Strong Waters

With the price of fuel these days, you don’t want to be bucking the tide if you can avoid it,” said British Columbia towboater Don MacKenzie. With a lifetime on boats and a home port on Sechelt Inlet inside one of the strongest tidal bores on the coast, MacKenzie knows a thing or two about tides.

Capt. Don MacKenzie at the wheel of Kinnaird on Sechelt Inlet, a narrow waterway characterized by intense tides.
   Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

MacKenzie’s dad was a marine steam engineer who served onboard World War II convoys in the North Atlantic, as well as on other boats. MacKenzie himself started out on tugs in the early 1950s at the age of 17, when steam was still common on the British Columbia coast. Over his 53-year career, he has traveled a good bit of the world’s watery parts with much of it covered as an owner-operator.

Owner-operators tend to distinguish themselves from their corporate-employed colleagues, and MacKenzie is no exception. His pride is in the good boats he has bought at the right price and the innovations he has developed to pay for them. Part of MacKenzie’s business and marine acumen is his ability to see value where others see only challenge. Like the 80-foot tug (renamed Glenshield) he bought in 1977 in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River. It had been laid up for years and “didn’t have any glass left in it,” he recalled. “I was going to tow it around to the West Coast with another boat that I was buying, but when that deal fell through, we had to fix up the first boat as well as we could.”

Once the boat was seaworthy, they took it down through the Oswego and Erie canals to New York City with the antennas and spotlights removed to squeak under the 22-foot air draft allowed by the bridges. After visiting with tow-boaters in New York Harbor, they worked their way south to the Panama Canal and up the Pacific Coast to British Columbia.

Another time a partner bought a 72-foot tug (renamed Glengarry) in England and MacKenzie went to get it. “I planned to bring it home to B.C. under the British flag, but then they told me I would have to hire a foreign-going British captain,” MacKenzie said.

He reflagged the boat Canadian, and the British bureaucracy was defeated. MacKenzie sailed it home.

But one of his most challenging voyages was not even on water. To bring his current boat, the 65-foot Kinnaird, out to British Columbia, he used three trucks. Built in Ontario in 1960, the boat was originally assembled on site near Winnipeg, Manitoba, to work on Canada’s largest prairie water, the shallow Lake Winnipeg. By the time the boat was declared surplus in 1994, she had been laid up for several years. But having been operated in fresh water, she was in excellent condition.

“We sawed the house off rather than use cutting torches, as they would warp the steel,” MacKenzie recalled recently as he conned the handy little tug down the length of British Columbia’s spectacular Sechelt Inlet. “Then we pulled the two 300-hp Cummins engines along with the gears, shafting and props to get the hull’s weight down for the highway.”

Reassembled on the Pacific Coast, the tug has served MacKenzie well, towing his salvage barge as well as doing general contract towing up and down the coast for the past decade. In April 2005, MacKenzie set out from his Sechelt home port to move a spud barge loaded with equipment for a marine construction company owned by his son Kevin and Garth McKiel. The 17-mile run down Sechelt Inlet takes a northwesterly course. Just after 1000, as he readied the barge for towing, MacKenzie commented to one of the men dockside, “Well, I gotta get going here to catch this tide.”

“What time is the Chuck?” the man asked.

“1300,” was the reply.

Sechelt Inlet, along with the Salmon and Narrows inlets that branch off to the east, has only one narrow exit to the larger Jervis Inlet and the Gulf of Georgia. All traffic must pass through the Skookumchuck Narrows, locally called “the Chuck.” The name, from the Chinook trade jargon that was used extensively along the Pacific Coast in the early 20th century, means simply and clearly “strong waters.” With well over 100 miles of shoreline and considerable depth, the tides must funnel in and out of the Chuck. The 1927 Coast Pilot described the Chuck in clear and forceful language: “In breadth less than 600 yards, [the Chuck] is partially choked up with rocks and small islands, which, preventing in a great measure the free ingress and egress of the tide, cause most furious and dangerous rapids, the roar of which may be heard for several miles.”

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

Kinnaird began its working life on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba in the 1960s. MacKenzie, who acquired the boat in 1994, had the engines removed and the pilothouse sawed off before moving the boat over the highway to British Columbia, where it was put back together.

The inlets along the British Columbia coast were carved into the mountains that line their shores 10,000 years ago by huge glaciers. As the glaciers met the sea, they tended to float, leaving a shelf or shallows at their mouths. This shelf brings the inlet depths up from above 800 feet to below 40 feet and adds to the intensity of the tides in the Skookumchuck, as the seabed as well as the shores restrict water’s flow.

By 1035, with the tug made up on the hip to the starboard side of the barge, the vessels were underway and making about 5.7 knots with a fair but not yet strong tide. MacKenzie explained that he preferred to make up to the barge like this when working in fast water, although many B.C. skippers prefer to work the tow on a line. MacKenzie learned barge handling with less well fendered wooden tugs with fine fantail sterns that wouldn’t take the banging that a modern fendered steel tug can when stopping up a tow with the tug.

With the tow squared away, MacKenzie turned the wheel over to his fill-in deck hand David Little, who is actually Capt. Little on coastal tugs in his regular job. Over coffee in the tug’s comfortable galley, MacKenzie pointed out the high-quality aluminum companionway ladders and a number of lights and other fixtures he salvaged from the 387-foot Canadian destroyer escort HMCS Chaudiere, which was stripped and sunk in the inlet as a destination for divers. Salvage, whether it involves simply taking a ladder from a stripped vessel or the tricky righting of an overturned fish boat, is a passion of MacKenzie’s. In his 70th year, he is outfitting a salvage barge with four-point anchoring and a number of different winches. “My wife says it is all right so long as I build it out of all the stuff that I have around and don’t go buying any new stuff,” he said with a smile.

Sechelt Inlet, like others on the coast, is spectacularly beautiful, with mountains rising thousands of feet from the water’s edge. The water is deep and clear, and on a sunny day in April, its colors are a deep blue. As Kinnaird made her way down the inlet toward the Skookumchuck, there was time to read about the passage in the most recent version of the B.C. Coast Pilot. The entry starts with a one-word warning: “Caution — because of the tortuous nature of the fairway and strong tidal streams … it is recommended that no vessel in excess of 40 meters (131 feet) long and 3.4 meters (11 feet) in draught should attempt to enter the inlet.”

Together, the barge and tug approached this 131-foot restriction, but MacKenzie said larger vessels enter the inlet with some regularity. But most try to make the passage at slack tide. “We have come in with a 14-knot tide on the flood,” MacKenzie said, “but there really is no good clean flow of water, and we are all really cautious of the ebb. The way it runs in there along the shore, you get really large whirlpools. On bigger tides there really isn’t any slack at all. The back eddies slow down and become the next tide. A 16-foot high water outside the Chuck will be only 9 feet inside the inlet before the tide turns to ebb.”

The water just doesn’t have enough time to squeeze through the narrows between the changing tides. But it tries, routinely running at 13 to 14 knots; the tide book shows occasional 15.8-knot currents. On this April day, the peak of the flood had been at 1000 with a relatively benign speed of 8.5 knots. The low-water slack was set for 1325, but MacKenzie said it can vary 20 to 40 minutes when it is blowing a southeaster out in the Gulf of Georgia.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

Kinnaird pays its way by towing a salvage barge and performing general contract work, including transporting heavy equipment for a marine construction business owned in part by MacKenzie’s son.

At 1315, as the little islets strung out in the middle and eastern side of the passage came into view, MacKenzie pressed the button on the VHF, “Securité, securité, tug Kinnaird outbound with derrick barge alongside,” he announced.

Within minutes, the GPS showed that the boat’s speed over the ground had increased to 7.4 knots, so the ebb was still running at 2 knots. As the boat came up on the light at the end of one of the islets, MacKenzie explained that he was watching the point ahead relative to the distant shore to gauge how hard the vessel was being set down toward the western shore. He brought the bow up a little to starboard to clear the point. At the same time, he pointed out how the back eddy behind the point was building with the push of the new flood in against the ebb; so even though this was a relatively small tide, there would be no leisurely slack water. In a little over two hours, at 1545, the tide would be flooding back into the inlet at 8.4 knots and making rapids with a good high curl that allows kayakers to come in and surf on the leading edge while keeping an eye peeled for tugs booming through with the tide.

The extreme of the narrows called Sechelt Rapids on the charts extends only about a half mile before widening out somewhat to the longer reach of the Skookumchuck that extends another mile or so down to join Jervis Inlet. MacKenzie kept the barge on the hip down to the mouth of the Jervis and around into Pender Harbour. There he picked up an extra crewman for the run on down the coast.

With more open waters ahead, he moved to a towing position with the barge. For British Columbia coastal towboaters, this is a routine passage they time carefully to escape the brutal force of the tides, while taking whatever small advantage those same tides lend to the fuel bill.

By Professional Mariner Staff