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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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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The Great Debate – Reef at the Mast or in the Cockpit?


Everything on a boat – any boat – is a compromise.  Reefing systems are no exception.  When we started sailing, reefing sounded so complicated that I decided that we just wouldn’t go out in conditions that required it.  That plan worked for our first trip – the delivery to our home port.  I learned how to reef on our second outing when we beat into a wall of wind in Indian Arm.  It wasn’t so difficult, except that our leeward rail was well under water and it was hard to find a reasonable place to stand.  The next year, we bought a new main with a much needed second reef point, and I got it in my head that reefing from the cockpit would be fantastic.  I installed single line reefing for both reef points, and set out for our annual cruise.  I was never really satisfied with it though.  There was tons of friction in the system, it was hard to pull the foot of the sail tight, and the massive length of line that ended up in the cockpit was a pain.   Shaking a reef out was no picnic either, with friction again making everything a massive grunt.   I didn’t get a lot of time to perfect the system though as we sold that boat the next fall and moved up into a new boat.

Our mariner had all of the reefing lines and halyards at the mast.  There is a lot of merit to this system.  It’s simple, has minimal friction, and with reefing horns on the boom, only required that I easy the halyard, harden the tack outhaul, and then re-harden the halyard.  If you have to leave the cockpit in weather, the mast is a relatively safe place to work.  Raising and lowering the main is easily accomplished by a single person with very little winching required, and the mess of lines is both smaller, and in an easy. manage location.  These benefits, for years, kept me in the “keep it simple” camp as a strong advocate for the mast reefing.

I have many friends in the other camp.  They have, or have crewed on, boats with all of the applicable lines lead aft.  Their argument is simple – why would you want to leave the security of the cockpit just when the weather is kicking up?  Sure there is friction, but leaving the cockpit is a safety issue.  Whenever the issue has come up (surprisingly often in my circle of friends), I was often the lone defender of the simplicity and ease inherent in having the halyards and reefing lines at the mast.  Now I’m not so sure.


My doubt started on a voyage from Jedidiah Island to Comox one dark and stormy night last summer –  a distance of about 35nm.  The forecast was for following winds of 20 to 25 kts overnight, falling to light the next morning.  Given that we hate motoring and don’t mind a sail in the dark, the choice to leave in the evening was simple.  At first, the sail was quite mellow, with the boat moving easily under full sail.  At about 10 pm, I went up to put in the first reef as the wind picked up to its forecast strength.  It wasn’t completely dark yet, and I accomplished this with a minimum of bother.  By midnight, the seas and wind had built and we were regularly hitting speeds of over 7 kts, surfing down the waves in gusts of 30 kts.   There was no moon, and a spectacular silent lightning storm threatened us in the east.  To add to the drama, hitting floating logs while boating in Georgia Strait is a real concern, and at our speeds, a collision could cause significant damage.  We needed to slow the boat down.

This time, reefing the sail wasn’t so routine.  To preserve Lori’s night vision, I donned a headlamp and went forward tethered to a jackline.  I couldn’t see Lori at the wheel, and she couldn’t see me at the mast.  Even tied to the mast, the work at the mast was unpleasant as the boat rolled in the waves.   Needless to say, I was happy to crawl back into the cockpit with our speeds at a far more manageable 5 to 6 kts.

My experience that night stayed fresh for a while, but still unconverted.  However, our current boat is giving me new data to work with.  Palomita came rigged with two line reefing lead aft for both reefs.  We decided to replace the lines, but keep the system as is to give it a good trial before changing anything. So far, it’s been good.  Put a reef in and and shaking one out is a chore, but the two lines minimize some of the issues we had with single line reefing.  With the bigger sail, having a winch available to grind the sail down is a bonus.   It might keep us in the cockpit, but it isn’t as quick or effortless as our old system meaning we might be inclined to push the boat longer without reefing, or wait longer to take one out.   Is it better than reefing at the mast?  I still don’t know.   I need more time, and at least one more dark and stormy night sail before forming a firm opinion.