“Windy, windy!” I remarked for what seemed the upteenth time this month. Early May has had a lot of wind, nearly every day, from the northwest. This is due to a big high pressure system parked offshore of Vancouver Island, creating gradients with the low pressure over inland BC and Washington. It’s also meant nice weather – sunny and hot.
I can’t remember the last time it’s rained. Although it’s probably only been 2 weeks, that’s a long time to go without rain in the Pacific Northwest spring. Our boat became more and more salt encrusted as we bashed upwind to Campbell River.
In Campbell River we did a significant boat repair project (more on that later), and provisioned for our circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, which will take us through July. With 2-3 months till our next big grocery store, we bought even more stuff than we did in March in Seattle! After a tiring three days of boat work and chores, we were ready to move on to Johnstone.
Sunrise from Otter Cove at 6am
The decision to add a below-decks autopilot to our boat wasn’t an easy one. For one, it’s expensive, and also a very difficult, time-consuming install. Furthermore, we already have a wheel-mounted autopilot. Why on earth do we need a different one? Then there’s the eternal debate between windvanes vs electric autopilots.
The answer to why we needed a below-decks autopilot is an easy one – our Raymarine ST4000+ wheel pilot simply can’t handle our boat in strong wave conditions, running with a following sea. And that’s the main job we need an autopilot for. The wheel pilot is rated for vessels up to 16,500 lbs, and ours is 17,000 lbs when empty. Loaded with cruising gear it’s likely 19,000-20,000 lbs.
The new autopilot system – Raymarine EV-200
Probably the biggest thing motivating a below-decks autopilot is the memory of our Hecate Strait crossing last June in a gale. I hand steered for almost 18 hours in big, breaking, following seas because the wheel autopilot couldn’t handle it. But there have been plenty of other times where it would’ve been nice to have an autopilot I could have confidence in.
Hecate wave state before it got hard. These were the “easy” waves.
The end of April and start of May found us transitioning into much easier cruising conditions. Partly it was the weather (less rainy and more moderate winds) and partly the location – we found a lot of great anchorages on the Sunshine Coast and in Desolation Sound.
Our week of waiting for a gale to pass paid off and we had a great crossing of the Strait of Georgia on Sunday April 28. We started out with NW 18 at Entrance Island and still very sloppy seas (3-4’ close spaced chop) – the boat got covered in salt back to the dodger windows. It’s impressive how rough this area (around Entrance Island and Nanaimo) can be in relatively moderate winds. But things calmed down quickly and we sailed right up to Smuggler’s Cove.
We had never been to Smuggler’s Cove and found it had all the things we like in an anchorage – gunky, well protected, scenic and some good hiking. Oh and shallow is always good too, with our manual windlass – our biceps have gotten enough of a workout lately.
We stayed two nights in Smuggler’s and then sailed up to Pender Harbor for reprovisioning, and then to Sturt Bay. We lucked out on our sail to Sturt Bay and had light southeast winds the whole time – flying the spinnaker! This was unexpected because the forecast was for light NW, and the wind stations on the western side of Texada were showing NW winds. Somehow though it was flowing from the southeast in Malaspina – we suspect it was outflow wind from the snowy mountains of the Jervis Inlet area.
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.
Three weeks into our 2019 cruising season, we’re finally feeling in tune with the cruising mindset. Time has started to slow down, and we’re drawn to the peaceful serenity of quiet anchorages. We’re feeling excited for what lies ahead – the snow capped mountain vistas we had sailing up the Strait of Georgia last year, and the welcoming pinnacles of Desolation Sound.
Even the challenge of Johnstone Strait is something to look forward to – will we luck out and get the southeasterly downwind push we had the last two times northbound in Johnstone?
Although this April has been tougher than last year (rainy with rapidly changing wind), the ups and downs of cruising are part of the package. And these early season months are some of my favorites.
Last year we cruised the San Juans in April and loved it, so we weren’t surprised to enjoy it again this year. Empty anchorages, all the park mooring balls open (makes it easier to grab one under sail!), and great wind for sailing (in fact there was no day where we couldn’t sail).
That said we’ve found this April to be much more challenging than last year. We’ve had more rain than last year so far – equaling a lot of pretty chilly days. On grey, wet days we need to run our diesel heater, but on sunny days we don’t (these have been rare though).
We’ve also had more wind, from fairly strong cold fronts moving through. We’ve already exceeded the highest wind speeds we experienced in last April and May combined – gusts to 34 knots while sailing, and 25 knots at anchor/mooring. Last year there was only one month out of six (June) where we reached those levels.
Admittedly the 34 knots while sailing was our fault – a poor decision to go out on a borderline day. We’ve had a tough time making the go / no-go decision this month, partly because the weather forecasts have been so complex. Making the right call is incredibly tough, as the line between fun conditions and not-fun is very thin. If anything this month has taught us to lean towards conservativism, which seems to be a lesson we need to be retaught every year – it’s easy to forget the power of high winds pushing against opposing current.
It’s easy to forget how difficult sailing in the Pacific Northwest can be. We’ve been underway a week and a half now, and made a slow escape from Puget Sound. Every couple days a different weather system has been coming through, and interpreting the forecasts has been incredibly difficult.
We first sailed south to Blake Island, and had a few southerly gales while there (bringing pounding rain and graupel at times too!). Then we had only light wind going north to Port Madison (S 6-8) and then Port Ludlow (S 4-12 and N 12). The next day, en route to Port Townsend, brought N 18-25 with a gale warning for the evening (we left at 7am to beat it!).
Part of the challenge has been weather patterns that are completely different from one area of Puget Sound to another. On some days there’s been south wind at Seattle but north wind at Port Townsend, or vice versa, and a small craft advisory at one but no wind at the other. Another difficulty we’ve found is the NOAA forecast has often been wrong in wind magnitude or direction, or both.
Fortunately the ECMWF model (European) in Windy has been pretty accurate (more so than NAM, the North American model).
This goose at Blake Island hung out with the Canadian geese but looked nothing like the others. Anyone know if it’s a different species or some sort of albino Canadian goose?
The Canadian geese didn’t give two hoots about the raccoon (which got on our boat only once).