I spent a summer on our boat cruising from Vancouver, up the west coast of Vancouver Island, across to the Broughton Archipelago, down through Desolation Sound, and back to Vancouver. Having recently closed a business that kept me from boating much in the last two years, this trip was a well-planned holiday and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Vancouver Island is the largest island off the west coast of North America. It lies on the western edge of British Columbia. A circumnavigation is usually a counter-clockwise trip to take advantage of the prevailing Northwest winds. However, I chose to travel clockwise against the winds, as I wanted to spend the last month of the trip exploring the Broughton Archipelago and Desolation Sound rather than the city of Victoria and the Gulf Islands, which are closer to our homeport. Most cruisers do the trip in three to six weeks, I planned on taking almost three months to enjoy the trip and have the time to wait out poor weather.
Our vessel Due North is a Nordhavn 40 that we’ve owned since 2006. She has radar, GPS, AIS, a life raft, EPIRB, a fire pump, paravane stabilizers, a wing engine, two kayaks, and a 10-foot inflatable—she also tows a 16-foot Boston Whaler. She has always been well cared for, but the past two years of light use necessitated some maintenance, some repairs, and some upgrades. I started writing a to-do list in December and by the spring it seemed as if the list was never going to be finished. In the end, (most) things on the list got finished, although some, like the generator, were not done until 2000 hours on the eve of departure.
Some routine maintenance items revealed bigger problems. A windlass servicing unveiled a sheered clutch gear—thankfully fixed by a local machinist for $50 instead of having to order a new one at the cost of $1,200. Replacement of the over-temperature shutoff sensor on the generator revealed a corroded water pump—this time I had to order a new pump out of the United States. In the end, (most) things on the list got finished, although some like the generator were not done until 2,000 hours on the eve of departure. On June 8, we left and things felt right for the journey.
PART 1: ACCORDING TO PLAN
The plan was for me to depart for Barkley Sound, almost one-third of the way around Vancouver Island, prior to our two boys finishing school, then the family would come meet me. My good friend Tom Martin joined me on the first leg. He and I met when we went scuba diving more than 25 years ago, and Tom has enjoyed adventures on every boat we’ve owned since. We departed on a leisurely trip south from Vancouver, visiting Nanaimo, transiting through the Gulf Islands, and ending up in Victoria. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, the largest city on Vancouver Island, and a fantastic tourist destination. We spent a few days tied to the docks in the inner harbor and took advantage of Victoria’s great pubs and restaurants, knowing that once we started up the coast there wouldn’t be too many convenient stops.
Tom and I headed toward Port San Juan. Not known for its great anchorages, we were able to tuck into a small nook due to the settled weather, and even managed to get to the local pub to catch the last period of the Stanley Cup final. The next morning, at about 0100, I realized why the place was not considered a great anchorage. Due North had turned beam to the swells and I became the pendulum in a grandfather clock—tick, roll to one side of the bed, tock, roll to the other! The next day, in fog, we moved to Barkley Sound, one of the true jewels of cruising destinations is home to the Broken Group Islands and Pacific Rim National Park. We spent nine days fishing, scuba diving, exploring, and relaxing, culminating each night with a gourmet meal of outstanding proportions— fresh crab, prawns, salmon, rib-eyes, lamb, filet mignon, good wine, and friendship.
On June 17, my wife, Vickie, called to say she had fallen off her bike while riding with our 6-year-old son Braden, and she had ‘twisted’ her knee. Two days later she confirmed her kneecap was broken in two places.
Leaving Due North at the government wharf in Ucluelet, we traveled back to Vancouver. Tom went back to work and I went to see Vickie and the boys. Given that Due North was already a third of the way up the west coast, we decided for me to continue the trip albeit without Vickie. She felt that moving about a boat in large swells was not going to be easy with a cast, and it turned out to be the right decision.
PART 2: A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT PLAN
With Braden in tow, I returned to Ucluelet and chapter two of the journey began. Having a 6-year-old as first mate changed the pace of the trip from the first 14 days.
Braden and I had a wonderful time. Walking through rainforests, exploring sea caves, beachcombing, swimming, and fishing during the day, then playing yahtzee and card games at night. It was a great time for the two of us to connect and I enjoyed the endless questioning and wonderment of a world seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old. I like to fly the Jolly Roger at anchor, and Braden was quite worried that ‘the police’ might arrest us thinking we were real pirates!
On June 28, Damon our 10-year-old flew up and joined us. Thus began chapter three: countless days of exploring and moving north while doing (almost) everything the boys wanted to do on a daily basis.
We visited Hotsprings Cove, which has been luring boaters for decades. From the dock you walk along an elevated wood walkway until you reach a change house perched above the steaming water. Then you carefully work your way down to the natural rock pools, choosing temperature based on how far the pool is from where the hot springs comes out of the ground. This is normally a very busy destination, with tour boats and floatplanes from Tofino shuttling tourists for a few hours, but with proper timing, we found ourselves with only two other people there during our visit. Heading back along the walkway, we passed 50 tourists heading for their hour of ‘bliss.’
TO THE RESCUE!
In remote areas, I tend to monitor the VHF radio on channel 16 around the clock as you rarely hear any chatter unless it is important. That night as we finished dinner, a “Pan Pan” came through loud and clear. Six people were calling Tofino Coast Guard for help because their engine had died and they were in rough water heading for the rocks. I contacted Tofino radio as I had heard two locations being given, one close to our position, but the other was farther out. They did not have any more information and asked if we could assist. We headed a mile out of Hotsprings Cove where we found an aluminum boat rocking and rolling in high waves, while trying to stay off the rocks with a paddle—no one was wearing a life jacket. We threw them a towline and were able to get them and their boat to the dock safely.
The next morning, strong winds prevented us from leaving. Instead, we slept in and went fishing along the kelp beds. Damon caught a 30-lb. Chinook salmon. After I filleted the fish, he went around to the few boats at anchor and proudly offered each boat fresh salmon as we had more than we really needed.
HISTORICAL STOPS & TSUNAMI DEBRIS
Moving north, we stopped for a couple of hours at Cougar Annie’s Garden in Hesquiat Harbour. Cougar Annie was a pioneer that moved to the wilderness in 1915. Here, she cleared enough land to eke out a meager living, outlived four husbands, raised 11 children, and killed 72 cougars. Annie passed away in 1985 and the gardens and homestead are falling into disrepair.
Next up, Estevan Point—the first of the three promontories that cause enough anxiety to keep cruisers up at night. Conditions were good, with relatively light winds and only slightly large swells.
We spent three nights at anchor in Friendly Cove, which is located in Nootka Sound just west of Vancouver Island. Friendly Cove was once the Mowachaht people’s summer home (it once lodged 1,500 residents). Today, all that remains is a church, graveyard, and the house of the Ray Williams family.
Damon and Braden were happy to play with three visiting native boys and Ray was happy that his great grandson Isaiah had playmates, explaining that Isaiah, who spent his summer there, was sometimes alone for weeks or even months. We took the Whaler over to nearby Bligh Island to see where Capt. James Cook first set foot on B.C. soil in 1778.
We traveled up Nootka Sound to Zeballos for a night, then down Esperanza Inlet to enter the euphemistically named Clear Passage. I found Clear Passage to be a stressful journey, as I navigated alone, traveling inshore between the reefs and the shoreline, watching swells break over boat-eating sized rocks to port and starboard. We entered Kyuquot Sound and anchored off Rugged Point to beach comb along miles and miles of unspoiled beach. Here we found many interesting items we think came from the Japanese tsunami—chemical drums, fishing floats, drink containers, bottles, industrial light bulbs, and even a small fridge. We also saw many large fresh wolf tracks!
We traveled into Kyuquot Sound, which is ringed with steep mountain peaks rising to more than 1,000 meters, and here we met a kayaker that told us “…of those that come to hike, boat, or kayak on the west coast of Vancouver Island, only 1 percent will get to Kyuquot or destinations North.” We feel blessed to be among that small percentage.
After a few days, we prepared to tackle the second of the dreaded promontories, Brooks Peninsula. Known locally as the “Cape of Storms,” Brooks Peninsula extends almost 12 miles out into the Pacific and is 5 miles wide. Here the confluence of waves, current, and weather come together to create large seas and strong windy conditions.
We anchored in Columbia Cove on the southeast corner of Brooks Peninsula. That evening, we were disappointed to find the infamous wreck of a Coast Guard ship inside the anchorage has virtually disintegrated, giving testimony to the force of storms in this area.
The next morning, I was up at 0350 and underway in thick fog. When the fog started to lift at 0700, I could see bleak Solander Island ahead in the distance. Most mariners recommend traveling outside the 100-fathom line, but with the boys sound asleep, I decided that life is short, so I altered course to starboard to head between Solander Island and Cape Cook at the northwest corner of Brooks Peninsula.
Solander Island is a nature reserve of treeless rocks, rising several hundred feet from the sea. I followed the narrow channel between the reefs, where I saw thousands of birds including Tufted Puffins, and a large colony of sea lions before turning east for the comfort of Klashkish Basin.
We spent four days anchored in Klashkish and nearby Klaskino Inlet, swimming and exploring while waiting for the weather to calm down, but on the fifth day with a forecast of even stronger winds, I decided to head toward Winter Harbour. While underway, I encountered strong winds and heavy seas that made for a long and uncomfortable trip. I couldn’t make more than 5-1/2 knots without constant water coming over the bow. The boys awoke as we pulled into the lee of Kains Island to hear a sportsfisherman on the VHF saying, “Those people on that yacht must be brave!”
We spent four days tied to The Outpost, a dock in Winter Harbour, due to strong winds. The owners, Greg and Andrea have two young children, so daily play dates were arranged. We spent much of our days fishing, catching mackerel, snapper, lingcod, and salmon. Damon landed a 27-lb. halibut right off the dock!
Eventually, we moved up Quatsino Sound on northwestern Vancouver Island, spending nights in beautiful anchorages, re-provisioning in the small town of Port Alice, exploring the old mine at Yreka and the historic whaling town of Coal Harbour. This was the handoff point for the crew as Damon had summer camp approaching. My father drove up from Vancouver to retrieve the boys and all three of us were sad to separate.
Cape Scott is the last of the three worrisome promontories. It is a rugged point of land on the extreme northwest of Vancouver Island where wind and current usually converge to produce big seas. Abeam the Cape Scott Lighthouse, I threw Damon’s message in a bottle, hoping he’ll get a response someday. I turned east along the northern shore of Vancouver Island to anchor in Bull Harbour for a couple of days of well-deserved rest.
Over the next few weeks, the family rejoined the cruise (Vickie finally got her cast off), and we traveled south through the Broughton Archipelago, Desolation Sound, and the Sunshine Coast before heading back home to Vancouver.
We encountered so much wildlife during the trip that calling the boys to the wheelhouse started to elicit the response of, “We’ve seen that already!” We saw humpback, gray, and orca whales; Dall’s porpoise, seals, sea lions, and otters; mink, weasels, and raccoons; grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, and elk; and eagles, ospreys, and tufted puffins. Our rule is that the boys cannot swim, dinghy, or kayak within half a mile to shore due to potential predators.
I remember when we were at anchor one day, Damon called me after swimming for about 20 minutes to show me the bear that had been sitting on shore nearby watching them. I asked how long the bear had been there and Damon replied, “Since we started swimming!”
Every day of our trip was amazing, with some days more outstanding than others. We cherished swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Marble River, fishing almost every day, exploring inlets, lagoons, estuaries, and rivers in the Whaler, discovering sea stacks and sea caves, and anchoring in places where one could almost imagine being the first human there.
Because of the propensity for strong winds starting mid-day and building through the afternoon, each day of travel began at around 0400, when I would wake up and we’d be well underway or even at our next destination as the boys began to stir. The early morning departures often meant I was traveling in the thick west coast fog, but it usually burns off in the early afternoon.
In total, we traveled more than 1,200nm. I spent 75 nights on the boat, 18 alone, 39 with just the boys, and 18 with another adult aboard. We logged 203 hours on the main engine, 138 on the generator and lots of hours on the furnace, and total diesel consumption was 521 gallons. We had very few mechanical issues, a short in the generator wiring harness fixed by wiping with dielectric grease, a burnt-out dry stack blower replaced with an onboard spare, the anchor wash-down pump, which necessitated in purchasing a new one, and a power head problem on the Boston Whaler (thankfully) still under warranty.
The west coast of Vancouver Island is a magical place and I highly recommend the trip to anyone who has the time to enjoy it on a capable boat. Even the most experienced cruisers will challenge themselves, and gain new skills and appreciation for Mother Nature. We took hundreds of photographs and have memories that I hope will last forever. For more on our Vancouver Island circumnavigation, visit our detailed blog with photos atwww.blogspot.duenorth2012.com.
Rob Langford is a lifelong boater having started with his first boat at age 11. He lives in Vancouver, B.C., and enjoys cruising year round with his family aboard Due North, a Nordhavn 40. His interests include fishing, exploring, and local coastal history. Rob is also a trained chef.