The Strait of Juan de Fuca | West Side of Vancouver Island

We’ve written about many of the weather trouble spots on the west side of Vancouver Island already: Cape Scott, Brooks Peninsula, and Estevan Point. For southbound travelers, the Strait of Juan de Fuca is the final hurdle.

The challenges are many: ocean swells at the west entrance, strong currents throughout, traffic, and the 100nm distance.

The ~75nm route from Bamfield to Sooke

There are at least seven weather forecasts to digest for this leg of the trip: Environment Canada’s West Coast Vancouver Island South forecast, Environment Canada’s three Strait of Juan de Fuca forecasts, as well as NOAA’s three Strait of Juan de Fuca forecasts.

Because of the distance involved, cruisers really need two consecutive days of good weather to transit the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On the Canadian side, Sooke, about 75nm in from Barkley Sound, offers the most secure anchorage until Victoria. On the United States side, Neah Bay, Port Angeles, and Sequim are all good stops, depending on conditions and boat speed. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily possible to cross the strait where you want, since many of the stops don’t have customs facilities.

Currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca run to 3 knots. Timed well, this can be used to dramatically shorten the trip. Timed poorly it adds hours. If the wind is blowing, the time gained or lost may be less important than avoiding a wind-against-current situation and the nasty seas that result.

Traffic is constant and heavy. Ships heading to Vancouver, Seattle, and Tacoma all transit the strait. Ferries, fishing boats, tour boats, and pleasure boats compete for space. At some point, the traffic lanes must be crossed.

We left Barkley Sound earlier than we had hoped, but the weather forecasts indicated dramatically worse weather for the following four days. All showed wind light, building to west/northwest 15-20 in the evening, then calming the next morning.

The current was also favorable. We’d ride in on a flood beginning about 8:00 a.m. That meant we could get to the west entrance to the strait around slack, when the ocean swells wouldn’t be colliding with the ebb. If the westerly wind filled in earlier than expected, it would be running the same direction as the current. We’d get to Sooke as the flood died, overnight, and pick up the flood again the following morning to take Airship to Victoria and Safe Harbour to the San Juans.

Leaving Bamfield at first light

The plan worked perfectly. We left Bamfield around 7:00 a.m. The lightstations along the route reported slightly worse conditions than we expected, but Windy predicted the wind would slacken early in the morning. By the time we exited Barkley Sound, the wind was calm, the seas were a gentle two foot swell, and fog limited visibility to a quarter mile. We quickly picked up the flood and enjoyed a couple knot boost in speed almost all the way to Sooke.

Exiting Barkley Sound and entering the fog bank

Fog can make for a rather boring cruise. There’s not much to see and keeping an eye out for obstacles becomes a bit more tedious. We have GPS and radar and AIS, and with calm conditions we were pretty low on complaints for the day.

Happily breaking up the boredom were two Orcas (not together) — one younger one (splashy and active, and very close to Airship)…

L108, name Coho, identified by our orca-knowing friends

…and another larger one with a much taller dorsal fin, further away:

L88, aka Wavewalker, as identified by our orca-knowing friends

We also saw more than a dozen humpbacks (most of them in the fog), including two enormous ones right in Airship’s path. We stopped and waited until they dove.

We anchored for the night behind Whiffen Spit in Sooke. Crab pots crowd the anchorage and boats speeding in and out of the harbor made it pretty rolly. Not our favorite anchorage, but the park on Whiffen Spit is pretty and it’s the closest anchorage to the Sooke Harbour House restaurant.

Arriving at Sooke Harbour
Whiffen Spit anchorage
Driftwood fort on Whiffen Spit

Kevin and Laura dinghied over for an early dinner at the Sooke Harbour House and walked the length of the spit after dinner.

Walking the grounds of the Sooke Harbour House
The restaurant grows all their own vegetables
Airship and Safe Harbour at anchor, taken from the spit

The next morning we continued in different directions: Airship to Victoria for several days, Safe Harbour to the San Juans to pick up guests. Stirred up by overnight winds, the strait was a little bumpier than the day before, but hardly uncomfortable.

Calm at Race Rocks
Cattle Pass was the roughest water of the day for Safe Harbour
Airship tucked in at the Causeway Floats in Victoria’s Inner Harbour
British Columbia Parliament buildings at night — not a bad view from Causeway Floats

We’ve had a great time on the west side of Vancouver Island! It’s beautiful, remote, and challenging cruising. Stay tuned for a Vancouver Island wrap-up post and information on a possible Slowboat Flotilla around Vancouver Island next summer!