Fetching the Tow Boat

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

A week or two ago I started the tale of my most recent voyage, as first mate on a fishing boat delivery from northern Vancouver Island to Oregon … difficulty factor: we needed to use the fishing boat to tow a 30′ (9 metre)

trimaran. (A “trimaran” is a boat with three hulls, a large one in the middle and a small one on either side of the main hull.) Then after I published the first part of the story, we put to sea and I was without internet. And when I finished the voyage, I got distracted by work and a host of other good things. So, let me pick up the unfinished tale where I left off, just after we’d managed to get the trimaran into the water. What follows is what I wrote, day by day, during that voyage.


We were up early, and the Captain and I took the ferry across from Campbell River on Vancouver Island, to Quadra Island. We were there to pick up a fishing boat, about 45 feet (14 metres) long.

We checked the boat’s vital bodily fluids, engine oil and water and hydraulic fluid and diesel, started the engine, checked to see if the electronics were working (some actually were), and looked the boat over. After the survey was complete, we started the engine and listened to it running for a bit. Then we cast off and started back across to Vancouver Island to get fuel at the fuel dock there. The morning was sparkly, lots of traffic on the water.

Campbell RiverWe put on over a thousand litres of fuel, 300 gallons or so. While we were waiting for the rest of the crew I walked over to a local Campbell River cemetery, where only some of the graves have crosses, while others have strange totems and symbols instead. Oddly inspiring.

day three port campbell cemetery

We picked up the rest of the crew, and started motoring the boat down the coast of Vancouver Island to where we’d left the trimaran. As we steamed south along the coast of Vancouver Island, I saw the first frontal clouds I’d seen on the trip, the “mare’s tails” of sailor folklore:

“Mackerel sky and mares tails

Make tall ships carry small sails.”

The “mare’s tails” are the cirrus spissatus, the wispy hook-shaped high clouds that foretell the advance of the front.

day three rolling outNow, things happen slowly at sea. The boat only cruised at seven knots, eight miles an hour, call it 13 km per hour. And we had about 40 nautical miles to go, so it was about a six-hour run down to where the trimaran was anchored up. After about four hours running, I was at the wheel when a lovely orca, the black and white “killer whale” of the Pacific northwest, surfaced maybe 200 feet (60m) in front of the boat. “Orca”, I sang out, and in a few moments it surfaced again maybe a hundred feet in front of the boat. Everyone was back aft, and as they came around, to my surprise and joy the whale came up right alongside the boat, maybe 20 feet (6m) away. Whales are very inquisitive, and this one was no exception. He (she?) rolled away from us when he broke the surface, with his great floppy back fin leaning outwards from the boat, and that brought his eye up where he could look the boat over. I’ve often wondered what we look like to the other creatures of this amazing planet, and whatever the world looks like from his side, he got an eyeful of me and I looked just as closely at him. He blew a misty breath out, and sucked a quick breath in, his black-and-white paint job glistening in the sunshine as he flashed by, and was gone in an instant, vanished again under the surface.

Of course, by the time I’d gotten over my amazement and gathered my wits enough to grab the camera, he was well away and on his path to the horizon …

day three orcaSo we motored on, in through the break in the bar at the river mouth and along the coast to the trimaran. We got the dinghy inflated and in the water, and I rowed in to shore to get the other crew member. Here are the two boats from the shore, the trimaran on the right.

day three tug and towIn the evening, I went and sat out on the stern of the boat, by the landing stage in the back. It’s a great spot for writing, and for watching the sunset. Near dusk, fulfilling the warning of the mares’ tails, I could see frontal clouds with “virga” to the south of us, the rain that falls but evaporates before hitting the ground, but it was clear where we were.

day three virgaAs the evening went on, there was one of those lovely long northern sunsets. In the tropics the sun drops vertically down into the ocean, and as a result twilight and sunset are quick. But nearer the poles, the sun approaches the horizon at more of a grazing angle, and the light lingers and lingers.

day three sunset 1… and lingers …

day three sunset 2So on to dinner and an early bed. Tomorrow, we’ll start towing, the beginning of the actual voyage. Good night, dear friends. I can only wish that your days be full of joy and sunshine and your evenings glowing with light.

My best to everyone, I’ll post this when I get back to wifi,


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September 3, 2014 1:35 am

Lovely post. Not to be pedantic but Orcas are dolphins not whales.

M Seward
Reply to  concretebunker
September 3, 2014 3:03 am

Go tell an Orca that – I dare you.

Reply to  M Seward
September 3, 2014 3:11 am

Actually just checked and its a toothed whale belonging to the dolphin family so my ignorance. Didn’t realise Dolphins were Whales!

September 3, 2014 1:53 am

I always learned the mares’ tails saying as
“Mares tails and mackeral sky, not long wet and not long dry”.
A lovely piece. Thank you.

September 3, 2014 1:53 am

Another good one. When I read:
Mackerel sky and mares tails Make tall ships carry small sails. I thought, try saying that three times, fast.
Looking forward to the next instalment…

Reply to  dbstealey
September 3, 2014 7:47 am

I learned “Make tall ships carry low sails”.
Different ships, different long splices.

Keith Willshaw
September 3, 2014 2:00 am

Dolphins, Porpoises, Sperm Whales and Orca belong to the suborder Odonotoceti (toothed whale) of the Order Cetacean (whale). The other main suborder are the Mysticeti (Baleen or Whalebone) whales. It is entirely correct to describe an Orca as a whale.

September 3, 2014 2:06 am

Lovely post, beautiful photos ( you could get them framed & flog ’em on line for folks to put up on the wall/s)

Bair Polaire
September 3, 2014 2:21 am

While missing from the new streamlined header, commentary on “puzzling things in life” is still with us. Good to know.

September 3, 2014 2:58 am

Definitely a male orca.

Alan Robertson
September 3, 2014 4:17 am

Without complaining, I’d say Ye kept me waiting too long for this part of the adventure serial. Now that it’s here, it’s just as satisfying to my mind’s eye as if I’d been there in the sun, pitching in with work and merriment; another of your deck’s companions. I’ll let this tale sink in a while and go back and reread this or that part, but ye need to know, the anticipation has already started to kick in… Here’s hoping that your days are not so filled with busy things that ye forget your friends do wait to hear the next part of the tale.

September 3, 2014 4:32 am

Welcome back to the sea, maybe next time you won’t be gone so long.

Alan Chappell
September 3, 2014 5:00 am

send us an email,
www, treasure-island-shipping.com

Craig Carmichael
September 3, 2014 5:23 am

Willis, great story but you keep refering to ” Victoria” island when you mean “Vancouver” island, the city of Victoria is on Vancouver Island, Vancouver is on the mainland and Victoria Island is in the Arctic Ocean.

The other Ren
September 3, 2014 6:46 am

I’ve sailed the Med, the Caribbean, the tropical Pacific and my home base of the Chesapeake Bay but never the Pacific NW. When I find the time, hopefully in the next couple of years, I would love to take 3 or 4 months and do it.
Nothing better than to be out on the water, eh Willis? And you tell it so well.

Reply to  The other Ren
September 3, 2014 11:33 pm

Be prepared, although exceptionally beautiful but a seriously dangerous area for the untrained. The geography can make some of the channels that Willis describes into “wind” Funnels, then combine those with “rip”tides and shoals you just might consider hiring a local experienced pilot. ( The weather that is happening for Willis is rare and as far as I can remember living there it only seem to happen late July August., but heck do not let me stop you I LOVED IT.

September 3, 2014 8:50 am

Thanks, Willis. Welcome back to the ocean!

September 3, 2014 10:52 am

Willis: Reminds me of the two times I’ve been able to borrow a canoe and spend the better part of a day
paddling up and down from Two Harbors MN towards Duluth and back.
In both cases the temperature was perfect, the winds were NIL, the sky was clear…and they were wonderful
I suggest looking under, “Lake Superior Storms”, Google Images, to find out what reality can be about.
I believe where you just had your nice summer adventure, can be similar to Superior in it’s fickle weather nature! So this adventure was “enjoyable”. However, perhaps we are right…and the trend..with the leveling energy distribution around the global (i.e. the pause) will bring the opposite of what the AWG screamers scream about..i.e., global placidness.

Reply to  Max Hugoson
September 3, 2014 10:28 pm
Paul Seward
September 3, 2014 11:23 am

I believe it was a male orca. As I recall, the males have more erect dorsal fins than the females

Reply to  Paul Seward
September 7, 2014 3:50 am

Paul: Both male and female dorsal fins are erect in a healthy Orca. The males have a distinctively larger fin. The only time I have seen a fin not erect on a male or female is when they are leaping and flopping. We have seen this behavior, and it is awesome, when the whales are waiting for a school of salmon to reach an area (from observation, don’t know if it is factual, but shortly thereafter we always see them hunting). I have a love/hate relationship with Orcas; they show up and we catch no salmon. We just pull up our lines and enjoy the show. I enjoy seeing the pups with their moms and once had a pair swim past us about ten feet from the boat and for which I have video.

September 3, 2014 2:33 pm

…that was no dorsal fin…

September 3, 2014 4:10 pm

I’ve sailed the Caribbean, Baja, Coral sea, Indian Ocean, Andaman sea and a few others, but nowhere is as nice as the Pacific NW’ at least on a sunny day.
Really, Really jealous.

Rhys Kent
September 3, 2014 10:19 pm

Another great article Willis.
The bar you mention crossing is the Comox Bar I think, and the gap is between the low island in background of the photo of the boats, towards Cape Lazo to the north. It’s a formation unrelated to the rivers nearby – they are far too small to be responsible.
The photo sequence is excellent – I’ve been through that area many times and that’s what it looks like when the weather is friendly. When it’s not it’s frightening.

george e. smith
September 4, 2014 12:55 pm

“””””…..A week or two ago I started the tale of my most recent voyage, as first mate on a fishing boat delivery from northern Vancouver Island to Oregon … difficulty factor: we needed to use the fishing boat to tow a 30′ (9 metre)
trimaran. (A “trimaran” is a boat with three hulls, a large one in the middle and a small one on either side of the main hull.) ….”””””
Well a Trireme, is also a boat, without three hulls. But it has three ranks of slave powered oars.
Larry Ellison, won the Americas Cup from Switzerland using a Trimaran, to beat the Swiss Catamaran.
The third hull in the middle proved key to the win.
The mast in the trimaran was stepped in the central hull, which provided plenty of structural support for the mast.
The Swiss Catamaran, had its mast in the middle of the trampoline, and had to string cable bracing down from the double hulls, to the bottom of the mast, to keep it upright.
During the races (two), the Swiss mast support appendages, kept dipping into the water, and applying the brakes on its forward motion. So the Swiss couldn’t sail their boat in anything but the lightest winds, and seas.
Larry could sail in almost anything, and wiped the deck with the Swiss boat. It was about the grudgiest grudge match of all time.

September 7, 2014 2:35 am

Killer whales (Orcas) are all over the place in the San Juan’s during August. It is salmon run time and the Orcas come to the dining table. Watching them hunt is fun, but the fish don’t bite our fishing lines when they are around. The Orcas typically hunt in a pack forming a circle and driving the salmon into a big ball upon which they feast. In 2009 we got caught dead center in a circle they formed and I have great pictures and video. There were about ten of them and twice an Orca went directly under our boat – diving when only about ten feet away. There were a few expletives uttered by us. A small fishing boat and ton of whale coming at you from the broadside makes you grab for the life jacket. In 1995, I stood up in a 15′ Boston Whaler and got video of an Orca going under the boat. It is a great shot but stupid of me to do it; if the whale had hit the boat, I would have been swimming and looking like a seal to the whales.
Is there a way to attach pictures here? I don’t see a way to do it.

September 7, 2014 3:16 am

Willis: For your future tow work, I recommend splicing two lines to form a V at a coupler. One line goes to the starboard cleat and the other to the port cleat with the coupler attaching to the boat being towed. This puts much less stress on the cleats and lines, especially when towing a boat over 15′. It also has the advantage of helping to keep the boat directly astern. We went this route after tearing out a cleat on a gorgeous 45′ wood hull (1954) Chris Craft. My brother cried but got it fixed. With boats less than 18′, it is also advantageous to get the towed boat to ride on the crest of the wake where it is balanced so it doesn’t surf down the wake nor be climbing the wake. We get better towing ability and better gas mileage using these techniques.

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