For 6 months I consulted with sailors, examined the charts, and recorded the tidal currents in planning for a cruise around Vancouver Island. This is a big island about 600 nautical miles in distance. The waters are filled with challenges that some might call hazards, like Seymour Narrows. When the moon and the sun align, the current through the Narrows can run at 11 Knots. 

After all the preplanning for what I considered a 45-60 day cruise – boat maintenance, provisioning, looking at the tidal currents, crew boarding locations, and weather stations, and looking for places to hide out from storms – imagine my shock when a friendly Canadian said, “You Know John, every two years we race around the Island. It is the Van Isle 360∞ in 14 days. 

The Van Isle 360∞ is a biennial race held on odd years for sailors willing to meet the challenge of circumnavigating Vancouver Island. Described by the Organizers as “a 580 nm point to point race, it’s a circumnavigation of wild, rugged Vancouver Island. Sailed in a series of legs, the course provides inshore, offshore, and overnight legs through some of the most stunning and challenging waters on the planet.” Or in simpler terms, it is a staged distance sailing race that will put to the test your sailing skills, seamanship, courage, patience, endurance, and test of relationships. It’s a 14-day experience that few sailors dare to imagine during their lifetime. If this is your year to meet the challenge and have some fun, you will need to get started. It is not a “Hey I hear the club is racing around the cans tonight, let’s get some beer and join in” kind of event.

With boats racing in constantly changing waters off a remote coast with few roads, it is not your typical  spectator race. It will take a committed sailboat groupie to follow the boats along the island’s west coast with limited roads to the various overnight stops. In some places, there are no roads at all, only a ferry that arrives once a week. 

Changing crew and meet-and-greet options can be had in towns along the Strait of Georgia like Nanaimo, Comox, and Campbell River, where racers stop for the night and sip a local brew over discussions of the day’s adventure. The north end of the island at Port Hardy is where racers make preparations before “Turning the Corner.”

Rounding Cape Scott, the racers venture down the wild side of Vancouver Island. Surviving the turn, racers make a stop at Winter Harbor to take a breather or repair damaged gear and prepare for the next leg. 

 The 140 nautical miles of open ocean dash to Ucluelet is the challenge of endurance. At the start of this leg is Brooks Peninsula, called the “Cape of Storms” by Captain Cook. Unlike most of Canada, Brooks Peninsula escaped the last Ice Age. It is an area where many rare plants exist. This is the traditional area of the Kyuquot/Cheklesshht and Quatsino First Nations, who never ceded their lands. Jutting 12 miles (20 km) out into the ocean, Brooks Peninsula is a formidable hazard to be managed. Sailors are challenged not only by the rocky lee shore, but the wind and water that conspire against the unprepared. Solander Island, standing 1.03 miles (1.66 km) off the northwest corner of Brooks, serves as a sentinel to sailors. A lighthouse and weather station provide the attentive mariner with weather conditions, often indicating winds from 10-20 knots to hurricane force gusts, and sea states from calm to 4 plus meters in a few hours. 

Surviving Cape Scott, Brooks Peninsula, and the open ocean with a safe arrival at Ucluelet, a weary sailor might feel “we are almost home.” The 98 nm run to Victoria with following seas and the wind at your back, might foster thoughts of a cake walk home, but only for the uninitiated. This leg takes sailors around the southwest tip of the island and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Winds and currents can play with sailboats like they are toys, tossing them about when wind and currents collide. Beaten and battered, the boats arrive in Victoria to be hosted by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the oldest yacht club in western Canada. 

The last leg takes racers back to protected waters on the east side of Vancouver Island. It is 60 nm to the finish line in Nanaimo, the route chosen by the Skipper and Navigator can mean the difference between first and last place. Do you go direct up through the Gulf Islands riding tidal currents, dodging boat traffic, and praying the winds will remain strong? Or do you choose the longer outside path up the Strait of Georgia where wind and waves may help or hinder your advance to the finish?

The Van Isle 360 is not only a race, it’s an adventure. The 2021 race is scheduled for Saturday, May 29th to Saturday, June 12th. Yes, this conflicts with other races, but it’s the tide and currents that dictate the race days, not the race committee. To qualify for the Van Isle 360 race, Captain and Watch Crew need to have completed two overnight open-ocean qualifying races in order to register for this special event. 

So why consider participating in this event or sailing around the island? Because this is the chance to demonstrate you have what it takes to sail on the waters that are the Pacific Northwest. To explore the communities along the Inside Passage, with all the stunning views and narrow passages that cut through forested mountains running to meet the water’s edge. To watch whales swoosh and eagles soar in their natural environment. To share a meal or beer at a pub perched over the sea with new made friends. To transit waters like Seymour Narrows, Nahwitti Bar, and Race Rocks; to explore the scenic waters of Barkley Sound and Johnstone Strait; or experience the challenge of Brooks Peninsula that has fostered the stories of sailors as old as the waters themselves. To have stories of your own that only you can tell your children or grandchildren.

John Shepard
Field Correspondent