Our first real experience with boating in the PNW was a Powerboat Cruise and Learn in late April. We motored the Gulf Islands for a week learning the ropes (literally) and learning the basics. Since then we seem to have spent a lot of time aboard in May and June, and I have to say I am really not sure the warmth of July and August are enough to offset the benefits of early-season cruising.
Now this is where the real joy is. Smuggler Cove: we had it to ourselves. Garden Bay: again we were the only boat anchored out. We had the entire Copeland Islands chain to ourselves. Prideaux Haven had one, yes one, boat in it, and we shared Melanie Cove with one other boat, both of us swinging in the centre. We stayed two nights in Squirrel Cove and shared it with two other boats the first night and absolutely no one the next. Last time I was in Squirrel Cove it was August and I think there were close to two hundred boats anchored there. The difference is simply mind blowing.
Teakerne Arm, Rebecca Spit, Von Donop Inlet: all the same. Occasionally there will be another boat there, but if you stay a few days you inevitably get the place to yourself. And as we meet more and more of the other boaters, they all say the same thing: spring is the time to be cruising, especially Desolation Sound.
You get the opportunity to visit a lot pf places without the stress of a large audience watching you screw up your stern tie (our first attempt in the deep water off Cassel Lake Falls is a story in itself) or worrying about finding a place to spend the night. It also means you can swing freely in places where you might otherwise have to stern tie.
Enjoy it all
It’s a bit too early for good fishing unless you have a down rigger, and the whales are just returning, but there is still plenty to enjoy, especially if you like puttering around the shores. Eagles are everywhere and the clear, undisturbed water is teeming with life from Lion’s Mane jellyfish to coral. We’ve seen more sea cucumbers in the past week than I have ever seen before.
The trails are wet and occasionally a bit challenging, but I entertained myself by clearing deadfall to make the walk easier for the next hikers and by keeping an eye on the ground for all the flora and fauna to be seen. I love wildflowers and spring affords me the opportunity to see a whole new range of them and practice my bad photography. Even the lichens are in bloom!
And the colours are fantastic. The days are already getting pretty long, and the play of sun and clouds across the mountains and water creates some pretty mesmerizing and ethereal scenes. Words aren’t enough and I’m just not a good enough photographer to capture the beauty. You have to see it for yourself. Really.
So what do you need?
Let’s start with a little background. Never for Ever is a 2003 Hunter 386. She has all the common amenities: gas stove, fridge and freezer, BBQ, head, etc. In addition to that she has a diesel fired Webasto hydronic heater with 3 separate “zones.” That allows us to heat the boat any time we want, although when all the fans are running she is using about 6 amp/hrs (that means that if we run it for 2 hours we use about 12 amp/hrs which is about a quarter of our normal daily allotment). We also have the best-ever fleece sheets that make crawling into a cold bed a non-issue. In addition we have tons of candles and a little candle/clay pot heating system that can take the chill off an evening as the sun goes down.
In the cockpit we have most of a full enclosure (because the mesh side panels don’t completely block the wind). Best of all, the two clear panels that attach to our dodger almost completely block any wind when underway. And while the bimini does leak a bit where it attaches to the arch, we are generally snug and dry in the cockpit even if it is raining.
Back to batteries. We have enough capacity to last four days without plugging in or firing up the engine if we are miserly with the heat, and three days if we stay warm. And it’s often warmer out in the morning sunshine than it is below so we can abandon the cabin if it’s cool but not cold enough to bother with the heater. What’s too cold? 10° C sends me running for the heater when I wake up and 13° C probably means we’ll tough it out with a nice hot coffee/tea to get us started.
What’s This Got to Do with Spring Cruising?
Well, it’s important to realize that for us, in a moderately equipped boat, cruising in the early months is a lot like camping in the mountains. It can be cold and damp at night, but the days generally make up for it — with the occasional rainy day spent relaxing under canvas. A fancy powerboat with a generator can probably leave the heat on continuously and may have lots of canvas-enclosed “sunrooms” that make it all more luxurious. As in the aforementioned camping reference, the trick is to stay dry, layer up and use positive words like “brisk” and “invigorating.”
But if you can accept the fact that you are going to wear layers, enjoy a splash of rain now and again, and expect to need an extra quilt or two, then there is lots to recommend about cruising the PNW in April and May and very little to fear.
It’s not that bad. Really. This year we headed up to Desolation Sound in mid-April and we have averaged rain two or three days a week, but it often happens over night or early in the day. Some of our best days have seen us getting up to steady rain and motoring for a few hours as it clears to have fantastic sunny weather when we arrive to explore our new anchorage. Daytime temperatures are usually in the 15–16°C range, which is plenty warm if the sun is out. The nights can get cold, but bring your favourite down sleeping bag and you won’t care. And the sound of rain at night is soothing.
The winds are good if you are a sailor. and not all that bad if you don’t mind bashing into a 20-knot head wind occasionally (we don’t). And the distances to most places are so short (an hour or two) that even a bad day doesn’t last long.
I do think early-season cruising should be more of a relaxed affair—the more time you have, the better. That way bad weather days are spent relaxing or walking a rainforest in the rain (which I firmly believe everyone should do at least once in their life). If you don’t have the time to outwait the weather (rarely longer than a day or two), then some destinations can be a bit more difficult.
Marinas and Resorts
The other thing to be aware of is that a lot of places aren’t open yet or have limited services. Contrary to expectation, trying to get space at public docks like Chemainus or Westview in Powell River is actually harder since they have not yet opened up space for the summer transient traffic. The restaurant at Gorge Harbour isn’t open for dinner, Refuge Cove has only limited services and, if you go further north, most of the places in the Broughtons like Port Harvey or Pierre’s will have dock space but few or no supplies available.
On the other hand, Taku Resort off Rebecca Spit has off-season rates, which means you can afford to tie up there. And Heriot Bay is similarly inexpensive at just over a dollar a foot. This makes supply and laundry days much more affordable if you are out for any length of time.
A couple of days ago we pulled into the public dock at Squirrel Cove and tied up. We did some resupply, washed all of our laundry and recharged our almost-dead batteries and were off to the main anchorage four hours later. No competition for space and no rushing. Glorious.
So What’s Stopping You?
I realize some of us don’t have much time, and “wasting” it on a spring cruise rather than waiting until high summer seems shortsighted or foolish. I just don’t think it is. It all depends what you want out of the experience. I value serenity and beauty, solitude and newness. Others might prefer the more social aspects of hanging out in a big anchorage with dozens of other boats, and I will admit that occasionally I wish we had some other boats around to entertain me. After all, we are all part of a community.
Still, if I wanted warmth and sunshine and crowds, I would likely spend my money in Mexico or the Caribbean. What the PNW offers is beauty and more beauty. A sense of wild, untouched landscapes and the opportunity to explore them at my own pace. Oh, if I can swing it, I will definitely come back in July and August, but I truly don’t think that the opportunities afforded by an early-season cruise should be missed by anyone who can afford to give it a try.