Cruising by sail in the Pacific NW

Leave a comment

Books on Board: Our Reference Section

We love reading, and during a typical summer, it is not uncommon for Lori and I to blow through 30 or 40 books.  Finding new fiction to replenish our selection is always a challenge, but we’ve been lucky to work with a wonderful librarian who is constantly keeping an eye out for stuff we might like.  There are, however, a few books that we insist on taking every year: our reference section.  Following is our list of favorite “how to” books.  We have no stake whatsoever in any of these publications, they are included because we like them:


Ports and Passes.  Easy to use tide and current tables that have daylight savings already included in the quoted times.  The government tables are excellent too, but they break the coast of BC into 3 regions and are more expensive if you are cruising more than two regions of them.  In addition, you need to remember to add daylight savings time to the times listed.  Ports and Passes is easier.




Douglass guide_

Any of the cruising guides by Don Douglass and Reanne Hemingway-Douglass.  We carry Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia: Blunden Harbour to Dixon Entrance and Exploring Vancouver Island’s West Coast .  These guides are short on destination detail, but cover most nooks and crannies, no matter how improbable.  Because they are so comprehensive, you’ll need to spend some time with them.

hamiltom coverCruising the Secret Coast: Unexplored Anchorages on British Columbia’s Inside Passage  by  Jennifer and  James Hamilton.  While this book is by no means essential, it does contain a small number of out of the way places like those we are always looking for.  I believe that this book is responsible for much of the increased traffic in formerly remote destinations such as the Goose Group and Spider Group.  The authors are pretty brave, and outline many tight places that we are hesitant to go into.

wagonnerWaggoner Cruising Guide is an excellent companion to the anchorage focus that the Douglass guides have.  The Wagonner Cruising guide covers the waters from southern Puget Sound to SE Alaska, including Haida Gwaii.  It has piloting information, anchorage information (somewhat limited north of Desolation Sound) and a comprehensive listing of facilities and towns.  Best of all, it is a free download.

DreamspeakerThe Dreamspeaker Guide Series by Anne and Laurence Yeadon-Jones. We don’t own any of these books, but we’ve cruised with people that do and really like them.  They cover the same ground as the Douglass guides, but are picky about the anchorages they include.  Because every stop listed is a worthwhile destination, the books are easy to use.  The excellent pictures and drawings make them fun to read.

local knowledgeLocal Knowledge: A Skipper’s Reference : Tacoma To Ketchikan by Kevin Monahan.  A book of transiting notes that is particularly useful for understanding and using the tides and currents in the many passes on our coast.

Nigel Calder’s Cruising Handbook,  Marine Diesel Engines, and the Mechanical and Electrical Manual.

They all get used occasionally.  The Cruising Handbook is focused on buying and setting up a sailboat for voyaging, and at this point I read it mostly for enjoyment.  It is 15 years old, and you can tell, particularly the electronics section.  That said, the info on cruising sailboat design and layout is worth the cover price alone.  The other two books are very hands-on troubleshooting type books that are applicable to power and sail boats.

voyagers handbookThe Voyager’s Handbook: The Essential Guide to Blue Water Cruising by Beth Leonard.  The title speaks for itself.  Although it is written specifically for those intending to go offshore in a sailboat, it has information useful to coastal cruisers as well.  Plus, I’m a bit of a reference book geek.  Beth Leonard has circumnavigated twice, and has rounded all 5 great capes – she knows her stuff.

1st aidSt. John Ambulance First Aid Reference Guide: Preparing for emergencies at work, home and play.  While any up-to-date First Aid book should be mandatory on board, we carry this one because it was the manual used in the course we took a year ago.



weather bookWe carry a weather book that tries to explain how our weather works.  Although it is well written, the one I have is pretty general, and covers concepts that apply globally.  I’ve been looking for one with a local bias, and found Living with Weather Along the British Columbia Coast: The Veil of Chaos by Owen S. Lange.   Based on the description and review on Amazon, I think it is going on my wish list.

Lastly, we have two 3″ binders full of the documentation that came with our gear. All of it. Included in this is a shop manual for both the diesel engine and our outboard.  Unfortunately, this stuff is referenced constantly; fortunately, it’s easy to find.

If I’ve missed a resource you find indispensable or particularly well written, please leave a comment and share the title.  Thanks!



Cruising North of Desolation Sound. Navigating The Passes

DSCN0485Occasionally, Lori and I present to groups about our travels.  Usually our focus is on the beautiful cruising grounds north of Desolation Sound.  This rather long post about the tidal passes is primarily informational, and is meant as a resource for those who haven’t yet gone north to see what all of the fuss is about.

Our first two summers on the water, the pull of the north was like a siren song that was barely audible in the background: we could ignore it, but it was there.  Our first year out, we motored north towards the south tip of Stuart Island and noted the latitude.  It’s in the log as a badge – our furthest point north.  Our second year out, we explored the San Juan’s, Sechelt Inlet, and Princess Louisa.  There wasn’t time to venture north, even if we’d felt up to the challenge.  We succumbed to the call our third season.   After motoring around Desolation Sound for a couple of weeks, I was bored and needed some adventure.  A week spent going as far as Sointula filled that need.

Since then, we’ve gone north of Desolation Sound almost every year.  It’s not that we don’t love the cruising locally; the Gulf Islands and Desolation hold a special place in our hearts as the places where had our first exposure to what a summer afloat can offer.  That said, between the summer crowds and our familiarity with the anchorages, neither area offers the magic of the unknown that we crave.  There was a time though, when we felt that sailing north was a daunting challenge.  We wondered what would it be like so far removed from civilization.  How hard was it to run the rapids?  What happened if we got caught in an inevitable Johnstone Strait gale?  I’m pretty sure these are fairly common questions…



A happy fisherman north of Desolation SOund

Running the rapids – the options

There are three routes that we use to venture north; we refer to them as the inside route, the middle route, and Johnstone Strait.  All of these routes can be a walk in the park if they are timed properly for both weather and current.  But, they can also be miserable if you are in a rush, particularly going northbound.  Furthermore, there are a couple of spots that can be very hazardous if you attempt to transit them at the wrong time.  Of the 10 or so trips we’ve done north and back, we’ve only been caught out in rough conditions once – unpleasant but not dangerous; and we could’ve (should’ve?) turned around and waited a day.  Bottom line: be patient and time the tides.


Pounding north into a 25kt NW wind.  I can’t imagine it in 35 kts.  We should’ve waited a day. Photo Jane Creed

The inside route follows the mainland, and requires you to run 5 rapids: Yuculta, Gillard Passage, Dent, Greenpoint and Whirlpool.  It has the advantage of being less affected by the gales that can make Johnstone Strait unpleasant (euphemism for really scary).  That said, there are 10nm of the strait that are unavoidable, which is plenty to have a rough day.  At 6 knots, it is likely that this route will require a layover enroute.  Our normal stopover is Forward Harbor. Northbound, this is the way to go when Johnstone Strait is blowing.


Discovery Islands w routes

The middle route starts at the Rebecca Spit area of Quadra, and goes through Beasley Passage and the Okisollos, joining Johnstone Strait at Chatham Point.  It has the advantage of excellent re-provisioning in Heriot Bay, but puts you in Johnstone Strait for over 30 miles – a significant gamble if the weather turns.  If the weather is good, it is possible to run all the way to Havannah Channel (and out of Johnstone Strait) in one long day.  Northbound, this is the route we use if we have stopped to cruise Desolation Sound for a while, have an appropriate weather forecast, and need groceries.  If the forecast isn’t favourable, we use the inside route.  We almost always go south using this route – the gales in Johnstone are no where near as scary when they are behind you.

The third option, running Discovery Passage through Seymour Narrows, and then up Johnstone Strait to at least Havannah Channel is the easiest, but the one that puts you at the mercy of the NW winds the longest.  This is the most direct route – we have done Campbell River to Port McNeill in a long day – but ironically is only 3nm shorter than the inside route if distances are measured from Pender Harbour.  Northbound, this is the way we’d go if we were in a rush as it is possible to make the run from Vancouver to Port McNeill in 3 reasonable days: Home to Pender Harbour = 50nm; Pender Harbour to Campbell River = 50 nm; Campbell River to Port McNeill = 70 nm.  We’ve never used this route to go south.

The Rapids – Northbound:

A few notes about the following routing information.  Although all of these routes can be done with little fuss by planning to transit the critical portions at slack water, they also  have the potential to kill the careless.  Use tide tables and be careful.  We use paper current tables (Ports and Passes is our favorite) as we’ve noted worse discrepancies between our electronic current predictions and reality than we have with the paper predictions.  All of our routing is based on our cruising speed of 6 knots.  In addition, the current is significant everywhere in Johnstone Strait and Cordero/Chancellor Channels; we always go north on an ebb tide and south on a flood, even if it means leaving in the dark.

The Inside

The inside route has the most individual rapids, but with the right plan and speed, all of them can easily be run on one exchange, even at 5 or 6 knots.  Our strategy comes straight out of Wagonner’s Cruising Guide, and works on almost all tides.  Extra caution should be used on large spring tides.

We arrive at the south end of Stuart Island an hour or so before the turn to ebb (Yuculta is a correction on Gillard Passage in many publications).  For the first part of the passage, we use two large eddies in Yuculta (shown in red below) to turn the last of the flood into a favorable current that we ride almost into Big Bay.  This will put you at Gillard Passage just before slack.  We power through the dying flood, and head straight for Dent – the most dangerous of the three rapids.  At 6 knots, you should arrive at Dent close to slack.Yucultas

Continuing along the mainland shore, we usually motor right through Greenpoint regardless of the state of tide and have never had a problem.  That said, Local Knowledge: a Skipper’s Reference (Kevin Monahan, 2005) suggests that these rapids are safe for most vessels that can do 6 knots within 1.5 hours of slack.  This is the place where you’d want to pay special attention on large spring tides; these rapids run at up to 7 kts, and if you are uncomfortable running them while they are flowing, wait.

Whirlpool Rapids are the northern end of the passage, and we time our arrival for close to  slack.  The distance between them and Dent makes this easy at 6 knots.  While many boats make this trip in one exchange safely every year, the easiest (safest way) to deal with this route and its multiple rapids is to break the passage up into a couple of days.  There are a number of attractive destinations and marinas in the area that make this easy.

The Middle.

There are 4 sets of rapids on this route: Beasley Passage, Upper Rapids, Lower Rapids (we call this pair “the Okisollos”), and the channels around Helmcken Island in Johnstone Strait.  We only plan the first.Okisollos

To run this route, plan to be at Beasley a half hour before the turn to ebb and have a look.  You’ll want to push through as early as you dare, but its narrow so don’t be in too much of a hurry – finding yourself unable to fight the current to make it through would be quite hazardous.  If you do go in too early and can’t power into the current, don’t try to turn around – the current will push you onto the shore.  Instead, reduce power and let the current flush you back out.

Once through Beasley, you’ll need to push hard to get through the Upper Rapids before they are flowing too fast.  You will get a ride through them if you run both on one exchange.  Another option would be to split the passages up and wait it out in the Octopus Islands – there are worse places to be.

Provided the wind does not pick up, the rest of the passage is straight forward and you will get the benefit of significant following current all the way west (north) up Johnstone Strait.  If the NW wind does pick up, do not try to run Race or Current Passage; the wind over tide will create very nasty seas.  Seek shelter and wait for better conditions – there are good spots close by including an anchorage right on Helmcken Island.

Johnstone Strait.

Technically, the difference between this and the middle route is the passage used to get to Johnstone Strait as both follow Johnstone Strait all the way from its southern end.  This route uses Discovery Passage and Seymour Narrows to reach the strait.  Logistically, it is the simplest as there is only one rapid worth worrying about, and it is a major one in every current table: Seymour Narrows.  We run this one at slack tide on the turn to ebb and ride the favorable current all the way north.  The same warning mentioned in the middle route description about seeking shelter if the NW winds come up applies for this route.DSCN0545


We always use the middle route to go south.  It is simple, direct and leads into Desolation Sound.  The main simplicity is that we don’t have to plan to be anywhere at a specific time at the end of a long passage – we run Johnstone Strait to Small Inlet on the NW tip of Quadra (see the map above) on one day, and the Okisollos on the next.  The first passage is planned to take advantage of the flood current, and the second is planned around the turn at Upper Rapids.  We’d do the run into Campbell River the same way.



Albatross running down Johnstone Strait 2007

The other simplicity is that the wind is much less of an issue: with a flood tide blowing from behind, any NW winds that do materialize have trouble raising much of a sea, making for exhilarating sailing in flat water.  And that’s if there is wind – we’ve motored down Johnstone Strait way more times than we’ve sailed it, almost always in a windless gale warning.

To run the Okisollos and Beasley in one exchange going south, plan to be at Upper Rapids a half hour before the turn to flood.  This means that you will be fighting the current in Okisollo channel and you must take your reduction in speed over the ground into account.  There are a number of small eddies close to the south shore between Lower Rapids and Upper Rapids that you can use to help keep your speed over ground up.  You will have to fight the last of the ebb through Upper Rapids.  After clearing Upper Rapids, it is about 6 miles to Beasley Passage.  At 6 kts, this means you will be riding the flood through Beasley Passage almost an hour after the turn.  While doable on most tides because the flow in Beasley is quite straight, it is far easier and less stressful on smaller tides (9 kts or less at Seymour Narrows).

The inside route has the complexity of 5 rapids to plan, but on a flood tide, they turn in sequence, starting at Whirlpool, and then working east.  The fact that the tides turn to flood earlier at the west end of the passage than at the east end, it is easier to plan a transit close to slack for all of them.   To run all of the rapids in one exchange, transit Whirlpool near the turn to flood, and time your passage to arrive at Dent at slack at the end of the flood.  Because Yuculta will turn to ebb after Dent, you won’t be fighting much current when you get there. Both East bound and westbound, the most important thing on this route is to run Dent at or near to slack tide.  It can be a scary place; people have died running these rapids at the wrong time so be cautious.


All of these routes are well documented.  We started running them using the very helpful passage notes in Waggoner’s Guide.  There is also excellent information in The Dreamspeaker series,Vipond and Kelly’s Select Anchorages on the Inside Passage and various online resources such as this article in Canadian Yachting:


Happy Cruising; we hope to see you north of Desolation!