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Voyages North
West Coast of Vancouver Island: Preparation for SE Alaska

Map: Vancouver Island showing three locations depicted in this blog

"I'd love to do what you did, sail to Alaska, but I'm just too scared."
A fellow sailor said this to me at a birthday party a couple of weeks ago while we were standing in front of the hors d'oeuvres table.

"What is it that scares you?" I asked the woman.

She paused for a minute before answering, "We wouldn't know what to do out there, how to sail in unfamiliar waters. Maybe if there were a class we could take, it would help." (She sails with her husband).

There are classes, although they're not taught every year and it may be difficult to track them down. One seminar given in the past has been organized by Fine Edge Nautical and Recreational Publishing in Anacortes. (Call (360) 299-8500 to find out if one has been scheduled.) A version of it is also taught at the Seattle Boat Show University. The principal instructor, Linda Lewis, gives blow-by-blow descriptions of the major passages on the route to Alaska. Linda also does private instruction and can help you plan your trip.

I told the woman about the seminar but when she turned away after hearing about it, I sensed my answer hadn't been enough.

Thinking about our conversation days later, I wondered, what I could have said to encourage her. Then I went on to ponder the fact, with some amazement, that I hadn't been afraid at all when we'd planned our first trip to Alaska. Sure I'd been scared on some of the passages, when the wind was strong or seas were up. But I wasn't really nervous about the trip as a whole.
Why hadn't I been afraid? The 18 trips Steve and I took to the west coast of Vancouver Island over a period of 25 years before we sailed to Alaska gave us practice facing many of the same kinds of conditions we found in Alaska.

Lots of people sail to the west coast of Vancouver Island as a shake-down trip for offshore cruising. It makes a great shake-down for Alaska too. One of the keys to tackling your fears is to break them into little bits. Since you can get to the west coast of Vancouver Island and back in just a few weeks, the idea of going there is not as overwhelming as sailing to Alaska. Overcoming fear requires confidence in your boat, yourself and your partner. You can gain all three sailing the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Here are some of the conditions we encountered on the west coast of Vancouver Island that prepared us for SE Alaska: All of the incidents below are described in more detail in my book Voyages to Windward: Sailing Adventures on Vancouver Island's West Coast.

1. Rough seas and strong winds.
Rounding Estevan
Sailing downwind around Estevan Point (1984).

Although the west coast of Vancouver Island is blessed with a series of sounds and inlets that provide sheltered anchorages, you have to sail in the ocean to get from one sound or inlet to another.

The day I took this picture was one of the scariest days I've ever had when sailing. We were sailing from Esperanza Inlet to Clayoquot Sound in northwest gales. Although we had a chart for every inlet, we didn't have one that showed the whole stretch of coast between Esperanza Inlet and Clayoquot Sound. As a result we got too close to Estevan Point and broached in heavy seas. But the boat righted itself, we pumped it out as best we could and made it through. An experience like that teaches you what your boat can do -- and makes you determined to avoid a similar situation. Now we always double check our list of chart and stay far offshore of any shallows. And we would never sail in unfamiliar waters without paper charts because we value the overview they give.

If you can sail in conditions like those we encountered off Estevan that day, you can certainly round Cape Caution and cross the Dixon Entrance, the two open-water passages enroute to Southeast Alaska.

2. Navigating among rocks.
Entering Nuchatlitz
Entrance to Nuchatlitz

Although the description of this seldom-visited Native fishing village in our guide book intrigued me, our first trip through the channel terrified me. There were so many rocks and Steve insisted on sailing in instead of motoring. But we found our way through the rocks without incident-- and then we learned there was an easier route!

By entering under sail where most where most boaters won't even motor, we won acceptance by the locals and saw sights few others were privileged to see. That story was published in the magazine Cruising World as well as in Voyages to Windward.

The process of reading the chart and figuring out how to enter a complicated channel gave us confidence to make other tricky passages.

3. Fog

Fog in Bamfield Inlet, Barkley Sound.
Fog in Bamfield Inlet
They call August "Fogust" on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The day I took this picture, we sailed all the way from Bamfield in Barkley Sound to Becher Bay, just west of Victoria, without seeing a thing. Although we've rarely seen thick fog in Alaska, sailing in it on the West Coast of Vancouver Island accustomed us to using radar, GPS and a fog horn -- all equipment we were glad to have in Alaska's misty waterways.

There are two conditions we encountered in Alaska that we didn't encounter on the west coast of Vancouver Island: strong currents and floating ice. But if you've sailed north of Desolation Sound (the "easy" side of Vancouver Island), you've encountered strong currents already. Guide book writers love to describe the currents in BC and Alaska as something truly frightening. And no doubt they are scary if you take them on the wrong tide. But once you learn to read a current table and go through the pinch points at slack water, a trip through even the most ferocious narrows, such as Seymour Narrows in BC and Peril Strait in Alaska, seems like an anticlimax. As for floating ice, hundreds of boats make their way up Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay to experience the awe of the glaciers first hand. Yes, you have to be cautious and it helps to have a propeller in an aperture, but it's floating ice, not pack ice. It's like sailing through a daiquiri, not ice-breaking.

I'm not going to tell you that you won't encounter anything worse in Alaska than we found on the west coast of Vancouver Island, nor will I tell you that you won't encounter dangers. But if you first sail the west coast of Vancouver Island, you'll give yourself confidence.

Sailing to the west coast of Vancouver Island is an enjoyable and challenging cruise for its own sake, especially when you take the windward route as we did -- out Juan de Fuca Strait and up the coast. So go there, then sail to Alaska.

Be sure to take a copy of Voyages to Windward: Sailing Adventures on Vancouver Island's West Coast with you.
Fog in Bamfield
See my website for information on where to find it.

Coming soon: Tips and tricks for getting to the west coast of Vancouver Island via the windward route.

Friday Harbor to Port Townsend. September 6-7. 2011. Saved by The Cookie Monster.
Elsie Hulsizer
09/29/2011, posted at Seattle

We were taking our dinghy into the marina at Friday Harbor with a load of laundry when swirls of black dots swept across the sky. It took me a minute to realize the dots weren't in the sky or even on my glasses but in my eyes. In seconds, the swirls broke up and disappeared but if I focused right I could see that I now had hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny dots floating in my right eye. Floaters. I'd read a pamphlet about them in the ophthalmologist's office once and remembered that they were common and not usually serious, but their sudden explosion in my eye scared me.

Once ashore, I got out my cell phone and called the Group Health Consulting Nurse in Seattle. The nurse told me there was a danger that part of my retina might have detached. But because I wasn't seeing flashing lights and gray curtains weren't coming across my vision, she thought I was okay. But she wanted me to talk to the ophthalmologist's office.

It wasn't until 5:30 that afternoon, as we were raising anchor to leave Friday Harbor, that the ophthalmologist's assistant finally called me back. Like the nurse, she thought I was okay, but I still needed to come in for an exam. That week, not next Monday when we were back in Seattle. If there was a problem, I only had a few days to get it treated. I made an appointment for two days away. We would be in Port Townsend by then and I had already arranged a ride to Seattle that day for a meeting of the Washington State Pilotage Commission. I could stay after the meeting for the appointment and come back by bus.

We motored out of Friday Harbor to the south end of Griffin Bay where we planned to anchor for the night so we could catch the tide out San Juan Channel to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the morning. As I stood on the bow waiting for Steve to tell me to drop the anchor, I wasn't thinking about the boat or the anchor; I was worrying about my eye. Should I have flown to Seattle from Friday Harbor? What if something really was wrong? I could lose part of my vision. And what about the two talks I had scheduled at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival that weekend? What if I had to cancel them?

I broke from my reverie as Steve called out to drop the anchor. I let the anchor out and watched the chain rumble through the windlass. Suddenly, I heard the engine stop before we'd set the anchor. I looked back at Steve in surprise. He was swearing at the dinghy. Neither of us had remembered to bring the dinghy in and when Steve put the engine in reverse to let out the anchor, the dinghy's painter had wound around the propeller hard enough to stop the engine. If I'd been paying attention, I might have noticed the dinghy still on its long line.

"It's getting dark," said Steve. "I need to get my wetsuit on fast and get down there to free the line before I can't see."

I ran to the forepeak and hauled out the duffel with the wetsuit, searching in the lockers for fins and mask. Steve started pulling on the suit and I helped him tug booties and gloves on, then carried the weights up to the deck. I just barely had time to gaze out around us at our anchorage in Griffin Bay. The sea was absolutely calm, broken only by a few fishing boats unloading fish to a fish packer near by.

Steve jumped in the water and dove down to the propeller. He was back in a few seconds to report the rope was wound so tight he would have to cut it off with a knife. He made several dives with our rope-cutting knife, but we didn't have SCUBA gear so Steve couldn't stay down long and the cutting went slowly.

"I can't see what I'm doing anymore," said Steve, as the sky was turning pink in the sunset. "We'll have to get up early and finish it in the morning."

I knew we would have to work fast in the morning. Slack-before-the-flood was at 8:30. If we left too late, we would have trouble getting out the pass and trouble later entering Admiralty Inlet if we missed the flood going into Puget Sound.

The next morning at 7:30 Steve struggled into his damp wetsuit and went overboard again, holding the rope-cutting knife in his hand. It was a beautiful morning, sunny and calm. I was glad we didn't have to contend with winds and waves on top of everything else. Then, on one of his stops for air, he looked down at his hand and swore. He had dropped the knife which he hadn't been able to feel through his wetsuit gloves

"Get me a steak knife," he said. "It's the only other knife we've got with serrated edges."

I ran down to the galley and grabbed two steak knives and handed one to Steve. It was a good thing we weren't vegetarians.

"This is going to take awhile," Steve said the next time he surfaced. "The steak knife doesn't cut as well."

I pictured our chance to get out the channel dwindling away along with any chance to make my ophthalmology appointment the next day.

Just then I looked up and noticed a small sailboat with the name The Cookie Monster written on its hull pulling up its anchor next to us. I waved it over. Two men were in the cockpit.

"Do you have a knife for cutting rope?" I asked. "We dropped ours."

The older of the two men went below and came back with a big heavy knife with serrated edges.

"It's my diver's knife," he told me. "It will cut anything. I know what you're going through. I've done it too."

The Cookie Monster came over and tied up alongside Osprey while Steve used the knife. Steve was getting very tired and I was glad to have help nearby.

"Take all the time you need," one of the men told us. "We're not in any rush; we're on vacation."

"We're almost there," Steve announced as he surfaced. A few more dives and the rope was free.

The two men came on Osprey and helped Steve get back on board.

As I watched The Cookie Monster motor away, I focused for the first time on the fact that it was a green boat. I remembered my first blog of the season and how I had written about the superstition that green boats were unlucky (Leaving on Friday the 13th).... I had just seen dramatic proof that the superstition was false. A green boat had just brought us a lot of luck.

The current had turned against us by the time we left, but not strong enough to stop our progress. We crossed the Strait in cloudless calm weather and arrived at Port Townsend that afternoon, in time to catch my ride to Port Townsend the next day. That afternoon the ophthalmologist examined my eyes and found no damage to the retina. He explained that as we age, the vitreous gel begins to liquefy. The liquefying can cause the gel to pull against the retina, occasionally causing a sudden shower of new floaters, or in extreme cases, detaching the retina. For more information, see the all about vision . website. It's sobering to think that if this happened to a cruising sailor in the middle of the ocean and their retina did detach, there would be nothing they could do about it.

After three buses in three different county transit systems and a ferry ride I finally got back to Port Townsend at 8 pm, ready to give my talk at 11:30 the next morning. And ready to go home.
Wooden Boat Festival 2011
Port Townsend's Wooden Boat Festival

08/07/2012 | Jerry Higgins
Elsie and Steve, I had to chuckle as I enjoyed your painter-wrap story. I had a similar experience as I was entering Elliott Bay Marina, single hand, after dark in late October two years ago.

Unknowingly, as I prepared dock lines, I stupidly lost the bitter end of a 60' spring line over the bow, and the engine ground to a halt about 50 yards from the breakwater entrance. Fortunately, I was able to get enough of the main back up in time to pinch by the outer rocks on the breakwater and sail over to the lee of Magnolia Bluff where we anchored. It was gusting 18 - 20kts and I'm always leery about anchoring under sail, so I spent a sleepless night, contemplating the swim I would face at sunrise. I carry fins, goggles, and a serrated knife (with a wrist-tie), but no wet suit on Sorriso.

The next morning, I mounted my camera on a stanchion and made a video to document my exhilarating swim in the 51F water. The experience taught me a very good lesson in seamanship, and reinforced my father's constant reminder, "Jerry, you don't have to be smart if you're lucky."
West Vancouver. August 31, 2011. A pink lining.
Elsie Hulsizer
09/29/2011, posted at Seattle

Photo: geese flying overhead in Vancouver harbor.

The roar of trucks and the stench of diesel assailed us. "A short distance to shops, restaurants and the Sea Bus Terminal to Vancouver" is how our yacht club pamphlet on reciprocal moorages had described the Burrard Yacht Club of West Vancouver. But since the pamphlet had been written, the adjoining Mosquito Cove marina had been fenced off, forcing us to walk first through an industrial area, then on this busy road before we finally reached the Sea bus terminal forty minutes later.

We had motored into Vancouver Harbor that afternoon, passing under the First Narrows Bridge. The high rises of Vancouver were off to our right while on our left we passed anchored freighters, giant piles of yellow sulfur and a fleet of log boats before we finally came to the Burrard Yacht Club.

Mooring at the Yacht Club had seemed like a good idea because it was close to our friends Miles and Suzie. Now I wasn't so sure.

We met Miles and Suzie in front of the Sea Bus Terminal and they took us to dinner at a pleasant Greek restaurant nearby. Over dinner, conversation touched on the way we'd rigged our lazy jacks, lines on the mainmast and boom to make furling the sail easier. We invited them to see for themselves on our boat.

"I can't believe how big this place is," Suzie kept saying as we walked out the Burrard Yacht Club's very long main dock. By the time we got to Osprey, the sun had set and the sky had turned pink. Spread out in front of us was the Vancouver harbor with its highrise buildings and waterfront convention center made to look like a giant ship with white sails. Suddenly the raucous sound of honking filled the air. A flock of Canadian geese flew overhead followed seconds later by a second flock. "Oh my gosh!" said Suzie. "This is amazing." She pulled her camera out of her purse and started taking pictures. I followed suit and for the next half hour, while Miles and Steve talked rigging, Suzie and I watched and listened and photographed geese flying into the pink sunset.

Every cloud has a silver lining, but in our case it was pink.
geese & pink syy

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Voyages North on SV Osprey
Who: Steve and Elsie Hulsizer (author of Glaciers, Bears and Totems and Voyages to Windward)
Port: Seattle
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