we had to compensate for the changing current. As Captain Wodzyanik would say: “What do you need a radar for”.
A quick anecdote about this same pilot. He was a very friendly, quiet and polite gentleman but one afternoon he burst out in stream of profanity while we were about to make a course change. All of us on the bridge were quite startled as it was totally out of normal behavior. We made the course change of about 90o but the ship overshot a little bit. Nothing serious, but again out of fashion, compared to the normal meticulous navigating of this pilot. After he had finally calmed down, we asked him of course what the matter was. It turned out that somebody had cut down his favorite tree, the tree that he used in line with a certain rock to ascertain the right moment to make his course change. As he could not find the tree, he only started to change course when he realized it was not there anymore and thus overshot. Captain Wodzyanik retired shortly after; but lived to the ripe old age of 91, passing away last year.
We sailed through Seymour Narrows at 20.30 while the sun was still out and then sailed on a slow bell towards Vancouver for a scheduled arrival at 0700.