Journey Through the Northwest Passage: The Inside Passage

On the journey north from Seattle, the crew of Dogbark! revisits favorite cruising grounds along the west coast of British Columbia.

Dogbark!, a modified Open 60, heads out toward the Inside Passage off British Columbia.John Guillote

This is my 5th trip along the inside passage, the stretch of mostly protected water that weaves and wanders along the west coast of British Columbia from Seattle to southeast Alaska. This passage is largely responsible for my sailing education, and it is not a lenient teacher. Concentrated winds, dense fog, complex currents, big logs, narrow rapids, and a thousand navigational hazards are enough to keep even the saltiest sailors on their toes.

Glaciers, on their way out a few thousand years ago, raked across this land and left behind deep fjords and narrow channels dotted with rocky islands. The moon draws in as much as 20 vertical feet of water that whirls around islands and forces itself through the narrow passages. After 6 hours of rushing and cajoling, that same volume of water is sucked out to sea, just in time to repeat the cycle. Steep mountains capture and distribute their own weather patterns, accelerating winds through narrow cuts between islands and depositing layers of pea-soup fog.

My introduction to the narrow passages, wind-whipped shorelines, and dramatic tide changes of the inside passage was from the bow of a race boat. We circumnavigated Vancouver Island, sailing 700 miles in 11 days to place first in our class. I got only a brief glimpse into the raw beauty of these cruising grounds between crowded start lines and hasty sail changes, but I was hooked.

Three months into the ownership of our boat, Halcyon, we sailed these waters again, this time on our way to a new job in Bella Bella. It was a brazen move, to uproot and take our new home to the remote coast of British Columbia knowing so little about cruising and almost nothing about boat ownership. I vividly remember falling asleep in the vee berth on our first day out of Seattle, face down in the Chapman's guide, stuck on the page about anchoring. We had only anchored our boat a hand full of times, and I was nervous.

By the time we’d cruised these waters for the third time (coming back to Seattle after a year in Bella Bella) and fourth time (leaving Seattle to cruise fulltime, which started with a slower circumnavigation of Vancouver Island), we had more confidence in ourselves and in our boat. My anxiety about timing the rapids and navigating between islands started to melt into the pure delight of being surrounded by such rich and raw beauty.

While beautiful, the waters of the Inside Passage offer plenty of navigational challenges.John Guillote

And so here we are again. At the beginning of June, despite the long to-do lists and hard goodbye's, DogBark! pulled away from the dock in Port Townsend and pointed her bow north. Leading up to the departure, our focus was on the unfamiliar characteristics and additional dangers of the icy waters of the northwest passage. It wasn't until we dropped the anchor off of Cabbage Island, in the Canadian Gulf Islands, and shut off the engine, when the peaceful stillness of uninterrupted nature enveloped us, that it hit me. Before we reach the ice, before we are in unknown waters, before it is shockingly cold and light for 24 hours a day, we get to explore some of our favorite places. We get to cruise the inside passage again.

Since our last visit two years ago, my husband, John, and I have cruised from Canada to Panama. In that time, the anchorages and islands along the inside passage haven’t changed. The shoreline is still varied and dramatic. The tides are still huge. The fog still descends. What has changed is my perception of it all. Each stern tie, each hike, each chandlery visit stirs up memories of past adventures and reveals the range of experiences and breadth of knowledge I have gained since our first visit.

I find myself smiling often, lost in the memories of trying to replace our VHF antenna from a climbing harness in an island town on a Sunday; of pouring over the tide and current tables, desperate to decipher when we should transit the Dodd narrows; of discovering the notorious feral sheep on Jedidiah Island for the first time; of feeling baffled by the washing machine conditions generated from a strong current running against a formidable breeze. Oh, how much we have learned!

And how much more we have to learn. I know I will look back on this journey with the new perspective engendered by all we will learn and experience in the coming months (and years). No matter how far we roam or how many miles we sail, these familiar waters will always encompass the frustrations, the joys, the fear and the pride integral to our first years of sailing. They embody the exhilaration of beginning a new adventure and the memories of past voyages. These waters will always feel like home.