Why Washington state's health exchange problems go much further than you think they do

Posted by: pat 10 years, 7 months ago


Problems with Washington state’s health exchange website go much deeper than the obvious error messages, slow performance, and overwhelmed customer service staff.  By failing to even ask applicants for all relevant components of income, the site is rendering invalid eligibility decisions and tax credit calculations.  It is automatically enrolling too many people in Medicaid and it is telling them to expect tax credits that will need to be repaid when 2014 taxes come due.  In order to correct this, the site will probably have to make everyone who has applied for coverage re-apply once they fix the site to accurately collect all required components of household income.

What's being reported

If you read the articles in the press, you might think everything is dandy with Washington's health exchange website.  Sure the site was so slow and bogged down that hardly anyone could log on in the first few days, but those problems are thankfully behind us.  If you read the posts on the site's Facebook or Twitter pages however you still see many people complaining about persistent "3000" series error messages preventing them from completing their applications, or the persistent challenge of reaching anyone in the customer support organization.  Whereas in the first few weeks you could call customer support and hear a message telling you the current wait time is 90 or more minutes, now the message just says they simply cannot accept your call now.  Email support is inconsistent, with no ticketing system in use to acknowledge receipt of your request and random response times varying from a few hours to never.  But at least we can log in and complete an application (most of us), as opposed to the poor saps who are trying to do anything on the Oregon site, or the Federal site that many states share.  This brings up another question I won't address, which is why did we even let states build their own exchanges?  I suspect that gets into politics and rent seeking behaviors on the part of lobbyists trying to get their piece of the ACA pie, with a little bit of Not Invented Here syndrome thrown in for good measure. 

These are all problems that are obvious to anyone who encounters them.  You know when the system gives you a cryptic error message that it isn't working.  You know when you can't get an answer to your questions that things aren't operating as expected.  And to be honest I'm OK with this level of problems.  Any new big system like this will have a tough launch.  Could they have done a rolling launch or Beta period to mitigate these risks?  Probably.  Could they have done gold-plated stress and load testing to avoid them?  Probably.  Would it be worth the up-front cost?  Maybe not...sometimes it is cheaper to just take your lumps and fix things as opposed to taking 10 years and even more $billions to build something that works perfectly on day one.  I am OK with the government trying to make smart decisions about value for money and not always paying the big bucks to achieve a perfect launch...if that's indeed what they did in this case. 

There is a second order set of defects with the site that go much further than these obvious issues we've heard about.  These second order problems are insidious in that it is impossible to know the scope of their impact, but I will go out on a limb and predict that every single application will need to be revisited to correct them.

Missing data leads to bad decisions

The problem is that the site is not asking applicants for all of the information about income and deductions that it should.  This I know for a fact from my personal experience, and it has been validated by an employee at the state Health Care Authority who confirmed that the site fails to collect all of the income and deductions required to make its decisions about eligibility and tax credit amounts.

The Affordable Care Act requires Medicaid eligibility and tax credit decisions to be based on your household's Modified Adjusted Gross Income (not just adjusted, but modified too!) which sounds complicated but really boils down to taking line 37 from your form 1040 and adding a handful of things back in.  The best definition of this is this one-pager from the Berkeley Labor Center.

The site is very specific when it asks you for income.  You need to list each employer with their address and your income from each employer.  You need to tell it about self-employment income and dividend income.  It asks for information about how much we contribute to our Health Savings Account.  When something is this specific in asking for things, in general most people do what it tells them to do.  We know it is a complicated process (otherwise why would this site have required paying the good people at Deloitte over $50 million to build it?)  We know it will pull in past and future actual tax returns to its decision algorithm.  So we plug in the exact numbers it asks for and let it do its thing.

"Do you have insurance?" or how to incorrectly ask a simple question

When I first went through the application I was concerned about one question which asks "Does anyone in your household currently have insurance."  Simple question, right?  Yes, we all have insurance that we pay for out of pocket and purchase directly from Group Health.  You would think I should answer yes to this question.  Clicking the little question mark next to the question to reveal the help text shows that the definition of insurance for this question is very narrow and does not include self-purchased insurance.  The help text clarifies that the question is asking if you have "private insurance provided by an employer, Medicare coverage, Tricare or other veteran's health insurance."  None of those describe our situation, so I am tempted to say NO, but I went ahead and answered YES for the moment.  Strangely this resulted in a decision that nobody in our household qualifies for any tax credits or Medicaid event though the income calculation from the site for our household falls squarely into the "should get a big tax credit" range.

I was later told by customer service, via email, that I should answer NO on this question if our current insurance policy expires on December 31.  Our experience with Group Health is that our policy ALWAYS expires at the end of the year.  Every year we get a letter saying "your policy is being discontinued.  please choose from the following policies all of which provide marginally worse benefits at significantly higher prices."  I change my answer to NO and resubmit the application and now get a huge tax credit, and another surprise.  Based on my application, our daughters are now automatically enrolled in Medicaid, or Washington Apple Health as it has been re-branded.  Effective today.  That was a shock.  I've never paid much attention to Medicaid, never wanted or asked for it, and now my children have no other choice but to be in the program?  Within a couple of days their Medicaid ID cards arrived, so that part of the system is working pretty effectively.  I was told by customer service that I could pull them out by calling DSHS but then I would forego any tax credits.

I didn't lose too much sleep over this however because I knew that the eligibility determination was wrong.  The income the site calculated for our household was low.  Way low.  Garbage in, garbage out.

This question is very poorly worded, and given the impact your answer has on the eligibility decision, this is a pretty high impact defect.  I am sure that many people in situations similar to mine are answering it incorrectly.  Many of the self-employed, who are one of the primary targets of the ACA, will be buying their insurance directly today, will answer this question YES, and will be incorrectly denied all tax credits.

What's Missing?

For our particular situation, the site was missing two very large components of the calculation for form 1040 line 37:  capital gains and our self-funded traditional IRA contribution.  Granted, the IRA contribution serves to reduce our MAGI, but still it is a big number that should be included in the calculation.  The omission of capital gains is a huge gaping hole in the calculation (for us at least).  I am sure that for 2013, including the capital gains will push us definitely out of Medicaid eligibility, and probably reduce most of our tax credit.  There are other things missing too.  For example I was never asked about interest income either.  It is not such a big number for us, but it is non-zero.

After not hearing anything back for days from customer service via email, and hitting the constant "we can't even let you wait on hold" message on the phone line, I fired off an email to every relevant email address I could find on the state's Medicaid web site.  Finally I received a response confirming that they found the same thing I did with the incomplete collection of income data.  I was given some instructions for plugging the capital gains into the space for reporting "pension, military retirement (not disability-related) or monthly annuity or IRA income."   Clearly this is a workaround.  I was also told that the IRA contribution is collected under the prompt for "spousal maintenance, monthly interest on student loans, moving costs since January of current year, or pre-tax retirement account payments, excluding Roth IRA contributions."   I guess I was looking for the magic IRA acronym rather than calling it a pre-tax retirement account payment.

At this point, the couple of specific issues I've brought up have been acknowledged.  I am sure they will get them fixed within a few weeks.  A bigger question is "what else?"  The problems I've brought up were very very obvious to me.  They should have been obvious to anyone who has ever looked at the first page of a form 1040 and all of the components that go into line 37.  What else is happening that is not so obvious but also wrong?

Why this might be a big deal

We now know for a fact that the site is not collecting all of the information it needs to, but it is still rendering eligibility decisions about Medicaid (including the surprise auto-enrollment) based on this incomplete data.  Due to the nature of this error, it is usually going to result in an income figure that is too low.  This will result in more people being auto-enrolled in Medicaid, and more people being told they will get bigger tax credits than they actually will when they file 2014 taxes.  Remember the tax credits are given in advance, but once you file your 2014 income taxes they will get re-calculated and trued up.  If your actual 2014 income comes in higher than the site's calculation based on your application's incomplete data, you will have to repay much of the tax credit.

Another angle on this problem is that at some level the tax credit masks the cost of the policies you are shopping for.  The credit it gave us was so large that it made both the bronze and silver plans appear to be zero cost.  Why wouldn't you choose the better silver plan when given this choice?  The problem comes when your tax credit has to be paid back and you bear the true cost of that higher priced silver plan.  Once you get a tax credit, the site won't even show you the base price of each plan, only your price net of the tax credit.  

I don't see any way to fix this other than to make everyone who completed an application re-apply.  That will be a little embarrasing for the state Health Care Authority.  Public reaction won't be favorable given that the result will be people who thought they were on Medicaid being kicked out, and people who thought they were going to get free or low cost health care paying more.

All of this begs the question of what other defects lurk waiting to be found.  Given these glaring obvious defects in the site, and given that we know it was never fully load tested prior to launch, how can we have any confidence in the quality assurance that went into this complicated site?

Why this might not be such a big deal

Our family tax situation is atypical.  If all of your income is on a paycheck and W2 then the site is probably doing everything correctly for you.  Low income households don't usually have capital gains, interest income, or make IRA contributions.

On the other hand, the self-employed are supposed to be a significant portion of the target audience for the ACA, and many of them will have complicated taxes as we do.

The problem is it is impossible to know the scope of the missing data, which is why I believe everyone will need to re-apply.

Why do I care

I want to see the ACA succeed.  I want to personally benefit from the improved benefits level it mandates.  I want to get rid of the fear of being denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions.  I want for everyone in society to have lower cost health care options than the Emergency Room and to have access to preventive health care at low or no cost.  I have faith that as we eliminate the uninsured problem and get everyone into bigger shared risk pools with better access to preventive care and care of chronic conditions, systemic health care costs might get under control.  I want to eliminate the chilling effect on economic innovation that is currently caused by the prospect of giving up employer-provided health care and having to go it alone in the individual market.

That's the big picture.  At the margin of deciding what the James family is going to do for 2014, we need to choose whether to renew directly with Group Health and ignore the ACA health exchange and potential tax credits vs. taking a flyer on this new and known-to-be-faulty program with the hope of saving a few dollars.  We are committed to sticking with Group Health because we like it.  Heck, I've been under their care without interruption since about 1970.  The problem is that we also really like our Health Savings Account.  We like that it puts us in touch with our health care expenses and the value we receive for them, and we like the ~$6,400 tax deduction for our annual contribution to fund it.  All of the exchange plans are high deductible plans, but Group Health for some reason took the anti-consumer approach of only offering HSA-eligible plans direct, not through the exchange.  A customer service person at Group Health actually told me that this is because the health exchange is "just for low income people" who can't put the money together to fund an HSA.  Suspecting this was a fabrication, I asked again and was later told that the Washington State insurance commission told Group Health to only offer a limited set of plans in the first year.  Lame.  Especially lame given that the reason you go through the exchange is to get tax credits, and tax credits are maximized when you reduce your income, and one way to reduce your income is to contribute to an HSA.  Anyways, we are right at the margin (I think) of where this is a challenging decision to decide what is better for us:  go it alone with an HSA and buy direct, or forego the HSA, buy through the exchange, and hope for a tax credit that makes this decision worthwhile.  As I currently lack any confidence in the exchange site's accuracy at forecasting tax credits accurately, I think we will probably buy direct from Group Health.  It might cost us a few dollars, but that might be worth it to sit out the first year of the massive headache all of these problems trying to apply through the exchange are causing for us, including the prospect of having to update the site with our income on a monthly basis.

Am I overstating things?

Maybe.  Not everyone has capital gains, or interest income, or foreign earned interest or the other things the site never asks you for but it should.  There is also that "do you have insurance" question that is way off.

Maybe this is all normal growing pains, the things you expect from launching a big software application (a big application that is being redundantly implemented across many states).  Maybe it will all be sorted out within a month.

Maybe the state won't make everyone re-apply and just take their lumps when they file 2014 taxes.

Maybe the tea party won't make hay on these problems and use it as fodder for the "kill Obamacare" arguments.  This has all certainly been a case study in how our government fails us.

Lots of maybes.  OK that is all.

read more / Comments

Day 6: Garden Bay at Pender Harbor

Posted by: pat 10 years, 8 months ago

Heading out from Nanaimo to cross the Strait of Georgia you need to check the status of Whiskey Golf.  Whiskey Golf is a test range where the navy conducts torpedo test firing.  If it is active, and you will never know until the day of, then you need to make a significant but not debilitating detour around it.  For some reason this is not universal common knowledge of boaters transiting the area, as evidenced by the VHF traffic where the navy is attempting to hail pleasure boats in risk of being torpedoed.  The day we head out it is inactive so we are good to go.

We are very fortunate on this trip in that we encountered flat seas on both of our days in the thick of the strait, or “the monster” as some call it.  The monster was pretty much the most-studied element of my trip planning.  It represents Mother Nature at her most unbridled and capricious self.  The potential risks and dangers in the strait are part of what makes this trip not just a vacation but an adventure.  I scoured blogs and guide books for tips and tricks, places you can get out of bad weather, criteria for deciding to go up the west side vs. east side, choosing which side of Texada to take, the little protected anchorages at Lasqueti, how to cross the Comox bar, where the tide rips are worst for current vs. wind, dangers posed by the ebb out of Jervis Inlet hitting contrary wind, where can you get mechanical assistance, and on and on.  Good knowledge to have at the ready, but for this trip it was completely superfluous.  That's OK.  This Eagle Scout learned his lessons well to Be Prepared.

The day was hot and calm.  The water in the middle of the strait was a remarkable 65 degrees F.  There is talk of just idling in the strait and going for a swim.

In the interest of family harmony I decided to add another day to our transit to Desolation Sound.  Our itinerary now runs from Nanaimo to Pender Harbor to Lund to Desolation Sound.  This adds one day and reduces some of the longer transit times that can be wearisome for the family.  The risk factors of adding another day working our way up the Strait of Georgia are mitigated by the fair wind forecast.  Steaming up from Nanaimo we had negligible wind and fairly flat seas, and the forecast is for more of the same.  Quite a contrast from the 25 - 35 knot conditions I encountered crossing from Silva Bay to Nanaimo with the grandpas a couple years ago.

When we were at Hudson Point on day 1 of the trip we ran into fellow Wauquiez owner Guy on Airfare.  I chatted with him for a bit about our trip and he recommended Pender Harbor as a great place to duck out of a blow in the strait.  Well we didn't have a blow today, but Guy's tales of fried oysters in Garden Bay wouldn't vacate my head, so here we are!   I never got the actual name of the place but the description seemed to match what the Waggoner says about the Garden Bay Pub and Restaurant and Marina so that’s where we go.  Turns out no fried oysters.  Must be some other place in Pender Harbor. 

Pender Harbor is fascinating as it is composed of probably 6 - 8 separate moorage opportunities plus well sheltered anchorages, and maybe half a dozen restaurants and other businesses.  We moored at the Garden Bay Pub.  The pub was a delight with a nice IPA on draft and solid wifi.  It had the vibe that I associate with a thriving local pub, including that BC phenomenon the weekly "meat draw."  From a moorage perspective it is a bit meh.  The wifi does not reach the docks even with my new super-duper antenna, and the washroom/shower situation is so-so. 

The shower is OK but it is one of those situations where there are just two washrooms, with shower, for the whole moorage.  So if someone is taking a shower they are also monopolizing a toilet.  Not a big deal on our visit as there were only maybe 4 other boats at the dock.  There is a curious sign in the washroom stating "In consideration of your fellow boaters, please use your towel to dry the sink and floor after using the shower."  Excuse me?  Maybe you have mistaken us for the RVYC crew next door who I am sure have laundry servants and racks of dozens of towels.  On my boat, I have a towel for showering and a towel for swimming, and I ain't gonna use either of them to wipe down the floor of the marina washroom!  I’m also unimpressed by the lack of door code synchronization.  What possible good reason is there to have each of your two washrooms on a different door code?  Contrast this to Fisherman’s Resort where not only are the codes in synch, but they also are in the form of a clever mnemonic.

We dinghy over to a fairly rustic provincial marine park about 50 yards from the dock.  We tie up at a nice flat rocky area.  Tons of oysters.  The water is warm, about 67F.  We have a great swim.  Two dudes come in on their small sailboat, anchor about 50 feet out from our spot, and dive in for a swim.  We think we should be anchored here and swimming from the boat.

Pender Harbor is home to a couple yacht club outstations.  The Royal Van and Seattle Yacht Clubs both have outstations here.  We were tied up directly opposite the RVYC outstation docks, which while not full had probably 20 boats tied up, probably more than half being in the $ million + 60 foot + powerboat class.  Directly across from us was the Cristina Mia (love the zebra skin upholstery!) which spent hours just pissing gray water over the side.  I guess it was shower time, or laundry or something.

What is it with powerboats and discharging waste water above the waterline?  So noisy and disruptive.  Cristina Mia dumped water literally for hours, spouting from two discharge ports about an inch in diameter a foot above the waterline like a fountain.  I would have had to fill my tanks over and over to dump as much waste as they did.  It wasn't soapy or scummy so I guess they have some filtering or processing on board before discharging it, but it still seems like such a waste...and why exactly can't it discharge below the waterline where it is silent?  I am going to assume there is a solid engineering design reason for this I guess.  Could it be seawater cooling discharge from a genset (but they have shore power here…)?  I guess I don’t know enough about the systems on big power boats.

Back to Pender Harbor observations.  If you visit, do not underestimate the impact of the outstation crowds!  Maybe I shouldn't be watching Below Deck while on this trip, but the RVYC families we ran into while dining at the Garden Bay Pub/Restaurant were a little bit too "right out of Below Decks guests casting."   Petulant coiffed children whining about the wifi while trying to look as sullen as possible and dads with way too much hair gel and cologne.

Actually, before we settled on the Garden Bay Pub/Restaurant we made our best shot at trying the burgers and milkshakes at Laverne's Diner.  I did a recon mission to check it out earlier and noted the unusual signage indicating that they could not guarantee they can serve you if you show up an hour before closing, closing being at 7:00.  Got it!  Show up before 6:00 to be served.  Whatever.

So we show up at 5:45 and are told...oh sorry eh!  We get so many phone orders we can't serve people who actually appear at the restaurant hungry.  For a burger.  I guess this is what the sign was about, but maybe you need to show up 2 hours before closing to get served, or get with the in-the-know crowd and phone your order in when you get up in the morning.  Disappointing, but I guess you have to sympathize with the business owners who get inundated by....I am only going to assume it is the RVYC outstation gang again.  I’ve made up this story in my head where everyone from the RVYC hops north in the summer, and they always stop here at the outstation because wouldn’t you?  That’s what you are paying for in these clubs, better use it.  So they stop here year after year and develop routines, including the traditional takeout dinner from Laverne’s.  Over the years this becomes such a “thing” that you need to phone ahead to have a prayer of dining at a normal dinner time.  What would you do if you ran that business?  Turn away some phone orders to accommodate some walk-ins who may or may not show up?  Reserve some capacity?  Just make the staff stay while you are bringing in cash?  That last one is what I would try...give them a bonus for staying late and make hay while the sun shines.  It must be a really tough challenge running a small business subject to these weird transient visitors who slam you in the summer and leave you all by yourself in the winter.

Dinner at the Garden Bay Pub and Restaurant was decent.  They suffer from being understaffed.  They had a help wanted sign out, something Kim remarked on: “when was the last time you saw one of those?”  It would have been nice to sit on the deck, but that was all reserved on the restaurant side.  The pub side had open tables, but was off limits to the girls.  There is a really nifty private dock right next to the restaurant that is slowly crumbling away.  It has maybe every third board missing.  It looks ready made for filming a dramatic chase scene.  Someone has a little yippy dog that is missing an eye and barks at me on the way up from the dock.  The owner says “oh sorry!  She has a problem with people wearing hats and sunglasses!”  Huh?  Maybe summers are not the best month to take you dog on vacation then.  Later Kim witnesses a local ripping the owner a new one for bringing her problem dog out in public.

The moorage here feels like a bit of an afterthought.  This place is really all about the pub.  On the way back we have a much better experience at Fisherman’s Resort marina on the other side of the little peninsula here.  We walked over from there and had a great time at the pub.

I feel like since we hit Nanaimo we are definitely in the groove of a bunch of boats all going to the same place.  We know August is the most crowded time to go cruising.  It is starting to make me a little nervous about what is to come.  I've read the blog posts about the mega yachts with the loud late night parties and noisy boat toys dominating some anchorages in Desolation.  I fear I am seeing some of them directly across from me right now.

Today was a pretty good day.  We got to go for a very nice swim and put one of the riskier areas behind us.  On to Lund tomorrow!

read more / Comments

Day 4 and 5: Onward to Nanaimo

Posted by: pat 10 years, 8 months ago

Onward to Nanaimo!  This is where the trip gets interesting for me because we are breaking new ground.  Today we transit Dodd Narrows, as famous a tidal passage in its area as Desolation Pass is for those who mostly cruise the US islands.

We spend the day blowing through, or rather steaming through, the entirety of the Gulf Islands.  So odd to just fly right by so many destinations we’ve visited in the past.  I realize we can easily spend weeks just in the Gulf Islands having a wonderful time…it makes me really hope that Desolation Sound is worth passing all of this by this year.

The weather is grand except for a lack of wind.  The clouds clear and it becomes a hot day with not a cloud in the sky.  A day I can tell will require multiple sunscreen applications.  The autopilot is doing a bang-up job as we pass by Otter Bay, Montague (and the Pub Bus!), Ganges, and Telegraph Harbor along with so many more.  It is hot and we are ahead of schedule for Dodd Narrows’ slack, so we drop the hook off the south end of De Courcy Island, just opposite of Pirate’s Cove, and take a break for a swim.  It is glorious.  The water is warm for us at 65 degrees.  I bust out the snorkel gear and take a few dives under the boat to check out the prop and zincs.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  It is always fun to be able to dive on your own boat.

Then it is off for Dodd Narrows and Nanaimo.  I found Dodd Narrows to be no big whoop.  We fuel up at Nanaimo and get an assignment on the dock.  No slips!  This is the norm from here on out.  We are parked directly opposite of the Mexican restaurant on the docks, Penny’s Palapa.  Lots of sailboats here, many from Seattle.

I wrote a bit about Nanaimo and Nanaimo bars on this other post so will try not to repeat those observations here.

We decided to stay at Nanaimo for two nights because we need to provision, and we could use a break from the every day up and go routine, and I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Nanaimo but have never visited and would like to check it out.  In hindsight this was all a big mistake.  OK that’s hyperbole, there were plenty of positives to our stay in Nanaimo…but it was too hot to really enjoy walking around the city, and much of it was closed for the BC Day holiday weekend.  I wanted to get a couple of things at the chandlery.  Nope, closed for BC Day.  I wanted to buy beer from the apparently well stocked liquor store.  Nope, sorry!  At least the museum and the Bastion were open.  The museum was a kick, I recommend it.  Nanaimo has a fascinating history with the coal mine that goes under the bay, the mill started by an Indian (or Pakistani?) immigrant, the Canadian Pacific Steamships that ran pleasure cruises all over the nearby waters, the Japanese herring packing industry, and on and on.  And of course there is a whole exhibit just for the history of Nanaimo bars, including seating stools that are crafted in the form of Nanaimo bars.

Much of the best of Nanaimo is right on the waterfront esplanade.  We enjoyed our evening strolls there, out to the walking and fishing pier full of hopeful anglers and pitchers of crab traps.  There is a lagoon which we realized too late in our trip is a viable swimming spot, and a nice park and playground.

But overall our two day stay reinforced the too-quickly-forgotten lesson that an urban marina is no place to be on a hot summer day.  We should have been swimming somewhere.  The wifi was good, the showers were awesome, and we did manage to get our grocery shopping done and eat some mighty fine meals, maybe the best meals of the trip.  Next time we will do Newcastle, which seems to be the preferred stop for pretty much everyone else.


Kim scouted a restaurant for dinner on the first night, The Firehouse Grill.  I’m a little concerned over the fusion of expected fare such as steaks, seafood, and pasta with…sushi?  Putting Vancouver aside, we go into Canadian restaurants with low expectations, but this one was pretty darn good!  Kim had a steak sandwich which she said was the best of the trip.  I had a It was also good for people watching.  My favorite was the late-30’s balding dude clearly on a dinner date wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the cheeky statement “WHAT DO WE WANT?  A CURE FOR TOURETTE’S SYDROME.  WHEN DO WE WANT IT?  CUNT.”  And they say Seattle diners dress too casually.

Night two we ventured all the way across the dock to Penny’s Palapa.  During our whole stay our boat was parked about 6 feet from people eating at Penny’s so we knew at a minimum they were popular with the crowds.  And again, Nanaimo surprised us with a great quality meal.  We expect Mexican food in Canada to basically stop at the quality level of the Azteca chain in Seattle.  Platters of fried combination number whatever slathered in cheddar cheese.  Penny’s on the other hand does a lot with seafood, and uses cotija cheese, and puts a little jicama in the salad.  These are all good signs.  It was an excellent meal.  Recommend.


The Port of Nanaimo showers were a revelation so stunning I will come out and say:  every marina should do what Nanaimo is doing with their showers.  At least in the water flow/temperature control area.  The 3 minute duration is pretty bare bones.  I pulled it off but it was definitely a challenge requiring some planning.  One gentleman told me his strategy is to apply shampoo before inserting any coins.  Anyways, the brilliant thing about the Nanaimo showers is that you put your money in and it just turns on with a high pressure blast of perfectly hot water that never lets up.  No knobs means no 20 – 30 seconds wasted adjusting temperature.  They could have a better hook arrangement, and it wasn’t until day 2 that I figured out you could take the assisted-living chair thingies into your shower stall to serve as a storage platform, but overall two thumbs up to the Port of Nanaimo on their showers!  Access is tightly controlled via cardkey requiring a $10 deposit.

In Closing

Forecast for the next day looks good for crossing the Strait of Georgia, which is a big deal for us.  We plan to go to Garden Bay in Pender Harbor to check out those oysters on the deck of that pub we heard about from Guy Buell.

read more / Comments

2013 Cruise Day 3: Poet's Cove at Bedwell Harbor

Posted by: pat 10 years, 8 months ago

Next stop Bedwell Harbor.  We have to clear customs somewhere.  The pro-forma itinerary called for it to be Sidney because it also has easy provisioning at a decent grocery store.  Our last stay at Sidney left us less than enchanted with it as a destination.  It has some nice bookstores and the marina is very well kept, but other than that it isn't really much of a charmer.  We looked at Bedwell as an alternative, to be followed by Nanaimo where provisioning should be fine.

Kim has never been to Bedwell before.  Elizabeth has been there a few times and I've probably stayed there 8 or so times.  It is a destination where we've been shut out without a reservation in the past, especially on weekends.  Poet's Cove, the resort dominating the harbor, has a license to print money with the customs dock being there and it being a pretty spot.  It has many of the amenities we look for in a marina destination:  swimming pool for the girls, decent (not the best) showers, a decent casual dining option, and wifi.  Plus it has a spa, which clinched it for Kim and Elizabeth.

I was a little surprised that they could accommodate us on a weekend with less than 24 hours’ notice, but they could.  This was starting to be a theme…I guess the rumors of that the salish sea boating industry has yet to fully emerge from the toilet of the downturn have some truth to them.

Customs was remarkably uneventful.  And startlingly un-inquisitive.  They knew who we were from the boat’s vessel number…”Just you and the family?  Kim, Elizabeth, and Catherine?” I was not even asked for the quantity of alcohol on board, which was unexpected giving the royal raking over the coals I received here on my previous visit, from the very same Canadian customs officers on duty on this day.  I guess they profile you differently when you are with your family vs. four other forty-somethings.

Poet's Cove is one of the places where garbage has to be trucked off the island by ferry and water conservation is the rule of the day.  No boat washing whatsoever, and there are many signs informing you of how many gallons of fresh water you are entitled to with each night's paid moorage.  If you are not prepared for this and show up with low tanks it can be a frustration.  I know one sailor who planned to install a watermaker after his first summer's cruise in the Gulf Islands.  That is a pretty over the top reaction though.  You can find plenty of water anywhere on Vancouver island.  Just pop into Cowichan or Maple Bay or Sidney.

We were right between two big power boats.  Bedwell is usually about 80% power boats.  The dad on the boat next to us was having fun with his son and a hammock chair suspended from the skiff launch hoist.  He would run the power winch and lower his son down, threatening to dunk him.  Cathy thought this was the craziest funny thing ever, and implored me to get our hammock chair out so we could try to do the same.  I explained it wouldn’t be quite the same on our boat since we don’t have a motorized winch.  And we are still on what I consider the passagemaking portion of the trip where we don’t haul out all of the lazy days cruising toys like hammocks and kayaks and sun shades.  We were going to be off at 6:00 AM the next day!  I can’t be bothered with rigging up hammock chairs to winches!  I appeased her with a promise we would jump into the pool shortly while Kim and Elizabeth hit the spa.

Now that we are in Canada we all went through our phones and turned the data off to avoid the exorbitant $10 per megabyte data roaming charges from T-Mobile.  This trip I purchased a sim for Koodo Mobile who offer a decent monthly prepaid service on the Telus network in Canada.  I got the sim on eBay for $6 and it included a $20 activation credit.  That was plenty to cover basic activation of voice and texts for a month.  For $30 I added 2GB of data so we can have some data where there is no wifi.  With 2GB we won’t be doing any Facetime or Netflix on it, but that is plenty for email, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook checks.  Elizabeth was still in internet withdrawal after two weeks at Camp Orkila.  It proved to be extremely valuable for checking wind and weather conditions and forecasts.  Much easier than having to listen through the whole report on the VHF.  Activation was drama-free, except for having to put in a Canadian address.  I just put the address for Poet’s Cove in, thinking this is my current Canadian address after all.  It took my US billing address for my credit card just fine.

Kim and Elizabeth gave the spa two thumbs up.  Cathy and I found the pool to be not quite as crowded as it has been on prior trips.  Yellowjackets, always an issue at Bedwell, were absolutely rampant and the worst I have ever seen.  Fortunately they didn’t make it out to the dock much, but anywhere on shore they were present in the thousands.

Poet’s Cove ProTip:  when you register and they explain the convenience of being able to charge things to your slip, DECLINE.  We had our departure delayed by over an hour one year so we could clear up a bar tab erroneously charged to our slip.  The waitress had to be roused so she could be consulted. 

I am guessing this person has never seen the word "terrace" in print, but I can't come up with an excuse for not being able to spell celebrate correctly.  A recurring theme this trip was British Columbia’s perplexing literacy challenge.  I’ll write more on this later as we encountered signs of it being a problem at several stops.  

Our meal was OK.  I don't get why the craft beer available in Canada continues to lag so far behind what is being produced in the states.  I’ve never had so many disappointing craft beers as I have in British Columbia, and the selection at the retail outlets is usually quite limited.  I can accept that you pay more in Canada, but I would like to see the quality bar of craft ales go up a bit.  My going in plan for the trip was to just surrender to these facts and go native, subsisting on Molson Canadian, Kokanee, and the other lawnmower lagers for which Canada is famous.

Problem is I can’t stop myself!  The beer list at Syren’s, the casual dining option at Poet’s Cove, taunted me with an item that sounded right up my alley:  Phillips Hop Circle IPA http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/2675/58233.  I love a good IPA, especially the “American” IPAs with their high ABV and strong hop-forward flavors.  I’ve tried pretty much all of the hophead ales you might name off the top of your head, including the rare Pliny the Elder.  If you don’t know me, I brew quite a bit of beer myself and often brew IPAs and APAs as my favorite house brew, I’ve entered them in competitions and received positive feedback.  Just pointing this out to establish that I have an experienced palate when it comes to ales in general and IPAs specifically.

Back to Phillips Hop Circle.  For the first time in my life I encountered a beer that I could not finish, and this was it.  It was so horribly skunky.  This is a real thing, skunkiness, and reflects that something has gone wrong.  Usually it comes from exposure to light, which shouldn’t be a problem in a draft beer ever.  Phillips has managed to produce a beer so bad I had to send it back, apologizing for doing so.  This caused a bit of a fuss with the waitress exclaiming “oh yeah, it’s super hoppy eh?  I usually warn people who order that to tell them how hoppy it is and that some people can’t handle it.”  Please stop arguing.  I do know hoppy beers and I can handle them.  Just bring me a Canadian please. 

Food was fine, typical pub fare.  Burgers and fish and chips.  Kim was pleased that they had a couple of Indian selections and ordered something that was supposed to have spinach and paneer.  It had neither and resembled a large hot pocket.  Most of it ended up in the trash.  I’ve had good experiences here in the past.  This experience was just marred by that horrible beer.  And the yellowjackets also made their contribution to degrading the ambience as well.  They were so thick that patio dining (which is quite nice here on a good day!) was out of the question.  Indoors they were less of an issue, but we still had to deal with a few at the table.  There were hundreds clustered around the upper windows facing onto the patio.

Shower Commentary

The showers at Bedwell are hot and strong.  So for water quality they get an A.  The general facility for showering could be improved.  It is definitely one of those “we need to provide pay showers for boaters, so let’s just cram them into the pool washroom/changing room” design approaches.  On the plus side, each shower is an individual little room with a locking door.  On the negative side, ventilation is very poor and hanging hooks are minimal.  They steam up quite badly.  Your towel is likely to be pre-dampened by the steam by the time you need to use it.  The washroom gets thoroughly trashed by swimmers during the day and employees don’t seem to do much about it.  The floor is frequently awash in dirty water.  Good luck trying to shave or do any sink-related hygiene processes with the very fast instant-off faucets.  It did the job but again the little details show a lack of focus on the needs of the traveling boater.


Despite the grumbling about Poet’s Cove, Bedwell really is a beautiful setting.  Many evenings end in brilliant sunsets shining on the boats.  The “magic hour” before the sun goes down illuminates the sheer rock bluff next to the marina with a glowing light and highlights the natural beauty of the madronas that have managed to take root there.  This visit was no exception.  The day ended with a parade of fellow visitors walking out to the end of the finger pier on our slip to photograph the sunset.

Some time when we come back I am going to do the hike in the neighboring provincial park.  Roland Eisner did it one year when he was with me on the “Grandpa Cruise” and said it is worth doing.  Or better yet maybe I will have the gumption to anchor out there and avoid the whole Poet’s Cove enterprise.  I am pretty sure you could dinghy in for a pay shower without being moored there.  Then again probably not as the pool and the spa offer enough delights to lure the distaff members of the family to this destination.

And here is the abrupt end to this blog post.  Thanks for sticking with it to the end.  This is also the end of the “been there done that” part of the northbound cruise.  From this point on all of our stops are brand spanking new to us!  Yippee!

read more / Comments

2013 Cruise Day 2: Deer Harbor

Posted by: pat 10 years, 9 months ago

I have a strategy for maximizing the probability of a smooth crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  It basically boils down to getting the crossing done before noon.  Winds pick up in the afternoon.  I also take all NOAA weather forecasts calling for Small Craft Advisories (SCA) with several grains of salt.  I’ve been in the middle of the strait in a SCA plenty of times when the wind never got over 10 knots.  They just seem to be tremendously conservative when throwing the SCA forecast out there.  I take Gale warnings seriously, but unless there is some real world data from the Smith Island or Halibut Bank weather stations to corroborate the SCA, I take it as input but certainly not gospel.  When cruising with the family I like the straits to have 15 knots or less.  With anyone else who is up for some thrilling sailing, we are good to 25 knots.  More than that we try to avoid, but if it pipes up the boat can handle it.  Through good luck and employing the above strategy and guidelines, I can't remember the last "bad" strait crossing we've had as a family.

We set off from Point Hudson around 6:30 AM, just in time for max ebb and a renewal of my respect for the famous Point Wilson Rip.  There was no wind really, less than 5 knots, otherwise I would have gone way to the east or hugged the shore way to the west before heading north.  That rip is pretty healthy even with no wind.  The bow was getting buried in green water every other minute or so.  Cathy emerged from the vberth for some comfort, asserting that “THE VBERTH IS GOING *CRAZY*.”  I can only imagine how much air the girls were getting in their bunks.  We bulled our way through and were done with the rip in about half an hour thanks to the 3 knots of favorable current it provided, and it was all smooth motoring from there on.

After transiting Cattle Pass I was whipping up a batch of flapjacks in the galley when we were interrupted by the good folks from the Department of Homeland Security who just wanted to spend 10 minutes or so interrogating us in the rain.  I’ve had the pleasure of this on-the-water interrogation once before, but it was near Turn Point on Stuart Island, and area that actually is pretty near the border.  I’m not sure why they were patrolling between San Juan and Lopez Island.  It felt not unlike I imagine it would feel to be pulled over in your car by the Border Patrol while driving around Kirkland.  It is a little impressive how they effectively hold station about 5 feet off your stern, both boats in motion, and manage to be heard.  I just try to answer their rapid-fire questions as quickly and succinctly as possible.  My favorite was Q:Where do you reside?  A:Seattle  Q:Seattle Proper?

We make the uneventful journey to Deer Harbor, get our assigned slip and pull in.  This is the kind of joint where there are nice fit young marina employees waiting to catch your mooring lines.  Hmm….I need to go in there?  Next to that massive wide-beam American Tug?  This is gonna be tight.  Tight as in room for my outboard fender and room for yours, but not room for both!  Squeaky tight.  We made it and sure enough there is no air gap between any of our fenders.  I put this as the second-tightest slip partner we’ve ever encountered.

I have to say that the docking proficiency on this whole trip was has gone up a notch.  Kim and Elizabeth both understand their roles, proper use of cleats for leverage, and have a good situational awareness of when things go wrong what they can do to fix things.  This could be a biased perception due to the nature of this specific trip.  We rarely had much wind during docking on this trip, and we spent a lot of time anchoring.  Plus also, the prevalence of side tie linear rather than slips at BC marinas makes things a bit easier.  As long as you don’t have to parallel park in a tight spot.

Turns out this nice shiny American Tug we are hip-to-hip with is only 3 weeks old and on its inaugural cruise.  The owners don’t like the tight fit.  Out of concern over their wide beam, they had previously been assured by marina staff that no other boat would be moored next to them.  We are asked to move over one slip.  Upon acceding, we are told we have some beers coming.  Cool. 

Weather-wise it is a bit dreary at Deer Harbor on this visit.  Not the first time we’ve been here in the rain.  It is a good refuge from the weather destination.  I remember one year with my brother-in-law Troy, Nieces, and Elizabeth when we all went swimming in the pool on a cold rainy day.  I went ahead to the boat and fired up the diesel furnace to get the boat toasty warm for them.  A rare occasion of actually using the furnace in the summer.  This trip we don’t swim.  I took a nice walk with Elizabeth.  She told me more about her summer camp experience at Camp Orkila.  It was supposed to be  sailing session, but it turns out it was a longboat session.  They did a lot of rowing.  Rowing to Sucia, Patos, Matia on a 5 day boat trip.  It sounded different from what we expected, but a grand adventure nonetheless.

Kim is wroth with me over the fact that she asked to have Talking Rain provisioned as a full case from Costco, whereas I had only stocked a measly 6 bottles.  What is she supposed to drink…plain water!?  This complaint is about to become a meme of this cruise.  Deer Harbor lacks any kind of carbonated unsweetened beverage.  They do still stock ground beef from MacDonald Meats, a butcher on a residential street less than a mile from our house in Seattle.  I’ve never seen it for sale anywhere else.


I really like the Deer Harbor showers.  They can sometimes feel a little un-loved:  there is often maintenance equipment being stored in the shower room, and the light bulbs sometimes go without replacement for too long.  But they are totally functional, good hot water, and plenty of time… 6 minutes I think?  Maybe 7.  They are a little unusual in that they run on tokens, purchased at the marina office or store for $2.  Conceptually, this raises a concern that the incremental cost of getting just a little more water is another whole $2, but in reality I think we've all been just fine with the time provided by one token.  While I’ve never tried it, I am pretty sure Deer Harbor belongs on the special list of places where you can anchor and still utilize the pay showers.  I really like the sink, mirror, and counter space in the shower room, and they get extra class points for putting the showers in a completely separate room from the toilets.


Didn’t feel like cooking, so we ate from the store.  Their menu is a bit limited and the food is purely adequate.  I got a chicken wrap with some kind of chipotle mayo spread.  It was OK, and about what I expected based on prior visits.  I’ve never tried the restaurant that is down the road.  We checked it out on a walk once.  I recall it was on the spendy side of things, entrees in the $20 - $30 range.  Needs more research.  Do they have good reviews?  Do they have a kids menu or will they do a kids portion?

In Closing

After dinner I collect on the beer.  I am asked if I would like a lime.  I decline.  I am told it is Corona and therefore must be served with lime.  I accept.  They are from San Francisco.  They will keep the boat up here.  There are tax issues associated with these decisions.  Tomorrow they are planning to pick up a parks buoy at Stuart Island.  They have studied how to complete this task and plan to pick it up from the stern.  They are having a great time and envy us for having ready access to these beautiful cruising waters.  They bemoan the lack of interesting destinations in the Bay area.  Nice folks.  We wish them well!

The weather is supposed to clear up.  We make a further departure from the pro forma itinerary and plan to make the short hop to Poet’s Cove Resort at Bedwell Harbor.  Kim has never been there before.  It has a spa, and a pool.  We can clear customs.  I call and am a little surprised that they do indeed have space for us on a weekend night.  This is a place where I am accustomed to being shut out of on short notice.  I guess the rumors that marinas are having a tough time may be true.  I’m OK with extending the journey up because we have the time for it, and the weather forecast for the Strait of Georgia is all a big null for the next 4 days or so.  Our plan now is Poet’s Cove, then Nanaimo, and then across the Strait of Georgia.  Bing-bam-boom, program a route into OpenCPN, upload to chartplotter, call it a night.

read more / Comments