A passage from Haida Gwaii to Tofino brings big winds, seas and learning opportunities.

On July 3, 2023, there was a decision to be made by the captain and crew aboard the Cal 40, Dancing Bear, on the last leg of our circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. A weather alert called for northerly gale force winds for three-and-a-half days at the top end of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. Hall of Fame solo sailor Mark Schrader and my husband, Mark Dalton, and I were hunkered down and discussing our options in exactly that location, in Langara Island’s Beal Cove off the northwest tip of Haida Gwaii. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the two Marks as Schrader and Mark D, the latter of whom had joined us days earlier in Daajing Giids, switching places with Herb McCormick. We had just spent a couple of days pounding through very rough sailing conditions on the northern end of Graham Island and things had been rattled and broken during the passage. We were tired and salty, but we’d arrived at our northernmost destination, Langara Fishing Lodge.

Suzzanne Lopez, Guest Services, Langara Fishing Lodge, and Jennifer Dalton reunited after 30 years.

I had worked for several summers at this remote, exclusive lodge more than 30 years ago. When I left, I had always dreamed of sailing back one day, and I was beyond excited to be there once again and to still know people who worked there. Lodge Manager Bill Gibson greeted us. He hugged me and then instantly reminded me of when he had busted Suzzanne, Ian, and me under the galley in our ‘speakeasy’ made of storage boxes when hard alcohol had been prohibited for the staff. He had heard us giggling beneath the floorboards of the galley. When he found us, we were drinking the booze we had ordered as our “cooking” supply.

We spent that afternoon touring the lodge, where we were treated like royalty. I reminisced with my friend and Langara’s Guest Service Manager, Suzzanne Lopez — yes, my fellow speakeasy member. They served us lattes and loads of freshly baked pastries. We wandered the lodge halls, revisited my old bedroom, the guest suites I cleaned as a chambermaid, and the galley I managed. The crew was so kind and welcoming. They even had me sign a crew book as an alumnus galley girl. Guest pictures hung in the hallways, familiar faces I recognized, like Bob Hope. When he spent time in the galley while I was manager, he shared the most remarkable stories. I loved reliving those days at Langara Lodge, where the people and the experiences were incredible and life-changing.

Now, we were here in a very different capacity. After finishing our lodge tour, Schrader, Mark D, and I relaxed in the cockpit of Dancing Bear, watching a sea lion in the bay. The channel between Beal Cove and Lucy Island ripped with a steady current. We sipped on some tea and discussed the next leg of our trip. Schrader had heard the weather alert for the gale force northerly earlier and wanted to talk to us about the potential conditions and ask for our opinion.

Mark D was concerned about going out in the open water during the wind storm and thought it might be best to stay hunkered in Beal Cove to wait for a better weather window. I looked over at Schrader. He was quiet and contemplative. He asked me what I thought. I took a sip of my tea and pretended to deliberate, but my heart beat loudly because I knew what I wanted to do. I told them that if he thought it was okay to go out, then that’s what I wanted to do. A slight smile illuminated from behind the white in Schrader’s beard, but my husband was not smiling. I completely understood his resistance. I also knew he might have been the voice of reason at this point, but I was willing to go wherever Schrader thought possible. I was one hundred percent committed.

Schrader sat on the coaming of the cockpit. His pants were covered in salt. His face was wind-worn and red. Pigeon Guillemots swam close to the boat, waiting to hop back on the deck. He had been listening to us intently, mulling over our opinions. His one request on this trip had been to get in some open ocean sailing. I asked him if he thought we could handle the storm. He nodded and said that he thought we could. He wanted to go at least 25 miles off the north tip of the island and use the storm to our advantage. I bit my lip, trying to conceal my smile — I couldn’t look at my husband, he’d see right through me. I was ecstatic! I took a deep breath and told Mark D I understood his hesitancy and that Langara Lodge would help him fly out if he didn’t want to go with us. The time was now to pull out. It was his decision to make, but I was clear. I was going.

We returned to the lodge for dinner that evening and, still full and tipsy from the exquisite prime rib and wine to which we’d been treated, I lay awake in the bed made up in Dancing Bear’s cockpit. If I sat up, I could look across at Dadens, an old trading post and Haida Village. My mind could have been spinning with memories or curiosities about the lives of people in Dadens, but it was on only one thing: on our upcoming journey. Schrader wanted some open-water sailing, and I was excited about the experience. After some years away from it, he had re-opened my eyes to the love of sailing and I had already resolved that more extensive sailing was in my future. The learning opportunities with him would be invaluable. I tossed and turned, listening to the sound of the channel as it switched to an ebb and flowed like a river only feet from where we were anchored, but eventually I fell asleep.

Schrader (L) and Mark D (R) enjoying the last 25 miles of sailing off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

It was an early start, 5 a.m. on July 4, and I awoke to find that the fog had covered my blanket in a layer of moisture. My eyes, lips, face, and fingers were swollen, signs of the extreme elements wearing on my body. I climbed down into the cabin. The fireplace was glowing with warmth and I was grateful that Schrader had been able to fix a propane issue we had after our bumpy crossing. He had also fixed the toilet seat I had broken. A string now tied it down. Lucky me… gale force winds and a string to hold me on the toilet!

We went quietly about our business of getting ready and preparing the boat. Mark D had decided that he wouldn’t fly out. He was going to stay. I put hot water on the stove for our coffee and tea. There were already keen fishermen speeding by going out for their last chance at fishing before the storm. I changed into my heavy foul weather gear and Schrader handed me a warm cup of coffee when I emerged from the V-berth. I carried it up on deck and began to pull the anchor.

It was foggy, flat, and disorienting in Parry Passage. This was the weather I had been used to when I worked here. I had expected fog and rainy conditions on this trip. However, Haida Gwaii had been experiencing an unusually long high pressure system for the past two weeks and, for the most part, we had lucked out with exceptional weather.

We motored past Langara Lodge and pointed Dancing Bear’s bow westward. I was putting a second reef into our mainsail when a fishing boat from the lodge sped toward us out of the fog. I waved both arms to catch its attention because we were on a collision course. But then I saw the flag — a Haida flag. It was my friend, Frank Williams, a fishing guide from Haida Gwaii. I hadn’t seen him for over 30 years. Frank is a quiet, gentle soul and an artist, one of his paintings has hung in my kitchen for the past three decades. He had been guiding guests when I visited the lodge the day before, so I didn’t have the chance to visit with him. I waved frantically. He pulled up alongside Dancing Bear. I made a heart shape with my hands and held it over my chest. He did the same. We air-hugged each other from our respective boats. But Dancing Bear and crew stayed the course, we had miles to put behind us. I blew a farewell kiss as we continued into the mystic.

An end of voyage rite of passage in Tofino; Mark Schrader pulled the author’s manual inflate on her PFD.

The water was calm and everything was gray. I thought of Herb McCormick, who had been with us on the first half of this trip. He would have commented on the 50 shades of gray, making me chuckle. I missed him and wished he could have joined us for this leg. We continued and soon, all signs of land disappeared. I double-checked our lines and the reefs in the main. We hadn’t bothered to put up the jib. I went below and ensured everything was stowed in preparation for the high winds and seas. When I returned to the cockpit, a large group of humpbacks swam past us. They slapped their fins as they rolled around. It would have been an amazing hydrophone experience, but again, we didn’t stop. Schrader wanted to be 25 miles out in the open ocean before the storm was on us.

Throughout the day, the swell came at us from two directions, west and north, and the wind was a steady northerly. The gale would be upon us by the evening. I was on watch, harnessed in the cockpit in my full foulies and saw 34 knots on our electronics and my Navionics. The swell was steep, 15-20 feet. By twilight, the waves were about 25 feet, and I looked up into the white froth of cresting waves. The waves were crashing into the cockpit, and Schrader ordered me inside. Dancing Bear was to weather this alone, with sail reefed and autopilot on. I went into the cabin and we closed the companionway hatch behind me. We continued our watches in shifts but from the main salon.

My next shift started at midnight. I made some tea and sipped it perched at the navigation station. The glowing lights from the screen and a red light in the galley were a beacon of comfort in the dark cabin while both Marks slept. I braced myself between the stairs and the galley sink and held on to the handholds to boil more water for tea. The most challenging part for me was not being able to be outside, but I was also grateful to be warm and dry.

The hours ticked by slowly, and I listened to Dancing Bear’s mast quiver and moan as we rode the enormous waves. At first, I was concerned by this noise, but as I listened, I realized it was almost like purring — Dancing Bear was having fun. I snuggled under a blanket by the fire but kept a firm grip on the cooler beside me and one hand holding the table so I wouldn’t be thrown out of my seat.

Though Dancing Bear surfed easily down the steep swell, the pitching felt ominous. About every fifth or sixth set of waves would smack at a side angle and ring loudly through the hull, shaking Dancing Bear to the core. At some point deep in the night, while sleeping strapped into the upper bunk, I was awakened by such a hard slap that I thought we might be rolling. But we were safe and Dancing Bear held the course.

The following morning, the winds had eased to 22-30 knots and we could go back outside. It was sunny and windy and the swell was down to 10 feet. I harnessed in as I climbed on deck. Standing in the cockpit, I felt the connection with both Dancing Bear and the water. I was a windsurfer for many years and now I was surfing with this beautiful Cal 40. I spotted a large bird lifting off waves and making the most graceful turns on the water. I asked Schrader to pass me the bird book, and I identified it as a Black-footed Albatross. It danced and swooped alongside for many miles. As soon as it disappeared, another would show up. Our course was set and the mainsail was still double-reefed — there wasn’t a lot to do except hold on and enjoy the scenery, and there was so much to enjoy.

Schrader and I were on watch that afternoon when I saw a sizeable fin come up 10 feet from the boat’s hull. It moved like a shark and turned and slid behind us. It blended with the ocean, and I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating. I asked Schrader if he’d seen it as well, and he had.

Mark Dalton and Mark Schrader in Tofino, B.C. after ripping down the west coast of British Columbia on Schrader’s Cal 40, Dancing Bear.

By day three, Dancing Bear had been handling the winds well, except the main sail was beginning to separate from the mast from the top down. Schrader asked me to help him unroll the jib and drop the main. I clipped into the jackline, braced myself, and crawled up the deck to the mast. We worked on a temporary solution, hoping it would hold until we made landfall in Tofino.

It had been long days of pitching from the top end of Haida Gwaii down to Tofino, and it was starting to wear on the captain and crew. We had been doing 2-4 hour shifts for days and I hadn’t changed out of my clothes. For amusement, I made videos for my friends and family, practiced my knots, and dreamed of future sailing plans because reading and writing were nearly impossible. Truthfully, I loved every damn minute of it all, but my body was weary. It had been contorting and flexing every minute of every day as we surfed gracefully through the Pacific swell.

We had booked down the west coast of Haida Gwaii and half of Vancouver Island at tremendous speeds. The wind and sea conditions finally calmed as we neared Tofino Inlet. By the time we arrived at the transient docks, it was late afternoon. My adrenaline had been pumping for days and I was on a high the likes of which I had rarely known. Schrader asked Mark D to take a picture of us before we got out of our gear. I was covered in salt and my hair was matted from wind and brine, and I was in bad need of a shower and change of clothes, but I jumped onto the dock and wrapped my arms around Schrader anyway. As Mark D took the picture, Schrader pulled the cord on my lifejacket and it inflated. It was my rite of passage for completing my open-water passage and I happily accepted it. As Schrader would say, “Who does this anyway?” Dancing Bear does.

Jennifer Dalton is an avid adventurer and traveler. She is originally from Vancouver, B.C. but raised her children in Washington. Now an empty nester, Jennifer has rediscovered her love and passion for sailing. She began her love for the wind and water when she was a teenager and has always spent time on the ocean whether it be windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, or diving. She is the owner of the marketing company Northwest Nooks.