A circumnavigation of Vancouver Island? That sounded like a great idea, so after a few months of planning, my friends Bridget, Jelski, Jonty and I quit our jobs in Auckland, New Zealand, and flew to Canada, where we joined Harry Miller and Sarah White aboard their 1983 Canadian Sailcraft 36, Mamaku. We were fired up about the 800-mile voyage and ready for some adventure.
The first day out from Oak Bay Marina in Victoria, British Columbia, saw us covering a lot of ocean, flying through the beautiful Gulf Islands on a mighty spinnaker run. The day was also a great opportunity for us to get used to each other and the boat. To that end, the sleeping quarters in the quarter berth were improved significantly with the removal of a protruding fire extinguisher bracket. We also quickly figured out the optimum sleeping arrangement involved at least one couple camping out on the closest available beach.
After enjoying the beautiful anchorages at Pender, Ruxton and Savary islands, we made our way up through Desolation Sound. Here we stopped at the majestic anchorage of Teakerne Arm on West Redonda Island, where a large waterfall thunders down into the inlet, fed by nearby Cassell Lake. Because the water is very deep close to shore, we had to tie up stern-to using a rusty shackle bolted into the rock, left behind by loggers generations ago.
While at Teakerne Arm we were joined by Sarah’s father, Chris, and her Uncle Don in their boat Clair de Lune, after which we all spent a few days together exploring. We also made the most of swimming without wetsuits after discovering that the water in this part of the inside passage was a warm 72 degrees, compared to the 50-degree water everywhere else. Throughout, Don regaled us with various salty tales, reminding us to take our night watches seriously after an incident he experienced in the 1970s that left him without a mast in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
After that, our next spot was Cortes Island, famous in this part of the world for its oysters. Fortunately for us, there were no blooms of PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) causing algae, and we ate more oysters than I would have thought possible. It was here we also had our first close whale encounter. Multiple pods of humpbacks were cruising up and down the channel, and we took the dinghy out for a closer look. That night we fell asleep to the sound of them lazily feeding.
After exploring a number of long-abandoned logging camps and commandeering a canoe for a paddle up Robertson Lake, it was time to head north toward the Broughton Archipelago. As we were setting off, though, a whale-watching boat came zooming toward us and told us to take it slow as there were humpbacks in the area. Sure enough, no sooner had they sped off than an enormous humpback longer than our boat surfaced within 20ft of us. It cruised slowly past, looking us over and then dove back down. Not realizing we’d all been holding our breath, we suddenly exhaled together with a whoosh of relief and delight.
North of Desolation Sound, the coast becomes a labyrinth of inlets and narrow channels, with steep snow-capped mountains to either side and forests right down to the tide line. Endless winding passages and mountains in all directions make it easy to lose your bearings, so we were thankful for our chart plotter. As if that were not already enough, the narrow inlets are also home to excessively large tides, with turbulent currents that rip through at frightening speeds during peak flow. Something else to watch out for are the ghost logs that weigh several tons and lie unseen below the surface, waiting to tear a hole in your hull. To lengthen our odds, we shot each gap during slack tide.
Unfortunately, as we approached the entrance to the Yuculta Rapids, the most notorious tidal passage in the area, we discovered that slack tide is a relative term, as we were greeted by multiple current lines, turbulent rapids and whirlpools that could swallow a small vessel whole. While approaching the first current line I reflected on how easy the journey had been thus far. Suddenly, as we crossed into the turbulent waters, the boat made an abrupt lurch to port, drawing a collective “whoa” from the crew. Steady hands and nerves, though, saw Harry safely steer us through the rapids to the other side.
By this stage of the trip, we had made a serious dent in our supplies, and it was unanimously decided to pay a visit to the floating pub and store in Port Harvey. However, as we were pulling up there, we couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t much activity. And as we were tying up to the jetty, a bearded captain informed us that we were two years too late—the pub had been maliciously sunk. Just how a pub sinks, I’m not quite sure, but let that be a lesson not to pin your hopes and dreams on a cruising guide printed in 2013.
Moving on, we anchored in between Harbledown Island and Mound Island, near the tiny First Nations village of New Vancouver and the old village site of Mamalilacula—an area that, like all the Broughton Archipelago has an ancient feeling to it. Numerous shell middens and ash layers are visible in the area, and the broken shell beach above our campsite was pure white from the thousands of meals of shellfish eaten at this spot. The area hums with 10,000 years of history, now far more deserted than it ever was in the past.
That afternoon we also decided to build a beach sauna and went to work erecting a square frame structure on the shell beach which we covered with a tarp, tucking its edges into the shells and sand to seal it. Later that evening, after we’d had a number of granite boulders heating in the fire for many hours, we carefully moved them into the sauna with a metal grill, then climbed inside and scooped some water onto them. When the heat became unbearable, we threw ourselves into the cold sea under the light of the full moon.
A few days afterward, we arrived in Port Hardy and our relaxing cruise along the inside passage of Vancouver Island came to an end, as Jelski headed home, and the rest of us took eight days off to hike the grueling North Coast Trail. That done, Bridget left to do some other travelling, while Kieran, a shaggy-haired sailmaker, took her place, and we set off on the second half of our circumnavigation only to immediately hit pea soup fog. Motoring up Queen Charlotte Sound we were thankful to have our 1980s radar, as our eyes were useless. Occasionally a new blip would appear on the screen, and then shortly afterward we would hear the whine of an invisible fishing boat somewhere nearby. We covered the length of the North Coast Trail in a day’s motoring. Looking down at my blistered feet and black toenails I was happy to not be walking it again.
Setting out from Port Hardy, our course took us across the Nahwitti Bar and around Cape Scott to our next anchorage, Sea Otter Cove. A shallow gravel stretch open to the Pacific, the bar has been known to create enormous waves that at times will spit small rocks from the sea bed up onto the decks of boats, so that even the saltiest of fishermen seemed to shudder at its mere mention. However, on the day we crossed we were met only with a series of smooth rollers.
As for Sea Otter Cove, it’s a beautiful anchorage flanked by a pair of mountains blanketed in forest and crowned with a rare sub-alpine bog ecosystem. A smattering of small islets also protects the mouth of the cove and several real live sea otters floated happily on their backs in the kelp as we approached. Over the next few days, we made it our base as we explored the area, climbing to the top of Mount St. Patrick, and surfing the nearby beaches. The coastline in this area is beautiful, with enormous cedar and spruce trees coming right down to the sand, and not another soul in sight—the perfect place to expel the pent-up energy that comes from being trapped on a small boat.
From there, we had a reasonably hectic sail around the Brooks Peninsula to where we found an empty golden beach with perfect right-hand waves for longboarding. In fact, we ended up spending the better part of a week there, taking turns on the boards and at one point sharing the lineup with a gray whale who came in to scrape some barnacles off his back.
We also spent some time cleaning up the beach with the help of the Vancouver Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which provided us with some supersacks that we found far too easy to fill. Indeed, the amount of plastic we found was phenomenal—roughly 30 percent plastic bottles, 30 percent commercial fishing gear, 30 percent polystyrene (apparently from the Japan tsunami) and 10 percent anything else you could think of—basketballs, ping pong balls, tires, an assortment of shoes and boots, kids toys, an EPIRB (uh oh), toothbrushes, shotgun shells and intact fluorescent light bulbs.
Later a barge cruising up the coast collected 140 supersacks in all, which had been filled by different groups of volunteers at remote beaches during the summer. In many ways it was an emotionally exhausting task, knowing that what we found was just a tiny fraction of what is out there. It has had a lasting effect, though, causing us to critically consider our own personal consumption—food for thought as we finished up the last few days of cruising on the home stretch back to the city of Vancouver.
Bas Suckling is a Kiwi geologist currently living in Canada and usually found at the beach or in the mountains, or somewhere in between. When not circumnavigating, Harry and Sarah live aboard Mamaku in Victoria, BC, with their dog, Woody. Follow them at mamaku_sailing on Instagram
Photos by Bas Suckling