How To Sail From California To Canada

How To Sail From California To Canada | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Gabriel Hannon

August 30, 2022

Sailing from California to Canada is a challenging trip that forces you to be creative and flexible with your plans.

The biggest challenge with the sail from California to Canada is the long, grueling upwind sail along the Pacific Coast. While it is possible to leapfrog your way up the coast under motor or to sail a roundabout route to Hawaii, the safest and easiest route is, unfortunately, I-5 on a trailer.

Many people have accomplished the trip north from the gold coast to Vancouver and points north, though few have fond things to say about their trip. Due to the prevailing northerly trade winds coming from the Great White North and cycling down towards the equator, sailing north up the coast can be a slog.

In order to make any decent Velocity Made Good (i.e. sailing progress in the direction of your destination, rather than at wide tacking angles) you need to get lucky breezes and a likely boost from your engine.

We will discuss this, and other challenges, further below. Most people will only make this trip with the intermediate stop at the Hawaiian Islands, turning the long beat into a long reach across the Pacific then a long tack up to Canada.

For those with less time, the consensus is that the only way to get your boat north, short of an expensive delivery crew who will have to be compensated for the same arduous journey you might want to avoid, is on a trailer.

While I cannot count myself among those who have battered the prevailing winds and waves from the north, I have examined a great number of forums, articles, and even a few journey logs of those who have completed the trip. Together with conversations with experienced cruisers, I hope to bring all of this research to one place for you to use when considering a trip like this.


Table of contents

The Dangers of the Pacific Coast

While I find it a hard task to discourage any type of sailing, it seems that the trip up this coast is something not to be wished on friends, much less enemies. While we will describe best practices for this sail later on, both the coastal version and the Hawaiian route, I do want to ensure that you go into that with a knowledge of what this sail entails. Such a discussion of these difficulties is not only a question of convenience, but also of safety. In 2009, a well-prepared Catamaran was being delivered to the Pacific Northwest and tragically was found washed up on the Oregon Coast crewless. The crew was never found. Though they were traveling during a particularly nasty winter season, these waters are unkind year round, so be sure to fully evaluate your capabilities and the state of your equipment before considering this trip.

Prevailing Northerly Winds and Waves

The main issues you will have heading up the coast all relate to the primary weather patterns in this part of the world. Due to the trade winds that prevail in the Eastern Pacific bringing cold Canadian and Arctic air down to the equator, the winds along the coast are consistently strong northerly breezes of about 14 knots. The big issues that come along with this very consistent breeze are the waves. With such a strong prevailing breeze, stable sets of relatively large waves, regularly recorded up to 10 to 20 feet in winter storms, but often somewhere around 5 to 8, makes the prospect of sailing upwind that much more difficult. This means that even when you have the occasional trailing wind, which might come with its own storm system, you are likely to still be battling the regular waves.

The sailing implications of this are that in order to make any headway, you are left with two options.

  1. You can beat it upwind into the steady wind and swells. This will see you tacking back and forth up the coast, making only limited headway depending on how close to the breeze your boat sails. This means pushing through likely 5 foot chop and an apparent wind close to 20 knots.
  2. Motoring directly upwind as close to the coast as you can, ducking from anchorage to anchorage in order to avoid any particularly tough weather.

While we will discuss some recommendations for the second option, know that, at the end of the day, motoring directly into that chop is barely more amenable, and in some cases substantially less pleasant, than sailing at an angle to it. Such legs are acceptable for a day or two when necessary, but few people can write home fondly about such trips should they last more than a couple of days.

The Fog and the Rain

Due to related meteorological factors to the prevailing trade winds, the cold water in the Pacific causes the air directly above the water to fall below its dew point, leading to the thick fog and heavy rain for which the region is famous. This adds yet more complications to any trip, particularly with the visibility issues. While this alone would not be a game stopper, the addition of this to the prior weather and sea conditions makes the proposition of sailing straight during this direction for most of the year nearly untenable.

The Two Sailing Routes

Well, if I have left you with the sailing being ‘nearly untenable,’ I suppose I ought to let you in on your options for getting your boat to the promised land in the Pacific Northwest.

The Coast Route

The most important part of this route is that you must time it properly with the seasonal weather. The Pacific is cold year-round, a lesson I certainly learned attempting to go for a swim in San Francisco in August! Still, the summer is the best time to try to sail through the fog and the chop. You’ve got the best chance for southerly breezes to counter the northerly prevailing.

The best strategy, once you’ve started, is to study the coast extensively and always know the closest harbor and how long it will take you to reach. The weather can get rough quickly, so a mastery of weather forecasting apps is an absolute must. Between the maps, your knowledge of the harbors, and a lot of forecasts, you should be able to motor north making some amount of progress in the clear spots. A few experienced sailors remarked that it’s crucial to stay as close to shore as you can, as long as you’re at around 200 feet of depth to avoid the kelp and tangle near the shore.

You can make it, but this does not negate the unpleasantness of at least a month’s motor up the coast into chop and breeze that would dissuade most after a day or two. Take care with the weather, and do not do this without truly appreciating that this is not a day sail or a pleasure cruise.

Going to Hawaii

If you are dead set on sailing this route, the one consistently decent option out there involves a much more circuitous route into the Pacific. Much like the other route, you must plan to do this outside of the storm season. The unpleasantness of the coast route does at least come with the advantage of almost always being a short sail away from harbor. This route exposes you to the rigors of open ocean sailing, though these perhaps are a little more familiar to those endeavoring to undertake such a trip.

After the reach across to Hawaii, and hopefully a Mai Tai, you can take a long tack up on towards Washington and Oregon. This stretch might take just north of a month on the open water, and doesn’t entirely excuse you from the issues mentioned above. Perhaps you’ll make it to Hawaii and choose to spend the rest of your planned trip time in the sun and the surf!

The Trailer Consensus

Still, if you’ve got a dream of sailing in the Pacific Northwest and don’t want to beat through the breeze and chop, there’s a simple solution: the land route. The sailing in the Vancouver area is gorgeous, and the best way to access that area from California is to take that gorgeous boat, put some steel and rubber underneath it, and drive it north. It is well worth looking into a trailer from your boat builder, your marina, or a local service yard to see if they have experience with a trailer for your type of boat. If you have a truck suited for that trip and experience driving a large trailer, you can be set and up north in just a few days. If not, it is much cheaper to find a transport delivery for a trailer driver than a delivery crew for that sail.

I hope you can use this as an opportunity to explore the routes that you can take to get from sunny California to the PNW. There are ways to do it, but a little more craft and cunning go a long way to avoid the long and potentially dangerous slog through the trade winds.

Happy sailing (or driving?)!

How To Sail From California To Canada
Gabriel Hannon

Gabriel Hannon

I have been sailing since I was 7 years old. Since then I've been a US sailing certified instructor for over 8 years, raced at every level of one-design and college sailing in fleet, team, and match racing, and love sharing my knowledge of sailing with others!

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