Field Notes: Going Solo In the Gulf Islands

Late last year Mike Darbyshire headed out on an unsupported multi-day paddling trip. With gear stowed atop his SUP and a general idea of what to expect on a solo trip, Darbyshire took off toward the Gulf Islands. Over his five-day adventure, Darbyshire battled the elements, befriended wildlife and got a firsthand look at the islands during the offseason.

This trip was a culmination of a few different goals that I had. I’ve never done a multi-day solo trip and I wanted to experience that to see if I could do it. I wanted to experience the Gulf Islands without the summer crowds and I wanted to see if unsupported trips on a standup were realistic and possible. My goals were realized and I certainly gained a lot of insight into SUP tripping.

The Gulf Islands are not the most exposed and hardcore of paddling destinations but for my first solo trip I thought it would be a good choice. That being said, the Gulf Islands sure felt exposed when you are by yourself at the end of November. The only boats I saw were ferries, and the only sign of human life was the smoke coming from the chimneys of the year-round island residents. I wasn’t short on company though. Regular visits from seals, sea lions, otters, deer, eagles, racoons and one pod of orcas kept me pretty entertained. With no one to talk to for five days, I did find myself saying hello to all of the animals I came across….pretty one-sided conversations most of the time.

I knew in the winter time the prevailing wind on our coast comes from the South East. This made my decision to go from South to North quite easy. Unfortunately, the South East winds are also usually associated with a lot of wet weather. I packed my good rain gear, two tarps and my drysuit. I wouldn’t do this trip without a drysuit. It kept me dry during the rainy days and gave me a lot more confidence when conditions got a little bit rougher. There’s also no way I would have woken up at 6am in the dark and rain and put on a wetsuit.

I got dropped off at the Tsawassen Ferry Terminal and walked onto the ferry with my board on wheels and gear on the deck. I could do a whole post just on the specific gear but for this trip I really appreciated having wheels, a camp chair and the K15. Kayak wheels were the only way I was going to get my board and gear on and off the ferry by myself and the camp chair doubled as a board stand while I was waiting. The Starboard K15 is the only board I considered using for this trip because of it’s length, but most of all the dugout deck that allowed me to stow my gear securely on board. During the trip I had a lot of waves wash over the deck and I was glad to have my gear secured on the board.

After making a mad run off the ferry in Victoria ahead of the off-loading cars, the ferry workers guided me to the exit gate that gave me access to a nice put in beach that I have used before to get onto the water. I packed my gear onto the board, strapped it down, put on my drysuit and took a moment before getting on the water. I wasn’t prepared for this moment of nervousness that I experienced. I had a few thoughts of ‘why am I doing this’ as I looked out onto the water and ahead at how far I was planning on going. I thought some more about the awesome adventure I was about to go on, I started paddling and immediately felt better about the whole trip.

One of the few things that made me nervous during the trip was traffic. 99% of the time I was near shore and well out of ferry and shipping lanes, but occasionally I needed to make some crossings or leave ports. A little preparation goes a long way and knowing the ferry schedule was very helpful throughout the trip. It also gave me a little bit of extra entertainment trying to guess when the 9 o’clock ferry would make the turn out of Active Pass. During crossings and entering ports I also monitored the shipping traffic channels on my VHF radio. Big ships need to call into Victoria traffic at certain points so it was nice to hear where ships were throughout the trip. Getting more advanced, I also dabbled with an app called Shipfinder which gives you a real time display of ships on the water. I wasn’t able to use it while paddling, but it’s a neat app if you want to take a look at what ships or ferries might be heading your way.

My first paddle was about 11km into a light headwind towards Saltspring Island. The board felt heavy with all my gear and a headwind didn’t help. My cruising speed was quite slow which made me really think about running into adverse conditions. SUP’s are hard enough to paddle in any wind that isn’t at your back, but when you add the extra gear weight, it made getting out of tough conditions more challenging. This is really where I felt vulnerable compared to my previous trips in a kayak.

I had a calm and clear first night with a beautiful full moon. It was a quiet night and I enjoyed what I knew would be the only dry night of my trip. The next day I had planned for about 25km of paddling through the Pender Islands. —Mike Darbyshire

Check back for Part II.
For more Field Notes, click here.

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  • micah

    As stated in your blog, you would be a lot better off and safer in a kayak instead of SUP…

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