Sail Boat Docked at Grain Bear Rain forest

Sailing to the Great Bear Rainforest, Single-handed

A Practical Guide 

Photos by Dennis McMillan

Dennis McMillan left Victoria on May 15 for a two-month, 1,000-mile, mostly single-handed voyage to the Great Bear Rainforest on his 1981 C&C 34, Andante. His goals were to explore BC’s coast north of Cape Caution, photograph wildlife and return with his boat and himself intact. “That last goal may sound obvious,” he said, “but the fact of sailing single-handed drove much of my decision making. My boat’s name is a musical term that means ‘slow and easy.’”

As he related his adventure, it became clear the voyage lived up to the boat’s name.



I have known Dennis for many years and have learned he’s an extremely capable fellow—a retired IT guy, he’s worked for various companies and governments and is fully versed in the latest electronic aids that help you plan and navigate BC’s most isolated regions. He’s also mechanically inclined and can repair and replace most anything—he’s installed a new Beta 25 engine and an electric windlass himself. “I’m getting a bit long in the tooth (72) to haul up that chain and rode by hand,” he said with a smile.

Dennis also has huge sailing credentials. After starting his sailing life in a Catalina 27, he dreamed of going offshore and bought a Cal 39, Delphis, in Cabo San Lucas, then spent two years upgrading her. With his wife and three sons, they completed an around Vancouver Island shakedown cruise, and in 1996, the family left for a seven-year circumnavigation. Countries visited included Mexico, French Polynesia, Samoa and Fiji; they also spent 15 months each in Australia and New Zealand where the boys attended school. Sailing east, they visited New Guinea, Indonesia, Thailand, the Maldives and Oman. After a fearful crossing of the Red Sea but a tranquil Suez Canal passage, they joyfully explored the Mediterranean, followed by an Atlantic and Caribbean crossing. The Panama Canal was next and from there they returned home. Dennis races most weekends, and has participated in many Swiftsures, Van-Isle 360s and Oregon Offshores. He’s also a veteran kayaker.



Despite those tens-of-thousands of miles, what he hadn’t reconnoitred was BC’s coast north of Cape Caution.


Preparation Dennis is methodical and prepared extensively for his up-coast voyage. “Cruising solo, you have to take extra measures,” he said. First, he ensured that the boat’s systems were in good condition and loaded tools and spare parts like gasket and sail repair material, engine oil, coolant, underwater sealant, and self-fusing silicone tape for sealing leaky hoses.

Spare filters and belts were also stowed. He’d once experienced fuel tank sludge stirring up while exiting Bute Inlet. It plugged the fuel filter so now he carries a piece of rubber hose that can bypass the main fuel tank and primary filter by using a jerry can.

To make sure that all mechanics continued to function well, he made a daily inspection of the engine oil and water levels, checked the alternator belt and looked for leaks or loose bolts.


Navigation Dennis divided the voyage into three legs: From Victoria to Port Hardy, from Port Hardy to Bella Bella and Bella Bella to the Fiordland Recreation Area (52°50’59″N). He consulted two cruising guides he considers a necessity, Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia by Don and Reanne Douglass and Cruising the Secret Coast by Jennifer and James Hamilton. Dennis describes the two guides as, “indispensable if you’re going to get off ‘the Alaska Highway for boats,’ the route followed by most boats heading for Alaska.” He’d also installed the i-Boating app, and before departing Victoria, set waypoints for potential anchorages listed in the two guidebooks.

The AIS Marine Traffic app was another handy tool useful in foggy conditions whenever Dennis could connect to the internet. “Leaving in May, thankfully, it was early enough in the season and I only experienced a few days of fog,” he said.


Andante’s chart plotter didn’t contain charts north of Vancouver Island, so Dennis loaded more extensive Navionics charts onto his tablet and backed them up on an additional tablet and a smart phone. He liked the tablet’s larger size, the freedom of consulting it anywhere on the boat, and its flexible finger-activated touch screen. He also carried large paper planning charts aboard.

Weather Planning Using a combination of radio reports, apps and backups, Dennis sought to ensure he didn’t hit a big gale while sailing alone. As weather forecasts and lighthouse and buoy reports are updated four times a day, he counted on Environment Canada for continual weather information, figuring they provided a three-day planning window. “The only drawback to Environment Canada’s reports,” he noted, “is that they cover a large area, although they do mention some useful details like wind outflows from inlets.”

Dennis believes strongly in redundancy, so when he listens to VHF weather reports, he habitually records the daily and extended forecasts on his phone as these may be unobtainable in deep inlets. Additionally, he used two apps, Windy and PredictWind whenever he was able to connect to the internet. As backup for internet-less areas, he’d take screenshots of the forecasts for several days ahead. He’s found these two apps support more than one weather model, so if their predictions generally agree, they’re likely to be accurate, especially for projected wind gusts.


Fuel Fuel has more than one purpose—to propel Andante when winds are absent and to heat the boat. Her main diesel tank holds 72 litres and he added an extra 40 litres in jerry cans, giving her an effective range of about 300 miles at five knots. “At that speed, in keeping with my ‘slow and easy’ boat, I only burn about 1.7 litres an hour,” he explained.

Knowing BC’s rainy weather, cool nights and a frequent absence of wind, he installed a “bus heater” which uses hot water from the engine. “While I was motoring, that heater dried my clothes, pre-heated the cabin and helped my long-lasting sour-dough bread to rise. “I would hate to do this trip without some kind of heater on the boat,” he said. “I also used my Dickinson propane heater at anchor and turned it on nightly for the first five weeks.”


Food and Water To ensure an ample water supply, Dennis filled his 100-litre main tank as often as possible knowing that marinas north of Port Hardy are scarce. He took another 50 litres in milk jugs scattered around the boat. Occasionally, he filled the jugs with creek water, swam when possible and used salt water for washing dishes.

He loaded the boat with 150 food items, including vacuum-packed cheese, whole meals and canned protein like chilli. It was too early to fish for salmon but an occasional catch of ling cod and some crab supplemented the meat and chicken stowed in the freezer.


Day to Day Before departing, Dennis pondered his route to Johnstone Strait. Should he sail north from Nanaimo by traversing Seymour Narrows with its strong currents and few anchorages? Or would the longer route from Nanaimo to the Strait of Georgia through Desolation Sound, the Discovery Islands, three sets of rapids and many anchorages be a better course? Being short-handed, Dennis opted for the longer route.

Hoping to see grizzlies, he turned off toward Knight Inlet and anchored in Glendale Cove, launched the kayak and within 15 minutes saw a grizzly bear sleeping on the mud flats. “He woke up about 10 minutes later and started feeding on the sedge grass,” Dennis recalled. “What a thrill to be able watch from a distance of 50 metres for over an hour!”

After this event, he had an easy passage up Johnstone Strait and arrived in Port Hardy, where his son Aaron joined him for a week.

Notorious Cape Caution, where Queen Charlotte Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound meet, was named by Captain Vancouver for its currents, rocky promontory and breaking waves. But when Andante passed by the Cape winds were light and waves moderate. Father and son anchored in Fury Cove with its gorgeous white shell beaches.

Dennis avoids marinas as he finds them overpriced. Besides, he likes swinging at anchor, even on his own. For this trip he replaced a 20-pound anchor with a 35-pound CQR and attached it to 125 feet of 5/16th-inch chain and 200 feet of rode, with a spare 250-foot line that could be tied on. “I anchor from the cockpit with a remote,” he said. “It’s only a hassle anchoring alone if the wind is blowing hard.” He tries to sidestep previous logging areas as it’s easy to snag an anchor on debris, but did get caught once requiring the help of a diver. Occasionally, he moored at deserted fish farms, former logging wharves, even non-navigational buoys. “For buoys I always give them a good tug to ensure they’re solid,” he said.

For nighttime safety, he’s installed the Anchor Pro phone app which lets him to know if the anchor is dragging without leaving his bunk. “This app allows you to set a radius around the boat and sounds an alarm if you drag outside that radius,” he said.

Physical Safety Knowing that if he fell overboard it would likely be impossible to get back on the sailboat, Dennis always wears his inflatable lifejacket with a hand-held VHF pinned on. He also keeps a couple of flares in his pocket. “I move slowly and deliberately around the boat and never rush, following the adage, ‘one hand for the boat, one hand for yourself,’” he said. When kayaking and hiking, he takes an InReach satellite communication device, and carries bear spray while walking in bear country.

Sailing in BC’s log-filled waters has its challenges and Dennis hit one in Nodales Channel on the way home. It jammed between the boat’s keel and the prop. Was this to be the end of his trip?

“There had been lots of logs everywhere and I must have missed a couple of hundred of them!” he wrote in his blog. “I was at the intersection of four channels coming together with lots of confused current and debris. I was doing about five knots and looking through the binocs at an approaching boat and suddenly BANG! The boat stopped dead.”

He checked for leaks—none—so he launched the dinghy and using the boathook freed the 10-foot long, 12-inch diameter log. After checking the prop, he tried the engine and found the steering quite stiff—the log had bent the rudder post and was binding on the bearing. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious enough to stop the return to Victoria.

Wildlife His goal of spotting and photographing wildlife was amply satisfied. Humpbacks have made a comeback and were ubiquitous. He observed Pacific white-sided dolphins in the Tribune Channel area and in Bond and Thompson sounds. Sea otters abounded near Port Hardy and the Goose Islands. He observed black bears, Kermode bears and grizzlies. Common mergansers were the most frequently sighted birds, and he saw flocks of rhinoceros auklets, surf scoters and loons. “I was fortunate enough to see some nesting sandhill cranes,” he said. “And I saw a large herd of 500 sea lions in the Goose Islands with their noise and stench. Just like National Geographic.” And he was thrilled by the solitude of Fiordland, a BC Marine Park, with its deep fjords, waterfalls and granite cliffs soaring 3,000 feet.


Reflecting on his voyage, Dennis is happy to have achieved his goals: explore north of Cape Caution, photograph animals in the wild and get home in one piece. He visited many historic and contemporary places along the way, including Ocean Falls, Calvert Island and Bella Bella. Despite hitting a log and snagging his anchor, his solo trip was free of serious dangers. He conquered the challenges of single-handing—the hard work of having to handle the boat by himself, anchoring, having no one on watch when going below, and having no one to bounce ideas off of.

That said, solo cruising has advantages: “You can do what you want and eat what you want!”