Sailing the Inside Passage to the Pacific Northwest

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If you’re a fan of quiet and unspoiled nature, you’ll love exploring the Inside Passage

If you’re a fan of quiet and unspoiled nature, you’ll love exploring the Inside Passage

In a way, the Inside Passage is to the Pacific Northwest what the Intracoastal Waterway is to the East Coast—a protected waterway used by mariners to reach distant destinations. However, that’s about where the similarity ends.

Along the Inside Passage, for example, there is not a single drawbridge to worry about. Nor are there any dredged channels. Instead, the way is generally wide and deep, with the route crossing any number of different straits and sounds. Snug anchorages and excellent marinas abound. In many spots, you’ll also find great sailing. Best of all, wherever you go, you’ll find yourself surrounded by nature at its best—which is why so many Pacific Northwest sailors have come to regard it as their dream summer cruising grounds.

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The Inside Passage starts in Puget Sound, goes through the Salish Sea past Vancouver, British Columbia, and then follows the BC coast to Southeast Alaska. Toward the southern end, which I call “cruising in civilization,” you will find cities and towns with plentiful marinas, provisioning opportunities, chandleries, and such amenities as farmers' markets, good shopping, restaurants and fascinating museums. You can also enjoy cruising in Washington State’s San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands in BC, both of which are favorite destinations for sailors from the Seattle and Vancouver areas. Be warned, though, both island groups are known for their fickle winds and can require extreme patience from those averse to firing up the iron genny.

North of the Gulf Islands outside Nanaimo, wind conditions in the Strait of Georgia is considerably better, especially on summer mornings. For those headed north, a dawn departure will often provide an enjoyable 25-mile sail close-hauled on port tack from Entrance Island to Lasqueti Island. Once there, you can anchor in a snug bay and enjoy the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Another popular area in the Salish Sea is Desolation Sound. Despite its name, it’s a gorgeous natural area with a stunning mountain backdrop. Perhaps Captain George Vancouver, who named this area in 1792, was despondent because of the calm conditions typical of summer months—hardly ideal for a heavily laden full-rigged ship.

Continuing north from the Salish Sea requires travelling through an area I call “cruising in wilderness.” Here, cities, roads and cellphone service disappear as the mountains close in and the coastline becomes a jumble of uninhabited islands. For me, this is where the cruising adventure really begins.

The first navigational challenge is Johnstone Strait, a region known for its currents and strong winds. Fortunately, there are also a variety of channels through this area, some better protected than others, so it’s possible to select a route that best suits your skills and your boat’s capabilities.

The most direct route is Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait itself. This is an 80-mile-long passage with strong tidal currents that cause it to behave like a reversing saltwater river. Some of the narrower regions, such as Seymour Narrows, actually have tidal rapids where currents can reach 12-16 knots. Many of these rapids are extremely dangerous, due to their turbulent flows and whirlpools that make boathandling difficult to impossible. To contend with them, current-prediction tables and accurate travel timing are paramount.

The wind in Johnstone Strait is another consideration. Mornings are usually calm, but later in the day, as the interior heats up in the summer sun, cooler ocean air begins rushing inland. As a result, on most summer afternoons, Environment Canada will end up forecasting a strong wind warning, similar to a small-craft advisory in the United States.

Further complicating the situation is the fact the surrounding mountains will often funnel and divert this wind, creating conditions that can change rapidly depending on where you might happen to be. Some spots, for example, are notorious for their afternoon 25-35 knot westerlies, a situation that can become even worse in certain areas if the wind is also blowing against a strong tidal current creating standing waves.

For all these reasons, we prefer to transit Johnstone Strait on a day when there is a favorable tidal current starting near midday, which will, in turn, allow us to sail if a suitable wind develops. Before we set out we make sure we know the timing of the predicted currents. Underway we also listen carefully to the wind conditions and modify our plans accordingly. This may mean diverting into a side channel, where the winds are typically less. I may even mean stopping early at a protected anchorage. Using this strategy, I always look forward to an exciting sail through this beautiful region.

Not surprisingly, Johnstone Strait acts as a gatekeeper for those sailors who prefer the creature comforts and beauty of the Salish Sea. For those who do make it beyond the strait, though, the Broughton Archipelago, with its sparsely inhabited, forested islands, snug anchorages and friendly seasonal marinas holding weekly potlucks or shrimp feeds, is the next reward. Sadly, there is not much wind in this area. But that also means superb kayaking along the many narrow shallow channels just begging for exploring.

Continuing on from the Broughtons, you enter Queen Charlotte Strait. A visit here typically includes a provisioning and refueling stop at either Port McNeill or Port Hardy, since nature rules for the next 300 miles, and services are scarce. Queen Charlotte Strait, though, is more than just a provisioning stop, thanks to its many hidden anchorages. It is also where you begin to see plenty of humpback whales, orcas, dolphins and sea otters. We time our transit to coincide with the afternoon sea breeze, hopefully when there is a helpful tidal current as well. We can then raise sails, shut off the engine and enjoy both the sights and sounds of the natural beauty around us in blissful silence. It’s magical hearing the puffs of Pacific white-sided dolphins as they play in our bow wake.

North of Queen Charlotte Strait, Cape Caution juts out into the Pacific Ocean separating BC’s north and south coasts. The cape bears the brunt of the ocean wind and waves coming in from the west, causing it to act as the passage’s next gatekeeper. Powerboaters listen for swell reports from the nearby ocean buoy, and when the waves are less than 3ft scurry around the cape and into the protected waters of Fitz Hugh Sound. I suggest sailors listen for the wind reports instead, and when the wind is right, enjoy rounding the cape amid the ocean swells. It always gives me a wonderful sense of freedom to be under sail and see nothing but wide-open ocean stretching away to the west.

Beyond Cape Caution is the BC north coast, where things like cell signals and the internet become essentially nonexistent. It’s the kind of place where you can really disconnect from the outside world. Self-reliance is vital.

Although there are a myriad of channels running among the islands there, the majority of sailors opt to follow the main route, with the occasional excursion to explore one of the many inlets piercing deep into the BC interior. Most of these inlets have dramatic steep-sided mountains that plunge directly into the water, and during spring rains and the summer snow melt, you will find any number of waterfalls. At some of them you can nose your boat right up alongside and have a drink. Summer is also the time for the seasonal salmon runs. Sport fishing is good fun and an excellent way of putting fresh food on the table.

From there, we usually head toward what I call the “outer waters,” a series of channels that are less protected and therefore have better wind. The area is also less crowded than closer inshore, and it is not uncommon for us to have a pristine anchorage all to ourselves. Aesthetically, the outer islands have a rugged beauty all their own, the result of untold centuries of exposure to fierce winter storms. In contrast to farther south, where the trees reach gracefully down to the calm water, here they cling to the rocks with tentacle-like roots, as if preparing for the next gale. It’s an amazing area to explore, with wildlife all around.

Approximately 800 miles from Seattle, the Inside Passage leaves BC’s north coast and enters Southeast Alaska. You wouldn’t expect much to change simply because you’re crossing the imaginary line that is the international boundary separating the United States and Canada. But everything does. Being used to the 1:40,000 scale commonly found on the Canadian Hydrographic Services’ marine charts, for example, you don’t immediately appreciate the change in size as you start looking at NOAA charts again (scale 1:80,000). But making your way toward, say, Alaska’s Foggy Bay, you suddenly realize that not only is everything much farther away than expected but much bigger as well—which is why I call sailing in Southeast Alaska “cruising the Big Water.”

After the remote wilderness of BC’s north coast, Southeast Alaska can also start to feel a bit crowded, with a choice of city stops at Ketchikan, Juneau or Sitka, and any number of smaller towns in between, many of them with cruise ship docks. You may be surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains, but most of the waterways there have cellphone service. It’s also not at all unusual to see the state’s active fishing fleet on the prowl.

Fortunately, in spite all this activity, you will still find yourself surrounded by more wildlife than you would have ever thought possible. The reason for this is the thriving Alaskan fish population, which means an active food chain from top to bottom. We’ve seen grizzly bears foraging along the shore and a dozen normally solitary bald eagles all perched together on a beached log. We’ve seen shearwaters gracefully skimming the waves, and cute little tufted puffins diving for dinner. We’ve even been lucky enough to see humpbacks bubble-feeding.

There’s plenty of room for the odd cruise ship as well in Glacier Bay

There’s plenty of room for the odd cruise ship as well in Glacier Bay

For me, the crown jewel of Southeast Alaska is Glacier Bay National Park. It’s a popular spot that includes more than a hundred miles of channels, but only allows 25 private boats to enter at a time, meaning during your seven-day visit (the length of a permit), you can enjoy absolute solitude as you take in the outrageous beauty of the glaciated landscape.

Granted, a couple of large cruise ships will also typically enter the park on any given day. But it’s easy sharing a mile-wide tidewater glacier with even the biggest of them, and they only ever loiter for 15 minutes or so anyway. By contrast, we once sat for eight hours watching slabs of blue ice crashing into the water off Margerie Glacier. The day after that we picked our way through a sea of bergie bits to the even more active Johns Hopkins Glacier, where we were sorry to have to leave after spending only four hours watching the action.

Something to be aware of—with water temperatures in Glacier Bay as low as 34 degrees F, even in July, living in a sailboat cabin, much of which is below the waterline, requires a toughness greater than my own. Despite the stunning beauty and our forced-air diesel heater, I was very much ready to leave by the end of our allotted time there. Still, cold aside, it’s an incredible place. Enjoy! 

Marilyn Johnson is a retired technical writer and a veteran cruiser who first learned to sail aboard a 24ft Dufour that was gifted to her husband by a desperate friend. She is also the author of the sailing guide, Taken by the Wind: The Northwest Coast

May 2020

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