Vancouver Island stews off the fog-bound Pacific Coast, a remote, jagged chunk of the North American continent. It’s nearly 300 miles long, with a spine of 7,000-foot peaks tufted with deep forests. Its shoreline holds fjords and deep, complex bays and harbors.
The concept was to take a few summer months with a chartered convoy and some sailing friends and circumnavigate the island in the exploratory spirit of Captain Cook and George Vancouver, who were foiled in their quest for the Northwest Passage.
Even mid-summer can bring cool westerly breezes to the Swiftsure Banks at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where sun-filled days are chilled by seasonal fog.
The adventure was the latest of seven flotillas originally organized by David Rockefeller Jr., starting with a 1981 ‘Round Newfoundland voyage, and followed by the first Sail Alaska expedition in 1992. Each voyage has explored various regions in the footsteps of the 1899 Harriman Expedition, which gunkholed the Alaskan coast gathering cultural and scientific data and savoring adventure on route. John Muir, John Burroughs, and Edward Curtis, among others, were on that original voyage, and this year’s expedition was a similar assemblage of friends with interests in the native culture and breathtaking coastal wilderness.
Keeping Vancouver Island to port on a counterclockwise route, the first half of the voyage traced the Inside Passage off British Columbia’s mainland, with its myriad of inlets thousands of feet deep and raging tidal rips up to 12 knots. At the northern tip of the island, the grouping of Beneteaus and Jeanneaus rounded the rocky headlands and white sand beaches of Cape Scott and turned south along the remote western coast of the island. Many friends on board had been members of the original Sail Alaska voyage and recognized the rugged similarities of the rock-strewn coast and surf-pounded cliffs found up north.
Navigation was a challenge, cautiously piloting through impenetrable fog, massive kelp beds, and waterways sometimes strewn with logs and deadheads. But the sailing provided discovery, as every day was filled with more eagles, whales, and salmon than could be counted. The vast network of inlets was littered with hot springs and the remnants of ancient first-nation villages, with fallen, greyed totems lying in knee-deep moss in hidden outposts.
This is a photographic sampling of the voyage.
The Bamfield Marine Sciences center at the mouth of Barkley Sound, nestled among marine life and tidal pools, hosted our crews to a tour of their education and research campuses. It is recognized as one of the finest marine education facilities in the hemisphere, and is the site of the underwater cable first laid between Australia and North America in the early 1900s.
Well-protected, deep-water coves like Snug Basin offered all-weather anchorages. Here our three boats anchored in 70 feet with nothing but bald eagles, whales, a few otters, and schools of salmon to join us through the night.
Double Eagle had a multi-generational family crew who traced their participation back to the original Sail Alaska voyage 25 years earlier, when family members gunkholed southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound in the shadow of the famed Harriman Expedition from the turn of the century.
A tidal gauntlet , the Strait of Juan de Fuca is split by the US-Canada border, with Washington’s Olympic Mountain National Park looming to the south, and is the central water route to the Pacific for Vancouver and Seattle.
Walter Sullivan, from the original crew of Sail Alaska cruisers, keeps an eye on one of the small fleet, which had just been entertained by a passing pod of regional permanent-resident killer whales that are frequently sighted and tracked by local spotters.
Mouette had skipper Mark Schrader on board. A two-time veteran of the singlehanded ’round the world race, he sailed with five friends eager to explore British Columbia’s Pacific Rim coastal park, and took particular interest in Barkley Sound at the tail end of the voyage around Vancouver Island.
Hurricane Ridge, a 7,000-foot glacier-studded ridge line on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, creates a rain shadow resulting in a sunnier northwest microclimate known locally as the “banana belt,” appreciated by helmsman and Alaska sailing guide Rich Fleishman and Alaskan naturalist Theresa Svancara, from the original Sail Alaska crew.
Robbers Passage is one of countless Barkley Sound waterways riddled with reefs and small rocky islands that form a myriad of protected anchorages. Thickly wooded shores and British Columbia’s powerful logging industry mean errant logs creating navigation hazards, but swimmers from the crew, training for triathlons, brace against the cold and find some of the finest snorkeling anywhere.
Solitude and breathtaking landscapes along remote shores is part of the attraction to Vancouver Island’s west coast, known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” for the hundreds of ships that have been wrecked there. When 126 survivors of one wreck died after making it ashore and attempting to reach civilization, the Crown decided to construct a coastal trail to Victoria and the nearest Hudson Bay outpost. This became the Pacific Rim National Park.
Dodger Channel is one of those sandy northwest beaches littered with driftwood where cruisers often pull ashore, build beach fires, and play knee-deep in tidal pools teeming with a bouillabaisse of shellfish and marine life.
Race Rocks lighthouse marks the approach to Victoria Harbour and the final leg of the voyage, rounding a nearly 300-mile long island that’s still home to some of the wildest fjords and forests in the Americas. In the background lies a thick blanket of summer fog—the same fog that foiled Captain Cook’s quest for the Northwest Passage.