sailboatbliss

Cruising by sail in the Pacific NW


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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.

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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Cruising the Sea Of Cortez – Loreto

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Moonrise at San Juanico

Loreto?  Where’s that?  What can I say about this amazing cruising ground that isn’t obvious from our pictures?  Bottom line, this area should be on any cruiser’s short list of destinations despite – or maybe because of – the fact that it is almost unknown.  The weather is perfect, the anchorages are close together, the scenery is stunning, the people are friendly and helpful, and the water is warm.  But options for getting a berth are limited to sailing your own boat down, or staying with a friend – there currently are no charters operating out of Loreto.

Loreto is a small city a couple of hundred miles north of La Paz, on the east side of the Baja California peninsula.  It is an old, historically significant city of about 15000 that is still off of the mainstream tourist trail.  It boasts a small charming downtown center with good restaurants, a few hotels, and a small beach.  It is popular with travelers looking for a laid back pace and outdoor recreational opportunities, especially water sports – fishing and diving.  The closest facility for cruising boats is 15 miles south in Puerto Escondido.

Our story really starts with our Haida Gwaii trip in 2015.  As I like to do every time we tie up somewhere, I went for a dock walk just to see who I’d meet.  Just down the finger, I struck up a conversation with a fellow named Dennis installing a watermaker on his sailboat Ultegra.  I asked a few questions, and his very thorough answer eventually led to sundowners in the cockpit.

Normally, this would be the end of the story.  We meet, and socialize, with people on the dock that we never see again all the time.  This time was different; two weeks later we just happened to anchor next to Ultegra in Haida Gwaii.  Serendipity.  This coincidence resulted in an excellent potluck, and eventually, an invitation to join Dennis at some point on his journey.  Even though we didn’t really know him – we’d only spent a couple of evenings socializing – we didn’t really spend much time thinking about it.  After all, he was offering up a berth aboard his boat in one of my dream destinations…What could go wrong?

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Our host Dennis in Haida Gwaii

As it turns out, nothing.  I won’t bore you with the details, but our gracious host opened his home to us and allowed us to share 11 days of fantastic sailing, perfect temperatures, mind blowing scenery, amazing food…the list is long.  He was kind and trusting enough to include us in all of the daily operations of the boat: planning, sailing, provisioning, cooking, and cleaning (yes cleaning – nothing makes you feel more at home than doing the dishes); we very quickly felt comfortable and at home.

I’m so glad we jumped at this opportunity.  It would’ve been easy to say thanks but no.  Happily, we didn’t.

A massive thank you and safe journey home to our host and friend, Dennis Giraud aboard the SV Ultegra.

 


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Cruising North of Desolation Sound. Navigating The Passes

DSCN0485Every year Lori and I present at the Seattle Boat show.  One of the main topics we talk about is the area north of Desolation Sound.  This rather long post 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…

 

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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.

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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

Southbound.

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.

 

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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.

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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:

onlinehttp://www.canadianyachting.ca/destinations/canada/932-bc-tidal-passes-passes-beyond-desolation-sound

Happy Cruising; we hope to see you north of Desolation!

 

 


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Don’t Leave Too Early

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Reaching south of the Bunsby Islands in the early afternoon, West Coast Vancouver Island

 

Crazy as it sounds, I often hear sailors talking about getting away early “before the winds build”.  What???  Isn’t wind a requirement for sailing?  I think the main culprit behind this line of thinking is powerboat centered guidebooks.  While many guides that cover the coast of BC are written by people who can sail (read used to sail), few are written by those currently sailing.  As far as I know there are two: the Dreamspeaker series by Anne and Laurence  Yeadon-Jones and Best Anchorages of the Inside Passage by Anne Vipond and William Kelly.

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Keeping a close watch on a foggy morning motor

The rest, most of which are excellent and very useful when it comes to covering destinations, contain lots of advice about how to best avoid the wind and the resulting seas during passages.  Mostly, this advice involves leaving early.  While there are passages where this makes sense regardless of where you boat (west bound up both Johnstone and Juan de Fuca Straits or any passage with considerable current for example), the majority of the time this early rising business simply leads to long, boring motors, sometimes in the fog. My advice: don’t leave too early.  What’s the rush?  Sleep in, enjoy your breakfast, wait for the fog to lift.  On a sunny day, much of our coast develops a sea-breeze by noon.  We’ve found Queen Charlotte Strait to be particularly reliable, and it’s small enough to cross in a couple of hours; start your crossing at noon and you’ll still arrive at your destination in plenty of time for happy hour.  So, remember, leaving in the early hours is a wind avoidance strategy for those looking for flat water.  If you want a decent sail, do the opposite, and enjoy the free ride.

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Friends beating into an afternoon inflow, Kyuquot Sound, Vancouver Island

 


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Brooks Peninsula

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0FCkdPIPcsDSCN1538
  • 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.
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On the hook, inner basin, Columbia Cove


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Cape Caution

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Beach at Dsulish Bay, Smith Sound

 

Cape Caution keeps a lot of people south. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not, but it certainly helped to provide Lori and I with one of the most amazing weeks of cruising that we’ve ever had. Five nights in empty anchorages, a beautiful beach all to ourselves, fresh salmon, excellent swimming, and an amazing 70nm mile sail back into Port McNeill to finish it off.

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Ceviche appies under way – 60 miles into a 70 mile sail.

 

Cape Caution is a low promontory about 35nm NNW of Port Hardy. The main reason it tends to somewhat intimidating is the fact that it is the first passage of open ocean when going north from Vancouver or Seattle.  To compound the any anxiety, the shoal waters that extend well offshore tend to amplify a swell that is likely to be on your beam.

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Queen Charlotte Strait to Fitzhugh Sound.

 

In 2009, friends of ours learned about Cape Caution’s beam seas the hard way as they motored around in their 40′ powerboat on a beautiful sunny summer afternoon only to be badly bounced when the shore breeze kicked in. The first time we went around, in 2005, I couldn’t sleep the night before our departure. Visions of huge swells and raging winds kept me up until I gave up trying to sleep and weighed anchor. We left at 4am and motored for 5 or 6 hours waiting for the breeze to fill on over the glassy seas. It was a pretty uneventful trip, but still felt like a huge achievement.

Since then, we have been north of the cape 3 more times, the most recent being early in August (2014) for a short visit. Each time has been amazing. Why?

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The amazing West Beach on Calvert Island

There are a few reasons. The area north of Cape Caution is largely undeveloped – this is a place to really get away from it all. The only real towns on the northern half of the outer central coast of BC – Bella Bella and Shearwater – are situated about half way between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. If you are willing to make your way far up some of the inlets, there are a handful more.  Aside from the boats heading north or south in the Inside Passage, the coast north of Cape Caution is empty.  It is wilderness cruising in its truest sense.

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An exposed anchorage in the Serpent Group, Kildidt Sound

The other things that draw people north are a plethora of fine anchorages, excellent fishing, and wonderful sandy beaches. We’ve even found warm water for swimming without looking too hard. Coupled with the seclusion, these attributes make for a cruising paradise.

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Smith Sound

There is are a couple of kickers though. One must round Cape Caution – twice – and it can rain…lots. Not much one can do about the rain – we’ve been very lucky in all of our northern adventures, but we know plenty who’ve endured days of rain and drizzle. On the other hand, the passage around Cape Caution is totally manageable. For powerboats, leaving early with a favourable weather forecast, even if its foggy, can allow you to get around before the afternoon breeze kicks in. For sailors, my rule is don’t leave too early – in a period of settled summer weather, the shore breeze is pretty reliable, and tends to be westerly to southwesterly as you approach Fitzhugh Sound going north and northwesterly as you approach Queen Charlotte Strait going south (inflow winds in both cases).  The winds tend to create the conditions for a beautiful reach to end your passage in both directions.  Enjoy!

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Sailing North around Cape Caution