A small taste of the anchorages along BC’s big south coast

Words by Georgina Montgomery

Photographs by Georgina Montgomery and Dave Murphy

With all the exotic allure of blue water sailing and South Sea islands, can BC’s coastal cruising grounds hold their own for outdoor pleasure-seekers? According to editor Georgina Montgomery, they sure can: they’re worth every foregone coconut. Thousands of inlets, bays, and coves between the Mainland and Vancouver Island give boaters a vast choice among protected spots to “drop the hook.” Georgina and her husband, Lawrence Pitt, have sailed for many years in local waters. She claims no favourite children among the host of great anchorages she’s visited but in this article nudges the tiller—and readers, she hopes—toward a choice sample.

Once upon a time, I was a bold sailor. In my late 20s, I and my not-yet-husband signed on as crew aboard a barquentine for a 6-month journey from Victoria to the South Pacific and back. Lawrence shared pilot duties with the captain (in that pre-GPS, sextant era), and we both stood 2 daily watches at sea: 4h00–8h00 and 16h00–20h00. Total shipmate numbers fluctuated during the trip, but averaged about 20 at any one time—a complement necessary to manually hoist and unfurl sails on the 40-metre vessel and to douse those sails any time of day or night before an approaching squall.

After the trip, we went on to get married and to buy a boat of our own. We started with a 22-foot Columbia, cost-shared with another couple, and began our first tentative forays into local waters with just each other as crew. After our daughter was born, we upsized to a 30-foot Grampian (luxury: an enclosed head/bathroom). Then, 6 years ago, we traded up again, this time to a 36-foot Cascade.

Developing a taste for local waters

Over the years, our (well, certainly my) desire to take another run offshore waned. Three-week passages from land to land. Days of living heeled over under sail by 20+ degrees. Mountainous ocean swells lumbering beneath the boat. It was all thrilling at the time, of course, but as I got into coastal sailing, the appeal of being able to park at the end of each day’s travels and not have to push on after the sun went down took hold. Dropping the hook—anchoring—changes the pace and program of any sail outing, whether it’s a few hours long or a few weeks. And that’s just how I like it.

Here is a teaser sample of anchorages we’ve enjoyed in south coast BC waters. Included with these five profiles are suggestions for how non-sailor adventurers can access and stay overnight at these destinations, too.

Russell Island

This small island off the south end of Salt Spring Island is part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Hawaiians settled here in the late 1880s. The original homestead of the Mahoi/Fisher family still stands, overlooking the anchorage. In the summer months, the house is occupied by descendants of the family, volunteer hosts who are happy to talk with visitors about the island’s history.

Especially nice here: long white-shell beaches, good swimming, views of Mount Baker, and wait … is that the sound of ukuleles in the breeze?

Don’t have a boat? Take a ferry or float plane to Salt Spring. Experienced rowers, kayakers, and canoeists can make the 5-km crossing to Russell Island, launching from the playground near Fulford Harbour. As well, some companies on Salt Spring offer guided kayaking tours to Russell.

Montague Harbour, Galiano Island

Montague Harbour lies on the southwest side of Galiano Island. On the harbour’s west side is the marine provincial park—BC’s first. Mooring buoys are available (for a fee), but there’s also lots of anchoring room. During the summer, the “bakery boat” moored just outside the park boundary draws steady customers who row, paddle, or motor over to buy fresh cinnamon buns, pies, and other treats.

Especially nice here: extensive white-shell beaches around wooded Gray Peninsula, middens, tidal lagoon, great sunset viewing, good hiking, kayak and bike rentals at the nearby marina.

Don’t have a boat? Take a ferry or float plane to Galiano. Cycle or drive to the park for a day visit or stay at one of the walk-in or vehicle-accessible campsites.

Newcastle Island

As Stanley Park is to Vancouver, Newcastle Island is to Nanaimo. Since 1961, the island has been a provincial park. Mark Bay, facing the city, has mooring buoys, dock space, and a large open anchorage. Vestiges of Newcastle’s quarrying, coal-mining, and millstone-cutting past can still be seen. The dance pavilion— once part of a resort built by Canadian Pacific Steamship in the 1930s—also remains. Trails circle and criss-cross the island through forest and meadows, atop cliffs, along broad tidal rocky shelves, and down to sweeping shell, sand, and stone beaches.

Especially nice here: trails for running, biking, and walking; historic industrial sites; views to the Mainland’s coastal mountains; good swimming; top-notch beachcombing, kayak and bike rentals; albino raccoons; easy access to downtown Nanaimo on the harbour ferry (e.g., for grocery shopping, dining out).

Don’t have a boat? From Nanaimo’s downtown waterfront promenade, take the 10-minute harbour ferry ride to the island. Stay for several hours or several nights at one of the many walk-in campsites.

Buccaneer Bay, North Thormanby Island

This marine provincial park, about equidistant by boat from Halfmoon Bay and Secret Cove on the Sunshine Coast, isn’t large but often gets ranked at the top of this region’s “Most Beautiful Beach” list.

Especially nice here: long, broad soft-sand beaches, towering sand and gravel cliffs, spectacular views of snow-covered mountain ranges on both sides of Georgia Strait, great swimming in the shallow waters.

Don’t have a boat? Take the water taxi from Secret Cove. Plan a day visit or stay overnight at one of the five backcountry campsites.

Harmony Islands, Hotham Sound

Northeast of the Sechelt Peninsula and off Jervis Inlet is Hotham Sound, surrounded for the most part by steep-sided mountains and a rock-face shoreline. Dropping the hook in such deep waters is tricky business. Fortunately, the Harmony Islands provide a few small coves and a narrow channel shallow enough to make anchoring possible.

Especially nice here: dramatic views of high mountains all around, good swimming, sight and sound of nearby Harmony (or Freil Lake) Falls spilling down an almost-vertical drop of more than 445 metres into the ocean.

Don’t have a boat? Charter a boat or make arrangements with a water-taxi service (or try Egmont Water Taxi).

Interested in taking up sailing?

If you’re not a cruising sailor (or powerboater) now, here are some suggestions for how to start:

  • Take a sailing-specific or general-boating course (or both). There is much to learn about tides, currents, wind, weather patterns, navigational hazards and rules of the road, radio and other equipment operation, chart reading, berthing, mooring, anchoring, and more. With a sailboat, add the need to learn about sails and sail handling, tacking, safe stowing and so on. Of course, as with many other leisure pursuits (think flying or horseback riding), the more hours you put in and the more situations you go through, the more competent you’ll become. An alternative: befriend an experienced sailor, preferably someone with a well-maintained boat and a safety-first attitude.
  • Get access to a boat. Chartering is a smart option, either with an experienced skipper and crew or—if you’ve had good training—without (bareboat chartering). This can be a good way to see how well you like sailing and to learn more about it if you have a good skipper to guide you. Buying a boat is another option, alone, in partnership with friends, or as part of a co-op. Being involved in a boat’s upkeep and getting to know exactly what equipment it has and how it handles enhances the boat-crew relationship.