Aside from losing our steering in Choked Passage on the west coast of Vancouver Island, our scariest moments have all been in Georgia Strait. But then, it is our proving ground and we take more risks there than elsewhere. We’ll go out in Georgia Strait in pretty much any forecast and often go a few days between listening to the weather. As a result, we’ve been spanked a few times, but we also feel that we are better sailors because of these lessons. Outside of Georgia Strait, we are quite a bit more conservative – we pay close attention to the weather and pick times that we feel are within our comfort zone. The experience in poor conditions in Georgia Strait has served to make our comfort zone bigger, and has given us some confidence that we can handle tougher conditions if we pick our times poorly.
Our scariest moment has to be on a passage from Smuggler’s Cove on the Sunshine Coast to Silva Bay on Gabriola Island in a late summer SE gale in 2009. We’ve run with a gale many times, and have mostly found it to be fun if managed properly. On this passage, we decided to go out and see what beating into one was like.
We motored down Welcome Passage very slowly, repeatedly burying the bow into the next wave and anticipating the moment that we could bear off and actually sail. We’d tried (and failed) going around the north end of Thormanby the day before in similar conditions and decided that it was worth the tough motor south to get a better angle across the strait.
Eventually, we arrived at the passage between Merry Island and Thormanby Island, and decided to sail from there. Based on our misadventures the day before, we pulled out only our blade (90%) and bore off. After the brutality of the motor, the smooth motion of the boat under sail was a huge relief, and we all had smiles as she picked up speed and started over the waves at a pleasant 6 kts. The bliss was short-lived. Just as we were leaving the pass and entering the strait proper, an enormous wave reared. I called for all hands to take cover under the dodger as the boat rose up the face of the wave and then fell off the top. It was only the first of a series and the boat was still going down as the next wave rose up in front of us; the only way for us to go was through it. I’m not sure how much green water came over the deck, but it looked like a wall and I got soaked despite my foulies. Luckily, nothing broke, and the rest of the crew stayed mostly dry. Of course there was a third in the series, but we were able to rise to it as we had to the first.
The rest of the sail was completely uneventful. By half way across we had the main up too. Eventually we even had to tack back eastwards as the wind on the west side of the strait was light. Nonetheless, it was difficult to relax – its hard to describe what went through my head as that wall of water washed over the boat, but it left me uneasy for the rest of the day and still leaves a vivid image in my mind. Now, we always tell people that we enjoy running in strong winds, but will never intentionally beat into 35kts again; once was enough.
Georgia Strait Summer Weather
Summer gales aren’t common, but strong winds are. Our observation is that these are not based on the time of day nearly as much as they are in other locations such as Juan de Fuca Strait. However, as I mention in my story, they can be highly localized; it is quite normal to have strong winds at Entrance Island and no wind at Merry Island (or the reverse). NW winds seem to be strongest between Sisters Island and Entrance Island, probably due to the funnel that Texada and Vancouver Island create in this area; SE winds can be strong anywhere, but are often nasty farther south. Fortunately, the strait is blessed with many reporting stations, and it is very easy to determine current conditions. If you have access to the internet, it is also possible to get data for the previous 24 hours on Environment Canada’s website. If you’ve been monitoring weather, this is a powerful tool as not only does it allow you to see trends, it also allows you to see any anomalies in the forecast.
Our experience is that the forecasts are fairly accurate, but almost always overstate the wind. Of course, this is only true if they haven’t understated it; you take your chances betting on Environment Canada being conservative with their wind forecast. Another thing to remember is that the forecast is for the strongest wind in the forecast area over the forecast period, which is not necessarily the part of the strait you are planning to transit. We’ve also noted that strong summertime SE winds usually don’t last for more than a day, and while NW’ers can and do set in for prolonged periods when the weather is warm, this isn’t the norm either.
Lastly, Georgia Strait is not really that big. Given a good window, most boats are rarely more than 2 or 3 hours from shelter, and usually far closer. In addition, there are lots of places to stop in most areas of the strait, many of which are worthy of being destinations in their own right. So, enjoy the strait and all it has to offer – we are lucky to have such a beautiful body of water in which to learn our craft right on our doorstep.
Whiskey golf is an annoying military area right on the rhumb line between Nanaimo and Pender Harbour, and is marked on all Canadian charts of the region. It is used by the Navies of a few countries, predominately Canada and the USA, to test fire torpedoes. If you enter it while it is active, not only will you be putting your vessel at risk of being torpedoed (they’re not armed with explosives, but that’s probably academic for most of us), you will earn the wrath of the military and be the day’s entertainment for all those listening on VHF 16. To avoid all of this unpleasantness, simply monitor the VHF weather channels – they will tell you if area WG is open or closed. You can also try VHF 10 to talk directly to Winchelsea Control. Unfortunately, it is hard to make plans for transiting this area in advance as they don’t usually broadcast future usage dates. We try to transit the area on a weekend – while this is no guarantee, the Navy seems to like days off as much as the rest of us, especially Sundays.