Southbound from Nootka Sound and a Stowaway in Tofino

A couple days ago as we approached Nootka Sound, sailing close hauled, I remarked “it’s all downwind after this!” That evening, a southerly moved in bringing rain and south winds just as it was time for us to head back south. The fun downwind sail I had envisioned evaporated into a long upwind slog. But, no matter – we ended up having some fun, challenging ocean sailing, even though it ended up a tiring day.

The south wind was only 9-12 kts, but the waves were much larger than you’d have in those conditions on a sound. Exiting Nootka, we were motoring with wind and swell on the nose, only making 5 kts when we’d normally do 6, and rolling from -10 degrees to +10 degrees. There was a 3 foot westerly swell with SW wind waves mixed in. We decided to sail, even though going upwind around Estevan Point would take a really long time. But setting sail actually made things much more comfortable – we were no longer rolling 20 degrees.

It took us nearly 4 hours to get around Estevan though, 8 hours overall from Friendly Cove to Hot Springs Cove. The swells approaching Estevan were really large, and if only 10-12 kts does that, I’d hate to be caught out there in 20.

We spotted lots of sea otters!

Normally we’d consider waiting a day for the wind to switch back to northerly, but we were running low on water (~9 gallons of 34 capacity), and hadn’t been to a marina in 2 weeks (which is why we were also approaching a dire coffee situation – we had only whole bean coffee left, with no real way to grind it. We thought we could run our coffee grinder off a small portable inverter we have, but it turned out the grinder uses more than 70 watts. So we’ve been grinding coffee with a battery powered Cuisinart, but it just produces a coarse chop).

Our route sailing around Estevan Point to Hot Springs Cove, with a south wind

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Clayoquot to Nootka Sound: Farther and Farther from Civilization We Go

As we sailed towards Hot Springs Cove, the wind steadily backed to the west, giving us a lift (sailor lingo for a favorable shift in wind). We were pointed right at Hesquit Harbor now, so we said why not go to Hesquit? We could always do the Hot Springs on the way back. We make changes in plans like this often when wind or weather gives us a favorable shift to take advantage of.

In this case Hesquit made sense also because it gets us a little further towards Estevan Point and Nootka Sound. We knew Estevan can be treacherous, with its outlying rocks and confused swell convergence. So being a bit closer allows us to monitor conditions and choose the right time to go, plus shorten the passage to Nootka (to ~21 nm).

As we sailed, we saw a gray whale feeding close to shore off Flores Island. Earlier, while motoring out we had seen 6-8 sea otters just hanging out floating on their backs with their toes in the air – so cute! It was a sea life rodeo today. As we entered Hesquit Harbor and passed over the bar (a 20-30 ft section) we were stunned to see a humpback feeding past the bar only a few hundred feet from our boat. We were sailing downwind by now (the wind backs into Hesquit Harbor) at 6 kts, and I altered course to give him a wider berth.

The Nootka Sound lighthouse

Hesquit Harbor

Hesquit ended up being a very nice anchorage. It doesn’t look like it would be, but nestled behind Anton’s Spit (a shallow spit on the west side that’s submerged at high tide), we had complete protection from waves, and a great view of the mountains of Clayoquot Sound. It’s true it’s about 2 nm in, but in the afternoon you can generally sail in downwind, and in the morning it gives you quick access to rounding Estevan, shaving ~6 nm off the alternative option of Hot Springs Cove.

We were the only boat there, and would consider Hesquit again.

Estevan Point lighthouse

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Barkley Sound to Clayoquot: Ups and Downs of Cruising

Week two of our July cruise began in Ucluelet, at the northwestern end of Barkley Sound. We anchored out in front of the main marina, after first filling our water tank at the 52 Steps dock, and emptying the holding tank at the pumpout station in the marina ($5 CDN). On the way into the harbor we saw a huge group of eagles (15-20) on the eastern shore, feeding on a salmon head.

We had dinner reservations for a date night at Norwoods, Ucluelet’s fine dining restaurant (a tiny town like this only has one). Everything was really good, and we’d recommend the steak and halibut entrees, and I was really impressed by Category 12 Brewing’s dry-hopped sour ale.

A First Nations statue outside Matilda Inlet

Attempting to go to Tofino and the (accidental) DSC Distress Call

Monday morning we disassembled the Portabote for storage on deck, since we knew there was a chance of big, rough waves on the way to Tofino. The forecast was iffy – a gale warning for Vancouver Island South, but that forecast region is enormous, and it sounded like the gale was primarily for the northern part (north of Estevan Point by Hot Springs Cove). We’re also often skeptical of Canada’s marine forecasts because we’ve found they frequently overestimate the wind compared to US forecasts – this time that may have been a mistake though.

We were prepared for some challenging upwind sailing, but the waves were the main concern. I was closely monitoring the reports from La Perouse Buoy, Lennard Island lighthouse station off Tofino, Estevan Point, Tofino Airport, and Cape Beale. We left Ucluelet early with very mild conditions in the harbor (2-4 kts SW) and Cape Beale reporting SW 8-10, which would be very good for us if it made it to Ucluelet. But as soon as we turned the corner out of the harbor, there was about 10 kt NW, but the waves quickly became the real problem.

The 6-9 foot waves from further out on the ocean were hitting this 50-60 foot depth region and stacking up into 5 foot standing waves. Standing waves are nothing like ocean swell – they’re unbelievably closely spaced waves that your boat doesn’t roll over, it dives over. Our previous 6 kts motoring speed got squashed to 2-3 kts by these waves, and the boat was pitching so much that I buried the bow, despite steering as best I could. These were probably the worst waves I’ve ever seen while going against them (going *with* the waves is much easier, and we’ve gone with comparable waves in the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Strait).

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Exploring the Remote Anchorages of Barkley Sound

Our arrival to Barkley Sound was a tremendous relief – after bashing and motoring upwind for 200 miles, we were ready for some relaxation and easy sails between idyllic anchorages. Barkley Sound had all that and more. We sailed between every anchorage, attempted some fishing, went swimming in a waterfall creek, hiked Brady’s Beach, made pizza and cookies, and had a dinner out in Ucluelet.

Our route through Barkley Sound: Dodger Channel to Bamfield to Jacques-Jarvis Lagoon to Refuge Is (Lucky Creek) to Ucluelet

Refuge Island anchorage near Lucky Creek

Dodger Channel

The first night we were getting in around 7pm after a tiring day of motoring/sailing since 9:30am from Port Renfrew, so we decided to stop at the first available good anchorage – Dodger Channel. This isn’t an obvious anchorage, so we were the only boat there, but our guide book described it well, and a user report on Navionics has it rated 5 stars. It has a narrow, shallow (12 ft when we entered) south entrance which provides complete protection from waves, and is surrounded by scenic shoreline on all sides. In the morning a deer grazed on the grass to the north, and we rowed the dinghy to the south shore on Diana Island to explore the beach.

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Frustrating Conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

It seemed long ago, but only yesterday (July 1) we had been hoping for some more wind while crossing the Strait from Port Ludlow to Mackaye Harbor. Today, Sunday, we were bashing upwind towards Victoria, battling a small craft advisory that was soon to turn into a full-on gale. We were heeled over 20 degrees and pitching through big waves – going into the cabin to fetch lunch or use the head was an exercise in bracing ourselves nearly sideways against bulkheads and doorways.

Although the wind was “only” 15-18, 15 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca can feel like 25 in Puget Sound. The waves were the main challenge – 2-3 foot wind waves on top of swell (in some places) which had built up from the prior night of high winds, with tide rips thrown in for extra fun. To surmount these waves we had to stay powered up to crest over them and then slam down into the trough, our lee stern quarter slushing away what seemed like a mountain of water. We had a reef in the main and a reef in the genoa, closed hauled for 4 hours.

We got into Oak Bay marina about 3pm, fortunately before the gale really arrived, bringing 30-40 knot winds. Race Rocks registered 42. These summer inflow winds are throwing a hitch into our plans of getting out to the west coast, and are in stark contrast to the near windless conditions we saw in the Strait two years ago at this same time of year. It brings newfound respect for the Strait, where previously we’ve never seen more than 10 knots, in over a dozen times in the eastern Strait.

Sunday’s upwind bash through confused waves from the San Juans to Victoria.

Fortunately we weren’t at Race Rocks for this, but we worried a lot about running into it the next day.

But, while it’s disappointing to be making slightly slower progress, it fits with our deliberately slow pace of cruising, and delaying our Strait exit is actually the prudent move – Sunday night is the peak of the gale inflow, so we wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Race Rocks at that time.

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Setting Sail for the West Coast of Vancouver Island

Tonight we cast off the lines for our third annual summer cruise, following a similar route to the one we did two years ago up the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with excitement, but we also know there are some challenging waters ahead of us. Our first big cruise two years ago was a bit of a reality check, making us aware that ocean waves can be much more difficult than we expected, and that some of our sailing skills weren’t quite as good as we thought (in particular, we had little high wind experience).

We’re hoping this time it will go a lot better. Besides having a great deal more experience, the boat is in better shape now – having 2 ½ years worth of projects done rather than just 6 months worth. Two problems that stressed us last time – engine troubles in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and a gradual transmission failure – shouldn’t happen again.

Things have been really busy the last month – after moving aboard (becoming full-time liveaboards) there was a flurry of projects and chores to complete, along with some great sailing to the San Juans and a couple local destinations. So I don’t really have much time to write more about our planned trip, and will just refer back to this post from two years ago for our approximate route. This time however, we’ll be going up the Canadian side – Victoria to Becher Bay to Port Renfrew to Bamfield.



Harnessing the Sun: Solar Power on a Sailboat

Adding solar power to Violet Hour is something we’ve been meaning to do since returning from our cruise last summer and having trouble keeping our batteries charged because we weren’t motoring enough. Most sailboats in the PNW do a lot of motoring, which allows their engine’s alternator considerable time to charge up the batteries. We prefer to sail, and were sometimes getting less than 15 minutes of alternator time per day.  

Surprisingly, it’s common to hear sailors say they were “motoring to charge up the batteries.” This is apparently one explanation for SMDs (sailboat motoring downwind). This seems incredibly silly to me, and is something I’ve always vowed to never have to say. Burning diesel to convert it into electricity while pushing an 18,000 pound boat through the water is terribly inefficient. As a believer in Muscles Over Motors, motoring your sailboat around just to run your fridge seems downright sad.

Solar panels will allow us to sail more while still keeping the fridge cold enough to not need to buy bags of ice or allow premature spoilage.  It may also allow us to anchor out more since we’ll no longer have to visit a marina once a week to top up batteries (although we may still visit marinas to make groceries + laundry easier).

GoPower solar panels mid-installation


Solar has come down in cost a lot in the last 20 or so years. A 200 watt system is only about $1000 ($1400 minus the 30% solar tax credit*), if you can install it yourself.  In other words, enough energy to power a fridge for 5 years with zero pollution costs less than half what the average American spends on gasoline in one year. From this perspective, solar is a no-brainer.

*A quick note on the solar tax credit if you’re not familiar with it: It’s a tax credit to incentivize clean solar energy replacing dirty energy sources. It might start getting phased out in 2020-2022. It can be applied to your second home, which a boat counts as if it has a galley and head. Anyway, our boat is our first (and only) home currently. Also, a tax credit is not like a deduction – credits are for anyone who pays any federal tax at all. (note: I’m not a tax advisor – do your own due diligence of course).

The system may even pay for itself after about 5 years. The electricity cost savings are small, because Washington’s plentiful hydro-electric plants provide cheap energy rates, but all the little savings add up:

  • Reduced electrical consumption at dock while living aboard.
  • Abstaining from shore power hookups in BC marinas once or twice a month ($5-8 per night typically).
  • Skipping 1 or 2 marina visits per summer cruise ($50-60 per visit).

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