If you want to understand the power of the wind, there’s no better way than being on a boat in a gale. It’s truly amazing how the wind can push a boat around like it’s a toy. If I have to be on a boat in a gale though, I’d very much prefer it be in a nice anchorage.
The forecast for Saturday April 27 had been clear well in advance – NW 25-35 kts (later upgraded to NW 30-40). So we had plenty of time to prepare, and slowed down our passage through the Gulf Islands – with strong north winds all week we’d have to wait out this gale in a good anchorage.
There aren’t many good anchorages in the northern Gulf Islands though. The Gulfs are quite challenging compared to the San Juans because most of its anchorages are open to either the northwest or southeast – the two primary wind directions. Strong winds can rule out almost 50% of its anchorages.
We wanted to be close to the northern end of the Gulfs and the passes out to the Strait of Georgia though so we could make our sail across it once the winds calmed down. We decided to try Degnen Bay, on the north side of Gabriola Passage.
But another challenge with Gulf Islands anchorages (in addition to many of them being quite small) is that several of them are crowded with permanently moored boats and unused mooring balls. These include Ganges, Silva Bay, and Degnen Bay. This can make it very difficult to find a good place to anchor.
Degnen Bay, Gabriola Passage
We knew Degnen was reported to be filled with permanent moorings, but figured we’d take the risk – at the very least, the entrance channel has anchoring room which Google Maps satellite view showed no moorings in.
We arrived Friday afternoon in light wind – the calm before the storm – and managed to set anchor perfectly in the middle of a small clearing between 4 mooring balls southwest of the government dock (which is generally full).
We rowed the distance from us to adjacent boats / moorings in the dinghy, a good way to better estimate distances, and counted about 80’-100’. This gave us enough room to put out 100’ of chain, a 3:1 scope in the 25’-33’ depth. Not ideal for a gale that was forecast to start at midnight though, and we planned to wake up regularly to check the wind and distances.
Degnen Bay also has swirly currents which turn the boat in circles and strange directions when the wind is light, so it’s likely our anchor had to reset at some point.
The wind started howling at 11pm and I didn’t sleep the rest of the night. Our distances looked fine though, and the wind was only 10-15 kts. At 2am though we started bumping into the unoccupied mooring ball south of us. It wasn’t a big problem (no damage would be done) but annoying. There just wasn’t enough room for an adequate swing circle here.
As soon as daylight struck around 5:30 we picked up anchor and moved to the entrance channel so we wouldn’t bump into the unoccupied mooring ball. The entrance channel looks more exposed but still is protected from fetch fairly well, has similar depths of 28′-35’, and more room to swing (~300’ wide). We put out all 150’ of our chain for a 5:1 scope.
In theory the protection in Degnen from a northwest blow is good. It’s only open to the south, so you’re protected from fetch, the biggest concern. It has a good treeline to the north, and at first I thought we were getting pretty good wind protection too (only 5-10 kts when the strait was up to 20).
But when morning came and the gale really arrived we had 25-30 gusting to 35 in the anchorage. No fun. These were the highest winds we’ve ever experienced in an anchorage actually. We could see the 35 knot gusts fly across the water turning the wave troughs into dimpled patches of dark water. Our anchor snubber was bar taut and we would swing wildly, heeling to 5 degrees as our beam came onto the wind. Inside the boat it sounded like a tornado – wind howling through the rigging, halyards slapping despite being secured well, etc.
Our anchor gear was holding well though so there was nothing to do but hold an anchor watch in the cockpit all day (the wind continued for nearly 24 hours). It was anxiety inducing spending hours seeing our anchor gear put under tremendous stress – the only thing holding us from the rocks 100 feet away. But we tracked our position with sightlines and GPS (Navionics) and didn’t budge – we’re once again really glad we invested in a good Rocna.
About 3pm Natalie looked to her right and saw a boat drifting past in the channel. It was a derelict-looking small sailboat (no mast, no gear, moss/dirt covered deck) that had chafed through its mooring line.
My first thought was to get in the dinghy and rescue it, but we didn’t have the outboard on the dinghy – and I wouldn’t be able to row a few thousand pounds of boat against 25-30 kts of wind (likely I couldn’t even row myself against that, and could get swept out to Gabriola Passage).
It takes a solid 10 minutes to lower our outboard and set it up, and I figured the boat would already be in Gabriola Passage by then, caught by current and the wind. So we decided the right thing to do was call Victoria Coast Guard. I gave them the position of the adrift vessel, and at this point we noticed a local in a dinghy was heading towards it.
We thought he’d be able to rescue it, but apparently his outboard wasn’t powerful enough to move it, so he aborted as they was getting swept into Gabriola Passage. As the mast-less sailboat entered the pass it got quickly swept west, out of sight. Sad, but hopefully the Coast Guard will pick it up at some point (I’m sure they’re *very* busy today).
A Tough Day
We’ve been having a tough month – there have been a lot of high winds and we keep getting ourselves in their path somehow. In retrospect we should have stayed in Ladysmith harbor another two nights to shelter from the gale there. The inner areas of the Gulfs are better protected from northwest gales. Nanaimo and Gabriola are in an acceleration zone, receiving the highest winds as the wind bends around the point where the Strait of Georgia curves.
In better weather Degnen Bay wouldn’t be too bad – but we probably wouldn’t recommend it except as a last resort anchorage, since the only viable anchoring space with adequate scope is in the entrance channel. In SE or light NW weather, the Kendricks Island anchorage would be better. On the plus side, the location set us up perfectly for a great sail across the Strait of Georgia the next day.