The Wonder of Winter Cruising

Story by Mark Bunzel

Photos by Brian Pemberton

In the off-season, when the crowds are gone, experience familiar passages and destinations in an exciting new way.

The cruising season in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest does not have to end with the passing of summer. A few hardy cruisers keep fall, winter and spring cruising as their own secret. The places that looked so captivating, with their natural green beauty in the summertime, take on a completely different look during the off-season. Fall colours are painted across the hillsides and in winter the white snow cap is more pronounced.

Waterfalls spill out of the steep mountainsides and tumble down, sometimes thousands of feet, to the water of a quiet inlet below. Deep into the winter months the mountains and hillsides may be blanketed with snow, draping the trees and dressing the dramatic rock faces with brilliant white. The visibility, on a clear day, is crisp and sharp. The mountains appear closer and the clear nights, when a full moon rises into a field of millions of stars, is something to be experienced. Occasionally, the northern lights might provide the evening’s entertainment.

For those who seek solitude, the off-season is truly the best time to cruise. The Desolation Sound area, usually packed with boats in July and August, may be all yours during an off-season cruise. The people who run the many small marinas and coastal shops that stay open year round will be thrilled to see you, and will have time to chat and socialize when you stop for fuel or moorage. If the weather does kick up, once you find the right anchorage, snuggling up with a book in a warm boat is the ultimate in cocooning. 

Some experienced Northwest cruisers time their departures for their favourite destinations in the early fall, when the crowds have left. Of course, those who choose to cruise in the winter sensibly pick their destinations with an eye towards the weather.

Winter Destinations

Off-season cruising does not have to include only the most remote locations. In fact, places you may have avoided for lack of satisfactory moorage in summer will now offer plenty of anchoring or mooring options.

The San Juan Islands are especially attractive in the off-season. Anchorages on Sucia Island are quiet and peaceful without the summer crowds. Resorts such as Roche Harbor and Rosario often offer special events right through fall, winter and spring.

In the fall and winter, Victoria carries a special charm. Finding dock space in the Inner Harbour in front of the Empress Hotel is typically not a problem, and with the Christmas holidays, the city takes on a festive air, the government buildings and waterfront hotels and shops aglow with lights. Another treat is a visit to Butchart Gardens, down Saanich Inlet near Brentwood Bay. In the off-season, choice moorage is available in cozy Butchart Cove. Nearby is Brentwood Bay Lodge and Spa which offers special wine-tasting events at the Seagrille Seafood and Sushi. Or you can relax at the Essence of Life Spa.

BC’s Gulf Islands offer lots of fall and winter destinations at towns and resorts such Ganges on Salt Spring Island or Poets Cove Resort on South Pender Island. Scenic anchorages such as Montague Harbour on Galiano Island, or Pirates Cove Marine Park on DeCourcy Island will provide good protection and delightful surroundings.

For many, the scenic harbours of BC’s southern mainland coast are perfect for exploration any time of the year. One of the most majestic passages is Jervis Inlet to the Malibu Rapids, and through Princess Louisa Inlet to the base of Chatterbox Falls. While the dock near the falls is full almost every night during the summer, you may have it all to yourself in the off-season.

For several years, Brian Pemberton, president of NW Explorations, a charter company in Bellingham, Washington, has cruised with family and friends between Christmas and New Years to Princess Louisa Inlet on their 49’ Grand Banks.

“You really have to see the falls in the wintertime,” says Pemberton. “It is a unique experience in adventure cruising and one that can be accomplished with a capable boat and an eye to the weather.”

A winter cruise to the falls is a breathtaking but very different experience than it is in summer. The winter colours of grey and white blend with a hint of green from the trees. The low sun can be brilliant, casting long shadows that add to the depth of the scene. On a misty day, low-hanging clouds will frame the scene with occasional peeks at mountain tops and waterfalls.

For many cruisers, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is a favourite time to escape on the boat. After family events on Christmas Day, you may be ready for a week alone or in a small flotilla of friends. Visit your favourite coastal town, an urban harbour such as Victoria, Vancouver or Seattle, or a remote area where you may be the only boats there. Gauge your destination based on the weather, and the capability of your boat and crew.

Heating the Boat

What about the cold? Experienced winter cruisers say cold is a mindset, like rain during summer cruising. You plan for it, and equip yourself and your boat to deal with it. Enjoying winter cruising assumes you have adequate heating for your boat. This is critical for you and your crew, as well as for the boat itself. Many boats have heating systems that provide warm air using heat from the running engine. While this works well under way, once anchored or at the dock another source of heat will be needed. Electric heaters work well, but your cruising destinations will need to be planned around docks and marinas that offer shore power year round. Calling ahead and checking that power is available is prudent.

The cruising season in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest does not have to end with the passing of summer. A few hardy cruisers keep fall, winter and spring cruising as their own secret. The places that looked so captivating, with their natural green beauty in the summertime, take on a completely different look during the off-season. Fall colours are painted across the hillsides and in winter the white snow cap is more pronounced.
The best heating system is a separate furnace that warms air or water and circulates heat throughout the interior of your boat. Boat heating systems carry a BTU rating for the amount of heat they generate – check whether your heating system is up to the task of warming your boat for winter cruising. If you are installing a new system, an expert in marine heating can determine the proper size for the interior volume of your boat and the type of cruising you plan to do. Powerboats tend to require larger heating systems as their interior volume is usually larger for a given length.

A heating system that uses the boat’s main fuel system is usually the best choice. For boats with gasoline engines there are heaters fueled by gas or propane, although many cruisers prefer the safety of a diesel furnace; some gas-engined boats are equipped with a separate diesel fuel system for the furnace alone.

A number of very good diesel furnace systems are available for forced air or hot water circulated through radiator systems to warm interior spaces. An advantage to a warm-water (or hydronic) system is that you can use heat from a fresh water-cooled engine to warm the boat while under way. Then, the fuel-fired hot water system can heat the water at anchor. Systems that circulate hot water or warm air use a pump or blower system that will require power from your batteries when at anchor. Some boat owners elect choose a main cabin furnace that radiates heat throughout the boat without a blower to avoid drawing on battery power at anchor.

Dress for Cold

Staying warm when you need to brave the elements outside is critical, especially when docking or anchoring. While the temperatures may be warmer than a comparable day of skiing, moisture in the air will often make it feel colder. Wearing the right clothes will contribute to keeping you warm and dry.

Dress in layers, starting with good long underwear, such as merino wool or synthetics. Thick wool socks will keep your feet warm and dry. The next layer can be a good shirt and slacks or jeans, lined if you like. A fleece vest may be next to retain body heat. A good waterproof coat or jacket to protect from rain or mist will keep the layers below dry. Check the waterproof rating of your jacket: seams should be taped and the material waterproof and, preferably, breathable.

Keeping your head covered will do a lot towards keeping your body warm; try a knit watch cap and a hood on your jacket that closes tight. Good gloves to keep hands warm are also critical to staying comfortable. You may decide to take more than one pair. Full gloves will work in most situations, but you may also want to carry a pair of sailing gloves with fingertips exposed for working with lines or setting fenders.

Your next consideration is coping with ice and snow. The image may be of Northwest rain as a torrent, but the reality is more often a gentle mist. Sometimes precipitation will turn to snow, but in temperate areas warmed by the ocean a light rain is more typical, sometimes for days at a time. Carry a plastic snow shovel for those days where it does snow, to clear snow off docks, decks and topsides.

While salt water does not get cold enough to freeze in the Northwest, fresh water that floats on top of the salt will freeze. This is typical in inlets fed by rivers and mountain streams. The result is a thin layer of ice in patches or sheets. Cruising through ice up to 1” thick should not be a problem for most fiberglass boats. The first thought is to go slow and break the ice with the bow. Some captains find a speed of about four knots creates a small bow wave which will crack ice and push it aside.

The sounds of ice in the water will be a new experience. It makes a horrible crunching sound as it passes the hull – and you may wonder whether your boat is being ground to bits while under way. But experienced winter cruisers rarely have more than a scratch or two on their boot stripe from ice. Fiberglass stands up well, while those with aluminum boats may have to be more careful.

In cold temperatures, ice can form on decks, rails and rigging, making them slippery. Lines will freeze and it may take more time than usual to untie and leave the dock. Frozen docklines can be thawed with buckets of seawater. Wet lines can be placed in a warm engine room or a well-ventilated shower to defrost and dry out. One school of thought is to bring wet clothing and lines into the boat to dry. The other is to keep wet items outside to keep the interior dry. Decide based on the ventilation and heat in your boat.

Plan for Weather

What about winter weather? Will there be fierce storms and extreme cold? In BC and the Pacific Northwest the worst weather will sweep down out of the Canadian mainland from the northeast. Inlets oriented in this direction, such as Howe Sound, Toba Inlet, Knight Inlet and Bute Inlet, will often have the worst conditions as outflow winds sweep down from the mountains and funnel through steep-sided inlets, whipping up wind waves and severe chop. But waterways that run perpendicular to the winter wind pattern may offer calmer sea conditions. And this may be opposite to the pattern of summer.

Plan accordingly based on the weather and forecasts. Keep your plans flexible and exercise greater caution. Talk to locals and gather as much local knowledge as you can. (See sidebar for more on weather resources.)

Carry spares for those items that may be subject to winter weather conditions. Good ground tackle and chafing gear are essential – or in a good blow, a secure dock may be the best choice.

If you’d like to try winter cruising, consider a short weekend cruise first. Venture out on a short passage in rough weather to learn how your boat handles the sea conditions. If you don’t have a boat in the Pacific Northwest, consider chartering. There are many charter companies in Seattle, Anacortes and Bellingham in Washington State, and in Sidney and Vancouver in BC that can advise you on off-season cruising and provide a boat properly set up for the season. Consider a flotilla with friends where the experience can be shared or guided by someone who is familiar with off-season cruising.

If you, your crew and your boat are properly equipped and have the right mindset, off-season and winter passages will allow you to see things other boaters may never experience. Kevin Monahan, a former fisherman, Canadian Coast Guard officer, and the author of Local Knowledge – A Skipper’s Reference, says some his most memorable cruises were through the passages near Desolation Sound in winter, when a crisp full moon lit everything to near to near-daylight.

Another special experience is to cruise into Vancouver’s Coal Harbour from English Bay, passing under the majestic Lion’s Gate Bridge which frames the snow-capped mountains of the city’s North Shore on a crisp winter day.

If you try it, you’ll discover that winter cruising offers the opportunity to experience BC and the Northwest in an exhilarating new way.

Mark Bunzel has cruised extensively in the Pacific Northwest, along the Inside Passage and throughout Alaska while writing and photographing beautiful locations for magazines and to update the books he publishes. He is the owner of Fine Edge Nautical Publishing in Anacortes and Chyna Sea Ventures in Nanaimo. He is editor and publisher of the Waggoner Cruising Guide, responsible for annual research on all marinas and anchorages between Olympia, Washington and Ketchikan, Alaska.

Brian Pemberton is the owner of NW Explorations of Bellingham WA, which specializes in bareboat and flotilla charters with a fleet of Grand Banks yachts. The photos accompanying this article are from a winter flotilla cruise to Princess Louisa Inlet.

Coastal Weather Know-How

Fear of foul weather keeps many from boating in the winter. While temperatures are colder and the wind can blow from a different direction than in spring, summer and fall, we often have very temperate weather in BC coastal waters thanks to the onshore flow from the North Pacific Current. However, a winter cruise needs to allow time for changes in the weather. A cold front can keep you tied to the dock for a couple of days. Winter cruising calls for different attitude and an appreciation of a different beauty than you see in the warmer months. Winter storms and gales should be respected and avoided.

How can you avoid nasty weather and enjoy your winter cruise? With access to computers and the Internet, we have many weather resources. At minimum, we have the weather reported on VHF weather channels. With a computer or smart phone, you can check Environment Canada’s brief Pacific Marine Weather Forecast online, a good starting point to understanding the weather and the forecast.

Next, look at the US NOAA Ocean Prediction Center, Pacific Region web pages and their weather maps for the coming 24, 48, and 96 hours. You will find a tremendous amount of information here. Watch for low-pressure systems coming across the Pacific: they are very distinctive and tightly packed. These are your early indicators of potential strong winds and unpleasant conditions. By studying the 500mb charts, you can get an idea of how they will shift and move across the area with the jet stream.

Look to the west and see how conditions are changing. If a low is coming, you can track its location based on the direction of the winds since you will often see a southerly moving to a westerly. Using this information you can anticipate when a low will track through your position. Even a weak low can change to a weather “bomb” in as little as nine hours. When a low is approaching and the pressure is dropping, head to the nearest safe port, tie up tight, put the tea kettle on the stove and settle down with a good book.

Unique to the winter season, look at the weather surface analysis charts on the Environment Canada website. Watch for a high pressure area to build up in the Canadian interior. This could pull cold arctic air in and push strong winds out through coastal passes and inlets, creating nasty conditions, especially on an opposing current. During the winter, this often happens in Howe Sound, Toba Inlet, Knight Inlet and Bute Inlet, where the inlets and associated river valleys form a direct connection to the interior. During these “arctic outbreaks”, winds sweep out of the mountains and funnel directly down the steep-sided inlets, whipping up wind waves and creating choppy sea conditions.

On the day of your cruise, check ocean buoy and lighthouse reports. Both provide very current information on wind and sea conditions. Put the wind conditions into context with upcoming currents and tides for the time period you will pass through an area. When crossing the Strait of Georgia, for example, monitor Halibut Bank and Sentry Shoal weather buoys for current conditions.

The best advice is to keep a loose schedule so you can pick your weather windows, relax and enjoy all that winter cruising has to offer.

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Winter cruising offers a fresh perspective on familiar waterways and shorelines – such as when snowfall touches evergreen slopes with white

Photo 2: Dramatic coastal mountainscapes take on a breathtaking new dimension in snow

Photo 3: The float at Princess Louisa Inlet’s Chatterbox Falls is a busy spot in summer, but may be quiet or empty in the off-season

Photo 4: A winter view of Chatterbox Falls

Photo 5: Take care when falling temperatures turn precipitation to ice on rails, decks and superstructure

Photo 6: Dress for it: warm, layered clothing is essential for winter cruising comfort…and then you can run from the bridge!

Photo 7: Mark Bunzel

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