Trip Summary: West Coast Vancouver Island

This year’s 1-month cruise took us from Seattle all the way to Nootka Sound, more than half way up Vancouver Island’s west coast.

Starting from Seattle, we had an upwind slog getting out the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, followed by a relaxing five days exploring Barkley Sound’s quiet anchorages. We next went up to Clayoquot Sound (after one false start due to awful wave conditions). We didn’t stay long in Clayoquot, heading up to Nootka Sound to see how far we could get. We had fun exploring Friendly Cove, but someday will have to come back when we have more time to explore Nootka.

It was time to turn around back south, so we headed to Tofino and picked up an unwelcome stowaway for one night. We stopped in Barkley Sound again, regretting we didn’t have more time to stay in this most epic of sounds, and headed back down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Fortunately we had some time to relax in Victoria, checking out some anchorages we normally wouldn’t have time for.  Passing through the San Juans they were as beautiful as always, but sadly it was soon time to return to Seattle.


A month sounds like a lot of time, but it’s really not, at least not when you’re trying to cover ground by sail. About 3 weeks in we realized we had packed the schedule a bit too tight, and probably shouldn’t have stretched to go to Nootka Sound. While it was cool to reach our farthest point north on the west coast ever, we had many long and tiring days and not quite enough short days or lay days.

It’s important to have balance in a cruising schedule. I often think of it like a video game – if you always have the difficulty setting on “hard”, you’ll get burnt out. Most days going up the west coast are medium or hard difficulty, so we needed a few more easy days in the mix. Fortunately the last week, in the Victoria area and San Juans, provided some nice easy days.

View of our route with the return leg plotted as well.

Stats:

  • Nights at anchor: 27
  • Nights in a marina: 3
  • # times stern tied: 0
  • Distance Traveled, as the motor boat travels: 600 nautical miles
  • Distance Traveled, as sailed (approximated): 800-900 nautical miles
  • % time spent sailing (approx): 75%
  • % distance spent sailing (approx): 50%

Comparing to last year, there are a few interesting differences:

  1. We had to motor more. In one month we motored half of what we did in 3 months last year. Whether this is due to the shorter trip (meaning less flexibility to go slow and time the wind) or the destination (windward to the West Coast is harder to sail), I’m not sure.
  2. Wind speeds were lower this year. We never had a windy night at anchor, and never had more than small craft advisory level winds while sailing. See “Wind” later in this post.
  3. We stayed in marinas even less than last year (15 times in 12 weeks) – this time only 3 times in 4 weeks. Our solar was the main reason we were able to do this. Solar power was wonderful and it meant the only remaining reason we had to tie up in a marina was to fill the water tank.

We often made comparisons to our previous two summer cruises and it was interesting having more perspective now. Our first summer cruise to the West Coast of Vancouver Island was nearly identical in route to this trip, and our second trip was 3 months up the inside of the island.

Part of why I wanted to do the windward route to West Van Isle this summer was to see how we handled it compared to two years ago – when we were quite new to our boat, only having had it for 5 months. That was the trip that made us realize we don’t want to sail across oceans (ex, to Mexico or Hawaii).

That hasn’t changed, but we learned a lot this year:

  1. We don’t mind sailing in ocean swell. It can be fun, like when we were in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca going over 6 foot rollers closed hauled in 8-10 kts. But the ocean often doesn’t have wind, and we don’t like motoring (anywhere, but especially in the ocean, where the swell rolls your boat as you motor).
  2. The difficult waves we experienced off Barkley and Clayoquot Sounds, this year and two years ago, are nothing like typical ocean conditions. They’re far worse. We’ve seen the waves stack up as swell from further out in the ocean meets the rugged shoreline and gets pushed up by shallow 30-60 ft depths around the points. Just 15 kts of wind can cause 5 foot waves spaced close together (2-3 different wave crests along the length of our boat, which is 30 ft at waterline). The shoreline and shallows are what cause this, and once you’re 5-10 nm away from shore, the waves become much more manageable.

Weather

The weather overall was spectacular this year, as good as one could possibly hope for. We had sun almost every day (rain came only one or two days) and warm temperatures. That doesn’t mean it was never cold – while sailing, the wind and cold ocean water often meant we were bundled up in fleeces, hats and double layers.

We had more fog this year than either prior year, having dense fog on 5 or 6 mornings. We used our radar twice, for the first time finding it actually useful rather than a vestigial appendage to our boat.

      

Wind

The wind was more frustrating this year than our inside route last year. It felt like the forecasts were frequently wrong (like the small craft advisory that had only 4-5 kts, the gale that had only 12-14) and we were upwind a lot more than last year (75% of the time vs 50% last year). While the first half of July often had 8 or more hours of wind per day, the 2nd half often had only 3 hours of wind and it was from 6-9pm (the rest of the day being 0-4 kts).

This had the effect of decreasing our sailable miles, and making some of our days longer and more tiring (ex, 8 hours to go 20 nm). Even when it came time to turn around and do the fun, downwind route from Nookta to Victoria in the later half of July, we found the wind’s consistency had disappeared.

I’m not sure if this was an unusual year (it’s been particularly hot and dry, and it felt like August arrived on July 15) or if I’m just being too obsessive about the wind – it’s not really surprising that it often doesn’t do what you want in the PNW.

Why Harp on the Wind So Much?

By now you might be wondering why I focus so much on the wind. Surely cruising is more about the destinations, anchorages, beaches and such right?  To some people it is, but for me about half the attraction of cruising comes from sailing. I always say, if I didn’t want to sail, we would’ve bought a motorboat.

You can check out my article in 48 North this spring on why we prioritize sailing, and how we did it last year (*page 26*). There are many reasons to want to sail rather than motor but first and foremost is that it’s more fun!  Arriving at an anchorage after a day spent working the wind to get there is far more satisfying than a day spent motoring there.

Tactics

This year we still did well, but not as well as last year. I previously described our attempts to cruise by wind power as like an intense chess match. Well, this year it felt like every move we made was thwarted – we were losing the battle. Every time we made a move, our opponent came back with a last minute change to the weather forecast, or conditions that never even got close to the forecast, and days that had completely different patterns from the prior day.

Some of this was just bad luck. And we certainly did still sail a good amount. I think a large part of the challenge this year was that going to the west coast via the windward route simply creates more challenging sailing conditions. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is a long beast, and there’s no easy way to sail 35 nm with only 4-6 kts of wind (or with 25 kts upwind) with only 2 crew and still have fun doing it.

One of our tactics which was pretty successful last year – waiting for wind – was pretty fluky this year. Waiting for wind means timing departures to when the wind is up (leave anchor at 11am or noon instead of 8am), or waiting an hour or so for wind while underway. The problem was while last year most days there would be some wind in the early afternoon, this year towards late July the wind often didn’t start until 6pm.

Obviously, we could upend our schedule to sail in the evening (5-10pm) and relax during the day. But this is easier said than done. For one, we usually have to time passages to the current – if the current is against us in that time window, an upwind sail can take twice as long. Second, most people do their “work” (sailing) on a routine resembling normal land life – “working” during the day and relaxing and socializing at night.

Sailors on ocean passages sail around the clock, but coastal cruising is not ocean voyaging. Its demands are different (many people say it’s harder / more tiring – sailing up a strait, you often can’t just turn on the autopilot and read a book). And whatever routine you choose while coastal cruising needs to be sustainable and fun – while an ocean passage may last 2 weeks, it rarely lasts over a month. Lastly, there’s no guarantee that waiting all day for wind at 6 or 7pm will mean it arrives then. While it’s rare to have 24 hours with no wind, it does happen.

It feels wrong to complain about the wind, because I recognize how fortunate we are to get to experience the remote and beautiful west coast of Van Isle. The main takeaway is next time I’d much rather go around the island the proper way (counterclockwise), start in June, and avoid August entirely.

Sail Configurations

In last year’s cruise we used pretty much all of our sail configurations – main only, genoa only, reefed main, reefed genoa, staysail, spinnaker. This year we never used the staysail (in part because we never had more than 20 kts going upwind, and also because our new genoa reefs better). We used the spinnaker a lot – about 75% of the days where we weren’t sailing upwind (only about 8 days).

Unlike last year, we also never double reefed the main or headsail. This year was all about maximizing power – to drive through steep waves, or sail in light wind.

Wildlife

We saw far more sea otters than the last two years – about 15 overall. We also saw either humpback or gray whales on 3-4 occasions. We saw no Orcas this year, which is unusual. Eagles and seals of course were in their usual abundance.

There were mosquitoes in many more locations than the previous two years. We had mosquitoes in about 10 anchorages (zero anchorages on our previous west coast trip, and about 10 times on our 3-month trip last year). Surprisingly, mosquitoes were present as far north as Nootka Sound and as far south as Victoria and Port Renfrew. We haven’t quite worked out a perfect mosquito screen solution for our hatches yet.

Fishing

We went into this year with renewed enthusiasm for catching salmon, or really any kind of fin fish we could eat. We knew Barkley Sound and the Tofino area are a hot spot for it. Sadly, we still didn’t catch a single fish, despite hours dedicated to it, in spots where other fishing boats were fishing, at the right time of day, at similar depth lines, and with similar gear (but no downriggers).

We realized unless we’re in Alaska, catching one fish may require devoting a full 8-10 hour day to it – meaning not traveling anywhere that day and fishing the whole day from the dinghy. And even then we might not catch anything. Recreational and charter fishing boats in Barkley Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were coming back empty handed. There were spots with 40 fishing boats, most of them not catching anything. I’m not saying they’re not having fun – it’s their way to enjoy getting out on the water. But as a cruising sailboat, we already do that every day (sailing).

I’m ready to give up on fishing for future years. I don’t think it’s very compatible with sailing – if catching a fish south of Alaska requires a full day, then we have to choose between either fishing or sailing – but not both. And for us, sailing comes first. The reason we were enticed into fishing in the first place is we had heard stories of how it used to be easy to catch salmon – no downrigger needed, just throw out a properly rigged line. And I know other sailors manage to do it because we’ve seen the pictures – one flotilla in Alaska has been catching dozens of coho in the span of a couple hours, day after day.

Perhaps the thing that saddens me the most is knowing that the sea was once very rich in fish life and now isn’t – probably due to overfishing. The existence of quotas is probably evidence enough of overfishing, but 50 boats in one spot, most not catching anything, was also a visible reminder. Ironically if we caught anything fishing we could be contributing to the problem – but I don’t think one salmon per year would do much harm. And I don’t know what the solution is when the human population wants to eat salmon at a faster rate than they can reproduce.

The Anchorages

If sailing is 50% the attraction of cruising, the anchorages are the other half for us. Dropping your boat’s anchor on the back step to pristine natural wilderness is what it’s all about. From the tranquil silence of Matilda Inlet to the epic sunsets of Sidney Spit to the desolate solitude of Barkley Sound anchorages, the anchorages are what we come for – and what we leave with, in memories that stick around forever.

In an anchorage, we’re our own little floating island. In a marina, we’re just a condo tied to the dock – not that that’s bad. But this is why we were at anchor 27 nights out of 30. The west coast has some of the best anchorages – protected, remote, quiet, beautiful – and they were the highlight of this year’s trip.

Boat

Our boat did great this year, with no major breakages (unlike our first summer cruise) – probably thanks to 2 1/2 years worth of projects. Solar was undoubtedly our MVP new addition this year. Our 200 Ah battery bank never went below 90% (by prioritizing fridge use to daytime hours), and we were able to run our fridge much more, keeping beers cold and food spoilage-free. With 200 Watts of solar, we had more than we could actually use – granted, July had ample sun pretty much every day, so conditions were ideal.

We did have a few minor breakages:

  • My Nexus 5x phone. Cause: Known hardware defect by the manufacturer (LG).
  • An oar for our dinghy snapped in half. Cause: Weak point at the junction in the collapsible aluminum oar. Or maybe I row too hard.
  • Docking pole. Cause: I was trying to use it to free a kelp farm that got stuck on our rudder in a channel north of Tofino, while sailing at 1-2 kts. The pressure holding the 5-6 full kelp plants was too much, and I ended up getting in the dinghy (while sailing slow) and freeing it from there with the remaining half of the docking pole.
  • The water temperature sensor of our Airmar depth/speed/temp transducer stopped working. It’s saying 120-130 F water temps, which is obviously not correct. Cause: Hardware failure. Airmar says I’ll need to replace it (and I’m 2 months past the 2 year warranty, so they say they can’t replace it under warranty).

The rerig was also a nice peace-of-mind addition, meaning we didn’t have to worry when we were pounding upwind in the eastern Strait. I still hadn’t gotten the rig tune perfect though, and upwind in 15-20 pointed out some tuning issues which I fixed during the cruise (main shrouds needed to be tighter, and aft lowers were too loose).

Our new genoa, by Doyle Sails, was also a great addition. It meant we were able to sail better upwind than we could previously with our blown-out genoa, and especially in 15-20 kt winds because it reefs better.

Looking Forward

Although one month felt short, I’m looking forward to the upcoming seasons – short local sails to Seattle favorites in the fall as the leaves start changing color and the days grow cooler. It’s amazing how many great anchorages are less than 10 miles from Seattle – Blakely Harbor, Blake Island, Poulsbo, Port Madison – and in the off-season, these are some of my favorites. Even the oft-dreaded winter has things to look forward to – project season, with an occasional weekend sail, along with winter’s 50 kt gales which are fun to ride out snug in the marina.

 

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4 thoughts on “Trip Summary: West Coast Vancouver Island

  1. Never for Ever

    I wouldn’t completely give up on the Mexico cruise someday yet. It’s perfectly feasible to port hop down the west coast in conditions no worse than you’ve been experiencing on the other side of the Island — and it’s pretty clear you’ve been enjoying those 🙂

    We noticed this year our power management was much better because we were a) motoring a bit more and b) not staying in one place until out bank was drained to 50%. Do you think those might have been contributing factors (he says, because he is jealous and can’t afford the solar install yet).

    Sounds like it was an awesome cruise; you are going to have to go around the other way next time to take in the top part of the Island…

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  2. Andy Cross

    You’re right about June and July being the best months for wind out there. In our experience the consistent northwesterlies were far more prevalent during that time than in August (aka Fog-ust).

    We caught a good sized coho amongst about 40 fishing boats off Becher Bay. And the guys who were nearby and watched us land it on a sailboat didn’t look all that happy for us:)

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