Winter's Thinwater Sailing in Victoria
by John Ewing

"The fall tides giving us daytime water depth in Portage Inlet, on Sunday I moved 'Caer', a Bolger Surf sharpie skiff, from the driveway to the dock at the end of our garden allee. Today, taking the hint, the winds were light to moderate and the sun shone through clouds -- and I was prepared! Household duties taken care of, I went sailing mid-afternoon. Quite enjoyable, of course. Got in about an hour and a half before the wind died as the sun set and I paddled back to 'home port'."

That's what I posted to the new Canadian boatbuilding e-group recently, dear reader. Please allow me to expound:

My wife and I live in a suburb of Victoria, B.C. At the foot of our garden is a blind channel, a 'tidal slough', leading on to a deeply-indented body of water known as Portage Inlet. From this shallow, brackish 'lake', the Gorge Waterway meanders about 5 km (3 miles) down to Victoria's Inner Harbour. Beyond is the Strait of Juan de Fuca, scene of the famous Swiftsure yacht race each spring.

But thinwater is our element here on Portage Inlet -- for the most part just a couple fathoms at best, with patches of eel grass. On summer days off the dock at the bottom of our garden, there’s but a trickle. All else we see is mud and plodding Canada geese.

Mud at low tide

A huge rock roughly halfway down the meandering Gorge Waterway -- at its narrowest point -- historically held back tidal flow and created reversing falls. The rock was blasted away in 1960 by an over-zealous marina operator and the greater outflow on the ebb thinned the water and pulled the low-tide waterline quite a way from our top end of Portage Inlet.

(Yet this cowboy blasting didn't completely eliminate the barrier to navigation because daily tidal surges still result in near-whitewater conditions at the Gorge narrows.)

Someone once assured me it was "impossible" to sail on Portage Inlet. But this guy was a keel-boat sailor and a small handful of sailing dinghies could be seen on docks around the Inlet (although they never seemed to be actually in the water!) Lynne and I had bought this house mainly for it's garden potential, it’s garage for boatbuilding, and its channel access to Portage Inlet. I was determined to explore thinwater sailing.

Thus it was that two summers ago I took time off from garden systems and structures to build one of Phil Bolger's shapeliest 'instant boat' designs, the 15.5-ft. Surf sharpie sailing skiff. Because of its graceful cutwater and sharpie sprit-sail, I named the boat 'Caer' in honour of the swan maiden of Celtic mythology and the pair of swans that visit us in winter.

I bought an off-the-shelf sail from Dynamite Payson but by the time I had the mast and sprit boom made (with Sitka spruce kindly donated by Jamie Orr) the calendar was edging into spring. In the meantime, the first fall and winter, I put my back into rowing. No big sacrifice, really! I immediately discovered the Surf really bubbles along under oars, and I often rowed to the dog park up Colquitz Creek -- about 30 minutes of moderate pulling on the other side of the Inlet.

Surf "Caer" in Portage Inlet

Portage Inlet's name arises from the fact that the top end is just a few hundred yards from Esquimalt Harbour's saltwater, allowing natives and fur traders to carry canoes across in older times. While it looks rather like a Muskoka lake, with houses rather than cottages all around, the top end where we live all dries out at low tide. In spring to mid-summer, this happens during the day, frustrating us with a mass of mud. No sailing, no rowing -- nuffin’ except Canada geese plodding about in search of fresh water.

On a spring neap tide, sailing is possible but my Jim Michalak-designed leeboard often strikes bottom, kicking up and leaving Caer with minimal lateral resistance..

But now it’s fall, going on winter. Sure rains may sweep over us with a ‘Pineapple Express’ off the Pacific, or we might get a few days of snow or freezing -- but sunny days with fresh breezes come along, too. The high tide is deeper and in daylight. Sailing season at last on Portage Inlet!