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Voyages North
West Coast of Vancouver Island: The Windward Route
Elsie Hulsizer

So you want to take your boat to one of the best cruising grounds in the Pacific Northwest! Maybe you've read my book, Voyages to Windward: Sailing Adventures on Vancouver Island's West Coast, and were entranced by the stories of isolated anchorages, picturesque villages, gorgeous scenery and interesting wildlife. Or maybe you read my most recent blog on what a great preparation the West Coast of Vancouver Island can be for a trip to SE Alaska.

But then you got out your chart. "Wait a minute," you probably said. "I have to go out Juan de Fuca Strait? I have to go out in the ocean? Whoa!"

The Seattle Boat Show is coming up and in my seminars there I give some tips for getting there with the least amount of anguish. It's not as bad as it looks. I've noticed that my audiences take lots of notes during the how-to part of my presentation. So I thought I would help by putting the meat of what I say on this blog.

First, you may be surprised to learn that Hot Springs Cove at the northern end of Clayoquot Sound, the West Coast's second sound going north, is no farther than Desolation Sound on the inside. Barkley Sound, that most favorite of West Coast Vancouver Island destinations is significantly closer. The distance is more psychological than geographic.
Barkley Sound and Desolation Sound
Red dots show Desolation Sound and Barkley Sound.

Some of that psychological distance comes from the prevailing wisdom which is that you should get to the West Coast of Vancouver Island by going around the island so you can have the wind behind you on the rough outer coast. All the guidebooks present the coast from north to south. Fine if you have the whole summer, but what if you have only three weeks or want to spend all your time on the west coast of Vancouver Island, not circumnavigating.

Ignore the prevailing wisdom -- the best way to explore the West C of VI is to sail directly there by going to windward. The advantages are:
See the best part coming and going
Avoid Cape Scott and the Brooks Peninsula
Get there and back in a two or three week vacation

Tips for getting there.

My husband Steve and I have made 17 trips to Windward to the West Coast of Vancouver Island (and another 4 trips approaching from the north from either Haida Gwaii or SE Alaska). After 17 trips, we've learned a few things to make that windward trip a bit easier. They apply especially to sailboats but to slower powerboats also.

• Avoid the worst fog by going in July.
Fog in Juan de Fuca Strait

When leaving from the Puget Sound area:

• Plan your trip to depart on a spring tide weekend. The best Saturdays to leave in 2012 will be June 30 and July 14.

• Leave the dock just before slack-before-the-ebb. Most years the best tides are in the middle of the night or early morning. That puts you in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the morning when the winds are light.

• Once you enter the Strait, go out the American side. The ebb lasts longer on the American side and there are better anchorages. If you want to include Victoria in your trip, do it on the way back home when you have already gone through customs.

• Anchor at Pillar Point the first night. The curve of land protects from swell. Wind in summer blows from West. (faster powerboats can go all the way to Neah Bay). A small swell can get in there and, of course, if you get one of those rare winds from the east, all bets are off and you should skeedattle for Neah Bay--which should be easy because the winds in that case will be behind you. This is a spectacular anchorage, an adventure all its own. Read more about it in my article from 48 North.

Strait chart
Pillar Point is indicated by a star

Pillar Point
Pillar Point from deck of Osprey.

• Get up early again (but not as early as the day before and catch the ebb out the strait. But now you should cut across the Strait and make your final approach to Barkley Sound from the Canadian side. This avoids the tide rips and rough water off Neah Bay and puts you inside Swiftsure Bank.

An alternate route for slower boats, or for any boat during neap tides is to go to Port Angeles the first night, Pillar Point the second, Neah Bay the third. The crossing from Neah Bay will be shorter but rougher.

• Go through customs at Ucluelet
52 step dock

52 step dock in Ucluelet where you must tie up to go through customs

When leaving from Canadian ports.

For Canadian boats coming from Vancouver, the choice of outside vs inside is not as clear. You will have approximately 2-3 days additional travel when leaving from Vancouver. It's still shorter than circumnavigating, but not by as much. Canadian boats leaving from the Victoria area, or those coming from Vancouver once they reach the Victoria area, have different choices to make. Following my advice about going out the American side and anchoring at Pillar Point doesn't make sense as it means going through both American and Canadian customs.

The advice about leaving on a spring tide weekend still holds.

The anchorages on the Canadian side are not as good as the American side. One option is to anchor over night at Sooke or Becher Bays near Victoria, then get up early and travel from there all the way to Bamfield. Since you don't need to go to Ucluelet for customs, you have a somewhat shorter trip. Otherwise you are stuck with Port San Juan. The marina there holds only small resident boats and the anchorages are rolly. In their Dreamspeaker Cruising Guide: The West Coast of Vancouver Island Including Bunsby Islands and the Broken Group , the Yeadon-Jones recommend several nooks for anchoring in this open bay, all of which could be classified as good weather anchorages only. If the wind comes up strong from the south, you can claim harbor of refuge in Neah Bay but you will need to go through American customs then back through Canadian customs at Ucluelet if you do that.

• Whether you came from the U.S. or Canada, once on the West Coast of the island, you should travel north inside the sounds as much as you can. That keeps you in protected waters. Watch the weather before making an ocean passage.

• The exception to that advice is if the wind turns from the south. In that case, stay in the ocean and head north as far as you can, then take your time going south.
Tips for the Return Trip

• Take the ocean route down the island to Barkley Sound if the wind is from northwest. By staying out in the ocean and skipping some of the sounds on the way home, what took you a week going north can be done in a day or two going south.

• Leave enough time to wait out a storm.

• Make one long trip from Barkley Sound to Becher Bay or to Port Angeles. The current floods longer on Canadian side. If possible, time your entry into the Strait for slack before flood.

Once you are on the west coast of Vancouver Island a wonderful cruising ground of five major sounds and inlets is available to you. To find out more about all these wonderful places, be sure to take your copy of Voyages to Windward: Sailing Adventures on Vancouver Island's West Coast with you.


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."

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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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