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VICE 2017 Reflections and Lessons Learned

“There is no preparation for going offshore quite like being offshore.” This call to action for BCA’s Vancouver Island Cruising Experience (VICE) did not fail to deliver valuable insights to the crew of the four participating boats of VICE 2017 – Carpe Ventus (Beneteau 445),  Mazu (Tayana 37), Shamata (Discovery 47), and Tillikum (Catalina 470).

Getting to the VICE start:

Getting to Ucluelet for the Monday, July 10 meet and greet was the first challenge faced. Gale force winds were forecasted in Juan de Fuca Strait for much of the week leading up to the VICE start. A majority of the four boats gave themselves a week or more out from the meeting date to tackle the Strait, all arriving in Ucluelet a day in advance of the meet and greet. Motoring up Juan de Fuca Strait was the norm, with heavy fog and two meter swells for some and relatively benign conditions for others, all against prevailing on-the-nose-winds. The extra time in Ucluelet was put to good use, getting to know one another and visiting boats. Everyone was tackling last minute jobs between socializing and learning from one another.

All boats monitored weather independently, in advance of the offshore passage. The favoured sources of weather varied from Predict Wind to Environment Canada’s Marine forecast, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Briefing Package. All sources were forecasting light winds for the initial proposed start day of Wednesday, July 11th, leading to a group decision to move up departure to the afternoon of Tuesday, July 10.

Prior to departure, a few hours were spent in an informal education session. Thanks to Serendipity, an experienced sailor from Oregon on the Ucluelet docks, who provided a quick overview of places to tuck into along the coast, if choosing the harbour-hopping route to San Francisco. Through the efforts of Brian Short (Carpe Ventus) and Jean Baillargeon (Shamata), Bill McLeod, a long time ham operator and emergency procedure specialist, gave a presentation about SSB communications. Bill also agreed to run a daily VICE net.

The VICE 2017 group agreed to a daily VHF check-in at 1730h on Channel 68 (USA mode). For boats with SSB radios, Bill McLeod coordinated a check-in at the end of the regularly scheduled Northwest Boaters Net (3860kHz LSB), around 1830h. All boats had VHF radios; three had SSB radios, with Carpe Ventus and Shamata having Ham licenses. Two boats had Satellite phones and one a Garmin inReach.

Heading out:

Around 1400h Tuesday, July 10, the VICE fleet cast off the dock in Ucluelet, heading out to muster at the red buoy off Amphitrite Point. By 1600h, all boats had set their sails for a close-hauled Starboard tack in 12 to 15 knots of wind, towards the way-point, 48 15° N and 129° W, about 150 NM offshore. Within a few hours, the heavy displacement boats (Mazu and Shamata) saw the longer, lighter boats (Carpe Ventus and Tillikum) pull away, to become mere dots on the horizon. By the time we did our first VHF check-in, reception between the two boats furthest apart was sketchy. Mazu was able to pick up all boats by VHF and served as a relay point when required. Only Carpe Ventus and Shamata were able to check-in on the Northwest Boaters Net, as it is a Ham frequency, while Mazu listened. We kept track of Tillikum through VHF only. Except for Tillikum, which lost all of its electronics as we headed out (ouch!), we tried to keep track of each other on AIS. We learned that once a boat was beyond the horizon, we would lose that ability as well.

The winds became more variable as night settled in. By morning, the wind was dying. All boats tacked at some point in the morning, some motor sailing to make headway towards the way-point. Just shy of 24 hours off the dock, an impromptu VHF check-in was organized for 1300h to assess progress. At that point, the slower boats had travelled 80 NM, yet were still 100 NM away from the way-point! Mazu, Shamata and Tillikum decided to head back towards Bamfield, as that would still provide another night at sea, yet avoid more floundering in light winds. As many agreed, if we were heading for a lush tropical island, it would have been worth waiting for the winds to pick up; yet to head for a random mark on the chart did little to motivate crews. By contrast, the crew on Carpe Ventus had caught a Blue Fin tuna and were intent on staying out as long as possible, so they carried on to the way-point.

Typical track of boats returning prior to reaching waypoint

The sea life on the return trip dispelled any misgivings about turning back, with fewer than 150 NM under our belts. Gray whales and particularly Pacific White Sided dolphins gave some boats a tremendous show. As the sky darkened on the second night, the wind also picked up to a pleasant eight to 12 knots. Mazu and Shamata were in sight of one another throughout the night. Except for a cruise ship that set the horizon ablaze, the running lights of few other boats were apparent.

Pacific white sided dolphins chasing Mazu

By 0800h on Thursday, July 12th, Mazu and Shamata were anchored in Bamfield Inlet, later joined by Tillikum. Carpe Ventus made it Ucluelet on Sunday, July 15. Each boat headed out with unique learning goals and experiences. The memories of the participants follow. A big thank you to the VICE 2017 coordinating committee: Jean Baillargeon, Helen Roberts, Eric Carpentier (who set up a VICE 2017 Facebook page) and Karoline Monkvik. And huge regrets that a number of boats registered for VICE were unable to participate, either due to weather or mechanical issues. You were missed!

Experiences:

Carpe Ventus (Brian Short)

What a great experience! Carpe Ventus was fortunate to be one week early (or 51 weeks late depending on how you put it) and managed a wonderful week in the Broken Group prior to VICE 2017. I now believe that getting to Ucluelet is a big part of VICE and it makes a good starting point. Getting together with the other boats was great, along with some knowledge passed on from Bill McLeod (radio nets) and John from the boat Iris (Portland, Oregon) who gave us some useful places to go along the US coast. We left the dock about 1400h Tuesday, glad to be away from the dock and into some wind. Of course, the wind was pretty much on the nose to the rhumb line, so beat we did for three days and nights! It seemed that whenever we got close to a straight course to the mark, the wind would veer or back and send us further away. However, by 1400h on the third day, we were on top of the marker and made sure we took the requisite GPS pictures.

Carpe Ventus makes it to the mark!

Crew Member

Guy Gauvin and I kept a four-hour on/off watch, with a mid-afternoon dogwatch to change things up a bit. I believe this worked well for the two of us. Miraculously, we had no rain for the whole trip. And inevitably, no offshore trip would be complete without some problems. We found that downloading the weather on our modem caused the Sea Talk bus to crash, so we went for a couple of days without wind, depth, speed information, but Navigations was still active. It came back on, but we tried the modem again to see what would happen, and sure enough it died again. Need to work on that one.

On the way back, the wind died somewhat, but we managed to ghost along at 1 – 3 knots in perfect conditions, without a care in the world. It was really nice to have the time to go that slow for once. As we were the only boat left at this time, we decided to head back to Ucluelet instead of Bamfield, as it was more convenient for both of us. Guy made up a table of distance versus time, that allowed us to know when we had to stop sailing and get the motor on. Fortunately, we kept the wind in our sails until 0100h on the last day, and arrived in Ucluelet at 0710h as planned. Distance travelled was 286 NM in 89 hours, or an average of 3.2 knots. Total distance travelled was closer to 356 NM (roughly 4 knots) including 17 hours of motoring/charging, dock to dock.

It was great meeting up with the other participants and making connections for our future travels.

Big highlights for the trip, besides just being out there, was a 20 lb. Blue Fin tuna landed and into the freezer and frying pan. Possibly rarer, was a sighting by Guy of a Mola Mola (ocean sunfish). Never even heard of this fish, but there it sat on the surface about 2 m long with a 2 m fin span. Humpbacks, Orcas and dolphins were also sighted.

Mola Mola spotted near Carpe Ventus

Suggestion for future VICE: check the wind patterns and pick a way-point that will give more of a reach in and out, and don’t use Channel 68 for roll call, as it is the local channel for water taxis, parties, lost kids and many other things. And by all means sign up and attempt to attend VICE. Being offshore shows up some problems I never new existed, after sailing extensively inshore.

Guy Gauvin

VICE is meant to simulate the offshore sailing experience, not just provide “a thrilling sailing adventure”. For me VICE 2017 was a great test of the rhythm and conditions of sailing aboard Carpe Ventus and absolutely worthwhile, even if the winds were not ideal for our way-point. I agree with all of Brian’s suggestions for future VICE events, but would also add, assuming a rendezvous of participants on a Sunday afternoon, that departure be on a Tuesday morning, not a Wednesday morning as originally planned.

Mazu (Stefa Katamay and Jürgen Harding)

Sailing our own boat at sea over two nights was a new experience for us and was marked with lots of learning. Stefa’s number one goal was to avoid the seasickness she had previously experienced offshore. Following dietary restrictions recommended by John Neal in a July 2017 Practical Sailor article, was enough to keep nausea at bay without any medication. Keeping our daily fluid intake up above the two-litre mark seemed to keep us relatively alert despite the fatigue. The watch system we used in VICE didn’t work for us – Jürgen sleeps well in the day, Stefa, not so much. For the trip south, we’ve decided to try one two hour watch each in the dead of the night, one four hour watch each in the middle of the day and the rest filled in with three hour watches. We had dinners prepared in advance, keeping time in the galley to a minimum. We discovered we were terrible at keeping our ship’s log up to date, and that the log itself needed some revisions. Our first night, we both hand steered throughout our respective shifts as we hadn’t got the hang of our Hydrovane, particularly in variable winds. It was completely exhausting, even without heavy conditions. In light winds, we discovered all of the closed cabinet doors that bang gently, yet incredibly annoyingly when trying to sleep. On the second night, our Hydrovane did all of the work at the helm, making for a glorious night of watch keeping. It’s hard not to grin ear to ear while sailing hands free! We plan to download weather while offshore, with a Satellite phone, which we did not have time to get prior to VICE. Once leaving the dock and were out of reach of cell service (which went out to sea much farther than expected) we were dependent on other boats for weather updates. With cell service, we use Environment Canada’s Marine Forecast, the NOAA Pacific Briefing package and Luckgrib. In retrospect, we may have all benefited from a pre-departure comparing of forecasts and subsequently comparing what was experienced after VICE, to see which weather forecasting services proved most accurate. Similarly, we could have adjusted the way-point based on the weather, as has been done in other VICE years to avoid beating upwind for an extended period of time. After recovering in the Broken Group for four nights, we had a spicy downwind sail back down Juan de Fuca Strait, where we got to test our mettle once the ebb tide started pushing against the 20-knot winds. We are both grateful for what we learned through the VICE experience and fellow VICE participants. Having people to connect to while offshore was a highlight of every day.

Shamata (Jean Baillargeon and Helen Roberts)

The big learnings for us revolved around watchkeeping, working with our own Hydrovane and what particular conditions work best for us. It was Helen’s first offshore foray. We used Stugeron to avoid seasickness, half-pills every 12 hours. Since the conditions were very calm, life on board was easy.

We, too, chose to do 2 x 2 hour dog-watches between midnight and 0400h, and that seemed to help, although we realized how much sleep deprivation will come from doing double handed passages. Certainly, it will give us pause when considering some of the longer passages we are planning.

We had rigged up a preventer system before leaving and had not had a chance to test it under sail. We did, a bit, when the wind finally backed abaft our beam. Sure enough, the preventer lines were not run in the best configuration (chafing issues), so VICE allowed us to sort that out.

Choosing a way-point that avoids (as much as possible) an all-upwind ride to the way-point should become a given for future VICEs. Moving it south by a few degrees would have achieved that for VICE 2017. Pick a way-point that favours a bit more on the beam outbound leg.

We had asked the Coast Guard to come and do an information session on the dock, but they are just too busy. Instead, as a group, we went through the answers that they sent us to the following questions and discussed what our planning was around these items. It was a fun and useful discussion.

“If there were 10 top items you think we should know, what would they be?
• Man overboard procedure
• Response to capsizing
• Response to dismasting
• Propulsion failure procedures
• Response to taking on water (flooding)
• Response to grounding
• Medical emergency procedures
• Fire procedures
• Distress signals (review them all and think about how and when you could use them)
• Collision regulations”

It was nice not having too much planned for on the docks, as it gave us time to be spontaneous around where to meet and when. In these more casual get-togethers, we were able to agree to move our departure date and time to suit the weather conditions, we set up a plan for communications (every 12 hours), we agreed to VHF channel (68) and we made some nice connections.

Tillikum (Tim Holley)

Our crew consisted of my wife, Pam, nephew Kristian, and fellow Fleet member, Michael. Our boat is a Catalina 470, which we’ve owned for 8 years. The challenges started very quickly for us. Before we even got outside the harbour, our Raymarine Seatalk network was giving error messages. All of our instruments are on a network and unfortunately the entire network failed, which put all of our instruments out of commission, with the only one left working being the radar. This system has been relatively trouble free since we’ve owned the boat – talk about bad timing! The thought of hand steering a boat of this size for the next 2 or 3 days was pretty concerning, and I considered abandoning the trip. However, without much hesitation, my crew insisted that we carry on, which we did. Wind was a brisk NW 15 with 4-6’ swells. We hoisted sails and set off, while I got to work trying to find the source of our problem. After many hours of bypassing instruments and checking connections, I gave up and accepted the fact that we’d have to do the trip with only radar – no depth, speed, chart plotter and autopilot.

We went with 3 hour watches and 2 people per watch. The first day was a major adjustment in living and sleeping aboard a small boat heeling at 15-20 degrees! None of us had any prior experience with offshore sailing, so this was quite a challenge. This was very different to our typical 3-hour weekend sails, where there is no need for cooking or sleeping under way. Although the first day was a major adjustment, by the second day we were settling in nicely to a good routine. By that time, we’d set up our beds with cushions and lee cloths and were quite comfortable sleeping. The first day we ate only snack food, but by the second day we were eating real meals prepared underway – including roast beef! Pam is susceptible to seasickness, so that was a major priority in our planning. We’d brought several types of medication, including Stugeron, Scopolamine patches and Bonine. Pam had never used Stugeron before, but it proved to be very effective and she had no seasickness whatsoever.

We’d checked our mainsail thoroughly before leaving and stitched up problem areas. The jib was thought to be in much better condition and was not checked. In hindsight, that was a mistake, as it was in worse condition than the main. Although it made it through the trip, the UV cover let go a few days after the trip, so we were lucky.

I had come prepared to download GRIB files using our Satellite phone while underway. This proved to be quite challenging due to poor signal strength. I got a few of them after a great deal of effort (and air time) so that’s something I need to address in future. Perhaps I need a masthead antenna. In addition, the file I did get offshore (PWG model on PredictWind), was not accurate – although it was only one of the available six models. It indicated 5 kn wind going back to Ukee, whereas we got around 20 kn for the whole way.

Our selected way-point was upwind, so we were steering 30 degrees off intended course. In hindsight, we should have selected our way-point relative to wind direction. In any case, on the way out, we made a steady 6 kn, following Carpe Ventus. This became a bit of a challenge for my competitive nature – to catch and hopefully overtake Carpe Ventus. Our boats seemed to sail in a similar manner and we maintained about the same distance behind them all the way out. There was another lesson in this, which was to reduce sail earlier. When we finally did reef on our return, steering was far easier, with less heeling and more comfort.

Once we got about 85 NM offshore, we decided to turn and head for shore, since the hand steering was quite taxing. On the return, we encountered a large pod of dolphins as well as a large pod of whales. Actually the whales were encountered on the way out as well. However, in both cases it was the middle of the night and they could not been seen. I was off watch, but apparently there were many whales that could be heard from all sides of the boat. In future, I would bring in all sail and motor slowly through the pod for fear of hitting one.

The next incident on our return was a cruise ship in our path, about 20 NM offshore. Without AIS working, I couldn’t tell how close they’d pass, but I was able to contact them by VHF. As it turned out, they were tracking Shamata, but not us, so I was glad I called them. But going forward, I would definitely upgrade to an AIS transceiver (we only have a receiver) so large ships can spot us more easily.

Our return was much faster than anticipated, so we ended arriving in Ukee at 0500h. I’m very familiar with Ucluelet harbor, so arriving at that time was not a problem. After getting back, I was able to find the source of our network failure – it was two cables in the cockpit that had gone bad – probably due to corrosion. The lesson here is to go through all your critical network cables to make sure there are no hints of corrosion. All of these should be greased to prevent corrosion and spare connection cables or splice fittings should be carried on board. Another mistake was that in troubleshooting – I should have been testing the system “live”. That was my approach at the marina, and I was able to find the problem fairly quickly (rather than shutdown for each test).

VICE was an excellent experience for us. We were able to meet all the challenges, and found living aboard while underway reasonably comfortable. Having the other boats there made the whole thing a lot more fun and they were all very friendly. We have no near-term plans to go offshore and took the trip to see if this is something we could actually handle and enjoy. Based on this trip, it does look like we could do this sort of thing and really enjoy it. So perhaps in a few years, we may head off somewhere – perhaps Hawaii or Mexico. We’d also like to thank BCA and all the people who did a great job organizing this event.