It was sometime last spring when we first proposed the idea to do a 3 or 4 day “practice passage” down the west coast of Vancouver Island at a Bluewater Cruising Association meeting. At the time, we didn’t think much of it – it just seemed like a good idea. As the end of July approached, it seemed so much more, especially with the unstable weather we’d had through the first 3 weeks of the summer. However, in spite of this dodgy weather and our apprehensions, by the time we tied up in Shearwater on Saturday July 27, we’d gotten a 3 day usable weather window and were mentally committed to doing the trip. The nervous energy of the last few days didn’t disappear, but the pointless hand wringing did and was replaced with a fevered effort to get stuff done as fast as possible so that we could get underway: recycling, last minute grocery shopping, diesel, propane and laundry…all in just over an hour.
We started motoring south down Hunter Channel, next stop Sooke, just after noon, in gentle southerly winds and mostly overcast skies. We could’ve beat down the channel, but our schedule and the light winds kept us motoring. Eventually, we exited the very tight archipelago at the south end of Hunter Channel and motored into the open water of Queen’s Sound. Surprise, surprise, the weather was still not quite as promised. Instead of sun and a glorious reach, we got clouds and a motor in the sloppy leftovers from the departing south-easterly. Not very exciting, but the monotony was probably good – it turns out that it’s just as hard to stay nervous when you’re bored doing the activity that was making you nervous in the first place as it is when you’re busy running around preparing for that activity.
We motored for quite a while, choking down what should have been a wonderful meal along the way. Eventually though, our patience and faith in the forecast was rewarded and we were able to sail in light winds on a close hauled course straight at Cape Scott. Fortunately, Palomita sails very well in these conditions and we were happy to trade the din of the engine for the satisfying swish of the water. By 9pm, we were doing 7 knots on a close reach. We were 32 miles north of Cape Scott and it was magical.
Before we left, we’d decided on a formal watch schedule starting at 10pm and ending at 8am. Our plan was to do a 3 hour watch each, and then a 2 hour watch each. We figured we could manage the daylight hours on an informal basis. With a little tweaking over the two nights we were out, this system worked really well for us, and unlike our previous experiences sailing through the night, neither on us really got to the point of total exhaustion. The first watch on Saturday night was mine, and it was a highlight. The night was pretty much perfect for sailing to weather: Palomita rose to the gentle seas with enough wind to keep her moving fast, but not so much that we were on our ear. The ride was so pleasant that we both spent our off watches in our regular bunk. At midnight we were 11 nm from Cape Scott, still on a close reach doing 7 knots, and it was still magical.
We rounded Cape Scott – which is really a 5nm wide pass between Vancouver Island and the Scott Islands – at about 1:30 in the morning, where we decided to turn the engine back on for 20 minutes to power through the wind shadow of the Scott Islands. My watch had ended at 1:00, but because we weren’t sure what we were going to find at the cape, I stayed up until we were clear of the pass. We’d never done this long of an overlap between shifts before, and we really liked the time together – so much so that we think it should be a regular part of our night watch routine. Along with breaking up the monotony of sitting alone quietly while on watch, it gave us an opportunity talk about the conditions, other vessels, our location, our course and our sails.
I turned in when we were able to sail again. Unfortunately, Lori’s watch lacked the sailing perfection that mine had. The wind continued to veer into the west, but it didn’t build. When you are sailing into the wind, the wind speed the sails feel is a combination of the true wind speed and the boat’s speed. Palomita will sail quite well in 8 knots of true wind speed as long as the wind is coming at her. As you turn to have the wind behind you, the wind in the sails drops. If you are sailing dead downwind, the wind you feel is the wind speed minus the boat’s speed. We don’t sail downwind very well at all in 8 knots, especially if there are waves. As the wind shifted aft that night, the wind across the deck fell to the point where Lori had to fire up the motor for another half hour just to keep the boat moving at a reasonable speed. By the time I got up at 4:30, reality finally started to catch up with the forecast, and the wind had risen enough to keep us moving well as we sailed towards Brooks Peninsula on a broad reach. It was the beginning of a remarkable day.
After going off shift, Lori managed to sleep for a couple of hours, but the by the time she got up, I had no desire to lay down. The cloud cover was still close to 100%, but we were moving well and I was having fun sailing. We also had lots of wildlife to enjoy: albatross, petrels, and shearwaters in the air, and multiple humpbacks in the water. The whale sightings sound great, but having a humpback surface or breech right beside your boat can be a little nerve racking.
The morning progressed, and the wind built as forecast. By the time we were rounding Brooks Peninsula, 50nm south of Cape Scott and commonly regarded at the most demanding headland on Vancouver Island, we’d pulled the main down and were running under jib alone. It was only blowing 20 kts, and we could have left some of the main up, but the boat goes fine in that much wind with only the genoa out, and it’s safer -we can run almost dead downwind without having to deal with poles or boom preventers – and we were expecting the wind to keep rising through the day. As an added bonus, the sun started to make an appearance.
It’s hard to describe our day running between Brooks Peninsula and Estevan Point in a way that adequately describes our experience. Pictures can’t really show what we saw, never mind what we felt. It was at times awe inspiring, amazing, monotonous, and exciting. Rounding Brooks had been easy – the wind and seas were was still moderate – but the conditions built steadily through the day as we made our way south until winds were blowing a steady 28-30 kts, gusting to 35, with an average seastate of 2-3m. This means that the odd 20 footer rolled under our keel. Spicy, but not scary. In fact, this time was some of the most amazing sailing that I’ve ever done – just us and our boat doing hull speed in big waves and sunshine. It’s amazing what being in the midst of “it” does to your mind – the positive effect of actually being fully engaged in an activity instead of just thinking about it. This is a lesson I have to learn over and over again.
The fun lasted until the wee hours of the next morning during Lori’s watch. It’s not easy to sleep with the sails slatting as they alternately filled with air and then lost it as the boat rolled. Lori kept heading up – turning into the wind – in an effort to increase the wind over the deck, but by 4 am it was pointless – we were on a close reach doing 4kts and pointing right at Hawaii. We were 15 miles off of Ucluelet when we fired the engine back up and turned the boat 90 degrees to port to get us pointing back at our destination.
Day three was pretty mellow compared to the day before. We motored for quite a while, a couple of hours of which were in the fog. Gale force westerlies were forecast for Juan de Fuca Strait, but these usually fill in early in the afternoon, so we motored on, anticipating a great sail to finish the trip off. Juan did not disappoint…by noon we were sailing again and by three we were running under foresail only. We’ve done this stretch under these conditions before, so this sail had a distinctly laid back feel compared to the day before.
We finally pulled into Sooke Harbour at seven. It was blowing pretty hard over the spit, and we spent quite a while poking about looking for a good spot to drop the hook. In the end, we settled in a tight spot just off the spit near the entrance to the harbour. We were the second boat in, so our tight spot was really tight..not the best, but the winds were supposed to stay out of the west all night so we hoped we’d be fine. We were, but the wind and tight spot didn’t inspire the confidence I need to sleep well.
We arrived in Victoria at about noon the next day after another great sail through Race Passage. The sail was absolutely fantastic, but even so, the difference in our stress levels when we tied the lines to the dock was palatable. We were supposed to meet friends on the dock, but they were a day late. Good thing – we spent the afternoon tidying up the boat and hit the sack early. We would’ve been terrible company.
It’s been a month and a half since we arrived in Victoria which has allowed plenty of time for reflection. Lori maintains that she had “type 2” fun – the kind of fun that is better in hindsight – but that she’d do it again “for a purpose”. I get it. There is no doubt that the time leading up to us getting underway was fraught with needless angst, and that living on a small boat at sea is tiring and uncomfortable. But I’m having trouble squaring up the time frame of my fun. I missed being out there almost immediately – cruising in Desolation Sound just wasn’t the same after the high adventure of surfing down 10′ waves for hours at a time. Three days is just a small taste, and it’s highly likely that sailing like this for days on end would grow to be routine and might (would?) eventually become tiresome. The bottom line is that, regardless of how we handled it or felt about it, the trip was totally worth it. There is no other way to test yourself, your boat, and your systems other than to get out there and sail, and I’m happy to report that we passed this test.
I’ve created a companion video for this post. You can view it at https://youtu.be/KzFp5lLq6Dg
Some of what we learned:
All of our little steps over the years have lead us here with confidence. I’m pretty sure the next trip like this will be much easier in terms of pre-departure anxiety. Everyone who wants to head offshore would benefit from a trip like this.
The autopilot (Raymarine Evolution EV200 with a linear drive) can handle fairly challenging conditions, but oversteers using the settings we were using. We will have to tweak these to try and get it to steer a more consistent course, especially when the boat starts rolling in cross seas.
Our modest 160W solar array kept up with the demand over 24 hours no problem with no engine run time. I’m hoping that by expanding it considerably – we’re thinking of adding another 400W – this will remain true in lower latitudes.
5 miles is not enough sea room off of either Estevan Point or Brooks Peninsula when it’s blowing. More is better.
Shorter watches with a scheduled overlap made the night watch go so much faster. The trick is to sleep as much as possible during the day to stay rested. We’ve sailed overnight a grand total of 10 nights – I think that it’s likely that longer watches would become easier with more experience.
We’re both pretty immune to seasickness, but there is a limit. Neither of us really felt like eating for the whole trip.
25 – 30 kts behind you in the ocean is still fun, but I wouldn’t want to have to sail into it. 30 – 35 is doable, but is pushing it as far as fun goes.
Our boat is fun and easy to sail, even shorthanded. We already knew this, but we appreciate it more as we learn more.