A Voyage Around Vancouver Island

Part 1 – Anacortes, WA to Desolation Sound, B.C.

Circumnavigating Vancouver Island has been on our sailing bucket list for a long time.  The typical route for circumnavigating the island follows a counterclockwise direction.  That allows passage up the east side of the island in protected waters before rounding Cape Scott at the north end of the island and catching the prevailing northwesterlies for a downwind sail along the outside.  We talked about doing it before we headed to Mexico in 2015, but by the time we were ready to leave in August there was no time for a trip north.  But now the boat is here and it seems like the perfect time.  It is also time to reconnect with old friends and savor the delights of cruising the protected waters of Washington’s San Juan Islands and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

Spencer Spit Park, Lopez Island, San Juans

After unloading the boat in Nanaimo, we made our way down to Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island in the San Juans for a rendezvous with friends from our old marina in Portland.  We anchored next to Iemanga and enjoyed two nights of dinner, drinks and conversation with our good friends Brent and LA.  We spent 4th of July anchored off Spencer Spit on Lopez Island and saw a pod of orcas came right past the boat in the anchorage (along with a pack of whale watching boats). 

A private dock for Anjuli

After that it was off to Anacortes for provisioning.  Anacortes is a very boat friendly town – you can find grocery stores, chandleries, hardware stores and a multitude of small restaurants, boutiques, and even used book stores, all accessible via bus or walking.  We made one last stop to visit long-time friends, Shawn and Heather of Mexico cruising guide fame, and spent a delightful afternoon and evening catching up with them on the island they provide caretaking for before starting north.  

Sunken Garden, Butchart Gardens


Friends on the path to Butchart Gardens

We started our Vancouver Island trip in Brentwood Bay.  Brentwood Bay is at the south end of the Saanich Peninsula, just north of Victoria, and it is the home of Butchart Gardens.  Since we are talking bucket list, might as well get em’ all.  Butchart Gardens is a spectacular place – anybody who appreciates gardening or flowers should visit!  The restaurant is great too… Although we loved the food in Mexico, it is kind

Tasty salmon turnover at Butchart Gardens!

of nice to be spoiled again.  There is a dinghy dock and several balls available at the garden’s back entry, but we took a slip at a small, charming, nearby marina where we could walk to stores and do laundry.  There was

Angler’s Anchorage Marina, Brentwood Bay, Vancouver Island

a path from the marina to the gardens, which takes you through the forest and past well-tended homes.  No wonder Canadians are about the friendliest people on the planet – they live in paradise!

Summer sailing in BC

Leaving Brentwood Bay we made our way up to Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands for a visit to the famous Hummingbird Pub.  The weather was fine and sunny, and much warmer than windy Anacortes, where the afternoon westerlies roaring down the Strait of Juan de Fuca keep things cool.  The Hummingbird Pub is mostly famous for its bus.  In the summer months, a re-purposed school bus makes hourly round trips from the dock to the pub.  Upon boarding the bus, you are provided with a noise making musical instrument.  The driver provides the music and drums, and you provide the vocals and additional “music”.  By the time you reach the pub, everybody is in high spirits, and the party continues!

And we’re all singing along…

From Galiano Island it’s an easy day trip up to Nanaimo where we anchored at Newcastle Island Marine Park.  The provincial marine parks are just one of the many great things about British Columbia – some of the parks have docks and mooring balls and other amenities.  The one on Newcastle Island has nice showers, garbage and recycling facilities and miles of hiking trails.  A small ferry makes regular trips from the island to the waterfront of Nanaimo, making

View of Nanaimo from Newcastle Island

provisioning or just a visit to the city easy. It is a very popular spot.

Leaving Nanaimo heading north, you must decide whether to travel up the island side and transit Seymour Narrows, or cross the Strait of Georgia, and continue up the mainland side to Desolation Sound and then north through the triple rapids of Yuculta, Gillard and Dent.  Regardless you must pass through a set of “rapids” to progress farther north.  Relatively straight forward if transited at slack tide, they are completely off limits when the tide is running as whirlpools and standing waves develop.  Max tides through Seymour Narrows run at 13 knots – our max speed under power is 6 knots so it is imperative that the rapids be passed at or near slack water.    In addition to the rapids, on the island side there is the formidable Johnstone Strait which is known for strong northwesterlies – and if you are traveling northwest, who wants to punch into 30 knots?  Not us. We opted for the more scenic “smooth water” route along the mainland side which winds through miles of glacially carved fiords, chock full of intriguing anchorages.

From Nanaimo we crossed halfway across the Strait of Georgia and anchored at Lasqueti Island.  Up at dawn the next day and headed north, we were REALLY glad we had left early as an intense thunder and lightning storm developed behind us, complete with waterspout.

Is that a waterspout behind us???

Frantic voices called out on the VHF as boaters scrambled for cover.  We would have been really bummed to have escaped a lightning strike in Central America only to get zapped here! It chased us all the way up Texada Island, but we only got a few drops and by late that afternoon we dropped the hook in beautiful, landlocked (but crowded) Squirrel Cove with about 50 other boats.   We were pleasantly surprised to see Traveler with Scott and Connie aboard, who we had last seen in Barra de Navidad in Mexico pull in and anchor.  Shared dinner and drinks and caught up – just one of the great things of this cruising – meeting up with long lost friends when you least expect it.

Squirrel Cove lies on east side of Cortes Island in the heart of very popular Desolation Sound Marine Park.  While the scenery is stunning, don’t expect to have an anchorage to yourself here or anywhere else in Desolation Sound.  But north of the rapids, the crowds thin.  I don’t know if it is because the rapids are a little daunting or because it’s just farther from population centers.  We arrived at the start point for transiting the rapids about an hour before the turn of the tide and joined several other boats circling around waiting, and noticed a layer of fog lay on the water at the start of the rapids.  The first set of rapids, Yuculta, is straight, and the preferred method is to enter about an hour before slack so you arrive at the next set of rapids, Gillard, about 20 minutes before slack.  We entered Yuculta at the recommended time and had 2-3 knots of current against us.  A large tree passed us headed downstream at a good clip.  Gillard Passage requires a hard left turn, then once through Gillard it is about 1.5 miles to Dent rapids.

Really? Fog and rapids too?

As we entered Gillard the fog thickened and it was radar and electronic charts only.  The sailboat in front of us chickened out and did a 180 degree turn, making us wonder if he knew something we didn’t, but as he  wasn’t answering the VHF we pressed on.  The tide turns and starts flowing the opposite direction by the time you get to Dent, and we zoomed through at 8 knots, very glad to have the this set of rapids behind us.

Stay tuned for Part II in which the journey north continues…