Inside Passage Pacific Northwest

What's So Great About Cruising the PNW?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014S.V. CAMBRIA

It’s not a question we often hear, but Latitude 38 posed it recently in their online magazine.  Here’s some of what they wrote:

We're not asking this in a derisive manner, but out of curiosity. We all have our preferences, and in case anyone hasn't noticed, those of us at Latitude 38 are more inclined to like the tropics than cooler cruising areas . . . . Yet being close-minded isn't the smartest predisposition, as you can miss out on a lot of great things in life . . . . So while lying in our bunk the other night, we got to thinking, maybe we're missing great things in the Pacific Northwest. We know the seafood is great. We know there are some beautiful vistas. Maybe there's even more to it than that.

Maybe doesn’t even come close.  Definitely is more like it. 

David and I spent six years in New Zealand living aboard, cruising, working, doing partial refits on two boats and generally trying to figure out what was next.  During that time we met a lot of world cruisers and whenever we asked them where the best cruising grounds where, 9 times out of 10 the answer was British Columbia (if you’re curious, the 10th was the Tuamotus in French Polynesia). 

So what’s so great about cruising in the Pacific Northwest?

Protected Waters

From Puget Sound to Southeast Alaska, you’re protected from the open ocean with two major exceptions, Cape Caution and Dixon Entrance.  That’s not to say cruising in the PNW is without its own set of challenges: Currents, fast-moving weather systems, katabatic winds, rapids and major bodies of water like the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Georgia Strait and Queen Charlotte Strait offer plenty of excitement.  And when that’s not enough, the West Coast of Vancouver Island takes you back to open-ocean cruising.

Diverse Cruising Grounds

Not only does the PNW have more than 16,000 nautical miles of coastline to explore, the cruising grounds are as diverse as they are expansive: From glaciers to white sand beaches; protected waters to the open-ocean; islands to fjords; anchorages filled with dozens of boats to ones that look like they’ve never seen man, the PNW has it all!  On any given day we find ourselves surrounded by mountains, swimming in waterfalls, walking barefoot in the sand or soaking in a natural hot spring (our personal favourite) miles and miles away from civilization.  For us, it simply doesn’t get any better! 

First-World Cruising

The Inside Passage runs through two first-world countries – the US and Canada – although it’s not a plus for everyone, there are some benefits:  The charts are regularly updated and generally accurate, unlike some parts of the world where they can be off by a nautical mile or more.  The VHF weather reports put out by NOAA and Environment Canada are precise, informative, transmitted on 24-loop and updated every six hours.  Because the Inside Passage is the main commercial shipping route north, marine services are usually available within 50 nautical miles, even in the remotest of areas.  And yet there are still opportunities for cultural experiences through the many Native American and First Nations communities. 

Safe Anchorages

In five years of exploring thousands of miles of coastline, we’ve rarely been more than a few hours away from an anchorage that offers excellent protection, even on the West Coast of Vancouver Island (with one exception – from Cape Scott to Quatsino Sound if the conditions are rough, getting into Sea Otter Cove would be very dangerous).  And with the excellent weather forecasts from NOAA and Environment Canada, we’ve always had plenty of time to seek shelter – that’s not to say we haven’t made a bad decision along the way! 


Whether it’s on the water or in the towns we visit, the people living in the Pacific Northwest are the best of the best:  They’re generous, friendly, welcoming and trusting.  In our experience, locals are eager to help and will offer to lend you their cars, drive you around town, or invite you into their homes within five minutes of meeting. 


If the scenery isn’t reason enough to be here, the PNW is teeming with wildlife:  Humpback whales and orcas follow the salmon runs.  Black bears and grizzlies forage the shorelines of secluded anchorages along with cougars and wolves.  Bald and golden eagles soar above head while blue herons, loons and mergansers guard the water (among hundreds of other species of birds).  Everywhere you look in the PNW, there’s something new and exciting to see.


I love to hike and the PNW offers a lot of opportunities to stretch your legs while on the water, especially in the lower portions of the Inside Passage like the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast and Desolation Sound.  Most trails wind through rainforests and lead to fresh water lakes, beautiful vistas or some of the best beaches in the PNW.


The PNW also offers world-class kayaking and it’s not uncommon to find small groups exploring Desolation or Barkley Sounds for days at a time.  More intrepid kayakers will make the trip from Seattle to Ketchikan.  Others come from all over the globe to shoot the Skookumchuck NarrowsAs for us, we prefer to paddle around whatever anchorage we happen to be in. 


Fishing in the PNW is world-class (do you see a pattern developing here?).  Most cruisers find their traps filled with Dungeness crab or prawns with only a few hours of soaking.  While others pull in salmon, halibut or ling cod (to name a few).  Others still get straight to the point and fill their BBQs with fresh oysters they peeled off the rocks.  It’s all there for the taking, as long as you have a proper license and the area you’re in is open to fishing. 

Long Days

But what good is all of this without days long enough to enjoy it?  In the height of summer, we can see 20 hours of light (more in the higher latitudes) which means we have plenty of time to move from anchorage to anchorage and still explore our new surroundings. 

If any of these things appeal to you, I hope you’ll follow along with our blog as we untie from the dock next week (fingers crossed) and make our way north, highlighting some of the more spectacular anchorages along the way.  

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  1. Excellent article! Kim, Jennis Bay Marina

    1. Cheers, Kim! We're absolutely in love with the PNW, British Columbia especially.

  2. TOTALLY agree! After two seasons in the Sea of Cortez, we realized we really missed the (better) cruising in British Columbia. (Well, we also missed the mountains....)

    But the Latitude38-reading cruisers in Mexico just scratch their heads at this, and conclude "too cold"....

    Their loss, our gain!

    SVV Pelagia

    1. We agree: they're definitely missing out. It's a wonderful part of the world to explore, find solitude and get back to nature in a way that's hard to come by in today's world.

      Hope to see you on the water this season!