Before we reached the long ocean swell of the Pacific I could feel what was coming. The wind was going to build, the waves were going to stack up and oppose one another, and the sailing was going to be a mix of awesome and miserable. All of that and more came true.
Our journey started in Victoria’s Cadboro Bay on a sunny morning with an unfavorable westerly gale. It was howling out there but our intention was to only get about 15 to 20 miles so we’d be within striking distance of Barkley Sound the following day.
The gale was set to subside as the day wore on and we waited in Cadboro Bay until the late afternoon before heading out. At Trial Island the strong ebb tide slung us westward and the once palpable breeze soon began to die. With a modest southwesterly left in its place, we motorsailed towards Race Rocks and had three anchorages in mind: Pedder Bay, Quarantine Cove and Becher Bay. The first two are before Race Rocks, so if the wind stayed up and we had to beat slowly west we’d stop there. If we moved faster and could get through the rocks before nightfall, we’d stop in Becher Bay.
Just 15 minutes before sunset, Yahtzee shot through the rocks with the current at nearly 10 knots and about an hour later we had the hook down in the lee of Wolf Island — effectively getting us 20-miles closer to Barkley Sound than Cadboro Bay. Sleep came quick, as did our wakeup call to get going at first light.
With roughly 80 miles to cover between Becher Bay and Barkley Sound — all of which we wanted to do in daylight — we knew that we’d have to get going early and hope that the stiff easterly breeze that was forecast held. The main got hoisted before the anchor and when we fell off to start sailing out of the bay I was surprised by a fairly decent northeasterly dropping down off Vancouver Island’s verdant mountainsides.
After rounding Beechy Head, I rolled out the genoa with an emphatic pop and Yahtzee gathered speed on a beam to broad reach. Jill handed up my first cup of coffee of the day and followed with Magnus and Porter. With the whole crew on deck, we sailed fast for nearly three hours and put in some serious miles. When the wind started to abate and Yahtzee slowed, Jill pushed the spinnaker up from down below and we all set it in the rain.
Our boatspeed was back up for another couple hours before the wind got flukey in direction and velocity. About 12 miles shy of Port San Juan, on went the engine and we motorsailed against an increasing flood current. This was a lull that I envisioned would happen and I felt like we were sailing on a treadmill, going nowhere.
The wind had been modest before, but I anticipated that it would soon fill in from the east in a big way. It did. Off of Port San Juan two things happened: the easterly kicked up to 20-plus knots and the ocean swell came in against it. The swell was a long and lazy southwesterly at first and I expected that would change. The breeze had us rocketing out towards the vastness of the Pacific Ocean against the current and then something odd happened.
The once strong wind died but the ocean still boiled. Motoring ahead with just the main up, it slatted back and forth with a miserable “whap! whap!” and the swell increased. What was unfortunate at this point was that the leftover easterly wind waves and incoming swell were meeting, which created a miserable sea state. The next hour was the worst.
Waves piled higher from the west and when the easterly breeze returned it was difficult to keep the boat sailing with anything more than the mainsail. We were too deep to carry the genoa on a broad reach and running wing and wing was near impossible due to the swell rolling us from gunnel to gunnel. On we forged and not soon enough, the wind picked up again and quickly veered to the southwest.
Our new breeze stacked the waves ever higher and I took great care to keep us in deep water and out of the potentially catastrophic breakers near shore. I could see the big white monsters curling as they reached the beach and had no desire to be there. None at all.
It was about this time when visibility dropped and the rain started coming down in sheets. The wind, too, continued to build and I could no longer see land, though it was just a few miles away. I kept Yahtzee safely offshore for a few tense hours while approaching our turn into Barkley Sound and when we did, I chose a course to keep us in the deepest water possible and thus, out of any potentially breaking seas.
Having been in situations similar to this before and with seas reminiscent of our late-September delivery in the Atlantic, I turned Yahtzee north towards Barkley Sound and ran with the gray, hill-sized waves. I admired the troughs, crests and everything in between, and the boat surfed the wave faces comfortably. With visibility still poor, I kept a danger bearing on a reef to port and a favorable amount of sea-room to starboard, steering more or less with Folger Island fine on the starboard bow. Waiting for it to come into view, the island’s tall trees soon emerged from the mist and I watched huge waves break on its rocky shores while sailing by. We were in.
Approaching Effingham Island in the Broken Group, my emotions were tied in knots. For the most part, the passage had been exciting and downright fun, but the adrenalin pumping moments were the ones that were sticking with me. By the time I dropped the anchor and headed down below to peel off my wet foul weather gear, fleece, sea boots and a hoodie, the day had seemed like an accomplishment but nothing big. Simply enough, while devouring a hearty dinner with my family, I was just happy to be back in Barkley Sound.
Yet it was another one of those passages that left us yearning for more.
Why outside in March?
To be fair, sailing from Victoria to Barkley Sound this time of year is no extraordinary feat. Difficult? Maybe. Impossible? No. Of course, there are many variables to it, not the least of which is weather. The entire run out there could be incredibly tough and the seas utterly inhospitable, but if you take care to pick a good weather window, it can be done.
Many astute Pacific Northwest sailors are probably wondering why in the hell we decided to turn south from the Gulf Islands, round the bottom of Vancouver Island and point our bow westward out the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards the Pacific Ocean. If you’re going north, logical thinking says to meander your way through the protected islands, rapids and anchorages on the inside of Vancouver Island. But we’d done that before and didn’t want to again this year. Why? The reasons are many.
The inside route held less appeal because we really enjoyed the outside of Vancouver Island last summer and hoped to see it again in a different season to experience it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness of the west coast enchanted us in ways that we never imagined and it’s a place that we wanted to keep exploring sooner rather than later.
We love ocean sailing. It’s not for everyone, but there’s something about being out in the big waves, vast spaces and strong breezes that we find captivating. Yes, it is strenuous and exhausting at times, though always worth it. Porter came on deck at one point in fairly large seas and, with a wry smile, said, “Oh yeah! I didn’t know we were coming out on the ocean today.” We’d told him, but his quick reaction mirrored everyone’s thoughts.
Sailing out the Strait and up the outside of Vancouver Island is certainly not the popular choice, but part of a living life in the moment means going against the grain and doing things a bit unconventional. We’re used to that. Plus, what’s the fun in doing the same old thing? We’re well aware that not many people sail this stretch of water at the end of March. Our experience doing it last March en route to the Columbia River and in May 2015 during the Swiftsure Race gave us confidence that, with the right weather window, we’d be fine. And the weather windows are definitely available if you have time and patience to wait for them.
Looking longer term, sailing the outside route fit with our overall plan of going north for the summer. We’ve got our sights set on Alaska, so we’ll just keep going along whatever road that might take us and see what happens.