Cruising by sail in the Pacific NW

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“Holy crap that was a big gust!” (My dad was there – I had to keep it PG)

After a long but eventually fruitful day of fishing in the drizzle, we pulled into Matheson Inlet in Haida Gwaii for a quiet night.  Our weather pattern had changed a couple of weeks before as the abnormally strong Pacific High of spring 2015 regressed into something that we think resembled normality for BC’s north coast- regular dousings interspersed with frequent but short lived sunny stretches.  In Haida Gwaii, these low pressure systems were textbook: sunshine slowly disappearing into the gradually thickening cloud bank of the warm front, drizzle followed by a short stretch of unsettled weather, and then the thick, wet cumulus of the following cold front.  The passage of these systems never lasted long, and were always followed by a day or two of warm sunny weather before the next system arrived.  In addition, none of the lows to this point had been were particularly deep or violent.

This changed in Matheson Inlet as the next low moved though the next day.  Nothing too extreme, just enough to remind us of the value of good ground tackle and conservative procedures.  We were also fortunate to be sitting alone in completely enclosed bay with lots of swinging room.  We had 7:1 out, 100′ of which is chain: it pays to be prepared to sit out a blow.

The thing I found most interesting about the day is that I’m convinced that the wind was far less strong outside the bay.  The topography of Moresby Island – relatively tall peaks on a very thin stretch of land – lends itself to places where the wind is accelerated as it moves through the passes between peaks and down the valleys.  Environment Canada’s excellent resource on coastal weather explains it like this:

The narrowness of Moresby Island allows southeast winds along the east side of the island to flow over top and hit hard onto the waters of the inlets on the west side. In strong wind conditions, this makes it difficult to anchor or find shelter. The southernmost part of Haida Gwaii is particularly difficult in this regard, with Gowgaia Bay and Tasu Sound two examples of places where gusty winds come down off the mountains.

I can attest that the above is also true, but in the reverse, when strong SW’ers blow.  For us, these gusty winds meant sustained winds of 25 kts, with gusts to 46, or almost double the sustained speed.  The worst winds were during daylight and our situation was very secure, so we relaxed and enjoyed the spectacle.  Thank goodness for good anchors!



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Crossing Hecate Strait

This is for some friends who are leaving for Haida Gwaii in a couple of weeks.  I hope you enjoy your trip as much as we enjoyed ours.


The sun setting over Haida Gwaii, 50nm behind

I’m not sure how others who’ve cruised Haida Gwaii felt about crossing Hecate Strait, but I do know that it was a life event for me.  In hindsight, both crossings were smooth and  easy, but really, these passages are just as much about dealing with the mythology that surrounds them, and the ensuing anticipation, as they are about the actual event.  The same has been true for all of the “notorious” stretches we have sailed: Cape Caution, Cape Scott, Brooks Peninsula…  We are careful and strategic when choosing our weather windows, and have the boat and ourselves well prepared; without fail this work means that each new trial is no trial at all.  Even so, I still wonder on each new adventure if this next crossing or rounding will be the one where preparation and planning fails.  Will this one be the one where the ocean has her way?

Early on in our planning, far from the north coast and with the comforts of our home and time, we decided it might be fun to do two overnighters on our Haida Gwaii trip – one each way across Hecate.  As we worked our way north, this ideal became expendable.  Reality has a way of changing things.  Eventually, we settled for a very uneventful motor across the strait and anchored in the dark.  Not quite the same as an adventure filled night sail, but it did involve mucking about in the dark and allowed a huge sigh of relief.  One down, one to go.

After three wonderful weeks exploring the islands, it was time for part two.  Unlike our first crossing at the end of a long stretch of sun and strong westerlies, our second crossing had to fit into a tight window between the low pressure systems that had been sweeping across the islands on a regular basis. Sun, rain, wind, repeat.  Our strategy became listen decide, and go.  We needed to pick a window and leave with no hesitation.

The day we eventually picked was an oddity mostly because of the spontaneity with which we went for it – we spent all of 2 minutes making the call.  We started the day with a wonderful visit to SGang Gwaay – truly a mystical place – dodging squalls and wondering when the sky would open.  We were lucky to see many strong showers close by and avoid all of them.  We even enjoyed a great sail on the way back into the anchorage at Rose Harbour.  As we approached our intended stop and were mentally preparing for a tough evening of good food, a bottle of wine, and maybe some reading, I decided to listen to the weather – a broken repeater had made weather info very hard to get, so frequent attempts were important in order to get any sort of mental picture of likely developments.  This attempt was successful, and I poked my head back into the cockpit with the offhand remark that we should just cross now…start a 110nm trip at 2:30 in the afternoon.  Everyone had heard the forecast of SW winds to 20 knots with showers turning to rain in the morning.  I’d long since abandoned the thought of a night crossing and wasn’t really serious, so was mildly shocked to get a “Sure, why not?” from the crew.

The sail that night was both amazing and difficult.  The wind was perfect – 8 to 23 kts on the beam – as were the seas.  The rain held off until we were within sight of our destination, and the scenery before sunset was stunning.  The short night was not stunning.  The  depth of the night was intense – like sailing through ink – and the cold was relentless.  And after an early morning the day before, so was the fatigue.  At 12:30 in the morning, my dad was clearly suffering and I sent him below to sleep while I kept watch.  Even though we were heavily reefed to slow the boat down, thoughts of plowing into one of the many trees we’d seen floating in the waters on the mainland side of the strait kept me tense as I shivered in my dark corner.  Two long hours later, Lori relieved me, but even in the cabin, sleep and warmth were elusive.

We arrived in Mouat Cove, just east of Ivory Island, at 8:10 after sailing 110nm in 17 hours, much of it at 5kts under reduced sail.  The promised downpour arrived pretty much as soon as we dropped the hook.  Needless to say, the relief and feeling of accomplishment were intense.

I know many have done this trip; many have done trips that make this one look small and insignificant.  For me, these crossings were a life event.  It’s all in the anticipation.

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IMG_2230A friend of ours has been to Haida Gwaii many times, twice making it to the park on Moresby Island (Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site) on her own boat.  For some reason, Skedans came up in conversation frequently – no doubt the place had left an impression.

Skedans is the first Watchmen site in Haida Gwaii as you work your way south from Skidegate Inlet, and the only one not actually in the park.  It is on an unsheltered neck of land that looks like it juts out into the inhospitable environs of Hecate Strait.  Before we arrived, I had conjured visions of an open, rocky anchorage surrounded by sea monsters and storms.  I fully expected to give it a pass lest we come to some grief.  Maybe we could wave as we passed by.  My visions weren’t far off, but thankfully, both the sea monsters and weather cooperated, leaving only the terrible, rocky anchorage to deal with.  We enjoyed our stop, but I watched the boat the whole time.

After leaving Bearskin Bay, the anchorage at Queen Charlotte, incredibly early, we arrived at the Skedans anchorage with another boat around lunch time.  The tidal range in Haida Gwaii is a maximum of 26 feet – the currents can be vicious and we’d left at 2am to avoid the morning morning flood flIMG_2225owing into Skidegate Inlet and north in Hecate Strait.  With almost no wind, we’d motored most of the 30 miles to Cumshewa Point, caught a nice salmon, and then made our way into the channel separating Skedans from a group of small, rocky islands lying close offshore.  While this whole area requires a careful watch as there are hazards everywhere, we had no problems picking our way into the small bight south of Skedans.  There is a buoy in the incredibly tight bay in front of the village site, but along with the other sailboat, we elected to anchor out farther.  As was the case at all of the other sites, the anchorage was marginal, and only suitable for short stops in settled weather.

We radiIMG_2233oed to ask permission to go ashore, and were told that we could join the crew from the other boat, making for a party of six; this was the only site were we spent time with the crew from another vessel as the watchmen make to some effort to maintain a wilderness feel for their visitors by limiting the numbers ashore.


Shyla, our capable guide. Meeting the people working at each site was a highlight of our trip in Haida Gwaii

While the approach was tricky, the landing was very easy. For defensive reasons, the Haida valued village sites that required careful navigation to approach, hence the care needed as we motored in.  They also valued beaches that were easy to land on as canoes were their main mode of transportation and they needed to be able to pull them up out of the water and launch them easily.  Skedans’ bay is typical: rocky offshore hazards leading to a very small, shallow and well protected bay headed by a gentle pebble beach.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a very friendly young lady named Shyla.  The watchmen do shifts of a few weeks at these site, living in small longhouses.  Originally, the watchmen were volunteers from Skidegate or Masset whose job it was to literally watch the site to deter theft and vandalism of any remaining artifacts.  Their role has evolved over the years, and while they still watch over the sites, they also welcome visitors and act as interpretive guides.  Shyla was typical in that she was knowledgeable, friendly and very generous with her time.


A Mortuary Pole at Skedans. The person buried in this pole did not die of misfortune – you can tell because the small human figure being licked is upright.

Skedans itself is one of two watchmen sites at which one can view standing totem poles (the other is SGang Gwaii at the south end of the park).  In addition to the totem poles, there are a number of longhouse sites to see.  Without some explanation, the house sites look like large holes with rotting trees lying in them.  However, Shyla, like her colleagues further south, was able to conjure images of what life would been like in these structures.  She explained the building process, the political structure (which was tied intimately to house construction), and the living arrangements in these dwellings.  In addition, we were taught the about the significance of the three different types of totem poles, and how art, story, and societal structure were all interconnected and represented.


Remains of a longhouse. The houses were all built around a large, tiered pit. These pits were large, and were dug by hand over one day only. Large holes would’ve required many workers. Therefore, the size of the hole was a symbol of wealth and prestige.

Skedans was wonderful; seeing these sites and learning about the culture first hand are the main reasons to cruise here.  However, the marginal anchorages at each site do not inspire confidence, and you’d need to be bigger risk takers than we are to overnight at one.  The closest good anchorage is Thurston Harbour which is a short distance south of Skedans and is the first logical stop for boats heading south.  As such, it is relatively popular.  By late afternoon, there was a total of four other boats sharing the large bay with us, one of which we’d met a couple of weeks earlier in Port McNeill.  Despite the stiff afternoon breeze that developed, we made plans to dinghy over and enjoy a staple of our cruising life: a potluck.  We had a wonderful evening, and planned for more over the next few days.  Unfortunately, those plans didn’t pan out, and we spent the remainder of our time in Haida Gwaii as the only boat in each anchorage.


My dad enjoying an evening aboard Ultegra, a Beneteau First 42 currently cruising the Sea of Cortez.(


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Haida Gwaii

IMG_2408We’ve spent the last 14 years exploring further and further from home; in the process, we’ve seen a huge percentage of our coast.  While the list of areas between Seattle and the Alaskan border that we haven’t seen on our own boat is fairly small, it did have one conspicuous hole: Haida Gwaii (formerly The Queen Charlotte Islands).  Early last year, we decided that 2015 would be our year to explore this magical land.


Shyla, our Watchman guide at Skedans

Haida Gwaii is a significant destination in a number of ways.  It is isolated by a significant passage, the cruising grounds are undeveloped, and perhaps most importantly, there are a number of opportunities to learn about the long cultural heritage of the Haida people, including an excellent museum, and a number of stunning village sites.  These village sites are known as watchmen sites, and are all are staffed by Haida Watchmen who give excellent tours of the house ruins and totems that remain.  These sites are all stunning and are worth all the effort required to visit.  The southern most site is particularly inspiring and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Haida Gwaii lies 50 to 90 nm off the north coast of BC.  It is a rugged archipelago of approximately 150 islands.  The two main islands, Graham in the north and Moresby to the south, are separated by a very narrow channel.  There a number of small settlements scattered mostly on Graham Island with a total population of just over 4000.  It can be reached by a ferry out of Prince Rupert, by plane, or by boat.


Mortuary pole at Skedans

Graham Island is predominately flat on the north and east portions with a small range of low but rugged mountains in the south west.  The east coast is shallow, with no good anchorages.  Much of the island is accessible by road.  In contrast, Moresby Island is a narrow spine of very rugged peaks indented by a number of small inlets that make excellent anchorages.  Little of the island can be accessed by road.  The southern half is a national park, and features almost all of the attractions for a cruising boat.

I must confess, my original motivation for visiting Haida Gwaii was the journey itself.  Crossing Hecate straight seemed like a worthy goal.  Lori’s motivations were more rounded, and included a strong desire to experience the culture of the islands.  Hecate Strait has a reputation for being one of the more challenging passages on the planet, and must be given due consideration. That said, the sights, experiences and people we shared our time with there will be what stay with me.

BC coast

The BC coast. Haida Gwaii is 130 nautical miles northwest of the northern tip of Vancouver Island

We arrived in Bearskin Bay, the anchorage fronting one of the two biggest towns on the islands, just after midnight on the morning of July 11th.  The crossing there took about 15 hours, and was very low stress.  In retrospect, we should’ve left earlier and arrived in daylight, but we were hoping to sail and the forecast was for light winds in the morning of the 10th.  We spent the next 5 days exploring the area around Queen Charlotte while waiting for my dad to fly in for the next part of our cruise.

Queen Charlotte is very cute, with a variety of stores to visit, an excellent funky coffee shop, and some of the friendliest people you will meet.  We also visited the other two towns in the area – Skidegate (the reserve), and Sandspit.  All 3 have something to offer: Skidgate has an excellent museum / cultural center and the best grocery store in the area, and Sandspit has an airport with regular commercial flights and a marina, but the ease of visiting Queen Charlotte means that most boats will spend the majority of their time in this area.


The Haida Heritage Center houses a beautiful museum and Gwaii Haanas Park Offices. An excellent tour of the totems helped us understand what we saw in the park.


The government dock in Queen Charlotte. Transient moorage is available here, as is excellent water and fuel.

We picked my dad up on July 15th, and left for Gwaii Haanas (the national park) at 3 am on the 17th.  Haida Gwaii has a maximum tidal range of 26 feet, and Skidgate Inlet is protected by a long, shallow bar.  Currents at the mouth of the inlet can be strong due to the volume of water moving here over the shallow ground, so we left with the ebb.  This was a remarkable first day; we fished an hour or so and caught a beautiful salmon, visited Skedans – our first watchman site – and anchored next to some friends that we weren’t expecting to see.

The next two weeks were idyllic.  After that first anchorage, we were alone every night.  The watchmen sites were all unique, and the Watchmen wonderful.  Despite our fair share of rain, the weather systems never lingered, and we spent much of the time enjoying being outdoors in the sun.  My dad was an excellent boat guest, and the time with him was very special.  And the food…of the 24 nights my dad spent with us, we ate fresh fish 19 of them.    Over the next few posts, we will highlight some of our favorite places and experiences, and write about our much more eventful eastbound crossing of Hecate Strait.  Bon Voyage!


The crew of Palomita at the base of a massive Sitka spruce (circumference approximately 60 feet) at Windy Bay

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          The early part of this summer was remarkable in a couple of ways.  First, it essentially didn’t rain for close to 3 months.  Second, the sunshine and heat translated into a prolonged period of strong north-westerly winds.  Really strong winds, all right on the nose.  In fact, when we could sail and make distance, it was with two reefs in the main and the genny partially furled.  Even being conservative, we still got beat up a couple of times.  Luckily, we had good luck on the more notorious passages, transiting Johnstone Strait on a couple of fortuitous calm and cloudy days, and rounding Cape Caution on a beautiful moderate wind day.  Still, as we made our way north, it was hard not to get spooked by the endless prognostications from fellow sailors about the beating we were going to get trying to cross Hecate Strait, along with the wildly overblown predictions of 40kt gales along our route put forward daily by Environment Canada.

An end to another amazing day on the way north. Gung Ho Bay, Banks Island, July 9.

By the time we arrived at Banks Island, our planned departure point, I was really quite nervous about the whole deal.  And there was that scheduling commitment.


Arrival in Haida Gwaii. 9 pm, July 10. Still 3 hours to the anchorage.

The vicinity of southern Banks Island is remote.  Even though we arrived there in plenty of time to wait for a weather window, the monotony of the weather report for the 3 months previous easily lulled me into wondering if the forecast would ever moderate into something reasonable.  If it didn’t, how would I let my dad know that we wouldn’t be at the airport to meet him?  The closest town was 2 days away – how would we communicate?  What would he do if he got off the plane in the thriving metropolis of Sandspit (pop. approx 500), and found that we were AWOL?  Would he freak out and assume the worst, relax and get a motel room (was there even one for him to get?), or would he buy a return ticket and leave?  Any option was sure to induce undue worry and stress.   As a result, I thought about the possible outcomes of not making our commitment for way too much of our time on the magical North Coast.  Amazing places, but too much worry.  Bummer.
And then, finally, a change to rain.  The long awaited transition back to the regular north coast weather meant that we had the flattest, most boring motor across Hecate Strait that you could imagine.  We arrived 4 days early, and I finally relaxed and started my vacation.  The irony is that in spite of the crazy dry summer that Vancouver experienced, Lori and I had our wettest year ever.   After that shift in the weather, the long stretches of sunshine we usually enjoy in the summer never re-established themselves in our locale.  We still had good weather, but way more rain than normal, even as we made our way south in August.
In summary: whoever said you should never commit to meeting someone at a given location on a given day was right.  Good to know.