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Cruising by sail in the Pacific NW


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Westcoast Shakedown – Sailing Non-Stop Down the West Coast of Vancouver Island Part 2: The Passage

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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.

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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.20190729_060417

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 20190730_151035squaring 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.

 


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Westcoast Shakedown – Sailing Non-Stop Down the West Coast of Vancouver Island: The Go / No-Go Decision

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Sleep deprivation…check.  Lack off appetite…check.  Exhilaration…check.  Scary…well maybe a little. Rewarding…absolutely.   I’m not sure how we ended up committing ourselves to a multi-day non-stop voyage down the west coast of Vancouver Island, but we did.

It’s not really a big secret that we have spent a huge amount of time and money refitting our boat with designs on going further afield sometime in our future.  For a couple in our situation, the reasons to do a trip like this are pretty simple: how else can you see how you, your boat, and it’s systems handle being underway in a true ocean environment over multiple days other than going out and trying it.  We weren’t really looking for fun; we just wanted to test ourselves and our boat.  So we decided to sail as much of the BC coast as we could over a 3 or 4 day period at the end of July.

We chose this itinerary – as opposed to just sailing out into the ocean for a couple of days – for a few reasons: the prevailing winds in the summer are NW, so we could reasonably expect to have a predominately downwind sail with conditions similar those found sailing south down the west coat of North America, or westward in the trades.  Secondly, the five sounds on Vancouver Island’s West Coast are all fairly easy to access, even in bad weather, meaning that we’d have the psychological crutch of shelter if the weather turned bad. Lastly, it seemed like a really good way to get south and back into reliable summer weather quickly.

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But like so many other things, there’s so much more to a trip like this than just picking a a destination and going sailing for a couple of days.  In addition to planning around the weather, provisioning, and setting up the boat for being underway for multiple days, there is dealing with your brain.  I wish there was an app for that.  My brain isn’t always my friend.  In fact, it’s often my nemesis.  When we’re doing things that are bigger than things we’ve done before, my brain likes to fire up my imagination, making up lists of possible maritime disasters and other unlikely catastrophes.  I’ve figured by now that these imaginings are pretty much a waste of time and energy, but it still sucks being anxious.  My hunch is most people are no different.   

Our singled minded commitment to our boat over the last 3 years also added an extra dimension that, unlike our entirely predictable pre-departure jitters, I didn’t anticipate: what if we decided not to go at the last minute – would our excuse hold up to scrutiny? Would a bail this time mean that we’d always bail? What if we went and hated the trip?  For me, there was way more at stake than just a 3 day sail – in my head, this would either be a vindication or a condemnation of all the blood, sweat and tears we’ve poured into Palomita.  Like I said – my brain isn’t always my friend.

We left Ocean Falls on the morning of July 27 in a downpour.. things looked kinda grim.  Even if the rain stopped and the sun came out as advertised, the weather window was tight with a new low pressure system due to pass over the coast in only 3 days.  And as is so common when a system moves on to be replaced by high pressure, the winds were predicted to swing strongly into the north-west.  The last forecast on the night of the 26th called for winds to 35 knots south of Brooks Peninsula.  We could manage the shortened schedule, but 35 knots was way more wind than we’d like.  So we motored south with some serious doubts.

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As we neared Shearwater, the rain slowed and patches of blue arrived.   We tuned in to the 10:30 forecast sure that it would just confirm that the winds were going to be heavy over the next few days, and at the very least, we’d  postpone our trip for another week, and maybe scrap it altogether.  No such luck – the new forecast called for the wind to build to a westerly breeze of 15 knots (perfect) over the afternoon, swing to the northwest through the evening, and finally build to NW 20 – 30kts the following day.  Strong, but within our comfort zone.  The forecasts from both Windy and Predict Wind were even better with winds to only NW 20kts as long as we stayed fairly close to the shore.  With these forecasts, any reasonable excuses for bailing disappeared…we were going to do our third circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, this time without stopping on the West Coast.

 


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Ghosts

Do you believe in ghosts? I do. I see them all the time.  Sometimes I see them in the park across the street, in our backyard, or in a family member’s house.  Mostly though, I see them on the water.  Thankfully, they’re never frightening; in fact, the never seem to notice me at all.  They seem to congregate at the places that I’ve loved the best.  I think this is part of the reason that I like to see new places; the ghosts aren’t there yet. This summer, I saw them everywhere. While I enjoy seeing them, but they taunt me with the past, reminding me that it’s gone forever and that we only have the now.

The first encounter I had this summer happened at Princess Margaret Marine park on Portland Island. Lori and went for a short walk along the north shore to one of our favourite beaches, and there they were…playing in the water, watching the ferry wake roll in, and just chilling. It’s a beautiful, private spot and the ghosts seemed to be reveling in their surroundings.  The family that was using the beach didn’t seem to notice them at all, but the ghosts were there.  It’s possible that family is making their own ghosts…I didn’t ask.

I saw more in Tribune Bay, a young boy skim boarding and enjoying the carefree freedom of being a child on the perfect summertime beach.  He looked great: strong, confident and full of the promise of youth.  I desperately wanted to talk to him and ask about his day, but I don’t think that he’d have answered.  So instead, I just watched and marveled at his grace.  I’m pretty sure he’ll be there when I visit again.

Jedidiah Island is crawling with them.  All kinds, some of them older than the ones I saw at Tribune Bay, some of them much younger.  There was even a horse.  Gibralter, the high point of Jedidiah was particularly crowded, but maybe that because it’s so small.  They gathered close as we arrived at the summit, but were kind enough to let me enjoy the view.

Mostly, my ghosts are my young children, but sometimes they are friends. Occasionally I see me. I miss them all, but I’m here now. scan0009(2) Change is the only thing that stays constant. The ghosts remind me of everything that has come before, and it’s been good.


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Hanging out in the Discovery Islands

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Anchorage in a nook in the Cordero Islands

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the different strategies for navigating the tidal rapids north of Desolation Sound.  In that post, I mentioned that we always time our journey to coincide with the ebb while going north, and the flood going south, even if it means leaving in the dark.  As entertaining as that sounds, leaving at 2am to catch the tide isn’t super high on my fun list.  Thankfully, there are alternatives.

Over the last 3 or 4 years, we’ve managed to approach our passage through the rapids on dates with no great morning departure times – they’ve either been crazy early, or a little too late.  This, along with our increasing desire to limit the early morning heroics, forced us to re-examine our passage planning for this stretch of water.  These ideas all work best on the inside route through the Yucultas, and are as follows…

Idea #1 – Arrive late.  Who said that you need to be in Forward Harbour by 2 in the afternoon?  We’re talking about summer travel here; the sun is out til after 9pm!  As ridiculously simple as this sounds, it took a few years for us to really look at this as an viable alternative to leaving early.  The key is that it’s only 30 miles from Yuculta rapids to Forward Harbour.  Even at only 6 knots, that’s only 5 hours; with the tide behind you it’s more like 4.  If you transit Yuculta Rapids at 3pm, that puts you in Forward Harbour at the still civilized hour of 7pm.

Idea #2 – Hang out between the rapids.  You don’t need to spend the night between rapids to make this one work, just patience.  The plan is to catch the last of the ebb through Yuculta, Gillard and Dent, and then relax as you poke your way north.  Go for a walk at Shoal Bay, fish at Hall Point or just bob along slowly and enjoy the scenery.   There really isn’t that much current to fight for the first 12 or so miles after Dent Rapids, and you will have about 6 hours to kill before running Greenpoint Rapids.  Besides, there is something really powerful about surrendering your schedule to the turn of the tide.  Be sure to time your transits so that you are at Dent at slack and are pushing through the last of the flood at Greenpoint.

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Heading north

Idea #3 – The obvious one – spend a night at one of the many cool places in the Discovery Islands.  Some options that we have used (there are many that we haven’t):  Big Bay.  It’s always abuzz with activity, has a dock, reasonable anchoring, and a great walk to Eagle Lake.  Big bay is a little like a toilet bowl with a rock in it – watch both the shoal area and the currents.  Shoal Bay.  Also a busy place, but with a more laid back atmosphere than the bustle of Big Bay.  Thurston Bay Marine Park.  Quiet and a little off all of the the main tracks north.  Cordero Islands (Greenpoint Rapids).  A very pretty anchorage right on the main channel.  There is room for eight or nine boats in the two nooks between the islands.  Blind Bay.  An upscale marina (but not too upscale) with a great walk and a good restaurant.  The current at the dock can be tricky, but the staff are eager to help.  If you want to continue north via the inside route, you’ll have to time your departure for the end of the flood as the currents in Mayne Channel and Greenepoint Rapids run opposite to each other.

Despite the cold water, the channels north of Desolation Sound offer a laid back experience that is significantly different from the crowded waters in northern Georgia Strait.  If you’re not in a rush to get north and the tides don’t allow you to blast through, take the opportunity to slow down and explore.


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Georgia Strait

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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 img_1112been 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

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.


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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.

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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.

Lessons…

We’ve only crossed this body of water twice – we’re definitely not experts – but we do have some observations will likely be helpful in the future:

  1. SW winds were a regular occurrence in bad weather, usually after the passage of the warm front and during the periods of strongest wind.  This doesn’t happen that often along the mainland where the wind is funneled by the straits and channels that are oriented NW / SE.  This has implications for most of the anchorages in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and for crossings of the strait.
  2. Haida Gwaii is a huge breakwater and any time that the seas are coming from the west, such as during a SW wind, the seas in Hecate Strait will likely be 1/3rd to 1/2 those in the Pacific off of the west coast.  As I write this, PredictWind is forecasting wave heights of 4.6m off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, and  1.2 to 2.4m off the east coast.  For this system, the wind forecast is similar on both coasts, but we all know it is the waves that are the real threat.
  3. We spent 3 weeks in Haida Gwaii and many weeks on the mainland side of the strait over the years and can attest that, as long as you aren’t on a tight schedule, stretches of settled weather long enough to safely cross the strait are fairly common.
  4. Even in the height of summer, it’s cold at sea in the North Pacific; bring enough clothing to stay warm.  During our night sail back to the mainland side, we were wearing everything we had and were still cold.


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Planning a trip down Vancouver Island’s West Coast?

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In the fog near Tofino

Lori and I recently had the pleasure of presenting a seminar about cruising the West Coast of Vancouver Island.  Helping a group a strangers with decision making on fairly ambitious trip like this is a bit of a balancing act.  Some are sailors, some are power boaters.  Some are looking for solitude and wilderness, and others are looking to test themselves and their boat.  Some are just looking to see someplace new, and some aren’t sure what they are after.  Everyone wants to have a good time.

The question becomes “what do we highlight?”  We tend to be fairly adventurous, and enjoy testing ourselves and our boat.  Do we highlight this for the portion of the audience looking for a test, or do we highlight the majority of roundings that we’ve had that required the motor or patience?  This roughly divides itself on power / sail lines, but there are many sailors who’ll take a calm motor over a rough sail, and a few power boaters who love a rough water challenge.
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Sunset in haze from forest fires, Barley Sound

Over the course of our talk, there were a couple of comments or observations that made me think about this.  Firstly, one participant observed that there is a passage in Douglass’ guide that suggests that if you’ve cruised to Alaska, there is nothing new to see on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.  A statement like this speaks directly to motivations – why cruise here?  How does our bias and what we highlight in our seminar reflect the attractions of this area?
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Totem in Friendly Cove, Nootka Sound

While we haven’t been to Alaska, we have seen a huge portion of the BC coast.  If I were deciding destinations solely on beauty and anchorages, I’d choose the Bella Bella area of the central coast every time.  This area has it all, and is much easier to get to and from than anywhere on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  And this is precisely why I’m looking forward to my next cruise down the west coast – it’s not easy to get to. As Douglass puts it:
In addition to outstanding beauty and solitude, the waters of western Vancouver Island occasionally offers environmental conditions that challenge the wits of small-craft skippers and keep life interesting.
Cruising the West Coat of Vancouver Island, 2nd edition. Don Douglass and Reanne Hemingway-Douglass
Sign me up.  For us, the appeal of the west coast is that it is exposed and we enjoy the challenge of the open ocean.  We go for the downwind sleigh ride, and the solitude and beauty are exclamation points on a series of rewarding passages that require careful planning on a day to day basis.  That doesn’t mean there is nothing for power boaters, but it is likely that our pro is their con, and this is undoubtedly the reason that sailors outnumber power boaters on the west coast by a significant number.
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Paddling up the creek at the head of Bacchante Bay, Clayoquot Sound

The second observation was made by a participant who asked for some clarification via email.  He directed me to the wind and fog tables in appendices E and F of Douglass’ guide.  These tables imply that the average wind speed off of the windiest point on the west coat – Brooks Peninsula – is actually quite low, and that the presence of fog is at worst 30%.  It is possible that our presentation made it sound like the conditions are likely to be worse than these numbers suggest.
Our first hand experience is the 10 weeks we’ve spent there, first in Barkley sound in 2005, and then on VI circumnavigations in 2010 and 2012.  On average, I believe that our experience is similar to the data in those appendices for both fog and wind.
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Sea Lions, Queen Charlotte Strait

 

2012 was particularly foggy, with the fog often extending well up into the sounds and lasting all day, especially in Barkley Sound in August.  This makes sense as Barkley sound is relatively open to the Pacific – there are almost no land masses to block the fog as it makes its way inland.  However, we also had heavy fog for a few days in Clayoquot, which unlike Barkley, is filled with taller islands separated by narrow channels.  We were in Victoria by mid August that year as we’d had enough of the fog.

2010 was completely different.  Any fog we saw that year was limited to the Pacific coast – going inland a few miles almost always resulted in clear skies and sunshine.  We left Bamfield on August 25th that year after a very pleasant, sunny month on the west coast.  It was an exceptional trip in all respects.  I think the bottom line is that the tables in Douglass’ guides are only averages, so any given year is a crap shoot. If you choose to time the trip so that you are out there in June when there is a lower chance of fog, you need to keep in mind that June often brings more rain; in a typical year, you’re trading fog for rain.  It’s all a gamble though – the last 2 Junes have been very nice, and last August was pretty wet.
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Sailing to Dixie Cove in Kyuquot Sound

The same goes for the wind – the figures, which imply fairly benign conditions much of the time, are averages and do not say what the time periods are (August winds less than 20 kts off Solander Island 57% of the time).  I assume that they are hours as that is the way Environment Canada reports the data.  If this is so, daily fluctuations would account for a substantial portion of the time with low winds.  While the winds off of the west coast seem to be a little more consistent than on the inside, they are still affected by warming through the day.  A forecast of gales off of Brooks Peninsula is fairly common, but they are also often in the afternoon with the wind often dropping off overnight and through the morning.  If the time periods are days, the data is even more promising: the tables suggest you would be able to expect approx 20 days a month of winds less than 20kts.  Either way, the data implies provide many opportunities for a civilized rounding if your passages are timed right.
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Exercising patience on a foggy approach to Barkley Sound

Based on our experiences, this holds true: one should have no problem getting around either Brooks Peninsula or Estevan Point in the relatively common calm conditions that are implied by the table data by waiting for a favourable forecast and leaving early.  In conversation with other VI circumnavigators, we’ve met many people who’ve motored the whole coast in benign conditions using this strategy. The trickiest part might be having the patience to wait; once the weather sets in, the waters off of Solander Island can be treacherous for days on end.  The good news is that there are things to do in both Quatsino and Nootka sounds, so waiting need not be a hardship.
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Nuchatlitz, Esperanza Inlet

Upon reflection of the information we presented in the our seminar, I hope we did not give the idea that this trip is likely to be much more challenging than any other trip.  Our bias toward making passages under sail undoubtedly colours our presentation.  In addition, any seminar is part entertainment, and everyone likes a good  story.  We actively seek out conditions that we can sail in, and occasionally get a little more than we bargained for.  Case in point is the 40kts we saw off of Brooks in 2010.   These times make for good stories, but in every case that we’ve been tested, waiting a day or two would’ve made a huge difference.  In 2010, a day’s wait would’ve equaled a calm motor in the fog.  While rounding Cape Scott is a commitment to doing 250 ocean miles, they come in relatively small chunks and needn’t be scary.  That these passages are each book-ended by large sounds with many secure anchorages only heightens the appeal.