Tricky Waters: Vancouver Island

When Dr. Seuss wrote these words, he must have had cruisers on his mind. Rare is the cruiser who doesn’t dream of sailing over the horizon, of exploring remote areas.
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Oh, the places you’ll go!”

When Dr. Seuss wrote these words, he must have had cruisers on his mind. Rare is the cruiser who doesn’t dream of sailing over the horizon, of exploring remote areas. Distance breeds confidence, confidence breeds a taste for adventure, and few vehicles are better equipped to deliver one into the heart of the unknown than a sailboat. 

In the United States and Canada alone, cruisers can find enough challenging cruising grounds to fill a lifetime—places where the scream of an eagle, the spout of an orca or the call of a lonely loon will be the soundtrack to your days afloat. These places aren’t for greenhorns; they beckon to experienced cruisers and demand preparation and judgment. And while they vary greatly in terms of latitude and remoteness, each of these destinations harbors rewards both subtle and extravagant for those bold enough to look for them. 

Pacific Northwest: Vancouver Island

Call me biased (I live in Seattle) but there are few finer—or more challenging—cruising areas than Vancouver Island. Myriad inlets, snow-capped peaks, old-growth temperate rainforests and Orca whales are among the delights that await cruisers willing to brave the massive tidal swings and fickle weather that characterize this desolate place. 

In 2007 I was fortunate to sail from Campbell River up and around Cape Scott and then down the island’s west coast to Ucluelet as part of the Van Isle 360 International Yacht Race (see SAIL, September 2007). The race circumnavigates Vancouver Island counterclockwise, starting and ending in Victoria, on the island’s southeastern tip—the same route favored by most circumnavigating cruisers. “It gets progressively challenging as you go, says Wayne Gorrie, founder of the VI 360 and an avid multihull cruiser. “You can choose your level of difficulty.”

Cruisers sailing counterclockwise from Victoria begin in the Gulf Islands and the Straits of Georgia, two stunning tide-combed areas. After that things start getting serious north of the Campbell River. Seymour Narrows is an obvious challenge, as water rages through this manmade pass at up to 16 knots, forcing even the whales to time their passage. Gorrie notes, though, that these tidal swings can also work to a cruiser’s advantage. “Don’t be afraid of the current,” Gorrie says. “That extra 2 knots of boatspeed can be useful.” 

North of Seymour Narrows lies Johnstone Straits, a place where cold rain and snow are common even in summer, but where bucolic harbors such as Telegraph Cove more than compensate for the weather. “North of Campbell River, you want a good heater and something to keep the rain out of the cockpit,” advises Gorrie. “You’ll also want bug spray and screens.”

Vancouver Island becomes even more remote after leaving Port Hardy. Clearing the Nahwitti Bar—long a graveyard of ships—can be a formidable challenge when the standing wave is up, as are Cape Scott and the open Pacific. Long-fetch rollers slam into this desolate coastline, which is punctuated with inlets and harbors, but virtually void of civilization. Fortunatley, according to Gorrie, “If you’re in trouble, the salmon farmers are instructed to offer assistance. It’s a big safety net. They constantly monitor the radio.”

The coastline near the desolate Brooks Peninsula—part of the Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park—is another place where the serious weather blows. While my own rounding was “glassy,” Gorrie says he has seen the wind pile up some serious seas there. “Going down the west coast of Vancouver Island in 50 knots is ugly,” he says. “The most extreme conditions that I’ve ever sailed in have been off the Brooks Peninsula. If you see the fishing fleet head in, do likewise!”

While cruising Vancouver Island is challenging, the panoramic scenery, the bountiful wildlife, the relaxed salt-of-the-earth locals and the virtually endless destinations more than compensate for the logistical complexity.

Read more about Canadian sailing in this story about Desolation Sound

Photo by Dave Heath

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