Cruising by sail in the Pacific NW

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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.

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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

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Emergency Steering


Steering with the emergency tiller


Let’s pretend for a moment…you’re out in 20 to 30 knots of wind on a gorgeous, sunny day. The seas are 3’ to 5’, and you are sailing under only a seriously reduced foresail through a reef strewn passage. You’ve ducked into the passage to get some respite from the conditions outside – an exhilarating but somewhat scary 3 hour passage with the biggest, steepest seas you’ve ever seen. You’ve made a habit of pushing the boat and yourself over the last 10 years of serious cruising, but these seas were big and steep. Dealing with them was hard work and a little stressful. The conditions in the passage are much easier, but the boat is still moving quickly. The closest reef has the surf breaking on it about 250m off your starboard bow, the second closest is dead ahead, about 300m away. There is no missing them – they are a cauldron of raging whitewater. The fairway between them should be easy to navigate, but you need to watch what you’re doing. You’re doing an easy 6 knots through the water, and really enjoying yourself now that those monster seas are gone. You’re thinking about dropping the hook, kicking back and sharing stories.  The anchorage is an easy ½ hour away.
Then you lose your steering. At first you can’t believe it because you’re so careful to maintain the boat, but a free spinning wheel is proof. At 6 knots you’ll be on the reef in a couple of minutes. You’re in 70’ of water, so you think about anchoring, but realize that stopping a 10 ton boat doing 6 knots with the anchor is probably impossible in the space available. Do you know where your emergency tiller is? Does it work? If you own a tiller steered boat, do you have a plan – tillers do break. If you can’t answer yes to these questions, chances are excellent you have 2 minutes before you’re on the rocks with the surf breaking on you, pounding you and your boat as you try to survive. There is a chance you will lose your boat. There is a chance that you will not survive. Do you know where your emergency tiller is? Does it work? We’re incredibly lucky. We did, and it worked. The calm anchorage was amazing.

Some notes on cable steering:
Many people don’t even think about their steering system. We’d ignored it for 8 years, and had no idea when the previous owner serviced it. Much like when we drive, we just expect it to work. Edson – a major manufacturer of sailboat steering systems – recommends an annual inspection. (see Cables showing any signs of wear (ie: “meathooks” or broken strands) need to be replaced. Parts should be lubricated regularly, including the sprocket and other parts below the binnacle compass. All of this equipment is probably installed in the least accessible part of your boat – not much fun. When you replace your cables, make sure to install the cable clamps so that the U-bolt is bearing on the tail, not the standing part of the cable. (see Use 3 clamps on each side, and make sure they are TIGHT (there is are torque specs on the pdf). This is where ours failed. When I went to fix the system, I found both clamps that I’d installed sitting on the hull directly beneath the quadrant. I hadn’t tightened them enough. At least it a relatively easy fix that we made while on the hook behind an island not far from where we lost steering. We added a third clamp to each cable at the next port.