Map: Route up the west coast of Vancouver Island
With cancellations of spring regattas and temporary closure of the border between Canada and the U.S., sailing racers may wonder if they should still be planning for the R2AK in June. But a recent newsletter from Port Townsend's Northwest Maritime Center proclaimed that although they were going into hibernation for now, the race is still on (they admitted that may change.)
What better way for sailors to wile away the solitary hours while waiting for changes in the virus status than to strategize about sailing to Alaska?
I was reading 48 North'
s March edition when an article by Andy Cross, "Unlocking the New R2AK Puzzle: One Change, So Many Options" caught my eye. According to Cross, a change in R2AK (Race to Alaska) rules will now give sailors whose experience and boats pass the race committee's criteria
the option to choose between going east (inside) of Vancouver Island and west (outside) - between "winding channels and gnarly currents of the eastern passage and the unpredictable Strait of Juan de Fuca followed by the mighty Pacific Ocean." The article immediately made me wonder, what advice could I, a cruising sailor with years of experience sailing on the west coast of Vancouver Island, offer to R2AK racers considering this new outside route?
When I suggest to cruising sailors that they take the outside route, I often see horror on their faces. They know that a trip up the west coast of Vancouver Island can mean strong northwest winds, waves, fog and rocks. I go on to tell cruising sailors the best way to manage these hazards. But would my advice help racing sailors, especially since speed, not usually the highest priority for cruising sailors is all important to racing sailors. And more important to racers than absolute speed is going faster than and reaching the final destination sooner than the other racers. And that means making the right decision to go up the outside or the inside.
Here is what I suggest to cruising sailors considering the outside route.
When sailing out of Puget Sound (or in this case Victoria Harbour) leave during spring tides at slack before-ebb.
This puts your boat in a position to ride with the current out the Strait. Unfortunately, racers don't get to choose either the time or the tide cycle when they depart; they leave when the race starts. In 2020, the R2AK start time is 1200 hrs June 11. The moon will be waning gibbous, just past spring tides. By the time it takes boats to paddle out of Victoria Harbour and set sail west, the current may be close to slack-before-flood (at 15:43 PDT), just when they reach Race Rocks and need an ebb. Competitors choosing the inside route, however, will have the current with them when they turn north.
There are no supermarkets or substantial repair facilities north of Tofino, only general stores. Plan for provisioning and repairs assuming you won't find what you need on the west coast.
This is even more important for racers who won't want to take the extra time to go up inlet for provisions. Fortunately, R2AK's criteria boats going out the west coast make it probable they will have space for provisions and necessary spare parts.
Outfit your boat for fog and learn to navigate in it. That means radar, horns, chart plotters and AIS.
Navigating in fog could be critical for any part of the R2AK route, not just the outside. Fortunately, fog is least troublesome in June, the month of the race.
Learn to navigate safely among rocks. Keep your chart plotter on and your paper chart handy; when close to rocks, use your chart plotter to get a safe bearing through them, then steer your boat by compass; learn to use kelp to recognize rocks and rock-free passages.
I've tried to use the autopilot and chart plotter to steer when close among rocks, but quickly learned the plotter's lag risked putting me on the rocks before it told me I was there. When navigating among rocks, it's helpful to know that kelp grows in water between six feet and 90. If you're approaching rocks and the kelp disappears, watch out! On the other hand, if you're in very deep water and see a kelp bed, you're approaching rocks.
Racers will need to navigate among rocks only if bad weather forces them to shelter inshore. Otherwise, racers will want to cover the miles quickly, and the best way to do that is stay offshore, away from the rocks. A racing boat will most likely spend the whole trip offshore.
Weather forecasts for the West Coast of Vancouver Island require an understanding of the island's geography.
If you hear the following on the weather radio, it may not be as bad as it sounds. "West coast Vancouver Island, south part: Gale warning. NW winds 10-20 increasing to 15-25knts in the afternoon except gales 35 north of Estevan" and similarly, "West coast Vancouver Island north part.....except gales 35 south of the Brooks Peninsula. " It took me years to figure out that this weather report means that when gales are forecast for the west coast of Vancouver Island, you'll have them mostly between Estevan Point and the Brooks Peninsula, not south of Estevan or north of the Brooks. In 2016 we used this reasoning to sail in Gale Warnings from Quatsino Sound (the sound north of the Brooks) through Scott Channel and across to Fitz Hugh Sound. When we got out in the ocean, the wind was actually too light. Once we rounded Cape Scott, however, the sail across Queen Charlotte Strait to Fitz Hugh Sound, a broad reach in 20 knots, was magnificent.
Another thing I tell sailors is that during northwest gales, the area immediately south of the Brooks Peninsula near the Bunsby Islands and Columbia Cove is in the lee of the Brooks' peninsula where calm seas and good sailing winds prevail.
Photo: Strong winds and waves off the Brooks Peninsula
Sailors racing up the coast should keep in mind that most places to duck out of a storm on the west coast require sailing up inlet, adding miles to the course.
The west coast of Vancouver Island is famous for its northwest winds. Summer westerlies can last for a week or longer, tend to be light in the morning, strongest in the afternoon and die off at sunset.
Racers weighing whether to sail up the west coast should know that if the westerlies have settled in, chances are they'll stay for the whole trip up this coast. To avoid light winds at night, go farther offshore.
Southerly gales on the west coast usually last only a day or two, are frequently preceded and followed by calms and bring rain
(my own observations from 30 years of sailing on this coast). Andy Cross notes that going outside will be largely dependent on a forecast for southerlies. But racers should be warned to expect slow winds before or after southerly gales and rain during the gales. As the southerlies diminish, seas become confused and sailing frustrating. We've motored in glassy seas as the barometer plunged and watched buckets of rain come down during storms while we waited. In my opinion, being anchored in a quiet cove during a southerly gale is the best place to be.
Conclusion. Some of what I've learned over the years would be useful to racers, especially for making the decision whether to take the outside route or not. But what this analysis also showed me is why cruising the west coast of Vancouver Island is a lot more pleasant than racing it.
The west coast of Vancouver Island offers great sailing winds, picturesque towns, a Native population that welcomes visitors, historical sites, wildlife, and spectacular anchorages that you'll have all to yourself. Racing sailors won't see much of that. I hope the glimpses they get will encourage them to go back.
To learn more, read Voyages to Windward: Sailing Adventures on the West Coast of Vancouver Island