First Real Downwinder

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The boys suited up and ready to go downwind in the field west of the Ferry Building Gallery, West Vancouver (Trevor and Mike, background left to right). Photo by Mon Jef Peeters.

Back on July 13, 2020, I attempted to SUP from Porteau Cove north towards Britannia Beach. I had done, what I thought was at the time, a fair amount of planning and research but my eagerness was no substitute for my lack of experience (and knowledge). Fortunately, the consequence of my knowledge deficit was only a more turbulent paddle upwind in choppy conditions that in my opinion helped to improve my SUP balance and confidence in the chop. Unfortunately, at the time I wasn’t able to secure a paddle partner for that day with one of my regular partners injured and the other away on a family camping trip. But my mind had been made up to attempt this route and I wasn’t willing to postpone it any longer. I looked up a few sites (these three gave what I thought was a sensible yet safe perspective: paddling.com, fitfunsup.com, and islesurfandsup.com) on the do’s and don’ts of solo-paddling and eventually decided that if I was prepared, picked something within my abilities, and let people know my route, I would be safe and not irresponsible. I decided that leaving early would be my best bet as I was under the impression that the waters were always calmer in the morning.

I arrived early, around 06:15, and after scoping out a launch site set up my board. The morning was gloomier than I had expected from the forecast and there was a fair amount of wind on the shore. As I set out north from the boat launch it was immediately apparent that I was in for some choppy conditions. I had a brief moment of questioning my decision-making process, especially since this was my most intense local solo paddle to date, but resolved to continue. In the worst-case scenario, I figured that I would take an early dip and then turn around and paddle back defeated. I had recently paddled in similarly windy and choppy conditions at the mouth of the Fraser River’s north arm off of the tip of Point Grey, so that gave me a sense of confidence that I could handle the conditions. Plus I was heading into the wind so I knew that even if it was an upwind slog I would have an easy time coming back with the wind (though as you will read I didn’t realize that this was a thing at the time). In the end, I only made it to the bay at Oliver’s Landing (which had been my back plan if the route proved to be too long and arduous) before turning around. It was then on my route back that I had my first taste of downwinding, although I did not know that was what I was doing at the time. All I knew is that the sun had now risen over the mountain range, it was warm and beautiful, I now had wind pushing me from behind, and I was catching some small swells! I have only surfed a handful of times so the best parallel that I could draw at the time was floating over fresh powder mounds on your skis. I have now digressed, so let’s get back on point with the first intentional downwinder.

So fast forward several weeks and I now know that downwinding is a thing from some internet posts and I want to recreate that feeling that I had in July. The problem is that we are now into the fall and my SUP education has now given me more understanding of weather, particularly the Howe Sound inflow and outflow patterns and their diabatic relationship, to know that the fall and winter winds are less predictable (for a great resource on this topic see this page from UBC’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences: Weather for Sailing, Flying and Snow Sports on “Inflows and Outflows“). I now know that it is too cool to get consistently strong winds through the Howe Sound and that any chance that I get for a downwinder needs to be taken.

After watching SUPboarder’s three-part series on getting into downwinding I felt like I had enough knowledge to have a good experience (if you prefer reading rather than watching here is another great resource from Vanhunks Boarding). There are three spots that I am watching on my windy.com app for the right winds as per the SUPboarder tutorial suggestion to find bodies of water that get wind in the direction that you would like to travel and also have easy entry and exit points so that you can do one-way travel. Initially, a reverse run (i.e. east upriver) on The Fraser River Challenge was looking like the tides and winds would work in my favour. I saw this as a bonus since I had recently paddled the river challenge. But as luck would have it the winds would change as the weekend approached so that the remaining options were to do east to west on Saturday in Burrard Inlet from the Ambleside/Hollyburn Sailing Club to Caulfeild Cove or to do south to north on Sunday in the Howe Sound from Porteau Cove to Britannia Beach. Based on the conditions forecasting lighter but more consistent winds in Burrard Inlet we decided to give that a go (I was able to secure some newbie downwinding buddies too!). The only knock with the inlet plan was that the tide would be coming in until 15:53 against our direction of travel and I didn’t want to leave later since the sunset was at 16:33. Being out in the twilight for our first downwinder was outside of my comfort level. So I hoped that the tide would be relatively slack and not so much of a factor (my tide forecast did not show a slack tide so the former was wishful thinking and the latter my true hope). Also, given that we were all new to downwinding I assumed that we would not know the difference so it would not matter anyway. Though, I did consider the possibility that the tide would make for a somewhat unpleasant experience. It was a risk I was willing to take.

On Friday night we locked down to do the inlet route on Saturday (versus the Howe Sound route). The boys (Mike then Trevor) had gotten the go-ahead from their partners which left me in a slight predicament since I had not formally gotten permission but had tentatively suggested that I would like to paddle on one of the days of the weekend. After a rough night of sleep due to early morning wake-ups from my kids things were not looking good. Thankfully, my wife, Annie, was a champ and gave me the green light despite our boys not being on their best behaviour (but as some of you parents will attest sometimes kids are better covered by zone rather than man-to-man coverage).

I had planned out a float plan itinerary as follows:

Float Plan

DATE: Saturday, November 14, 2020
ROUTE: Burrard Inlet Downwinder Hollyburn Sailing Club to Caulfeild Cove (one-way trip)
EST. DEP.: 1410
EST. ARR.: 1510
DETAILS:
Tides (Point Atkinson)

  • 1019 Low 2.7 m
  • 1553 High 4.7 m
  • 2257 Low 0.6 m

Wind

  • Forecast: see Windy App
  • Easterly (WNW to WSW) 9-12 kt (17-27 kt wind gusts)

Sunset

  • 1633

Paddle Distance: ~7 km
Paddle Time: ~1-1.5 hrs
Drive times:

  • Vancouver to Hollyburn Sailing Club: ~20 min
  • Hollyburn Sailing Club to Caulfeild Cove: ~15 min

Personal Info

  • TRAVELLERS: 3 (Mon Jef, Mike, Trevor) [I include full names in the version I leave with family/friends]
  • VEHICLE: [Colour] [Year] [Make] [Model] [License Plate]
  • PHONE: [xxx-xxx-xxxx]

Itemized Itinerary

  • 1315 🚗 Departure
  • 1350 🚗 Arrival at Caulfeild Cove
  • 1355 🚗 Arrival at Hollyburn Sailing Club
  • 1410 🛶 Departure from Hollyburn Sailing Club
  • 1510 (1530) 🛶 Arrival at Caulfeild Cove
  • 1545 (1615) 🚗 Departure from Caulfeild Cove
  • 1600 (1630) 🚗  Arrival at Hollyburn Sailing Club 2
  • 1615 (1645) 🚗 Departure from Hollyburn Sailing Club
  • 1650 (1720) 🚗 Arrival at Home

A quick note on safety. Depending on the conditions downwinding has the potential to be dangerous if you are ill-prepared. Be sure to know your paddling ability, the conditions (think of the four W’s: weather, wind, water, waves), and the route (i.e. entry and exit point, as well as potential exits points along the route should something go wrong). For more on the four Ws see this post.

The float plan with the itemized itinerary is a practice that I started at the same time as my Britannia Beach solo adventure which I have maintained for any solo paddles that are more intricate than just going out for a quick paddle (e.g. Second Beach, Kitsilano, Jericho, Spanish Banks). It serves as a great planning tool both for safety and time management as well as being useful on the marriage front to keep the peace at home. I can give my wife a fairly accurate window of time for which I will be away.

We decided to use two cars, despite the pandemic, which meant that Trevor and I car-pooled over from Vancouver to West Vancouver. Since in the end, we would all be in one car after the paddle to get back to our start location we could justify the breach of pandemic protocol. My justification was that it was safer to paddle with someone for this trip than to do it alone and I deemed that to be a lower risk than the potential transmission of SARS-Cov-2. We all wore masks while car-pooling to mitigate the lack of physical distancing (‘the first rule of fight club is’ don’t go out when you are sick).

In the end, we did a slightly different itinerary on the day of than what is listed above. We opted to meet at the Hollyburn Sailing Club initially. That way we could drop off the SUP equipment and leave one of us to pump up the boards at Hollyburn while the other two did the car drop-off at Caulfeild Cove in order to save a bit of time. It took us a few moments to get the logistics straight in our heads of what gear we needed to be in and/or leave at our departure point versus what gear needed to be in the car getting dropped-off at the end of our run. This is definitely something you want to consider. In my mind, I wasn’t sure how much swimming we would be doing and as a result how cold (or hot) we would be at the end of our run. It turns out we were all pretty warm and swimming was kept to a minimum, aside from a few errant mermaid sightings and chases, which oddly enough seemed to occur when the conditions got choppy.

On the drive over to Caulfeild Cove, I tried to scope out the water but things looked pretty calm from Marine Drive, as in no whitecaps spotted. That gave me a slight pang of disappointment. However, once we were at Caulfeild Cove the bay had a lot more wave action happening compared to my previous visits there on more fair-weathered days. So things seemed more positive and my spirits lifted a bit. I did a quick change into my gear and drysuit while Mike changed into his wetsuit. We loaded up the boot of my Subs and set-off back for Hollyburn.

When we arrived things didn’t seem too windy on the shoreline but there were some sailboats in the bay so there had to be some wind. We did the last of our gear preparation and then set out.

We got into the water just after 14:45 (just a bit behind schedule…) and we were off. Not knowing what to expect we decided to head out a bit further from the shore where there were a few Laser-type sailboats catching some wind. The wind was light to be sure but it was going westward which was the same direction we were heading! So for three rookie downwinders, we were winning. Even if we didn’t get a downwinder with surf at least it would be an easier paddle.

A few minutes into our route you could see that the wind was working its magic on the water. There were not really any waves at this point but you could see the ripples wanting to form. As we pressed on things got better. In hindsight, this was the result of the fetch (i.e. the distance over which the wind has been blowing from the same direction). I suspect the narrows at Stanley Park and the lay of West Vancouver’s shoreline must dampen the winds coming out of the Port of Vancouver limiting the wind formed swell in the east part of the inlet for an outflow wind. But as we got further out of the bay it seems the wind had time to interact with the water and the conditions for us improved around half-way through our run.

Burrard Inlet looking west towards the Point Atkinson Lighthouse. Trevor is ahead resting and letting Mike (on the right) and I catch up. Our destination is in the cove in-between the second and third tanker. Photo by Mon Jef Peeters.

It was at this point that we started to feel the winds pick up (which were also forecasted to be stronger later so my meteorological musing above could be complete bullshit and it may very well be that winds got stronger further out in the bay because the winds were just stronger). At this point, we were all able to catch a few rides on waves and my feeling as we paddled closer to our end destination was that I wished we had a few more kilometers to go. But the timing was great, we still had plenty of light and a light rain had just started to pick up. We cut in between two moored tanker ships to make our way to the dock at Caulfeild Cove. Then it was time to pack up, gear down, and then head back to Hollyburn to pick up Mike’s car and part our ways.

All in all, it was a great intro to (intentionally) downwinding for all of us and the consensus was it was a blast and that we would for sure be out again. The going joke at the end of the paddle was that we need to find out who makes a decent inflatable downwinder SUP. And at the time of writing this, I have already found a few potentials online. I definitely want to get a few more downwinders in me before making a purchase but I know for me that I am already hooked!

Our Route

Our paddle route on Google Fit.

If you need any inspiration check out the following:

Or for some local feel in our home waters:

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