Which Way Around?

I have spent many hours looking at charts of the island. There are so many details to try and understand: which way does the tidal current flow? Where can you safely land? Where are there cliffs for miles? These are the small, local details that I will have to ponder any given day, and it doesn’t make sense to spend too much time going over them right now. More important to me at the moment is the big question: which way do I go around?


The trip is divided into two parts. The east coast, known as the “inside passage,” is a series of long, narrow bodies of water that lie between Vancouver Island, the mainland, and the Discovery islands. The western side of the island is the “outer coast,” which faces out to the Pacific ocean.

The inside passage has areas of strong currents, tidal rapids, and colder temperatures due to winds draining down the inlets from the mainland. The outer coast has stronger and more frequent winds, fewer towns, storm driven swell coming in off the ocean, and large fields of reefs near shore which create dumping surf (“boomers”) that must be avoided.


The choice really comes down to the wind: both sides of the island are subject to the dominant winter weather pattern of strong southeast winds. That means that whichever way I choose to go around, I can expect to have a tailwind on the way north and a headwind on the way back to the San Juans. There are distinct advantages to paddling around the island either counter-clockwise or clockwise. Having talked to a number of people who have completed or attempted an expedition around Vancouver, I have found a split opinion. 

Some people have advised me to head up the inside passage first. This would allow me to get warmed up on the trip and really dial in my paddling and camping systems before heading out on the more challenging section that is the outer coast. It would also allow me to gain more daylight as the date gets further from solstice. The disadvantage is that I can expect stronger headwinds down the entire west coast as I am dealing with the swell and exposed reefs and the dumping surf, slowing my progress considerably. 

Others have suggested that I should run up the outer coast first, taking advantage of those stronger tailwinds on the outside to make faster progress on that stretch. This strategy would also allow for some easier passages around key capes and points along the way. The disadvantage would be that the second half of the trip would involve a cold headwind, often blowing against the favorable currents and increasing the waves in those fast-flowing passages. More than that, it would mean paddling out to the most challenging part of the journey right at the start. 

That last piece is the toughest to wrap my head around. In terms of winds, currents, and overall strategy, it makes sense to travel the outer coast first, making my way around the island clockwise... but heading straight out to the exposed west coast is intimidating. The gales and swell are dark beasts on the horizon, giving me pause, making me timid to make the choice I need to. 

This is a good chance for me to remember that most challenges are more in our minds than in our physical bodies. It also reminds me that I need to make choices that will help be out more while I am out there, and that means going to the coast first. I’ll be fresher, not having been grinding out miles in the cold for weeks before getting there. I’ll also have the north tip of the island to look forward to instead of building up concerns in my mind: as soon as I turn the corner at Cape Scott the trip will only be half over, but the hardest part will be done. While this is more unnerving sitting here planning, I think it will make the expedition more successful overall, which is the big picture I have to keep in mind.

I think it is settled then. I’ll head around clockwise, dodging boomers and sitting out the gales as I go.