Exploring British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands and capital city offers solitude and a lively urban atmosphere (published August 2015)
The strong southerly that had propelled us quickly northward up Trincomali Channel towards Wallace Island was streaming over the treetops when we dropped the hook in narrow Princess Cove. When firmly set, I paddled into the rock wall on the western side of the cove and found an empty chain to attach our stern tie to before making my way back to the cockpit. Using a primary winch, I pulled Yahtzee in towards the wall against the cross-breeze and with less than a boat length to go, we still had 15-feet of water under the keel on a mid tide.
It was a short paddle from here into the dinghy dock and we spent the next day and a half exploring the island’s trails, beaches and tide pools. Only a few other boats shared the anchorage with us, and we talked about it being a place where we could stay for days on end. This had become a central theme for us at many of the islands and anchorages we’d visited, as the days seemed to blend together. Such is life in the Gulf Islands.
The typical migratory pattern for cruisers entering the Gulf Islands is from Vancouver to the east, through the adjacent San Juan Islands, or Victoria to south. We left Roche Harbor on San Juan Island in early May and shaped a course slightly north of west for the 11-mile run across Haro Strait towards Sidney, where we planned to check in and top up on provisions.
Haro Strait is famous for southern resident killer whales and we happened across a small pod shortly after crossing the border. When we noticed their spouts from a distance, we slowed, ran parallel to them and watched as they elegantly and effortlessly surfaced and disappeared.
I couldn’t imagine a better welcoming committee. But our welcome wasn’t over. Just as I went to throttle up and get us headed back towards Sidney, I noticed a black RIB quickly bearing down on us. “We’re about to get boarded,” I told Jill.
Sure enough, it was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with a USCG ship rider that requested to come aboard for a “safety inspection.” We obliged, of course, and despite them waking up our two-year-old, Porter, from a nap, they were pleasant and professional in going through Yahtzee and then sending us on our way. The Coastie even gifted Porter his badge before stepping back onto the RIB.
After checking into Canada with a mere phone call at the reporting station in Sidney, we sailed throughout the islands, enjoying gorgeous summer-like weather, near-pristine wilderness and few other cruising boats exploring it with us. Much how we lived in the San Juan Islands over the winter, our pace while cruising the Gulf Islands during the spring was deliberate and leisurely—which, in our minds, is how the area is best discovered.
Stretching from D’Arcy Island to the south and Nanaimo to the north, the Gulf Islands are a vast cruisers’ playground that can and should take a long while to fully explore. But a trip of a week or 10-days will get you to some of the best spots as well. As I write this from a small coffee shop in the quaint town of Ganges on Salt Spring Island in late June, I get the feeling that we’ve only scratched a small portion of the area, even though we’ve already seen and done a lot.
By mid-May we’d been sailing the Gulf Islands for about two weeks and while hiking a trail on Portland Island, Jill and I found each other questioning what day of the week it was. It took a minute to figure out, but I’m pretty sure it was a Wednesday. Our afternoon had been spent doing a few small boat projects in Royal Cove while reveling in the brilliant sunshine. That evening we took to shore to stretch our legs, burn some of Porter’s energy and check out the island’s beaches.
A few days later we dropped the hook in nearby Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island and spent several days doing much the same. Eagles soared overhead as we climbed to the top of Mount Norman. And tiny coves with sandy beaches and crystal clear water were at our beck and call, as charming Beaumont Provincial Marine Park became our playground. Even the adjacent Poet’s Cove Marina was good for a happy hour visit, and had we remembered our swimsuits, their swimming pool would have been all ours.
Besides the laidback pace, we’ve also relished the company of several cruising friends who have passed through the islands during the spring. An impromptu five-boat raftup in Selby Cove on Prevost Island had us hopping from boat to boat in the afternoon sun, savoring sundowners on the foredeck of one boat and then enjoying dinner, games and evening laughter in the cockpit of another. Encounters like these are always a welcome change to our normal routine, and the setting couldn’t have been any better.
Speaking of settings, a cruise of the Gulf Islands wouldn’t be complete without a visit to popular Montague Harbour on Galiano Island. With several mooring and anchoring options, Montague is a large, protected harbor that can get quite crowded on holidays and during the summer high season. We were there with friends over Canada’s May Long Weekend holiday and though it was brimming with boats, it didn’t feel overcrowded—the next time we stopped by was mid-week and it was virtually empty.
Montague Provincial Marine Park has 35 mooring buoys for $12 per night, trails, beaches and campsites. Montague Marina is a short dinghy ride or walk from the park, and if you are in the mood for ice cream (who isn’t?) then you’ll want to check out the variety of flavors at the marina’s store and gift shop. Many cruisers visiting Montague also opt for a trip to Galiano’s iconic Hummingbird Pub. The pub operates a bus driven by a quirky driver who passes instruments around for a sing-a-long while headed to and from the pub, which we’re told is always an interesting experience. This is still on our list of things to do as the bus runs weekends until mid-June and then fulltime to Sept 28th.
THE BIG CITY
Planning to be in Victoria by Memorial Day weekend to participate in the northwest classic, Swiftsure International Yacht Race, we worked our way south from the middle of the Gulf Islands and anchored in quiet Cadboro Bay. Located on the eastern side of “The Garden City” of Victoria, Cadboro Bay has good holding in sand and even though it is open to the south, a fringe reef and islands block it from any significant swell from the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca.
After spending a few lazy days in Cadboro, we sailed the 10-miles around the corner to Victoria’s inner harbor. The harbor entrance is narrow, with yellow markers funneling recreational boaters into a channel to keep them out of the frequently used seaplane landing and takeoff area. Upon making the turn into the inner harbor towards downtown, the iconic Empress Hotel and stately, European-esq Provincial Parliament building are prominent features on the waterfront.
We tucked ourselves into a slip outside the Empress and spent the next couple days exploring the vibrant capital city. With an atmosphere that is part European, part Pacific Northwest, Victoria was a fun place to explore and provision, and the activities and energy surrounding Swiftsure made it all that much more special.
After the race, and not in a hurry to stop exploring the area, we hopped one more bay to the west where we found Esquimalt Harbour. Canadian naval infrastructure engulfed the entrance to the harbor and stately homes peaked out from the rocky, tree-lined shores of its northern reaches, but it was all subdued in a way that didn’t make us feel like we were still so close to the city.
We anchored just south of tiny Cole Island, which is a National Historic Site owned by the Province of British Columbia. The island houses the remains of a Royal Ammunition Depot that was built by the Royal Engineers and occupied by the Royal Navy from 1859 to 1905. Though many are now crumbling into the harbor, the structures were impressive as we toured them by land and water, and it was good to see that they are being slowly renovated by the Friends of Cole Island Society.
Happy with our time spent around Victoria, we headed back towards the Gulf Islands under spinnaker on one of the strong southwesterly breezes that are common around the southern end of Vancouver Island.
Filled with beautiful Provincial Parks full of hiking trails, beaches and quiet anchorages, the Gulf Islands have been an idyllic place to call home this spring. The days have truly melded together throughout our time here and with quaint towns and city centers to visit when taking a break from the more remote islands, we’ve been able to get a true taste of it all—though there is still lots left to discover.
If only we could remember what day it is—or maybe that doesn’t matter so much.
Andrew, along with wife Jill and sons Porter and Magnus, are currently cruising the Pacific Northwest aboard their Grand Soleil 39 Yahtzee. Follow their adventures at threesheetsnw.com/yahtzee.
The particulars of Gulf Islands cruising:
When entering the Gulf Islands from the U.S., the closest places to check-in are Victoria, Sidney and Bedwell Harbor. To ensure a speedy check-in, have all your ship’s documents in order and brush up on the requirements for foreign recreational boaters entering Canadian waters.
– The customs and immigration dock in Victoria is to starboard as you enter the inner harbor and will have you in and out in short order. You can also check in at Oak Bay Marina and at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in Cadboro Bay.
– In Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island, the customs and immigration dock and office is located at Poet’s Cove Marina.
– Sidney has several check-in sites including Van Isle Marina, Canoe Cove Marina and Port Sidney Marina. (We checked in at Van Isle Marina and it was a simple phone call).
There are plenty of places to top up on provisions throughout the islands, but here are some of the best we’ve found.
– Ganges, Salt Spring Island: Thrifty and Country Grocer grocery stores are near the marinas and anchorages as are a hardware store, banks, liquor stores, shops, marine services, restaurants and an excellent farmer’s market on Saturdays in the summer.
– Victoria: Thrifty and BC Liquors are just up Menzies Street from the inner harbor and there are any number of marine services, bars and restaurants within walking distance. There is also a Thrifty in Esquimalt Harbour and a local grocery and liquor store is near Gyro Beach/Park in Cadboro Bay.
– Sidney: Several grocery stores, restaurants and shops are within walking distance of Port of Sidney Marina. Nearby Canoe Cove has top quality marine services.