Magnificent scenery, quiet anchorages and sometimes hair-raising pilotage make the coast of British Columbia very special. Suzy Carmody reports
The coastline of south-east Alaska and northern British Columbia is a fractured network of islands, like a broken pane of glass, and the Inside Passage threads in between them.
My husband Neil and I arrived in Sitka, Alaska, from Hawaii at the end of June and spent three months cruising the inshore waterways in our Liberty 458 Distant Drummer.
After a great trip down through south-east Alaska we entered British Columbia (BC) at Prince Rupert. We continued our journey south through the Inside Passage to Queen Charlotte Sound and then sailed down the west coast of Vancouver Island to Victoria.
The voyage was a feast of magnificent scenery and tranquil anchorages, hot springs, historical settlements and salmon. Salmon everywhere.
Approaching Prince Rupert from Ketchikan, Alaska, required us to come out from hiding among the islands and cross the Dixon Entrance. This gap between Prince of Wales Island and Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) is exposed to the strong winds and large swells of the north-east Pacific and is known for its rough seas.
After waiting up in Foggy Bay for a couple of days of strong southerlies to pass by, we were lucky enough to cross the entrance on a very pleasant starboard tack in a light westerly wind.
We took a shortcut through Venn Passage, which had to be planned for slack water as the tides rip through the narrow strait. The channel is not very well buoyed but the charts were good so all went well and we arrived safely in Prince Rupert (simply ‘Rupert’ to the locals).
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We completed our customs and immigration formalities and tied up at the dock at the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club (PRRYC) in time for sundowners.
Rupert is a very friendly town with most of the facilities we needed – supermarket, laundry, fuel dock and a good selection of pubs and restaurants – all within cycling distance of the PRRYC.
The museum is interesting with great displays of implements and carvings used by the indigenous First Nation people (Inuit; Metis), who have lived in the area for thousands of years. I loved the clothing and headdresses decorated with puffin beaks, bear claws and seal whiskers.
Rupert is the railhead for the so-called Rupert Rocket and we decided to take the train into the mountains to the pretty village of Smithers, to see some of the hinterland.
The railway follows the Skeena River valley deep into the Coast Mountains and stops a number of times to wait for enormous freight trains carrying wheat and coal to the docks at Rupert and bound for Asia to pass. The journey was great fun and we were able to enjoy the superb scenery from a panorama car.
Back on board Distant Drummer and heading south our first destination was the hot springs at Bishop Bay. When we left Prince Rupert a big fat high was sitting in the north-east Pacific with gale warnings for the offshore areas.
However, we were following the inland route down the Grenville Channel, a narrow slit that runs north-south between Pitt Island and the mainland. With a stiff northerly breeze we got the headsail up and zipped along at over 8 knots. Wonderful!
There are a few places to spend the night along the way, at the north end of the channel we stopped at Kumealon Bay and we anchored at Coughlan Anchorage at the southern end. Both were peaceful bays lined with fir trees illuminated by golden evening sunshine.
Bishop Bay lies 40 miles due inland from the Pacific, near a town named Kitimat. The anchorage was amazingly quiet and the water so calm it felt almost stagnant.
A wooden bathhouse has been constructed over the springs and is decorated with memorabilia from various boats that have passed through. As we soaked in the warm water we looked for souvenirs from people we knew and when we left we hung up a coconut from Hawaii to record Distant Drummer’s visit.
Our next stop was Butedale, an easy day passage from Bishop Bay via Ursula Channel and Princess Royal Channel. Butedale was one of the 50 or so canneries dotted along the coast of BC built at the turn of the 20th Century to provide fish processing facilities to the fishing fleet in the area. The cannery operated from 1911-1967 but the buildings are now dilapidated and slipping down into the sea.
The only person living there was Cory Lindsay, the caretaker, who showed us around and explained the uses of the machinery, which is now overgrown with weeds.
The roof of the remaining bunkhouse has fallen in but it is possible to enter the old cook house and see the range and the long wooden tables where hundreds of workers ate. It has such a poignant atmosphere. In the power house, which straddles the creek, a pair of water-powered generators have been preserved.
While at Butedale we walked up to the lake in the valley above the settlement to a fishing hole where Cory had told us we could catch cutthroat trout. The end of the lake was jammed with huge logs, about 1-2m in diameter and often more than 30m long, which we had to scramble over to get to the fishing spot at the centre.
We were a bit tentative at first, but we quickly got the hang of balancing and soon were leaping about like lumberjacks. We didn’t catch any fish but had a great time trying.
It started raining as we left Butedale and did not stop for the four days it took us to thread our way through the slender channels and turbulent narrows to reach Shearwater.
The islands and passageways in BC are even more of a jigsaw than those of Alaska. Despite the weather, we were enchanted by Bottleneck Inlet, a tiny slot on the eastern side of the northern end of Findlayson Channel.
The crevice is less than 100m wide and the tight, sinuous channel is breathtaking. We dropped anchor squeezed in between cliffs and rockfalls – it felt primeval.
Shearwater was established as a seaplane base during World War II and is now a privately owned settlement. We spent a couple of days tied up at the dock while we topped up our provisions and enjoyed a meal and a couple of glasses of wine at the local pub.
The First Nation settlement of Bella Bella is a short sail or boat-taxi ride away. There’s not much too see there except the Band shop, where the groceries are cheaper than in Shearwater, and the little shop by the dock, which sells coffee and gifts.
We spent six days at Pruth Bay on Calvert Island waiting for a good weather window to cross Queen Charlotte Sound. Our plan was to head down the wild west coast of Vancouver Island.
The beaches behind the Hakai Institute (and scientific research organisation) in Pruth Bay are spectacular; broad sweeps of white sand with the swell crashing against rocky offshore islets and splashing and foaming on to the beach.
Finally, a big fat high settled in to the north-east Pacific and brought us a favourable nor’wester for a fantastic reach across the sound.
We passed Triangle Island at sundown, giving Cape Scott a wide berth as it is known for its treacherous currents and rough seas. Throughout the overnight sail to Cape Cook we were in heavy fog.
With a 2-3m swell it was pretty uncomfortable so at dawn we decided to cut in to the coast and anchor in Esperanza Inlet. The route into Nuchatlitz Bay was a tortuous, a narrow conduit between islands, rocks and shoals.
But it was worth it; the anchorage was beautifully peaceful and after a spectacular sunset we had a long, sound sleep.
Although we were bound for Tofino we were looking forward to a long, hot soak at Hot Springs Cove on the west side of Sidney Inlet.
It is about a 2km walk to the springs through magnificent forest, checking out the planks of the boardwalk, which are engraved with the names of yachts that have passed by.
The springs were the most pleasant that we visited down the coast as they were in the natural rock with no pipes or concrete.
We got up early in order to avoid the onslaught of tourists from Tofino and it was glorious to bask in the warm sunshine and soak in the steaming hot water.
We had very little wind we left for the hop down to Tofino so we motored at a leisurely five knots through the islands and shallow channels at the mouth of the Clayoquot Sound.
One thing we found surprising about the west coast of Vancouver Island (apart from the lack of wind) was the shallow depth of the water. Unlike the steep cliffs and deep waters of the inland passages the coastal shelf here is less than 100m deep and extends 15-20 miles offshore.
Although this makes for easier anchoring, parts of the route into Tofino were barely underwater and in the marina we were touching bottom at low tide!
Tofino is a tourist town and consequently has several good restaurants. We had a superb meal at a place named Wolf in the Fog.
South of Tofino we stopped at the historic town of Ucluelet, a pretty fishing port lying at the northern entrance to Barkley Sound. It’s a good place to kick off and cruise the islands of the Broken Group, but we decided to continue down through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on to Victoria.
The strait has a bad reputation for short, rough seas due to an evil combination of a narrow entrance, large ebb tidal flows and strong summer onshore winds. Add fog and a rocky coastline into the mix and it’s party time!
We covered the 90-mile stretch from Ucluelet to the southern point of Vancouver Island in two days. Fitting favourable tides within daylight hours was becoming harder.
We stopped overnight in the conveniently located San Juan Bay, then reached Beecher Bay at sundown the following day. We managed to find a space between the crab pots to drop the pick and enjoyed an icy beer.
It was an early morning start the next day for the last 15-mile hop up to Victoria. We had thick fog as we navigated through Race Rocks at Vancouver Island’s southern tip.
We tracked our course very carefully on the electronic charts and followed it diligently, while keeping a close eye on the radar. We posted a look-out (me) clutching a pair of aerosol fog horns and which I blew vigorously every two minutes.
It was a hair-raising few miles but we managed to avoid the rocks, fishing boats and container ships and arrived safely in Victoria inner harbour for lunch.
The scenery we sailed through and the bays we anchored in revealed the breadth of the beauty and culture of British Columbia. Our voyage left hundreds of serene anchorages yet to visit and we are already planning our return trip.
About the author
Suzy, 53, and Neil Carmody, 62, live on board Distant Drummer, a Liberty 458 cutter-rigged sloop, which they bought in Thailand in 2006. They are currently in the Pacific Northwest and blogging at: carmody-clan.com
First published in the March 2018 edition of Yachting World.