Sailing in Desolation Sound, Canada 2017

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Sailing in Desolation Sound, Canada 2017

Post by alex » Wed May 23, 2018 23:30 pm

The idea to go sailing in Canada came up the first time a few years ago when I saw an article in some sailing magazine about cruising in Desolation Sound - a wilderness in British Columbia with plenty of islands and inlets. You know, we are attached to islands and inlets here in Finland.

Conditions met for summer of 2017 - I began to dig information in autumn of 2016. Not too many charter companies in the area, not too many boats. Everything is expensive. Nanaimo Yacht Charters had an offer for early June - 10 days at a price of 7. That looked good, though Nanaimo was farther away from Desolation Sound than the closest charter base in Comox - additional days gave us a possibility to visit another popular cruising area - Sunshine Coast.

First, we invited people we would love to see sailing together. Then we invited people we would like to see on board. Then everyone who we knew as sailors. Then nearly every friend of ours. Some were scared by cost, some by distance, some by jetlag. The strongest tried to influence us to take a bigger, and more comfortable and pricy boat only to say "no" later.

Eventually, we had a short-handed crew of ourselves only but by that time we were already committed, so we chartered the cheapest and the smallest boat ("the cheapest" doesn’t mean "cheap") we could find in Nanaimo - 27 feet long Catalina named "Barakette". One of the oldest charter boat in Pacific North West as they proudly said. Built in 1984 she was in excellent condition to her age and proved herself being a pretty good sailor - we managed to sail her as fast as six knots with a set of standard Dacron cruising sails.

Checkout was easy. We received a thick pile of charts - that was a comprehensive set. Interesting that most of the charts were 20-30 years old, but nothing changes quickly over there. Tidal almanac is essential. Got excellent recommendations on the area from company CEO Ian MacPherson - that influenced us to tune our route and we never regretted that. Thank god Nanaimo Yacht Charters gives you a courtesy car for shopping - the closest supermarket is a few miles away, a liquor store is just next to the jetty.

Essentially the area is IALA B, but no big deal - lateral marks are not many.

The area is tidal. Tidal range is up to 4.5 meters which is not much, but tide there is a superposition of several tidal waves - the tidal curve is asymmetric. They have High High Water, Low Low Water, Low High Water and High Low Water - you do need that almanac. Usually, tidal currents don't exceed 2-2.5 knots, but in narrow passages they can reach 15 knots. So you shall learn your narrows.

Sailing at night is forbidden by charter contract agreement. I was wondering why only until I saw the first floating log. New logs are lying in the water and can be easily seen in a safe distance in flat water. They are a lot harder to spot in choppy seas. When a log stays in seawater for many months it absorbs water, one end goes down and the log becomes vertically submerged - the upper end pops up only 10-20 cm above the surface and is very hard to spot even in light and calm condition. In British Columbia they call a submerged log "a killer". I bet they know why.

There is plenty of shellfish in the area - clams, oysters and what not. Easily accessible at Low Low Water. Shellfish comes with SPS - Shellfish Poisoning Syndrome. People pollute. Shellfish filter water and become poisonous. There are two ways how to figure out if shellfish is safe to eat. The first is to eat a couple of shellfish and wait - if your lips and tongue become numb - eat no more or become a local newsmaker. The second is to check Canada official web pages for fishermen - they have detailed up to date info for every location. We used the second option and it worked well.

Canada broadcasts local marine weather forecasts non-stop 24/7 on VHF. Handy. Very. I wish every country had that service.
Whisky Golf is a navy exercise and torpedo testing area just outside Nanaimo harbour. Crossing is not recommended during exercises. Fortunately, local weather forecast includes Whisky Golf "weather" too.
Seaplanes are a regular sight. They deliver post, provision and tourists to remote locations and also traffic between Vancouver and Nanaimo is heavy. In rush hour seaplanes land (Land? Do you land on water?) and take off from Nanaimo Bay every 10-15 minutes. Though COLREGs states that a seaplane shall keep well clear of other vessels, local sources recommend pleasure vessels to keep clear of a seaplane when it is committed to takeoff or landing. The sources don't tell how to recognize when a seaplane is committed. In a narrow channel where tidal current is a half of your cruising speed it is joyful to see a seaplane on a landing approach towards you.

And last but not the least warning - there is plenty of wildlife in Desolation Sound so make sure a bear doesn't reach you when you get ashore.
On our first day we left the base quite late after all that food shopping. We sailed North from Nanaimo, crossed Strait of Georgia and came for the night to Secret Cove. Another choice was Smuggler Cove but we had nothing to smuggle. Pilot book recommended South Eastern inlet which appeared to be smaller in real than on Pilot Book sketches. The best place was occupied already. All the chart soundings were in meters and anchor chain was marked in feet so I had to do some math. And redo the math to make sure. And again to double check. And again to cross check. Meters or feet? Feet or meters? It looked either too deep or too close to obstacles and shallows so I decided to go bold and laid the anchor at -0.3 m. You can do that if you expect High Low Water to be +3.3 m and you leave the anchorage way before Low Low Water (it’s not hard to wake up when you have a jet lag).

At dusk, a water taxi brought some late passengers to Royal Vancouver Yacht Club jetty. The taxi came close to our boat then and driver helpfully greeted us: "Hi, I would not recommend you to anchor beyond that boat shed - it really dries out here". That was very kind and we assured him that we did our tides before choosing the place. The night was dead calm and pretty warm.

Next day we motored out through a narrow and cliffy channel which would look pretty much like Finland if there were no fancy summer cottages. We then went out to Malaspina Strait hosted sails and continued North towards Sunshine Coast. Wind from North sector was too light and as soon as tidal current got stronger we got stuck - one tack was taking us too far away from our destination and on the other tack the current was simply pushing us back. We gave up and started the engine which allowed us to make 3 knots over ground.

In this part of Malaspina Strait number of floating and submerged logs is very impressive and sometimes frightening - we had to watch our way all the time. Source of the logs is easy to recognize - we saw two or three timber rafts during the day. The rafts are wide, very thick - 10-15 layers of logs or more, and a few hundred meters long. A tiny towboat can be seen at the head of the raft and the speed is close to nothing. It looked like the raft is standing still against the current and maybe it moves over ground only when the tide favours. If you want to cross before the raft know that the tow is certainly restricted in manoeuvrability; if you want to cross after - remember about the stray logs. Better you stay as far away as you can.

As soon as we turned into long Agamemnon Channel we saw high mountain peaks of Canadian Cascade Arc with snow hats on the horizon a gorgeous sight. The Channel itself is not too bright with hills covered with forest on both sides and plenty of fishing activity. We didn't have time to go and see neither Sechelt Rapids with their massive 15 knots tidal currents nor Malibu Rapids with impressive Pilot Book note "pass only at slack time". We made a sharp turn to starboard at Captain Island and started heading West along Jervis Inlet.

Well before sunset we reached Musket Island Marine Park at the south-west corner of Hardy Island. Anchored in a beautiful and well protected from NW winds natural harbour. They say in hot season the anchorage is packed, but in the middle of June there were only two or three other boats. Not too much room for swinging though and it is also quite deep for a 27-footer with limited chain rode length. We had a few other anchorage options in Blind Bay nearby, but Musket Cove did well. Geographical names in the area make think about "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson - Musket Cove, Nelson Island, Telescope Passage.
Late in the evening, a company of sea lions were having plenty of fun in the cove - they were climbing to a cliff and jumping down to the water. We lost their sight as darkness set down, but we were able to hear them until we went to sleep.

Next day we started pretty early and sailed through the Northern part of Malaspina Strait heading NW. In this part of the sea we began to see less stray logs and we spotted a bald eagle for the first time - a large beautiful bird was cruising in the skies above our boat for quite a while. We took it as a sign of getting close to wilderness. We really liked the sight of the eagle and we didn't know at that time that soon we will be seeing them nearly twenty times a day.

We left north tip of Texada island to our port and soon came close to Savary Island where the waters were pretty strange. There was no wind, completely, and we were motoring. We saw spots of troubled water like it was wind against tide, but firstly there was no wind, and secondly the spots were really small - about 100-200 meters in diameter, like miniature races. We motored through a few of them and there was current in the spots, up to 2 knots. And between the races there was no current, we were going at a cruising speed over ground.

Then we arrived in a town of Lund. Can you guess? Lund. Lund, British Columbia. There are two pretty interesting things about Lund. One is easy to guess - Lund was founded by Swedish immigrants and you believe it immediately once you see local people on streets. Second - Lund is a mile 0 of the Pacific Coastal Highway which terminates in Quellón, Chile after about 15200 km. Feels like you're touching a legend. We saw a couple of Swedish flags and even a Finnish flag flying above a lonely villa. Everything is close in Lund - the town is small, downtown is tiny.

A busy Lund harbour is ruled by an energetic harbour master lady who was running back and forth with a VHF radio, answering calls and packing the harbour with as many boats as possible - there was a near gale warning later in the weather forecast and she expected many coming boats staying for more than one night. Thanks to our modest boat size we were given a short leftover berth alongside and didn't have to raft or dock to a floating breakwater as some larger boats. Lund had a very nice view of snowy mountains of Vancouver Island and a colourful sunset. Also a nice seaside restaurant The Boardwalk, the boardwalk itself, fine Nancy's bakery, last reasonable food store on our way north, and toll garbage disposable - understandable as we were closing to the wilderness.

We left Lund relatively early in the morning heading to Desolation Sound. The main route goes through a narrow strait between mainland and islands of Copeland Island Marine Provincial Park. The islands are beautiful, they form a number of cosy coves good for anchoring according to the pilot books we studied, but we observed that vessels passing by the strait make plenty of wakes which may be unpleasant in small coves with reefs. In about halfway through the strait, we all of a sudden saw an animal slowly crossing the strait to the mainland. It first looked like a fin, but then we asked ourselves what kind of a marine animal would be crossing the strait. While we were thinking if it could have been a large bird it reached the shore and we saw it was a deer.

Force 7 weather was closing, we were facing a no sailing day and decided to spend the bad weather rather docked to a jetty than anchored in an unfamiliar cove. So we crossed Desolation Sound and docked in Refuge Cove on West Redonda Island quite early in the afternoon. We spent the whole next day in Refuge Cove and evidently it was a good decision - we later met a couple we got acquainted with earlier in Lund and they told us that they spent that stormy day in one of the coves of Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park. They said very strong gusts were coming down from nearby steep slopes, their boat was swinging a lot, the anchor was not holding well and they had to re-lay the anchor under cold rain five or six times during the day. We were safely docked in Refuge Cove, well protected from eastern sector winds and we even had some entertainment.

Entertainment in Refuge Cove. Well, there are no attractions around and Refuge Cove is not even a village - there is no particular place to go. We made a couple of visits to Refuge Cove Store - we didn't really need anything and the store was not really full of provision but it was nice to go shopping anyways and get surprised by veggies prices - airmail delivery could explain the prices. Important that they sell ice cubes and bricks which they make locally - they have a diesel generator which also makes hot water for showers and surprise - they have Wi-Fi. For just a few bucks per day you can connect a good number of devices (probably all you could find on board) and get a reliable and pretty fast connection. They shut the diesel generator down at 6 p.m. and that effectively concludes your Internet addiction for the day.

All of a sudden a small towboat "North Arm Victor" with a huge barge of about 1400 tons came to Refuge Cove. Fuel delivery to the gas station. The towboat pulled the barge in the cove, slowed it down, finally stopped it just next to refuelling jetty while the towboat itself stopped herself just in a few meters from hulls of docked sailboats - that was frightening close, and quickly reversed out to push the barge to lay alongside the jetty. They unloaded fuel and some cargo, had a dinner and left with high water soon after the sunset. "Victor" towed the barge from the jetty, pushed it towards the shore - from our place it looked like the barge was already too far in the forest, but there was someone with a bright light on the barge to report distance, then "Victor" pushed the barge aside to add rotating momentum, they picked the towing ropes and left into night. The crew was small and extremely skilful.

Instruments failure. Our boat was equipped with a chart plotter to which an echo sounder was also connected - you could see everything on one screen. As we were about to continue our trip from Refuge Cove we found out that the chart plotter no longer worked. It was continuously running self-tests by showing fractals on the screen. Well, fractals made a beautiful addition to the sailing, but they were not practical. The biggest trouble was not the chart plotter per se because we had plenty of paper charts and also a tablet with marine charts for the area, but don't forget that the echo sounder which was connected to the same screen. When you have to anchor every day, the tidal range is up to 4.5 meters and you have no depth readings - it is not very convenient. The first reaction was devastating - how could we continue sailing in the area without the sounder? But then we remembered that Columbus explored America and he surely didn't have an echo sounder on Santa Maria. Fortunately, we had a shrimp trap with a long thin line and a heavy wrench with a hole. I attached the line to the wrench and it became our "echo sounder". With charts, almanac and tidal math we knew the expected depths for our every anchorage precisely. Then the job was to survey the anchorage area to make sure measured depth readings match our expectations. May sound complicated, but what other option did we have?

Next day after the storm it was a too light wind but a pretty nice and clear weather otherwise. We first motored to Teakerne Arm to see a spectacular waterfall and it was really a very nice sightseeing - the water is deep and you can come very close to the waterfall. Not a true shower experience, but you get plenty of spray on deck. Then we rounded the Northern "finger" of Cortes Island counterclockwise. Sutil Channel was warm and calm, the sun was shining and the weather was like you could expect in Finland in June. Also, nearby islands cover snow peak skyline and the landscape appears to be closest to Finland than anywhere else in the region.

SW side of Cortes Island there is a narrow passage between Cortes and Marina islands called Uganda Passage. They say the passage was named after HMCS "Uganda", a former British light cruiser. You have to make three 90 degrees turns to make a safe passage through Uganda and in Low Low Water it can become a true disaster. There are navigation aids in the channel though and if you have sailed in Finland there will be no difficulties. There is a radio channel for killer whale spotters to report contact and we heard just short time before we got to Uganda Passage that a killer whale pod passed through it making a spectacular sight, but by the time we reached the Passage the Orcas were long gone.

We hurried up through Uganda Passage to be at Mansons Landing in time. Mansons Landing is a big and shallow lagoon which dries out almost completely at LLW. We rafted to some old boats which looked like they never left their places at public jetty during many years. Cross a narrow arm of sandy dunes with lovely smelling pine trees and you are in Mansons Landing. The lagoon is a home for clams and oysters and at the time we were there it was nearly the only one safe place to pick and eat those delicious bivalve shellfish. You need to possess a valid fishing license to pick shellfish and one license allows you 75 clams and 20 oysters per day (check official web pages before going fishing - the number may change and some areas can be closed for conservation).

Oysters were easy to spot in ankle-deep pools in the lagoon, we picked some small ones and enjoyed them fresh with a gentle touch of soya sauce and some large ones to put on the grill. Clams you find in wet sand - you quickly finger through the lagoon bottom until you find one clam. Once you found one clam the next seventy-four of them well be just sitting next to it like eggs in the sand. We had to keep collected clams in changing water for a couple of days and then we quickly boiled them to make two good dinners for two. The best way to rinse clams is to put them in a net bag and keep outboard in the sea, we were not prepared and kept clams in a bucket. They were like pets to take care of. Fortunately, we didn't make a bond with the clams and had no bad feelings about eating them.

Anchored for the night in nearby Gorge Harbour. Inner bay is large but deep and full of floating oyster farms - makes not too many good places to lay an anchor for a small boat with a short rod. Luckily it was not crowded in June. We met another charter boat from Nanaimo base anchored there and they were very helpful to tell us their echo sounder readings. Conveniently there is also a pretty big guest jetty, a fueling station, a hotel and a food store. Cortes Island unlike most of the islands around has a ferry connection with Vancouver Island and is therefore pretty much populated - you see many cottages while sailing South along the island.

Next day we completed Cortes Island circumnavigation, passed by Twin Islands, Cortes Bay, Kinghorn Island and anchored for lunch in Squirrel Cove. Very nice anchorage - well protected from SE by Protection Island (what a name, huh?) and from all other directions by Cortes Island. Plenty of room, convenient depth, good holding. There is a lake connected to the cove from NE side which must make a good attraction in high season especially if you have a kayak.

After lunch we crossed Desolation Sound, passed by Refuge Cove and with nice wind soon arrived in Desolation Sound Marine Park. The eastern group of islets and coves known as Prideaux Haven, Melanie Cove, Laura Cove, etc. is a true gem of the area. Well protected from most of the winds coves provide good shelter with lovely views. The coves get interconnected with each other in High Water, but even in LLW you won’t get landlocked like in Roscoe Bay. Entrance to Prideaux Haven and further to Melanie Cove where we stayed overnight had plenty of underwater reefs, but they were well seen through transparent water and we had no trouble to get in. In Melanie Cove we traditionally surveyed the depth with the "wrench sounder" and after a couple of circles we found a nice place to stay. There were two large motorboats anchored right in the middle of the cove. Here we finished the oysters and started the clams. Shellfish was very good with white wine and sunset. This area resembles Finnish fjords if not the hills and mountains around.

Next day we took the course back South. Foggy in the morning to little cloudy in the evening with no wind at all we motored through Desolation Sound and then Thulin Passage, passed Lund, Savory Island, then Hardwood Island and arrived at the guest harbour of Texada Boat Club in Van Anda village, Texada Island. Marble quarry was very active here some years ago and the main businesses of this place now are wood and tourism, easy to guess which brings more money to Van Anda after their only hotel burned down a few years ago. We made a stroll around the village and saw a piece of very provincial British Columbia. We met a lady who was feeding chicken legs to ravens and a young bald eagle emerged out of nowhere and claimed the food. It was a true pleasure to watch the eagle though the ravens were not happy. Otherwise, Van Anda was not a too spectacular place.

After Van Anda, we sailed SE along Malaspina Strait until we rounded the Southern tip of the island and sailed a few miles NW to Jedediah Island where we anchored for the night in nice and small Deep Bay. The bay is really deep and also small and doesn't provide room for swinging. Swell was coming into the bay and we anchored as deep inside the bay as possible in local style - anchor from the bow and a rope to the shore. All lines long enough to allow for the tide. As wind eased plenty of mosquitos came to feed on us from the forest to which we were too close and we had to change place. It took a while to anchor closer to the exit of the bay as with this style of anchoring in sidewind you would prefer one person at the helm, one at the anchor box on the bow and one in the dinghy to take the stern line to the shore. We were shorthanded, but after a couple of unsuccessful anchor drops and a little argue we managed to arrange everything. Jedediah Island is a pretty wild place and we saw seals hanging around right in the Deep Bay.

Next day we sailed through Bull Passage, rounded Lasqueti Island and headed to Nanaimo. Luckily Whisky Golf was open free and we didn't have to make a detour. Wind easy in the morning was picking up quickly and we had to reef. On approach to Horswell Channel N of Nanaimo it quickly shallows from 300 meters to 50 - wave grew up significantly. It was not too comfortable for the boat of our size but she was a good sailor and sea conditions made no trouble. And we passed that area quickly anyways. We made a quick stopover in the base harbour to take advantage of the liquor store and fuel station. Tidal stream speed was about 2 knots and it was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate ferry glide and dock to a place of our boat length.

This wind direction makes narrow Newcastle Island Passage where Nanaimo charter base is located a perfect landing and take-off strip for seaplane taxis - they were landing and taking off literally every twenty minutes. The experience lays between "fun" and "scary", not sure closer to which side.

We used our last night on the boat to pick a mooring buoy in Mark Bay and stay with nice views to the town of Nanaimo, cargo ships anchorage and snowy mountains. Waters of Nanaimo Harbour seem to be clean and safe for animals - we saw a seal who slowly drifted by our boat; the seal was laying on its back, it was holding a fish in its flippers, thoroughly inspecting it and making good bites. We used our dinghy to visit Dinghy Dock Marine Pub and have a good farewell dinner, some drinks and fun.

Early in the morning we packed our stuff, washed the dishes and motored to the base. Debriefing was quick, we reported the chart plotter complete failure and too stiff upper batten. A little bit of cleaning, garbage out and we were free. According to the charter rules they haul out every boat to inspect the hull bottom and propeller. It didn't happen while we were present but after a couple of weeks I received an e-mail which stated that the boat was checked and everything was found OK. Base manager Ian was so kind to drive us to the ferry terminal and we were quick to catch a ferry to Vancouver before noon.

Proven by a personal experience the whole area is great for cruising and Desolation Sound is absolutely fantastic. It is wild, the scenery is lovely, people you may still meet are friendly. It certainly lacks islands and fjords comparing to Finnish waters, but it definitely has some advantages too. It would be nice to return there again to see the best of what we have seen again and to visit some new places. Looking forward.

Photos: ... e=album679
Last edited by alex on Fri Jun 01, 2018 09:26 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by harald » Thu May 24, 2018 09:41 am

Great story, thanks for sharing! It really pays off to have google-maps open while reading.

How much was the boat?
FIN-2674 s/y Charlotta [Mielipiteet on mielipiteitä] GSM: +358 50 594 1020

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Post by alex » Thu May 24, 2018 10:38 am

harald wrote:How much was the boat?
We paid 2000 CAD for the boat including obligatory insurance and taxes. We made our trip in June before Juhannus which is a low season at Nanaimo base. After Juhannus we would have paid 30% more.
Another popular base in Comox ("gate to Desolation Sound") is more expensive.

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Post by Petri » Tue May 29, 2018 22:11 pm

Great read but one can always wonder why go to sail in Finland so far away ;)

But, actually I just realized, been there as well, not sailing but on VI and Nanaimo. We drove around VI a bit, got there by ferry from Port Angeles and then left towards Surrey. Scenery is truly awesome and the islands little bit south from Nanaimo look very Finnish, actually I think that area might have been slightly more interesting to sail at, but naturally going up north gets you to proper wilderness. Looking at map, moving further North might have been interesting, but granted, there might not be so many options for boat rentals (at reasonable rates/quality) for a short trip.

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Post by alex » Wed May 30, 2018 12:15 pm

Petri wrote:Great read but one can always wonder why go to sail in Finland so far away ;)
To know for sure. 8)

All areas in PNW seem to be great for sailing, hiking and traveling. One could sail the whole way to Alaska...

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Post by Petri » Wed May 30, 2018 13:39 pm

PNW is a great area, then again, I think there are many great areas in the world so better not to think about it. But given that the sea temperature never exceeds 15 C (in a small cove I assume it might?), not the most pleasant area for on-the-water-activities :)

I remember that in end of June, weather in Seattle was summery pleasant but when getting out to the sea (just around Seattle harbor area in an old IOR maxi) it was really, really chilly. Just like in Finland, then.

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