We’ve been in Skidegate Inlet for a week and a half now – some of that intentional, but for the last 5 days we’ve been waiting for a weather window to get out.
It’s difficult having the patience to wait for the right weather conditions. The hardest part is not knowing when we’ll be going. Conditions and forecasts are changing daily, and each time we get optimistic by a good forecast, our hopes are dashed when a new southerly gale moves in.
The challenge to getting out of Skidegate Inlet is that it has a long shallow bar and it’s near the shallow portion of Hecate Strait, which kicks up very steep waves with only a moderate amount of wind. It has no anchorages of refuge to the north (nowhere to run downwind if we get stuck in a southerly that is too strong), and the closest anchorage to the south is about 50-60 miles – a long run if you’re going upwind.
Awful Conditions on the Sandspit Bar
Thursday (June 7) we planned to leave, having spent a third night in the Sandspit marina to wait out the gale. That’s more nights in a marina 6 days into June than our entire month of May! So we were getting antsy to get cruising again. But this impatience caused us to make a mistake, misreading the forecast and being overly optimistic.
The forecast the night before had been for SE 10-20, which is normally pretty reasonable for us to sail upwind in. But the forecasts have been rapidly changing, and the morning of Thursday it changed to SE 15-25, building to SE 25-35 in the early afternoon, gale warning. I figured though if we could beat the early afternoon SE 25-35 part, we’d have a long but doable day (since we were starting early at 8:30am).
This turned out to be a huge mistake and had me cursing myself later. It took 2 hours to get across the Sandspit bar, and the waves built to 3-6 foot, close spaced and steep. Not only was wind against current, but the waves in Hecate Strait were still at 1.5-2 meters (4.5-6 feet) from the 40 knot gale 2 days ago where the waves had built to 15 feet. It takes a long time for the strait to settle down after something like that.
After the bar, conditions got worse – wind rose to 20-25 and the waves were 5 feet with the occasional 6-7 foot. This doesn’t sound like much but these aren’t ocean swells – they’re waves from South Hecate Strait that have traveled 60+ miles and stacked up in the 30-40 foot shallows of North Hecate Strait. They were extremely close spaced and white-cap crested. These were the worst waves we’ve ever been in – worse than Johnstone Strait with wind against current, worse than the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and just a bit worse than the west coast of Vancouver Island on wind-against-current approaches to Clayoquot Sound.
As our bow fell off a big wave crest it sometimes pounded into the wave trough and the whole boat shuddered. The bow plunged into waves twice, taking green water over the bow, water running down the decks and overflowing the scuppers. Only strenuous active steering avoided burying the bow more often. Sheets of wave spray coated the dodger. Stuff fell in the cabin that had never fallen before.
After 2 hours of hand steering I was exhausted, having a hard time even standing. I sat down and steered into the waves by gut feeling and instinct alone. I wished for an autopilot that could handle this, but I’m not sure any autopilot could.
I had forgotten to turn the dorade vents aft after leaving the marina, so salty wave spray got in through them to our cabin. We had a reefed main and triple reefed genoa up. We needed to double reef the main and switch to the storm jib, but I didn’t feel I could safely do so in these waves. The boat was being tossed about and it was difficult just to keep our balance. We braced ourselves constantly, trying to avoid being thrown across the cockpit.
We were in a spot without many good options – I couldn’t put the 2nd reef in because we have that line run at the mast (I’m considering running it aft to the cockpit like we had it once previously), and we couldn’t switch to the storm jib because it’s an arduous 20-30 minute process involving rigging and tensioning our inner forestay, hanking on the sail, running the sheet and sheet leads. The storm jib is something we really need to pre-rig in advance, but hadn’t anticipated needing it today. We also haven’t used it in 2 years, so I wasn’t confident I could remember how to rig it in rough conditions without something going wrong.
And we couldn’t run downwind because Haida Gwaii north of Skidegate Inlet is a massive lee shore, with no anchorages for 50+ miles. We tried motor sailing upwind with the reefed main, but the waves were so big now that they slowed our progress and our angle to windward was poor. It would take at least 4 more hours to do 22 nm to the nearest protection, and I was already dead tired.
The decision to turn around is a deceptively tough one. It requires admitting defeat, acknowledging the sea got the better of you, and it’s a humbling moment. This was only the 3rd time we’ve turned back in 4 years of sailing on our boat. It’s always tough. We feel like we should be able to handle tough conditions, and turning back makes us feel like we’re not good sailors. This was the lowest low I’ve ever hit. Conditions on the bar in a gale were really scary, and it made me just want to go home – or be anywhere but there.
But we know we made the right decision today. After we turned back, the wind rose to 30 knots gusting to 35 and the wave state only got worse in Hecate. We had a hard time even getting back to the marina. We discovered our engine struggled to power through the waves and 30 knot wind – if we pointed directly windward towards the marina, the waves destroyed our speed to 1 knot. The only way to make progress, at 4-5 kts, was pointing 30 degrees off the wind/waves. We’ve never motored upwind in this much wind or wave state before, so this was a surprise.
Timing – Early June
One thing that’s clear is we got to Haida Gwaii too early. Summer hasn’t arrived yet, and conditions are very challenging – there are southerly gales blowing through every 2-3 days. I’m pretty sure it’s rained every single day for the last 10 days. Not all day, and some days are better than others, but often the rain has been heavy and blowing sideways in 20+ knot winds.
Haida Gwaii and Hecate Strait take the brunt of any weather fronts moving in from the Pacific. While waiting for better weather, I’ve been reviewing historical buoy data on the Fisheries and Ocean Canada site. So far it looks like this June has been particularly rough. As of June 8, there’s been no wind at the South Hecate buoy above 220 degrees, which means there hasn’t been any N/NW wind – which typically occurs about 50% of the time. The wave heights have also been exceptional, peaking above 5 meters (15 feet), which is higher than both months of June for the past two years.
I’ve started to regret a bit coming to Haida Gwaii. I think now that sailing to Alaska actually would’ve been easier. The Inside Passage / Outside Passage routes to Alaska have many options for ducking into more protected channels when the outer route is too rough. On Haida Gwaii, there are a few spots where there are no options for avoiding Hecate Strait.
If nothing else, the fact there are no other cruising boats here yet is probably an indicator our timing was too early. We’ve seen only 1 or 2 cruising boats in 10 days here. I check Marine Traffic periodically too (monitors boats broadcasting AIS positions) and haven’t seen any cruising boats in all of Haida Gwaii.
All that said, perhaps we just had bad luck this June, and it’s likely Hecate Strait is challenging sometimes in July/August too; but overall my recommendation would be to not come here in early June.
Hiking the Dover Trail
There’s often an upside to every setback in cruising, and this time it was that our delay meant the next day was pretty good – we caught up on boat projects and went on a hike.
The Dover trail hike starts only a few hundred feet from the Sandspit marina, and takes about 2 hours roundtrip, through old growth forest including some big cedars. Some of the cedars are culturally modified trees (CMT), which is a fancy word for describing how the Haida people stripped bark from cedar trees for use in their homes, while preserving the live tree to continue growing and remain part of the forest.
On our way to the hike we made friends with a black lab that was hanging out on the marina lawn. She seemed eager for human companionship, and most likely a local resident just lets her roam free during the day. As we walked to the hike, the black lab followed us and ran up ahead, leading the way. Every once in a while she would pause and look back at us to make sure we were still following.
Clearly she knew this hike, and came along with us for the whole 2 hours, finding the most mud-free paths through the forest. It was like the dog was our trail guide. The Haida people believe everyone has a spirit animal. A few days ago Natalie and I had discussed what our spirit animal would be for each of us, and I immediately answered mine would be a dog. A dog as a hiking companion was just what I needed after the demoralizing defeat of yesterday.