A Sailboat Race Around Vancouver Island

7 min read


A Sailboat race around vancouver island
Van isle 360

The VanIsle360 International Yacht Race is a 14 day, multi-leg race through some of the most complex sailing grounds in the world.  With 15-foot tides, up to 10 knot currents and stormy offshore sailing, this is a proving ground for any crew.   

I’ve had a dream of competing in this race for decades and this year, I raced as skipper in my boat, Reepicheep,  A Sabre 386.   Reepicheep has been my cruising boat and the journey to get her race ready was intense.   A new sail inventory, new rigging, lifelines, bilge pumps, spinnaker rigging, replaced and new halyards, fittings, blocks, electronics – the list goes on.   It took us months to get her ready but ready she was for the start on June 1st, 2023 in Nanaimo British Columbia.  

The start on that sunny Saturday morning was intense with 40 yachts circling around the Nanaimo harbour among the floatplanes, ferries, barges and recreation boats.  They hold the start in the harbour so that spectators can take in the amazing sight.  One prestigious racing boat ended up aground on the reef just off the starting line and another fouled their prop and needed divers to free it.    A dramatic start.   

The first leg to Denman Island offered up a bit of everything.  Getting out of the harbour was tricky with light air and lots of turbulence from the other boats.    We then enjoyed some medium wind and shifty conditions and finished up with a 25 knots Qualicum breeze with a massive shift to bring us to the finish.

That night was spent in Comox Harbour and a fun night meeting some of our competitors.    

The second leg from just outside the bar in Comox up to Campbell River was super challenging. I’d heard about the 6-knot current coming into Campbell river and having to short tack up the shore but nothing prepared me for this challenge.   We did more than 30 tacks – many not getting us any more upwind.  We had to take Reepicheep in as close as we dared on each tack, or we were guaranteed to not make any way.   The risk is that you lose momentum due to the current and slip backwards during a tack.   This has put many boats up on the rocks and it was a nail-biting time for me. I navigated and Alex drove as only an owner is qualified to make these high-risk decisions.   We finished and the team was exhausted.    

Campbell River was party night and we had a great time celebrating Alex’s birthday. 

We had to leave at the crack of dawn the next day to motor past Seymour narrows at the 6 am slack tide.  The start of Leg 3 was just beyond that in heavy NW wind.  We set our heavy weather jib and had a decent start, but the wind dropped and we had to do a sail change.   This allowed one of our competitors to get to the next shift first and lead the way.     We sailed hard taking advantage of every puff and shift and eventually caught up, but we weren’t able to put enough time on them to win.  A second place finish after winning the first two legs. 

That night was spent on anchor in Port Neville and we enjoyed BBQ Lamb Burgers.   It was a gorgeous night.  The sight of 40 race boats anchored out in the wilderness was super unique.

The Fourth leg was up Johnstone Strait.  Known for its heavy wind and wind against current chop, this leg didn’t disappoint.  It was a ton of work to keep Reepicheep going fast but the team gave 110% and we arrived in Telegraph Cove with another win.   

Telegraph cove is a spectacular little fishing village with much of the history preserved.  It features a whale museum, a pub and some eco tourism businesses.    It was amazing fitting 40 racing yachts in this tiny boat basin and we had a social evening visiting many of the other competitors.  

Leg Five was from just outside Telegraph Cove up to Port Hardy and the race really started to get interesting.  We had a lot of very light wind and lots of strong current.   It was essential to be hunting the wind and catching every breath you could.   At one point we were going backwards at 3.0 knots in the right direction.     The wind filled in for a while before the sea fog hit and the wind died again.   Not being able to see our competitors and hunting out wind with little visibility was tough but at the top of the leg, we came out ahead of not only our fleet but most of the boats racing.   The wind filled nicely for the last few miles but only 12 out of 40 boats were able to finish within the time limit.   

We had a layover in Port Hardy with a chance to re-provision, clean up the boat, sleep in a bed and enjoy this remote little town.    The local community treated us to a wonderful celebration featuring young kids performing a traditional dance and a burger lunch from the legion.   It was a great day.

At this point, the race changes.   The legs get longer and the stops more remote as we leave Port Hardy to head over the top of the Island, over the Nahwitti Bar, around Cape Scott and down the outside to Winter Harbour.   Getting over the bar is super tricky.   There is a ton of current, rough waves and we had very little wind.    Creeping through the current took every ounce of acceleration we could nurse out of Reepicheep but eventually we were free and had a great sail around the point.   We arrived in Winter Harbour in the middle of the night and sleep was a fantastic reward for our efforts.    We enjoyed a lovely day in this super remote hamlet perched on the west coast of the island.  The locals had an incredible BBQ and a warm welcome for us all.

Leg 7 is the longest and in this race and turned out to be the most challenging. With a forecast of 30 knots downwind, we were all a little anxious for the challenges we would face.   The wind built as the day progressed and the wave state was incredible. Bigger waves than any of us had previously experiences with gusts hitting 40 knots.   We sailed a conservative route reducing sail area early.  Many of our competitors waited too long and shredded their sails.  Even with minimum sail area, this was a high-risk leg as the waves were certainly capable of putting a boat over.   Driving was exhausting and I was happy to have three capable drivers on board. We had one terrible knock down caused by a massive wave breaking over the boat.   The force of the wave was devastating, and we were all thrown down.   One crew nearly went overboard but her tether held, and we were able to get her back inside.  We got the boat back under control and while I was attending to my traumatized crew, we had impact with something.  We were 20 miles offshore, so it was likely a whale.  We all know that these impacts can severely damage and even sink a sailboat, so we were immediately monitoring the bilge for water.    No leaks and no obvious damage so it was back to racing.    After nearly 18 hours of extreme sailing, we sailed out of the wind and into a massive hole near the finish line in Ucluelet.   This was very frustrating and took a significant attitude adjustment to get back in the game.  It took us 5 hours to sail that last 7 miles.   I can’t help but see this as an important metaphor for life.   We shifted, we persevered, and we won. 

Ucluelet was a fantastic stop over.  We had the biggest and best breakfast ever, rested, showered, socialized, had a great group event at the recreation centre.  The main road into Ucluelet was closed due to a forest fire so road crews, race organizers and tourists couldn’t get through.  I think the town was happy to have us and they stepped up in a major way to make the stopover work.

Leg 8 from Ucluelet to Victoria was a painful start.  There was still up to 40 knots offshore and no wind inshore and the sea state was terrible.   We sloshed around for hours trying to get to the wind.  It took every bit of focus, patience and skill we had to get ahead and out to the wind in the Juan De Fuca Strait.    Once we did, it was champagne sailing down the strait with the sun setting in the background.  Everyone had a chance to drive this leg and we arrived at the finish line shortly after dark.  Another first.

The festivities were at my home club, the Royal Victoria Yacht Club and it was really an exciting time.  To be leading the regatta and have fellow club members celebrating with us was a real high.  We had a fantastic meal, my nephew Simon helped me collect our flags and it was early to bed.   The final leg mattered and it was the trickiest of the bunch.   If we stayed ahead of our competition, we could win not just our division but overall which would be such an honour.

The 9th and final leg winds its way through the Gulf Islands with multiple possible ways to go and several tidal gates to time.   Once you choose a route, there is no going back so if you get it wrong, you could lose the race.   It was mostly downwind and we took a risk at the start.  We went inside a small channel that required a spinnaker hoist, douse and re-hoist in around the rocks but it put us and the 5 other boats that went the same way a significant lead right off the bat.     It was great sailing in medium wind and we were continuing to gather information to assessing our options.  Being ahead meant our fleet could split from us at any of the decision-making points.    Mostly they followed us except one boat cut out early and was looking in pretty good shape.    The wind died and it started to look like we wouldn’t make our gate at Porlier Pass.  This could be a significant problem to win overall but somehow, we sneaked through with very little wind and current against us.    We all breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked the eagle feather that had accompanied us on the entire journey.     The rest of the leg was beautiful until the very end when the wind died to nothing.   Not even a whisper.   It took us an hour to float over the finish line with the light current in Nanaimo harbour.  It took massive patience but eventually the radio lit up – Congratulations Reepicheep, you have finished. 

And then we celebrated.