Sailing to Haida Gwaii from the north coast of BC has involved a lot of planning. In many ways it’s the most challenging passage we’ve undertaken, so we had a good deal of anxiety over it. It’s about 80-100 nautical miles – not much at all to ocean sailors, but a lot for us in the Pacific Northwest where we can generally go just 20-40 miles between anchorages.
Most boaters consider it merely a long day of motoring, so our anxiety may seem silly, but we didn’t want to motor across, we wanted to sail. 80 miles of motoring is nothing to a motorboat, but to us it’s a ton – more than we’ve motored this entire month. And Hecate Strait isn’t a simple body of water – it’s a large strait with complex currents, shallow areas, shoals and differing weather conditions from one side to the other.
So the hope was to sail, but in the end that goal was mostly a failure.
[This post covers May 30-31, 2018]
Route Planning – Technical Details
A lot of thought went into our route. We couldn’t find much published info on routes for sailing to Haida Gwaii. Most guidebooks are designed for motorboaters, and therefore mention the obvious motoring route – the shortest crossing is between the north end of Banks Island and the middle of Haida Gwaii (Skidegate Inlet).
We wanted to sail though, which added complexity in terms of planning the best wind angle and timing. Our destination was the south end of Haida Gwaii (we obtained park permits in advance) partly because that allowed us to get a better wind angle without going as far north up the BC coast.
This means we had a bit longer route though – 80 – 100 nautical miles. At an average speed of 5 knots it would take 16-20 hours – probably too long to do completely within the 17 hours of daylight we have at the end of May. Although our boat can do 6.5 knots motoring or in good wind, 5 knots average is a more realistic number because it’s highly unlikely we’d have ideal wind for 16 hours – some of the wind would probably be in the 5-10 kt range. If we only averaged 4 knots though, it would take 20-25 hours.
We didn’t want to sail on a southerly for a few reasons: 1) southerlies have been rare this spring, and catching one would be a matter of luck, 2) southerlies are often fast and furious – lasting a short time (meaning if our timing was off a bit we could get stuck in the doldrums – the windless period between systems with high choppy waves leftover from the wind) and often increase to too much wind (30-40 kts), and 3) southerlies usually bring rain, overcast dark skies, poor visibility and just generally tougher, more demoralizing conditions than a sunny sail.
The typical fair weather wind in Hecate Strait is northwest, in the 10 – 25 kt range. It’s not very fun going upwind in 25 knots for 16+ hours though, so we needed to get north far enough up the BC coast that we’d be able to sail across on a beam or broad reach.
Cruising for extended periods you have a lot of time alone with your thoughts. There’s no room for false confidence or bravado. Thinking about our passages, on some days I’ve lost confidence, plagued by a dozen doubts and disaster scenarios, and other days I feel totally prepared and confident.
At home sitting in front of a computer screen and reading cruising forums, I always felt 100% confident. But that has no bearing on actual sailing. In remote areas, there’s no one to ask for advice, no Internet to lookup answers to your questions, and no other boats to look to for examples of what to do.
So perhaps the hardest part of our passage was feeling we’re mentally prepared to do it.
Weather Frustrations and Bad Luck
After all our preparation – sailing upwind for two weeks to get to a better position for crossing in the predominant NW winds, the weather deteriorated at the end of May. We had a 3-day southwesterly gale with a non-stop deluge of rain, and then 3 days or so of light, transitionary weather. We were ready for our crossing at the start of the 3-day gale, and went into a waiting mode because of that.
The northwest wind we needed though didn’t look like it was going to return – after the gale the wind was a light westerly, with the forecast for it to go to light the next two days. We were tired of waiting and didn’t want to be stuck for another whole week. We were running out of fresh groceries, and hadn’t had cell phone service in a week and a half – if we went another week with no contact our families might start to worry. Plus we really needed some civilization time ourselves.
So we changed plans to cross to the center of Haida Gwaii (Skidegate area where the towns are) and hopefully use the west to southwest wind to do some sailing. But as we left Gillen Harbor the wind was clearly west, and only 5 to 8 knots. We slow sailed for several hours but were going northwest up Banks Island, not really towards Haida Gwaii, and only making 2 miles per hour progress towards it.
The first few hours I was super discouraged and disheartened, thinking we’d have to motor all ~70 miles across the Strait. Doubts plagued me, wondering if we were making the wrong decision. Should we turn around and wait two more days? Should we abandon Haida Gwaii and go to Prince Rupert or Hartley Bay for refueling instead?
Eventually the wind died and we started motoring. We don’t only dislike motoring because sailing is more fun, motoring in swell and chop is also much less comfortable. The boat rolls every which way, nothing like the stable motion of being under sail power. The swells in Hecate weren’t big but were short interval and choppy.
While motoring in swell, a cacophony of noise assaults our ears – the “Chug-Chug” drone of our very loud engine, the rapid “Eek-Eeeek” of the autopilot, and creaks from the boat and bulkheads as loads move from port to starboard every 5 seconds.
Around sunset we had a nice break – a pod of about 50-75 Pacific white sided dolphins darting and jumping all around our boat. They’re super playful and were doing pirouettes and darting around our boat, changing direction in an instant.
This was our first night passage. It was super boring, and I counted the hours till the sun would rise (only about 6 hours fortunately, 10:30pm – 4:30am). There’s nothing to look at, nothing to do, and you can’t see the water in front of the boat – so just have to hope there are no logs out far from shore. Even the phosphorescence in our wake didn’t cheer me up.
About 1:30am a bit of wind showed up in the dark, on the beam to close hauled, so we switched to sailing, till about 4:30 when the wind died. It was fun to be sailing, but it’s really hard sailing in the dark – with no outside reference points, it’s similar to sailing in fog. We finally dropped anchor in Skedans Bay at 6:30 and went straight to sleep.
- Hours: 17 1/2, 1pm – 6:30am
Sailed: 8 1/2 hours, Motored: 8.8 hours
- Straight-line distance (Gillen Hbr to Skedans Bay): 74 nautical miles
- Distance covered: 86 nautical miles
Covered under sail: 32 nm, Covered by motor: ~54 nm
- Snacks consumed: Patrick: 10, Natalie: 4
- Ships spotted: 1 (a cargo ship southbound around 2am)
- Wind range: 0-10 knots, W, WSW, N, and NW.
- Weather range: sunny, cloudy, rain showers.
- Wave state range: 1-3 ft swell at short interval, confused tidal chop, 2 ft chop, 1 ft chop. (overall pretty good for Hecate)
- Seasickness preventatives: Natalie: 1/2 Bonine, Patrick: Sea-bands
- Hours: 17 1/2, 1pm – 6:30am
The importance of a good wind angle (and strength) is made clear by the stats above which show we sailed 8 1/2 hours covering 32 nautical miles (3.75 nm/hr) but that only reduced our motoring distance by 20 nm. In other words, 8 1/2 hours of sailing upwind saved us 3 hours of motoring.
Overall we didn’t have a bad passage – it could’ve been much worse (big waves, gale force winds, or motoring 100% of the way). Nevertheless it was disappointing because we put weeks of effort into sailing upwind in northwest winds so we could have a good beam reach sail all the way across. In retrospect this may have been idealistic thinking, as the wind in Hecate is rarely steadily consistent for 16 hours straight.
Our lesson is that long passages for us are something to be endured, rarely enjoyed – they’re a necessary evil for getting to a new cruising area where we can sail in scenic coastal areas. Sorry to be a downer, but I don’t want to sugar coat things – as developing cruisers we’ve struggled to find realistic, holistic views of what cruising is like – detailed descriptions of the tough parts instead of just cherry-picking the positives. I know the fun times are what people like to read though, so don’t worry, this is only a short interruption to our regular programming!
If anything the upside is this passage has reaffirmed our decision that we don’t want to do longer passages (like Seattle to Mexico). I think in this case it will be worth it though – Haida Gwaii is a truly beautiful place.