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British Columbia – Cruising British Columbia and Canada

By Captain Simon Farmer

THERE HAVE BEEN many books and guides written about the Inside Passage between British Columbia (BC) and Vancouver Island, but until you experience it in person it is very hard to grasp the splendour and beauty of this remarkable region. I was fortunate enough to have this opportunity in the northern summer of 2007 as captain of the customised Northern Marine 81 foot ‘Bella Rosa’.

Bella Rosa, whose home port is Mercer Island on Lake Washington in Seattle, is a single-engine, expedition-style yacht with everything you’d expect to find on a yacht twice her size. No expense has been spared and no detail overlooked by her meticulous owner.
We left Seattle just after the 4th of July for Roche Harbour at the northern end of San Juan Island, still inside the USA in the San Juan Archipelago.  Getting from Mercer Island to Puget Sound is an experience in itself, with no less than seven bridges to negotiate and one set of locks. The bridges are all Bascule-type, meaning they are two-piece and hinge upward from each shore to open. The bridge operators will generally wait until there is enough water traffic to warrant disrupting the road traffic before opening, so there is often a wait of up to 20 minutes while this occurs.

Then there are the locks! Lake Washington and Lake Union are both freshwater and are separated from Puget Sound by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks at the western end of the ship canal. Depending on the amount and type of traffic and the time of day it can take up to an hour or two to get through the locks. Weekends are the busiest times and are to be avoided where possible.

Conditions for our passage north were perfect, apart from a strong southbound tide which slowed our progress considerably, and we eventually tied up in the quaint little town of Roche Harbour, nestled in the stunning San Juan Islands just before sunset.
Our next destination was Vancouver BC to clear immigration and stock up on wine before heading into the wilderness.

Coal Harbour is an excellent facility in the heart of Vancouver. The 224-berth marina is within easy walk of the city centre and can accommodate vessels of up to 330 feet. With the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, Coal Harbour, with all its facilities like 24 hour security and free Wi-Fi made the ideal venue for visiting superyachts.
My first real taste of BC was Garden Bay in Pender Harbour 50 miles north of Vancouver.

This picture-perfect little town has two small marinas, one of which is an annex of the Seattle Yacht Club, a general store and a couple of very nice restaurants. It is also the springboard for Princess Louisa Inlet and the magnificent Chatterbox Falls which were to be our next destination.

At the entrance to Princess Louisa inlet are the Malibu Rapids. This piece of water can be quite hazardous due to the narrowness and orientation of the channel which consists of two dog-legs. The current can run at up to 10 knots in a flooding or ebbing tide and the only really safe time to transit is at slack water. It is also recommended to advise Malibu Rapids traffic on VHF channel 16 of your boat’s length and direction of travel.

Once through the rapids you enter Princess Louisa Inlet and are surrounded by a magnificent granite-walled gorge. Cut by a glacier, the walls rise to heights in excess of 2100 metres. Until mid-June, the warm sun melting the mountain snow creates more than 60 waterfalls that cascade down precipitous walls into the inlet below. Tumbling down 45 metres at the head of the inlet is the beautiful Chatterbox Falls, one of the most visited and celebrated nautical destinations in British Columbia. It has been voted the “most scenic natural anchorage” in the world and is accessible only by boat or plane – there are no public roads.

From Princess Louisa it was on to Desolation Sound and the small town of Lund. Lund has a population of just 800 and is the northern most point of Highway 101, the world’s longest highway which stretches 15,020 kilometres all the way from Castro on Chile’s south coast. It is primarily a fishing town but has a large tourist population because of its proximity to the islands and bays of Desolation Sound.

After an overnight in Lund it was a short six mile passage around the corner to Tenedos Bay. It’s hard to keep finding adjectives that do justice to these anchorages, but ‘stunning’ and ‘magnificent’ are two that come to mind. We dropped anchor on one side of the bay, laid out our chain and stern-tied to a tree on the other side so that our transom was about 20 foot from the shore. Due to some unique tidal anomalies the water temperature in the bay is around 20 degrees Celsius compared with an average of 16 degrees for the greater area. We were swimming and wakeboarding without the need for wetsuits which is unheard of in the Pacific North West.

Our route north took us through the Broughton Archipelago Maine Park, a wilderness area consisting of a maze of several small islands and numerous islets at the southern extremity of Queen Charlotte Strait. The islands in the marine park are undeveloped and are largely undiscovered. It’s hard to decide which destinations to include and which not to as each one is unique, but one stop in this labyrinth has to be at Pierre’s Bay for the Saturday night pig roast. Pierre’s Bay ‘resort’ is built entirely on the water and is connected to the land via a couple of walkways. Like all the resorts and marinas along the inside passage it has a warm welcoming family atmosphere; Pierre and his partner Tove greet you like old friends even if meeting for the first time.

One other destination in this area that deserves a mention is Sullivan Bay. Sullivan Bay is a unique floating village with privately owned homes on named ‘streets’. They can accommodate virtually any size boat or boating group and offer 15, 30, 50 and 100 Amp power, potable water and a babysitting boat service. This historic destination is the ideal jumping off point for marine adventures from fishing to kayaking and is one mile walking distance on the docks.

BC is well serviced by seaplanes which run regular scheduled flights throughout the summer. The seaplanes, which carry between 6 and 10 passengers make this entire region accessible and are the lifeline of the remote fishing lodges.

After re-provisioning in Port McNeil, a bustling logging and fishing town with a population of 2600, 20 miles south of the top of Vancouver Island we set off across the notorious Queen Charlotte Straits. This 30 mile stretch of water between the top of Vancouver Island and Margret Bay on the Canadian Mainland can become very rough and it’s wise to get an up to date weather forecast before crossing.

The National Data Buoy Center website www.ndbc.noaa.gov/ provides up-to-the-minute sea conditions with information gathered from 18 sea buoys distributed around Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands further north.
Our crossing was uneventful and we eventually tied up at the small fishing lodge of Duncanby Bay six hours later.

There are hundreds of little fishing lodges scattered around BC. Most are privately owned but a few have turned themselves into commercial ventures and offer fully-appointed fishing boats and fishing guides to take you to the best spots. They will take your catch, scale and clean it and freeze it to take home with you. Or if you prefer, they’ll send it to the resort kitchen and cook it.

We progressed further up the coast to Shearwater which was to be our most northerly point before heading south again. Shearwater is an old logging town transformed into yet another fishing lodge and tourist centre.

The attraction of this area is the chance to land a huge and hard-hitting Chinook (or King) Salmon that can weigh up to 18kg, or the feisty and acrobatic Coho (or Silver) Salmon, and of course the Halibut which can weigh as much as 190kg.

There is an amazing amount of wildlife both in the ocean and on land. Milbanke Sound and the Discovery Passage support enormous numbers of Orcas (killer whale) and Humpback Whales. Shearwater is also on the doorstep of the Great Bear Rainforest home of the Kermode or Spirit Bear (white bear) and the area resonates with the calls of bald eagles and other waterfowl.

The time came for our return journey to Seattle. We bade farewell to Shearwater and Bella Bella and steamed to Telegraph Cove, just south of Port McNeil where we dropped our guests before heading south in the company of a pod of Orca.

There are several tidal narrows to negotiate as you transit the inside passage and if you get your timing wrong find yourself battling currents of up to 10 knots. One of these places is Seymour Narrows just north of Campbell River. Fortunately our timing was good and we were swept downstream and through the narrows at speeds of up to 18 knots. We were able to ride the flooding tide all the way to the Straits of Georgia so decided against stopping and instead steamed through the night.

The next morning we pulled into Port Townsend to clear immigration, and then it was straight back out and on to Seattle and the end of a memorable trip.
I haven’t included many of the places we visited on our three month cruise because of space constraints, but one thing is certain; each marina and anchorage are unique and that around every bend there is another breathtaking sight.