Sea Otter Cove to Quatsino Sound

Upon departing Sea Otter Cove, we had 18 nautical miles of ocean coastal sailing to do, followed by 3-4 nm into Quatsino Sound. After a lot of motoring to get to Cape Scott, we were hoping to sail all of the 18 nm. But it was not to be.

We had a very confusing forecast (it changed four times, pretty much every 3 hours), but the latest was S 15. We can sail upwind fine in 15 knots, so we left in the morning with about S 4-7 up, sailing at 4 kts for a couple hours in gentle swell. Then the fog set in and the wind disappeared. It was some of the densest fog we’ve seen, reducing visibility to near nothing.

No fun. Fog is very tiring because you have to keep a constant watch – even though we were running radar, at any moment a small fishing boat or log could pop out of the fog.

So we ended up having to motor about 2/3’rds of the way to North Harbor, our anchorage in Quatsino Sound. So far my fear of going to the west coast equaling having to motor more has been looking true. In the two days from Bull Harbor to Quatsino Sound, we motored 7 hours, which is more than we typically motor in a week. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for better sailing soon though.

[This post covers June 26 thru June 30, 2019.]

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Sailing Around Cape Scott, the Northwesternmost Cape of Vancouver Island

As we sailed past Cape Scott, the northwesternmost cape of Vancouver Island, a mix of elation, relief, and “is-that-it?” filled our heads. The passage we had worried about for so long ended up being kind of easy, and about half fun / half boring. That’s pretty typical of cruising though – things are never exactly what you expect, and they’re rarely perfect.

In a way, we’d been trying to get to Cape Scott for 10 days – but it also was a dream we’d had for at least a year. Rounding Cape Scott marks the beginning of our first full circumnavigation of Vancouver Island (although we’ve done 75% of it already during other cruises).

To be honest we almost bailed on our west coast plan again this year. Our plan was always “probably, maybe” and the awful swell against current that we hit in Hakai Pass in June very nearly deterred us. It was a reminder we don’t like sailing in PNW ocean swell, because the confused swell often destroys sailing ability if the wind is below 10 kts. And ocean swell here is rarely true ocean swell; it’s generally a worsened form – sharpened by currents, headlands and shallows.

But many, many people sail (or motor) around Vancouver Island, and we realized we could probably do it without too much misery – we just needed to be smart and wait for the right forecasts.

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Aborted Passage To Cape Scott, Taking on Water, and Finding a New Plan

As we began to motor out Hakai Pass at 5 am, I could see the swell would be getting pretty sloppy soon. But I had no idea how bad it would get. An ebb current was meeting a 2 meter (6 foot) westerly swell and W 15 of wind, creating monstrously uncomfortable waves. Both Natalie and I were nearly instantly seasick, despite taking Sturgeron upon waking (4:30am).

The waves were 6 to 9 feet, very closed spaced and cresting in foaming white water. Heading into the opposing steep swell was nearly stopping our boat at times, despite our Yanmar churning away at 2300 rpm. Our speed was reduced to 2-3 knots at times. The wind was precisely on the nose, and we hadn’t yet cleared dangerous rocks to our port, which the swell was trying to push us towards.

As we crested a wave, sometimes the bow would pound down into the trough, and at times we nearly buried the bow. We were rolling and pitching in the confused swell, with barely enough power to get over the steep waves. It was difficult to even stand – I was braced behind the wheel, unable to sit because the bucking and rolling would throw me across the boat. We could do this for a while, but 70 miles of it (~14 hours) was pretty hard to imagine.

We decided to turn around. It was the right decision, but completely demoralizing because we had staked a lot on this plan and spent 6 days of anticipation waiting for a weather window. But it was the wrong forecast, wrong swell, wrong wind, and probably even the wrong course / plan to begin with.

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“Central Coast is the Best Coast”: A Month of Cruising the Central Coast from Cape Caution to Bella Bella

The Central Coast of British Columbia, stretching from Cape Caution to McInnes lighthouse, is quite possibly our favorite cruising area in all of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a huge area that is often underestimated – while it’s possible to pass through it in 2-3 days (and many people do just that), it’s equally possible to spend 2-3 months happily cruising here. With hundreds of anchorages and dozens of passages, inlets and sounds, in some ways it feels like a larger cruising area than the San Juans, Gulf Islands and Desolation Sound combined.

For that reason we spent 4 weeks here, mid-May to mid-June, as it’s our turnaround point before heading south. The wonderful sunny, summer-like weather we had in the second half of May certainly had something to do with the great time we’ve had. At the end of May we had 80 F days and were wearing shorts and no shoes a lot of the time. While here we’ve seen five black bears, over the course of four separate occasions, and plenty of other wildlife – humpbacks, eagles, seals, etc.

It hasn’t been sunny all the time though – in early June it switched to about a week of near constant rain. This can be tough, as everything gets wet and we feel cabin-bound in the boat. But it’s something we know to expect in the early season, and I still think early season is the time to be here. We were here last year as well and loved it then too.

Following the R2AK (Race to Alaska)

We enjoy following the Race to Alaska via the tracker, and last year it worked out that we were on the Central Coast while some of the R2AK boats were sailing by. This year we were actually at Shearwater, which is even better because the boats are required to pass through nearby Lama Passage. The lead boats don’t usually stop into Shearwater unless they need an emergency repair, but we still were able to see three boats in Lama Passage when we were leaving. There was no wind so they were all rowing / pedaling / paddling.

We also had the excitement of seeing Givin The Horns come into dock at Shearwater because their rudder had broken in half. It was a disappointment for them because they were in second for a while, but I think they had a lot of fun meeting the boating community there. And they did an amazing job building a new rudder out of plywood in less than two days.

Givin The Horns coming in to dock at Shearwater for rudder repair

The next day we saw four more R2AK boats working their way up Fitz Hugh Sound. Another reason we love seeing R2AK boats is they’re the only other sailboats that are sailing with us. Although they represent less than 10% of the sailboats up here, they represent over 80% of the sailboats we’ve seen sailing (other than R2AK boats, only 3 out of ~50). They also show us the boundaries of what is possible (and barely sane), doing things that no other boats do, and in a way that no other sailboat race does.

New Anchorages

Since we had so much time on the Central Coast this year, we made an effort to visit new anchorages. We weren’t in a rush, and often only had 10-15 nm between anchorages, so were able to sail all the way usually (even if that took 4-5 hours). I already wrote about the four spectacular days we spent in Dean Channel, so I’ll just cover a few of the remaining ones we liked here.

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A Sailing Adventure up Dean Channel, Central Coast of BC

As we pulled into Eucott Bay, the aroma of evergreen trees from the forest on our port side was so strong it felt like I was at a Christmas tree farm. Soon we noticed two small black bears on the grassy shore near the entrance. Unfortunately they quickly started running away as soon as they heard the sound of our engine from a mile away.

Eucott was our first stop on a trip up Dean Channel at the end of May. It felt like a bit of an adventure because it’s a new area to us, and one that few other boaters go to (so there’s relatively little advice about it in the guidebooks and charts). In our four days there we only saw one boat cruising Dean Channel.

Fisher Channel, leading into Dean Channel, is one of many inlets and channels the Central Coast has that lead quite far inland from the standard Inside Passage route. We sailed about 30 miles in, but overall it goes at least 60 miles inland. Once in Dean Channel it becomes increasingly remote and rugged, with numerous mountains that get taller and more snow capped as you go further in.

Fisher Channel leading into Dean Channel. Eucott Bay is the furthest in anchorage we visited (at the northeast end of the red line), then we backtracked to Elcho Harbor and then Ocean Falls.

A larger view of the Central Coast. The region we were exploring is only a tiny part of it, inside the red square. That tells you a bit about how much there is to explore here!

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Technical Series: DIY Install of a Below-decks Autopilot in a Tight Space (C&C Landfall 38), Part 3 of 3

That sinking feeling you get when you know something is probably wrong but don’t want to admit it yet hit me as I peered into the stern compartment at the autopilot shelf. We were at anchor in Friday Harbor, and I was doing a routine inspection of our new autopilot system now that we had put it through some rigorous testing.

Sometimes with boats there’s a temptation to stick your head in the sand and ignore possible problems, or not proactively inspect things because you’re afraid of finding a problem. Ignorance is bliss as they say. But this is something I always try to avoid. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, and with boats it usually will come back to bite you.

On this inspection of our fiberglassed plywood autopilot shelf I saw a small chip or crack in the top layer of ply, which hadn’t been there before. There was no indication the shelf had moved, but it certainly warranted further inspection. For a few hours I agonized over what it would mean if the shelf were failing. I had put a ton of work into researching and installing the autopilot system the best way I knew how, and yet somehow all that due diligence still wasn’t good enough. If this were a real issue it’d mean I’d failed at one of the most important parts of the project.

I knew if I had to rip the shelf out and rebuild it, it’d be undoing the work already done and doing double that to grind it out and build a new, stronger one. But it’s the right thing to do. The autopilot drive puts up to 650 pounds of thrust on this attachment point, and we want to make sure it’s something we can have complete confidence in.

[This is part 3 in a three part series. You can read more about the autopilot install in part 1 and part 2.]

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Northbound to the Central Coast: Sailing Queen Charlotte Strait in a Southeasterly

We’ve been moving fast (relative to our usual pace) in the last week. After a quick provisioning stop in Port McNeill, we had a southeasterly wind forecast for Saturday May 18. So we decided to skip the Broughtons and use this wind to sail downwind and make miles towards the Central Coast.

We were a bit unsure about the forecast though – Canada said SE 20-25 and the ECMWF (in Windy) said SE 15-25 with gusts to 28. 15-20 would be great, but 25-28 can make some pretty rough, close spaced waves in a strait, and we’d be doing most of this with wind against current. The ebb ends at 9am now and the flood runs 9am-3pm. The wind was forecasted to run only until 4pm, so most of our southeast wind would be opposing the flood current (we did start at 6:30am though to catch as much ebb as possible out of Port McNeill).

We couldn’t find any accounts of people sailing Q Strait in a southeasterly (NW wind predominates in the summer), and one of our guidebooks warned that winter easterly systems could be dangerous (but it’s spring now, and those presumably were stronger systems).  Queen Charlotte Strait has very complex currents and underwater topology, not to mention numerous rocks to dodge.

Anyway, all our worrying was probably for nothing, because we ended up having a great sail. The wind was SE/ESE 15-22, mostly less than forecast, with occasional light periods (SE 9-12). And the day was sunny with great visibility – a rare but fortunate condition for a southeasterly. I’d hand the forecasting win to the ECMWF once again, although its gust forecast was misleading this time.

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