Sailing adventures around the Discovery Islands and Johnstone Strait

Sailing adventures around the Discovery Islands and Johnstone Strait

“In the distance we could hear the roaring sound of the water as it pushed its way through the hole in the wall, the narrow passage connecting Johnstone Strait with the great Bute and Toba Inlets.”

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I felt a little tense as we turned east onto the Cordero Channel toward Devils Hole.

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Dent, Gillard, and Yuculta tributaries on the northeastern side of Sonora Island are some of the most treacherous passages in BC’s coastal waters.

Outside of a small opportunity at the turn of the tide, rapid currents, dangerous hot tubs and steep raids would put any boat in danger that took a chance to pass these rapids.

To get the timing correct, we weighed anchor at. 5:15 that morning in Thurston Bay on the northwest side of Sonora Island.

Only a handful of cruise ships sail in these waters, and they are often busy pushing north to the more famous Broughton archipelago or perhaps to an adventure space cruise in Vancouver Island.

The night before, we arrived at Thurston Bay Marine Park, where we dropped anchor in a small bay we had all to ourselves.

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The Marti family.
The Marti family.

Just over an hour west of Thurston Bay is Shoal Bay, a rustic marina on East Thurlow Island. We were attracted to the place when we had heard that there was an abandoned gold mine, breathtaking views of the Philips Arm and the rumor of a beer of four in the outdoor bar overlooking the water and mountain range.

We had moored our sailboat Salient at the old government dock a few days earlier. Our 10-year-old son Leo, who was usually a little enthusiastic about his parents’ hiking plans, leads the charge up a steep slope through dense forest along what may once have been the access road to the mine.

On our way we passed an old steel donkey that used to pull materials up and down the slope. A silent witness from an outdated era where lumberjacks and fortune seekers roamed the hills.

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About an hour later we found the mine entrance, a hole in the side of the mountain, maybe two meters in diameter. We dared not go in more than a few steps.

It’s hard to believe that in 1897 Shoal Bay was the largest city on Canada’s west coast with a population of more than 1,500 people, two hotels, two shops and the Union Steamship Company, which rang four times a week.

Mark and Cynthia MacDonald bought Shoal Bay in 2000 and now maintain the state dock and three cabins for rent.

At Shoal Bay overlooking the Philips Arm.
At Shoal Bay overlooking the Philips Arm.

Back at the quay, the rumor turned out to be true, and at four o’clock Mark opened the tap with cold beer.

A report on our adventures through these waters would not be complete without mentioning the abundance of wildlife we ​​spotted.

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A memorable event took place on our way north while we stopped at Drew Harbor on the Quadra Islands. Early in the morning, just as we were getting coffee on deck and enjoying the view of the sandy beach of Rebecca Spit, we spotted the dorsal fin of a humpback whale navigating between the boats.

I saw the whale dive under the water again, heading straight for a small dog, paddling for his life and trying to reach the dinghy where his master frantically called for him.

Knowing that dogs are not on the humpback’s food plan, we all got a good laugh from the play, and after the whale satisfied his curiosity, it disappeared into the open ocean.

According to Leo’s logbook, where he carefully kept track of all bumps on sea creatures, we saw close to two dozen humpback whales.

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A humpback whale in Rebecca Spit.
A humpback whale in Rebecca Spit. Photo by Christof Marti

Sailing in Johnstone Strait, between Ripple Rock and Chatham Point, we were met by three orcas on their passage north.

But it was not only the big animals that made us happy. At low tide, the wonders of tidal life fascinated us. While waiting for high tide to enter Waiatt Bay in the Octopus Islands Marine Park, we anchor in Bodega Bay, at the mouth of the small and narrow canal that leads into the anchorage. In the distance we could hear the roaring sound of the water as it pushed its way through the hole in the wall, the narrow passage connecting Johnstone Strait with the great Bute and Toba Inlets.

Along with the Beazley Pass at Surge Narrows south of us and the Okisollo Channel immediately north of Bodega Bay, Octopus Islands Marine Park and can only be reached twice a day when the tide turns and the otherwise impassable rapids can be sailed.

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With a few hours of waiting, Andrea kayaked along the canal’s low beach to Waiatt Bay looking for starfish, small fish swimming between seagrass and stinging sea urchins.

Leo at the grill aboard the Salient
Leo at the grill aboard the Salient

Meanwhile, Leo and I navigated to the lowest part of the canal and checked with our wire the water depth. A cord line is a rope with a weight at one end and marked at certain intervals. Salient has a deep keel and we felt it wise to take a few sounds.

This is the same method that Captain Vancouver and his men used when exploring unknown waters. They wanted to send their little boats forward and take voyages along the way, making sure the larger Discovery and Chatham did not run aground.

When I looked through my binoculars towards Devils Hole that early morning, the surface of the water appeared to be slightly disturbed and no sign of white caps that would indicate the huge whirlpool from which its name originates.

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Kayaking in Thurston Bay
Kayaking in Thurston Bay

As we approached the rapids, suddenly three Dalles guinea pigs appeared next to Salient and seemed to encourage our passage. Prominently, her foresail filled with a gentle breeze sailed effortlessly through the rippling water.

A light sunshine framed the otherwise dark mountain peaks, indicating where the sun would soon rise above the horizon.

With this, Salient pointed its arc to the south again towards Desolation Sound, where we planned to visit Gorge Harbor and Shark Spit, two of our favorite routes.

Besides that awaited Mitlenatch Island, a rocky island with an abundance of birds, sea lions and even snakes.

Christof Marti is a sailor, engineer, adventurer at heart and author of many sailing reports. After a decade of living by sailing, he now enjoys sailing BC’s large coastline with his family aboard their sailboat Salient.

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