Nick of Time

Cruisers turn racers in the biennial Van Isle 360 race around Vancouver Island.

Opus, a C&C 43, tacks away from a loaded barge during the Van Isle 360 race around Vancouver Island.Becca Guillote

We had to tack away at the last minute. Opus, a C&C 43, was just a few boat lengths ahead, and that was enough to make all the difference. The barge bore down on us both with the tenacity of a creature little inclined to slow down or change course. Our sails were sheeted in tight, playing the delicate balance of speed and point. The crew was quiet, eyes trained, muscles taut, minds wondering, Would we play chicken with a bird that big?

It was day one of the 12-day 580-mile race around Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and our grit was already being tested aboard Kotuku, a Farr 1220. But that’s exactly what I love about the biennial Van Isle 360 race. Every day dishes up a new plate of struggles and surprises. It is an event that converts cruisers into racers (if only temporarily) and taunts racers with glimpses into the joys of cruising in some of the most extraordinary sailing grounds in the world. After seeing the beauty of Vancouver Island’s west coast go whizzing by between tacks on our 30-hour upwind leg in washing-machine seas, I vowed to return. I promised myself I would cruise these waters slowly, stopping at every one of those intriguing nooks and bays.

With an unassuming “Let’s go,” almost in a whisper, the tactician called the tack, and all nine of us sprang into action to turn out of the path of the oncoming brutish barge. We watched as Opus squeaked by just ahead, its sleek lines and trimmed sails disappearing behind towering piles of timber. When they reappeared moments later, there was a collective exhale, the synchronized end of a breath held in ­anticipation of seeing that sail glide by unscathed.

Far from hurting us, our humility (along with some grit, dedication and a not insignificant amount of practice) carried us to a first-place trophy. And the experience of that race carried me on to pursue a life of cruising. Five years later, I kept that promise to return, cruising that same coast nice and slow. This time, I soaked up every unhurried minute of my wandering path in and out of sounds and inlets, crossing well behind every tug and tow I saw.