Cruising by sail in the Pacific NW

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Hanging out in the Discovery Islands


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.


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 in a rush to get north but the tides don’t allow you to blast through, take the opportunity to slow down and explore.


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Georgia Strait


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.


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.


Planning a trip down Vancouver Island’s West Coast?


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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 equalled 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.


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!



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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.

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Brooks Peninsula


Playing on the beach near shed 4, south Brooks Peninsula

Brooks Peninsula sticks out of the north west coast of Vancouver Island like a sore nose.  While it is not as well known as its northern neighbour – Cape Scott – it is not for lack of trying.  A little digging on typical summer conditions reveals that Solander Island at the westernmost tip of the peninsula regularly reports the highest wind strengths on the coast.  Added to the wind is a rugged topography that tends to reflect any seas into a random mess.  The cherry on top is a complete lack of anchorages anywhere along the coast of the peninsula.  For a counter-clockwise circumnavigation, it is the barrier that separates the north from the south, the cold from the warm, worry from relaxation.  For most boats, it represents the major headland on the entire trip.

In 2010, we sailed around the island with a couple of other boats.  In 2 months, it rained for a total of 1 day.  We had some amazing sailing, ate amazing food in fantastic company (I gained 10 pounds), and spend many hours sitting on the plethora of deserted white sand beaches that line this coast.  It was an incomparable summer.  While our group ended the trip even closer than we’d left, it wasn’t all smiles.  The two major roundings (Cape Scott and Brooks Peninsula) both induced some stresses into our group – the inevitable result of such a large group having varying interpretations of the weather and different ideas about acceptable risks.   For our Cape Scott rounding, we talked quite a bit the night before, but ultimately momentum carried us around in unpleasant but benign conditions.  A week later, day after day of gale warnings off of Brooks required that we rethink how we functioned as a collective.  We’d have to actually pick a window – just getting up and leaving in the morning wouldn’t work.

We waited in a beautiful spot called “East Cove” for 3 days.  At first, we just enjoyed the wonderful weather, but as the days ticked by, with gales forecast for every day, we started to get a little stir crazy.  On the third day, we got the break we were looking for: NW gales of 35 to 40 knots overnight easing to 20 in the morning, and building to 40 by the afternoon, followed by a day with NW 10 to 15kt winds building to NW 25 knots.  This was the first mention of anything less than 25 knots at anytime of the day for a week.  We decided to leave the next morning and head south to a place called Klaskish Inlet – the closest anchorage to the peninsula – so as to position ourselves for a rounding on the next day.  Lori and I suggested that maybe if the conditions were good in the morning, we should just go for it and forgo another wait.  We retired that evening with a plan.

The next morning, we motored out of Quatsino Sound in light winds and turned south.  As per our suggestion, Lori and I headed offshore towards Solander Island in an effort to check out the conditions – so far they were mellow.  The other two boats made for Klaskish and kept in radio contact.


Approaching Solander Island, running before 2 5kts of wind

A couple of hours from Solander Island, we were overtaken by two small (28′) powerboats doing a speed trip around the island – they screamed on past us and agreed to give us an on the spot report of conditions off of the headland.  We pressed on under power – there still wasn’t enough wind to really get the boat moving.  5 miles out, and we finally were able to shut the motor off. We also got a weather report – winds NW 25kts, and seas about 6′.  Doable.  At this point, Lori and I decided to go for it.  Our friends decided not to.  This parting was a big deal in a very positive way: it gave everyone on the trip license to make their own decisions without worrying about what the rest of the group thought.  This sounds like an obvious imperative when reading it, but it is often hard to separate from a group.


Past Solander Island – a downhill sleigh ride!

Sometime around noon, we were abeam of Solander Island and totally committed.  We were still running with a perfect NW 25 knots, but the seas became quite unpredictable.  Because of the shape of the shore, the waves that hit bounce off and interact with the arriving swell.  This creates random pyramids of water that appear out of nowhere.  The secret to avoiding these is to stay well offshore.  We were a couple of miles off – way too close.  I got quite the workout at the wheel as the boat surfed down the waves.  Not only did we have too much sail up, but any of the irregular waves would make the boat want to round up, requiring a very active helm to prevent a broach. In addition, the seas tended to be from the west, meaning that we had to steer towards shore when going down a big one.  I steered, Lori watched ready to help where needed, and Solander Island slipped by.

Half an hour after passing the island, the wind hit 40.  We rolled up half the genoa, and rode it.  Thankfully, the seas diminished and became more regular – we’d turned the corner and were out of the “wave reflection zone”.  Our insistence at going out in high winds close to home to build confidence really paid off here – everything was under control, and with the boat surfing at up to 10 kts, we were having a blast.


The shoal area in Columbia Cove at low tide

It was over 40 miles from our departure point to our destination in Columbia Cove.  An hour after rolling the genoa in to reduce sail area, we’d round Clerke Point (the SW corner of the Peninsula) and were motoring in no wind and flat seas along the south shore of the Peninsula.  This shore is amazing – beach after beach, with nobody on them. We stripped off the layers of foul weather gear and anticipated a fantastic afternoon of lounging on one of them in the sun.


Our pocket beach next to Shed 4

We anchored in Columbia Cove sometime around 2 in the afternoon, and promptly set off for “Shed 4”, the most accessible beach to the anchorage.  We landed in the surf on a wonderful pocket beach, and as anticipated, enjoyed the solitude in a pristine wilderness.


Shed 4 from a perch above our pocket beach

Tips for Brooks Peninsula:

  • Our friends rounded the next day with low visibility and no wind.  This is not uncommon.  Weather windows do happen, but you might need some patience.
  • During periods of sunny summer weather, the pattern is fairly predictable: NW gales by the afternoon.  If you think you can sneak around in the morning, leave early and don’t dally.  Be prepared for the wind to arrive early.
  • If it’s blowing, give Solander a wide berth; this will help avoid the seas created by the waves reflecting off the shoreline.  In 2012, we sailed around in 15 – 25 kts and very comfortable seas.  Here is some video about 5 miles off of Solander Island:
  • Expect the winds to pick up south of Solander Island.  As the wind hits the north side of the peninsula, it has to funnel around the corner – this increases the wind’s velocity (corner wind).
  • Be careful in Columbia Cove – the bottom in the inner basin is covered in kelp and the holding as quite bad.  We learned this the unpleasant way.  This “learning experience” is probably excellent fodder for another post.

On the hook, inner basin, Columbia Cove