Passing Cloud: A Masterpiece at 50





She has been called Brian Walker’s “masterpiece,” and with good reason. Decades after legendary ship architect William James Roué—most famous for designing the iconic Bluenose, which is featured on the Canadian dime to this day—won a Columbo Plan competition for his design of Passing Cloud, BC-based shipbuilder Brian Walker acquired the plans for the wooden schooner. He had a vision in his mind: a working sailing vessel that, with a few modest modifications to Roué’s design, he could handle with his wife, Dora, and his daughters, Fern and Tara. His vision was one that saw Passing Cloud unlocking a world of exploration and memories for his family.

Photo courtesy of the Walker family collection

Brian had a lifelong interest in building boats. As a child in Alberta, one of his earliest small boat builds was constructed from boards he stripped off a shed. It sank. But that simply gave him cause to continue to refine his approach. The Walker family eventually moved to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where he found even more reason to hone his talent, working with his father in the family boatshed. Through the years, Brian and his brothers would salvage and restore boats on Vancouver Island before he eventually bought a small boat shop in Victoria where he would build Passing Cloud.

As the story goes, without the use of a single drawing, Brian adapted Roué’s sail plan for the 70-foot schooner, building a two-foot scale model to test his adaptation in a small pond. It was immediately apparent to those who witnessed the test sailing that Walker had nailed his adjustment perfectly, retaining the unparalleled sailing pedigree Roué’s designs were famous for.

Among a few other adaptations to Roué’s original award-winning design, Brian also added a classic West Coast pilothouse to Passing Cloud, giving the helmsman a 180-degree view while protecting them from the rainy, cold, and blustery weather of the Pacific Northwest. It’s an addition we still appreciate to this day. 

Sketch of Passing Cloud
Sketch of Passing Cloud

But it was far from a quick build. It took Brian five years to complete the undertaking as he diligently forged each piece of his eventual masterpiece himself through myriad processes and precision. The masts were cut from a single 71-foot Sitka spruce. The decking was made from 2-inch-thick Burmese teak recycled from a legendary British Columbia coastal steamer, the SS Cardena, scrapped in 1958.

Family and friends have recounted that he was often frustrated by how long the project was taking him. He was accustomed to finishing his fishing boats in a matter of months, not years. But the effort proved more than worth it when she was finally launched on July 16, 1974, from Brian’s small shipyard in Portage Inlet, Victoria.

Though even her launch wasn’t without its challenges. Portage Inlet is extremely shallow, with much of it drying at low tide. Passing Cloud had to slip out of the inlet and into the Gorge in order to get to her new home in the Victoria inner harbor. Then there was the issue of Victoria’s Craigflower Bridge. There’s not a lot of water under the low-level bridge. Brian had to time the ship’s launch precisely such that the tide was high enough to float the ship but not so high that she would collide with the overhead structure of the bridge. As a result, the launch took the span of a few days altogether. You can read an account of the launch in the first pages of Passing Cloud’s first ship’s log here.

Brian Walker sails the Passing Cloud
Brian Walker sails the Passing Cloud alongside the Bluenose II for Expo ’86

But once she was launched, there was no slowing her down. Within the year, Brian and his family were sailing in the South Pacific and exploring the islands of French Polynesia and beyond. Passing Cloud’s life as an exploration vessel had begun. But leisurely excursions weren’t all she was good for. She could also race with the best of them.

“I’ve never been on a more powerful boat, although I’ve sailed on larger vessels,” said Ted Knowles, a veteran shipwright and longtime associate of Brian’s, in an interview with Shirley Hewett for The Westcoast Mariner in 1999.

Passing Cloud on approach to Maui in 1990 as part of Vic-Maui race with Greg Sager at the helm

By 1984, Brian and Passing Cloud would go on to win the San Francisco Master Mariners Trophy, the first time the prestigious award had been won by a non-American in some 117 years. And that was far from the only trophy Passing Cloud would rack up during her days on the racing circuit. She spent the 1980s dominating the Pacific Northwest Schooner racing circuit, winning every major trophy the circuit had to offer. Much of her hard-earned hardware can still be seen in her wheelhouse today.

And she was celebrated for her success locally, with her image adorning the front of the Victoria telephone directory for many years.

Passing Cloud on Victoria Tele-directory Cover

After Brian retired from sailing, he sold Passing Cloud to another resident of Victoria, Greg Sager, who gave her a renovation, turning her into the luxurious craft she is today. Sager would primarily use her as a sail training vessel.

But beyond her role as a vessel of exploration, Passing Cloud holds a deeper significance as a custodian of our maritime heritage. In an age of rapid technological advancement, she serves as a reminder of the timeless beauty and craftsmanship of traditional wooden shipbuilding.

In 2012, I had the awesome privilege of taking ownership of Passing Cloud when I launched Outer Shores Expeditions. As her custodian this past decade-plus, it’s been an incredible honour for me to guide this amazing sailing ship into her 50th year. She’s the embodiment of maritime craftsmanship, tradition, and adventure, enchanting everyone lucky enough to set foot on her deck.

Passing Cloud sails past Cape St James

Ever since we started Outer Shores, Passing Cloud has been the star of our expeditions, and I look forward to continuing to learn from and share her incredible strength and abilities. Here’s to 50 years of unforgettable journeys with Passing Cloud, and to many more ahead. 

As we raise our glasses to toast Passing Cloud‘s 50th anniversary, we invite you to join us in celebrating her remarkable journey. Whether you have sailed aboard her decks or simply admired her from afar, her legacy lives on in the hearts of all who have been touched by her remarkable elegance and grace.  

Passing Cloud in Gwaii Haanas | Credit: James Thompson Photography


Related Posts

Crew and A: Russell Markel, PhD

Crew and A: Russell Markel For our sixth Crew & A, we thought it was finally time to have a chat with Russell. Outer Shores

Crew and A: Liam Ogle

Crew and A: Liam Ogle Liam joined Outer Shores Expeditions full time in 2016 as Mate aboard the Passing Cloud. Now with over 13-years guiding