Sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud is whale watching in style

British Columbia’s (BC’s) coastal region is one of the most exotic natural wilderness areas in North America. However, accessing this are can be difficult, as the terrain is rugged and there are over 40,000 islands here.

For these reasons (and many others), a sailboat is likely one of the best (and funnest) ways to really explore the area. Although, this also comes with its own set of challenges — tides are huge, currents are strong, anchoring can be tricky and the water is freezing cold.

Therefore, we decided to leave the driving to someone with experience navigating these tricky waters, namely Russell Markel, skipper of the classic schooner Passing Cloud and owner and founder of Outer Shores Expeditions.

sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud ship

The schooner Passing Cloud resting in one of the many sheltered bays along the coast of British Columbia

Sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud is more than just a boat trip

Passing Cloud, built in BC’s capital Victoria in 1974, is a beautifully appointed, incredibly sturdy, classic 21 m / 70 ft schooner designed by William James Roué. The same guy who designed the famed fishing and racing schooner Bluenose, which is commemorated on the Canadian dime.

sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud deck

The spacious deck of Passing Cloud

The heart of the ship is the the main salon, which is both a work of art and a communal meeting place. Beautifully appointed with varnished timbers and polished brass, it has a large skylight that bathes the entire inner space in natural light and bookcases integrated into the walls and chock full of informative texts that describe the cultural and natural history, marine science and maritime world that’s all around you. And if you happen to encounter some of the Northwest’s famous rain or chill, you can snuggle up to the ship’s cast iron oil-burning heater, a centerpiece of the salon.

There are four private staterooms on board. The three forward staterooms each have two spacious single berths with a private sink, mirror and skylights. The aft stateroom has a large skylight, two double berths, sink and a small toilet. The shower is shared and located in the main salon.

My favorite touch is the old growth Douglas fir floor inside that glows a radiant rich red-yellow. If you love wood, you’re going to love this ship.

Despite her age, Passing Cloud is equipped with all the modern gizmos: radar, GPS, VHF radios, EPIRB, digital chart plotter, satellite telephone, etc.

Combined with her classic “old school” design and appointments, she’s the perfect vessel for taking guests safely and stylishly out into the wilds and wonders of the waters along the BC coast.

sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud main salon

Sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud you’ll learn about flora and fauna with the experts

Russell is a dedicated marine ecologist and mariner who grew up in coastal BC and knows these waters like the back of his hand. His support team consists of more than a dozen professional guides, mariners, marine ecologists, fisheries biologists, marine mammal experts, archaeologists, anthropologists and photographers (although not all of them are on board at the same time).

These experts research and organize tours of the flora, fauna, terrain and ancient cultures of the BC coast that are both fun and educational.

Depending on which tour you choose, you will be dazzled by the wide variety of amazing land- and sea-dwelling wildlife, as well as some of the last remaining old growth forests in North America. You will also have the opportunity to visit and learn about the lives of the First Nations that have called this area home long before Westerners set foot in the “New World”.

sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud Johnstone Strait island

A typical, coastal BC view in Johnstone Strait

Gourmet Fare while sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud

Meals aboard are not only delicious but also follow a philosophy that we at Travel Intense love to support. The crew believes that the “cultivation, distribution, preparation and appreciation of the food we eat are critical to our individual and cultural well-being.” Therefore, whenever possible, they source and serve foods that are sustainable, locally and organically grown, produced, raised or caught in British Columbia.

Simply said, the meals aboard are to die for. We’re not talking about peanut better and jelly sandwiches here, we’re talking gourmet grub.

Some of my best memories were sitting around the salon basking in the warmth of the warm stove, nibbling on a perfectly prepared fresh caught salmon filet while nursing a classic Northwest Pinot Noir and sharing my day’s experience with the other guests and crew.

Why I love sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud

Unlike some “sailing” cruises where the only canvas you use is on the seats, Russell loves to hoist the sails and everyone is invited to “get involved”.

The great thing about sailing versus motoring is that there’s no noise aside from the surging wind and sea, which is also nice for the marine mammals who seemed to flock towards our boat as if welcoming a kindred spirit. It almost seemed like wherever we looked we saw hopping, breaching, tail slapping, feeding and socializing whales and dolphins!

sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud porpoise

The Passing Cloud’s gentle peaceful motion let us get so close to humpback whales bubble net feeding, I thought they might end up in the boat. Although one thing I learned about these close encounters, whale breath can be pretty stinky — must be that fish diet.

A tour for every taste while sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud

Trips on the Passing Cloud range from a minimum of 5-days/4-nights to a maximum of 9-days/8-nights and run from April to November. There are fixed tours, though the itineraries on each may change as days are guided by weather, tides, sailing opportunities and wildlife sightings.

Here is a detailed overview of the cruises Passing Cloud offers:

  • Pacific Rim National Park — Ancient Civilizations and West Coast Wilderness (6d, Apr-May):
    Discover ancient civilizations of Vancouver Island’s west coast. Explore remote islands, beaches, estuaries, old-growth rainforests, kelp forest and intertidal communities. Observe and photograph abundant coastal wildlife, including spawning herring, whales, eagles, bears, seabirds, seals, sea lions and sea otters.
  • In the Wake of Captain James Cook (8d, May):
    Explore the west coast of Vancouver Island, visiting many of the places where Cook and his crew landed more than 300 years ago, gain unique insight into the social structure, world-view, fishing and hunting practices, art, politics and daily lives of the local First Nations.
  • Haida Gwaii Archipelago — Islands at the Edge (8d, Jun-Aug):
    Step back in time at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of “SGang Gwaay” and other ancient Haida villages. Discover the astonishing marine biodiversity of Burnaby Narrows or take a scenic float plane flight over Gwaii Haanas.
  • Canada’s Great Bear Sea (9d, Aug):
    Watch orcas, fin whales and bubble-net feeding humpback whales. Visit researchers studying these marine mammals and other coastal wildlife. Explore pristine wilderness and ancient coastal rainforests where you can view sea otters, dolphins, sea lions and perhaps even encounter wolves and illusive white spirit bears.
  • Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound — Whales by Sails (6d, Aug):
    This is one of the best region in the world to observe orcas. You can get loads of amazing up-close photos and listen to these amazing creatures while learning about their fascinating lives. You will also encounter humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions.
  • Great Bear Rainforest — Salmon, Bears, Whales, & Wolves (9d, Aug-Sep):
    Observe and photograph grizzly bears, black bears and the iconic Spirit Bear with local First Nations guides while exploring ancient rainforests during the Pacific salmon run. Like many of the cruises, you will have plenty of opportunities to sail alongside whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine mammals.
  • Gulf Islands National Park — Discover the Salish Sea (4d, Oct-Nov):
    This island archipelago, with its unique mediterranean climate, is home to Douglas fir and arbutus forests, endangered Gary Oak ecosystems, and Coast Salish cultural heritage. Here you will see plenty of whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, eagles, and other rare species of birds.
  • Photography tours (6-9d, April, June):
    Get one-on-one coaching in the Barkley Sound or Haida Gwaii’s Kunghit Island from coastal photography specialist James Thompson through short lectures and hands-on lessons.
  • Repositioning Cruises — Explore the BC Coast (7-8d, May-June):
    For a real sailing adventure get onboard Passing Cloud while she moves from Vancouver Island through the Inside Passage, and into the Great Bear Rainforest. You’ll enjoy the same spectacular scenery, great wildlife, zodiac tours, sea kayaking, shore excursions, and wonderful meals and accommodation that typify all expeditions.
sailing BC aboard Passing Cloud orca

An orca seen from aboard Passing Cloud in Johnstone Strait

The coastal waters and lands of Canada’s west coast are a wild and mysterious region filled with abundant marine life, massive land predators, breathtaking vistas, rich cultural history and unparalleled beauty. When you sail BC aboard Passing Cloud, you are taken into this wonderful world not just as a spectator but also as a participant. I can’t wait to get back and see more of it!


Have you been sailing on Canada’s west coast yet? Let us know where and how it was in the comments!


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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