David Dun: Overfall

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David Dun Overfall
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David Dun



The small jib was taut and straining in the northerly wind, the weather turning, the sky azure in the evening sun but for the near purple of the approaching dark clouds. To the east lay Tribune Inlet, a long fjord bounded by steep mountains and creating a great funnel that ended in a narrow, rock-walled passage called Devil’s Gate, where wind and water rushed, making dangerous work for sailors.

Before him, the sea was already starting to mound, as if little hands were forming humps in flattened dough. The whitecaps made logs and other debris harder to see, causing Sam to squint and stare over the bow of Silverwind, his custom-made, forty-eight-foot cruising sailboat.

There was the sound of parting water, and of spray falling back to the sea, the quiet thunder of wind in sail, the rise and fall of a gentle swell that underlay the chop, and a slight harmonic vibration as he drove the boat north and east to windward across the mouth of Tribune Inlet. The wind was unsettled, the barometer falling, but that was expected to change as a new high-pressure system built.

Sam wore yellow rubber sailing boots and athletic gloves for handling lines. The Farmer John rain gear featured pants so watertight he could sit in a puddle; a jacket with Gortex over goose down that blunted even the late October wind.

On the seat next to Sam stood Heraldo, known as Harry, Sam’s mostly Scottish terrier. It had been his son’s dog. Harry eyed Sam, and with a lip-licking expression, distilled his hunger into long swipes of his tongue.

“You’ve been saying that for an hour now.”

Harry repeated the long lick with innocent eyes. Sam then emulated him, running his own tongue around his lips, watching Harry’s canine eyes stare fixedly at the show. Harry lay down, his chin on his front paws, expressing pouting disquiet at Sam’s mockery.

The white-hulled boat-36,000 pounds of fiberglass, lead, and teak-floated featherlight over the sea. From his cushioned seat, Sam handled the wheel deftly with his feet, steering a straight course toward Quiet Bay, some fifty minutes distant.

Silverwind looked salty when compared to the vacation boats that jammed the big-city marinas and yacht clubs. It was loaded with the trappings of wilderness cruising: sheepskin on all the stays at the spars to protect the sails; dinghy and gas can lashed to the deck; netting on all the lifelines; canvas wind and spray breaks around the cockpit; solar panels; wind vane; a heavy-duty canvas and plastic windshield known as a dodger; a fold-away bimini top; and two diesel generators. The list of extras was formidable. After buying the Silverwind, Sam had spent another $250,000 preparing her to cruise.

There was nothing to this sailing on the so-called Inside Passage from Alaska to Victoria in summer except rocks and currents, intimidating to the uninitiated. The rocks made holes in boats and the currents from time to time made swirling holes in the water, aptly named whirlpools, and even more frightening, rolling waves called overfalls, created by the force of water meeting water at great speed in a narrow passage. A severe overfall could swallow a yacht in seconds sometimes swamping and sinking it, other times pounding it into slivers on the rocks.

The tides sluice the salt water in from the Pacific Ocean through the Queen Charlotte Straits behind Vancouver Island and between the smaller islands and up into the inlets, bays, and estuaries. Wherever the land constricts the flow of tidal water, the current races. In a few places the water moves like a white-water river, and boats dare not cross it during the tidal surge.

The spring tide was ebbing and the sea was tugging Silverwind toward Devil’s Gate, where the current on occasion reached a solid seventeen knots, one knot faster even than the infamous Nakwakto Rapids at the mouth of Seymour Inlet to the north and at least two knots faster than the Skookumchuck to the south. Last Sam heard, the Skookumchuck had killed sixteen people, and Devil’s Gate was way ahead of that, having eaten ten in one summer when a large yacht wandered down her throat and slit its belly on the rocks.

On one occasion Sam had seen a Devil’s Gate whirlpool pull down a telephone-pole-sized log, then free it, to burst to the surface three hundred yards down current with such force that it shot for the sky like a breaching whale. Devil’s Gate wasn’t a place to make a mistake, but it intrigued Sam and he had his binoculars ready to take a look at the overfall that would be created by this ebb tide. On a few rare days when the wind swung from the northeast in a roaring williwaw, it stiffened the overfall at Devil’s Gate to heights normally not found on sheltered waters. Some said it reached fifteen vertical feet and stood nearly straight like a concrete wall. Today was becoming one of those days, with the dark of the clouds and the blustery winds coming ever closer. Williwaw was a winter phenomenon not uncommon in late October. It referred to times when weather conditions in these water-filled canyons drove the winds to near-magical speeds. The natives said the word with a hint of reverence.

Down through the companionway door stood two screens-one radar and one GPS. The GPS was an electronic map showing islands and channels enhanced by a satellite signal that could depict the precise location of the yacht, while the radar painted an outline of the surrounding shores. Sam had noticed the drift in his course and continuously corrected.

His current course would take him abeam the opening where he would turn toward Devil’s Gate for a quick look before he did a 180-degree turn to escape the cold-eyed rock walls that sucked the sea through and into the small passage between North and South Windham Islands.

As the wind tousled his hair he slipped into a familiar reverie, in which the rushing of water and wind and the vibrations through hull and sail functioned like a sniff of good food or the sound of enticing music. It drew him. In sailing, as in most areas of his life, Sam was a purist If the wind blew, he traveled; if not, he sat, except in dire circumstances such as when he was running out of Cuban tobacco leaves for a good cigar and he needed to get to the appointed mail stop.

He was looking forward to dinner and an anchorage that was almost Zen-like in its serenity where he could sit out what felt like a building williwaw. When beating to windward, as he was now, there was no competing with the lift offered by the big diesel, but he wouldn’t use it. What he took from the wind was too important to him. It caressed his face, fed his spirit, shivered the boat through the mast, dampened the roll-a thing in harmony with the earth and not a thing in opposition.

Besides her seaworthiness, Silverwind offered something just as important to Sam. He could pull her into a harbor and not be noticed, not a single eye turning his way. If he had chosen a hundred-foot international yacht the same could not be said. Although beautiful in her lines and certainly in her abilities, Silverwind was close enough to ordinary to suit Sam’s purposes.

Sam was a long-muscled swarthy-skinned man who stood all of six feet two inches in his stocking feet, part Tilok Indian, handsome with curly dark hair that fell down over his ears. His face was more angular than round, with fine features, smooth and unblemished except for two scars, one over his right eye maybe a half inch, and a small nick at his chin. His eyes were amber.

Since his retirement he had taken to wearing a gold earring in his left ear. Around his neck, usually out of sight, he wore a braided rawhide necklace with turquoise stones and a golden sun locket the size of a half-dollar. When it had belonged to his grandfather, the picture in the locket had been of Sam as an infant. Now the picture was of his grandfather, Stalking Bear, in ceremonial regalia at the annual gathering of the new beginning. His grandfather had said about Sam that he had a look of eagles in his eye. Whether it was there or not, Sam had a strong personal presence that he had learned for professional reasons to disguise. Usually he sailed in a raffia hat and sunglasses but wore his work clothes, a loose pullover shirt and simple pants-again by design, nothing to call attention and nothing memorable.

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