In the last week (July 13-20) we’ve sailed from Nootka Sound to Clayoquot Sound and then on to Barkley Sound, the last stop on our trip down Vancouver Island. As we left Clayoquot Sound on July 18, summer finally showed up and we’ve had northwest winds with sun and blue skies most of the time since then. We’ve still had some rainy southerlies sweeping through about every 4-5 days, but they’re usually short-lived.
Needless to say we’re reveling in the summer sailing experience now – shorts and t-shirts, ample solar power for cold beverages, paddleboarding, swimming, and rigging up the hammock between mast and forestay.
Rounding Estevan Point: Nootka Sound to Hot Springs Cove
Getting out of Nootka Sound is always hard. The entrance to the sound is shaped like a funnel, and it funnels both wind and current at the constriction point. Westerly ocean swell tries to roll into the entrance, and with an opposing ebb current the waves can get quite steep and sharp. And going out is always an upwind sail, because the wind inflows.
Fortunately we had a pretty good day for it, with light south wind (8-10 kts) – which comes pretty much from the west until you make Estevan Point. The waves were choppy and pound-happy but we had timed our departure to near slack current so they weren’t nearly as bad as they could be.
It was a long day (~9 hours) but a fun one. We think we saw an ocean sunfish near Estevan Point. They’re a very rare creature that we’ve never previously seen. They can grow quite large and have two fins, which wave alternately above the water.
Tofino is a great town to visit – but not by boat. I think it’s the most challenging harbor for cruising boats in all of the Pacific Northwest. Somehow we managed to forget this, but we couldn’t bypass it because we were in dire need of groceries, water and laundry. The challenges are natural – the harbor is a maze of shoals and high currents – and human factors – there’s very little marina moorage available, and tons of tourist boats and sport fishing boats zooming around.
It seemed Tofino has become even more touristy than we recalled from 2017 and 2015 though – there were probably double the amount of high speed tour boats, and local development has taken over more of the harbor with permanent moorings. The local marina (4th St Dock) only had one spot allocated for transient boats, and it was already taken. It’s not even a great spot – it gets waked a lot by motorboats speeding by. We ended up anchoring in a really bad spot (high currents and lots of wakes) and then moving to Browning Passage – which is probably the best anchorage near Tofino, although it still gets some wakes and current.
Sailing from Tofino to Barkley Sound
After weeks of southerly wind, finally we had a NW 10-20 forecast for a downwind sail to our last sound on the west coast. The swell was a bit big though – 2.2 meters (~7 feet) at 8 seconds at La Perouse buoy, which is typically closer to 1 meter in summer-time conditions.
The rolly conditions pretty quickly made me a bit seasick. I had gotten complacent with the pretty gentle swell state we’ve had most of the west coast, and hadn’t taken a seasickness med. I had thought much of the west coast would be like this, sailing in big confused swell. But Tofino to Barkley Sound was definitely our hardest passage on the west coast, which is counter-intuitive but apparently fairly common.
You wouldn’t think it would be tough, because there are no notorious headlands to round (like Estevan, Cape Scott, Cape Cook). But the coast here is a giant series of banks (shallow areas of about 60-180’). These banks stretch 15 nm out into the ocean, so it’s not practical to go around them. The swell was big and confused due to recent weather that churned up the ocean. A near-gale southerly came through, followed by a strong westerly.
The problem with sailing in ocean swell along the coastline is oftentimes the swell state is completely mismatched to the wind state. This swell came from hundreds of miles away, from 24 hours prior, and was more representative of 20-25 knots of wind rather than the 7-9 knots we had initially. When you’re in big swell but little wind, it’s very hard to keep the boat moving and the sails happy.
As each larger swell rolled us, the mainsail would invert, making an unpleasant banging sound, as our apparent wind switched 90 degrees from starboard to port. We had the boom locked in place with the preventer of course, but that doesn’t prevent the sail itself from inverting. We still were able to make about 4 knots, in 8-10 kts of wind, but only at a 120 degree angle to the wind – which brought us much farther offshore than was necessary. It took about 8 hours to sail to the anchorage between Turtle and Dodd islands.
We dodged hundreds of crab pot buoys between Tofino and Barkley Sound. It was frustrating because they’re very hard to see in a 2 meter swell. Several times we didn’t spot one until it was passing our beam only 20 feet away. Running over a crab pot line is a serious risk because these were rigged with floating surface lines tying 2-3 markers together. If you get that wrapped around the propeller, cutting it free in 2 meter swell and 55 degree (F) water isn’t going to be easy or fun.
We’re spending 2 weeks cruising Barkley Sound. This is our 3rd time here (2017 report here), and our favorite area on the west coast. The sailing is fantastic. Every afternoon the diurnal inflow comes in at about 10-15 knots, perfect for upwind or downwind. We sail a couple hours across turquoise waters, between rocks and picturesque islets, and then drop the hook in a new, perfectly protected anchorage. Often with only one or no other boats present.