2020 Plans: Slow Sailing to Alaska, Possibly, Maybe?

About a month ago I wrote a draft post of our 2020 plans that included aspirations for sailing to Alaska. Now those plans have been thrown into doubt by the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down the US-Canadian border to non-essential traffic. We’re beginning our 2020 cruising season now, but don’t know when we’ll be able to get into Canada. British Columbia represents over 75% of our cruising grounds, so it would be really disappointing if we lose access for the next 6 months.

Things are changing day-by-day, and hopefully the world is in a much better place in a month, but if it goes on much longer it would mean we wouldn’t have enough time to get that far north during the season. The good news is we’re fully stocked and cruise ready now, and living on a boat is the perfect social distancing tool (in anchorages we practice the “200 foot rule”!). On a boat we’re actually much more socially isolated than almost anyone on land – we also go through constant quarantine in between towns / ports.

These are unusual times, and there’s no doubt this year will be quite different. This is our 3rd year since “casting off the lines” and like prior years (2018, 2019) our plans are never written in stone anyway. The following is the original plan, the aspiration. It may change, but that’s always the case with cruising plans anyway – our 6-month plan is an outline, and we re-evaluate day-by-day.

Goal: Racing by Wind Power

Our #1 goal, as with prior years, is to sail as much as possible. Since the “possibly, maybe” goal is for Ketchikan, ironically we’d basically be doing our own version of the Race to Alaska – but taking 4 times longer than the slowest finishing racer. Who are we racing? Ourselves! It’s kind of like long-distance endurance running – often there are no other sailboats around, so you have to compete against yourself. Our goal is not to sail there the fastest, but to sail the highest percentage of miles that we can.

We always watch the R2AK closely (often spotting the boats as they come by the Central Coast in June) – it’s an inspiring race from which we can learn a lot. One of the things we learn though is what not to do. We don’t want to race through BC, skipping past hundreds of epic anchorages along the way. The irony of the R2AK is that the slowest racers see the most and probably have the most fun.

R2AK boat “Givin the Horns” coming in for a pit stop in Shearwater in 2019

Last year we only managed to do about 75% under sail around Vancouver Island, which felt low because July (on the west coast) was as low as 50% – but May and June at closer to 90% brought the average up. I think our chances of beating that this year are pretty good, given my theory that the inside route is more sailable (due to diurnal wind funneling and absence of ocean swell).

It’s been noted that Race to Alaska is a bit of a misnomer – since less than 10% of the race takes place in Alaska (less than 10% in the US in fact) – it’s really a race through British Columbia. As of this time, R2AK isn’t cancelled and they have until early June for the border to get re-opened. Hopefully it won’t be an issue. We usually cross the border in late April though, so we’re more likely to be delayed than they are.

The Route

Our loosely planned route is to head up the Inside Passage and back. We’re particularly excited about the San Juans in the early season, Johnstone Strait downwind (hopefully), and the Central Coast (one of our favorite cruising regions). We’re also excited about the North Coast after that because we’ve only touched on a few places there (in 2018 on our way to Haida Gwaii).

We’d like to make Ketchikan, but just Prince Rupert (BC) would be fun too. If we make Ketchikan we might just turn around there, meaning we’d just have dipped our toes into Alaska. But we may be running out of time by then – if it takes 3 months to get to Ketchikan we want to leave 3 months to get back.

Sailing Strategy

There’s a lot of strategy that goes into sailing, to be at the right place at the right time and harness the wind. Also some tactics (lower level actions during the day), but I really enjoy the high level strategy aspect. Certainly you can go to Alaska (or anywhere in between) without strategy, but then you’ll probably be motoring a good bit.

Tactics: reviewing weather models on a daily basis

Last year (2019) our strategy was to slow down, because in 2018 we felt we went too fast – putting us in the path of adverse southerly gales in June just as we were turning south. Last year’s strategy worked only somewhat, because although we waited till July to head south down west coast Van Isle, July ended up having uncharacteristic frequent southerlies as well. This just goes to show that you can’t reliably predict the weather on a macro scale (“climatology”) in our region of the world.

This year since we hope to go further north, we don’t need to slow down our northbound sail to wait for the Pacific High to get established and bring northerlies for the return trip south. Basically we can put the pedal to the metal and go as fast as we want! (Except for the border being closed :(). If we get some good moderate southerlies, we may put in some long days to take advantage of that wind. That would mean more tiring days and skipping past favorite anchorages, but we know that we can visit them on the way back south (and there’s always next year).

Dungeness Crabbing

We’re also excited because we’re going to try crabbing this year. We were inspired by our friends on SV Long Reach II who treated us to a crab feast, and we discovered we like the taste of crab (with lots of garlic butter). It’s a relatively easy way to harvest free* food while sailing in the Pacific Northwest (*free after you’ve paid off the licensing fees and equipment costs).

We gave up on fishing for salmon because it requires more skill, patience and luck than we apparently have. Crabbing though, is easy – at least from what we hear.

Boat Equipment / Prep

For this cruising season we haven’t had to do a ton to get the boat ready. Things are pretty well dialed in now, after several years of doing plenty of big and small projects.

A couple major projects we worked on over the winter were the new windows and new spreaders. And we did a haul-out in mid-March for bottom paint, prop rebuild and prop anti-fouling. We’re also making a few small changes for this year’s voyage:

  • Purchased an inline hose water filter for pre-filtering before we fill our water tank. This is due to picking up a tank full of water with debris in it at Shearwater.
  • Purchasing a crab trap and related equipment.
  • Acquiring a machete – many of the hikes we go on in BC are overgrown with dense foliage. We might do a little trail cleanup.
  • Starting a small herb garden on board – cilantro, basil and mint.

Upcoming

With so much bad news in the world now, it’s important to look at the positives. We have a boat, fully prepared for off-grid cruising, in one of the best cruising grounds of the world. We hope to meet up with other boats out there once it’s safe to do so. If you’re going to be cruising in the same area / timeframe, send us a message!

Also, a reminder that we have a list of the Books we use while cruising (in case you’ll also be cruising these areas and are looking for guides). We’re excited to maybe make more use this year of Douglass’s North Coast book, and maybe the Southeast Alaska guide.

To track our voyage or find out where we are, you can use our tracker on MarineTraffic. I don’t update it all the time, but try to broadcast when we’re underway when I remember to (if the last position is more than 2 days out of date, we’re probably not there anymore).

Wildflowers on the Central Coast last early June (Ocean Falls, BC)

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