The Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island | Cruising World

The Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island

A young family embarks on an unforgettable shakedown cruise in the gray, rocky and rugged Pacific Northwest.

Vancouver Island

Wondertime motors up Johnstone Strait at daybreak, making her way to the northernmost point of Vancouver Island. The easy, calm waters of the east-coast inside passage are dramatically different from the island’s west coast.

Sara Dawn Johnson

The first miles of our voyage down the west coast of Vancouver Island began like any other successful passage: cracker crumbs littering the cockpit floor, vomit-stained towels strewn about, green-faced crew retching over the side as waves tossed our little boat around. I asked myself, What the hell are we doing out here, bringing our babies out to sea on a small boat?

Two days earlier, we’d anchored our 38-foot ketch, Wondertime, in the still waters of Bull Harbour, a landlocked bay at Hope Island. Normally, we would have savored this spot, perched at the top of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, and stayed for days on end, enjoying the nearby trails and exploring the tide pools with our 2- and 5-year-old daughters. Each day we’d hike to the other side of the island through cool, mossy woods. We’d stumble upon a rocky ocean beach with brilliant-blue waves pounding the shoreline, giants hurled down from the Gulf of Alaska.

But not this time. We were too anxious about the upcoming leg of our trip, rounding notorious Cape Scott and sailing in the Pacific once again, this time with our pint-size crew. When faced with our plans to dip our toes in the Pacific and circumnavigate Vancouver Island counterclockwise, my husband, Michael, and I almost chickened out. We considered keeping to inland British Columbian waters for the remainder of our shakedown cruise, probably the wiser choice given our crew. We nearly passed by what turned out to be the most haunting and wild of places in all our Pacific Ocean wanderings.

In Bull Harbour, we gathered on the pier with a handful of other boat crews also readying to round the cape into the Pacific. We compared plans and notes, and analyzed the weather forecast. All of us had come north via the east coast of Vancouver Island, through the easy, calm inland waters the Pacific Northwest is known for. The west coast of the island is an entirely different animal, and none of us was sure what we were signing up for. Our guidebooks used words like rugged, remote, rock-strewn and bears. We’d all heard the stories about waves driven to boat-swallowing heights due to strong ocean currents ripping around the top of the island. After weeks and months spent moseying up the inside passage, we were now hovering on the edge of the ocean.

The next day’s forecast was perfect: calm in the morning, 10 to 15 knots by midday. It was time to go. But in order to even reach the Pacific from Bull Harbour, we’d have to cross the dreaded Nahwitti Bar. Only 50 feet deep at slack high water, it lies across the channel from Hope Island to Vancouver Island, a final gateway to the open Pacific.

We stowed everything below that might get tossed around in the ocean swells. We tied the jacklines on deck and fitted the girls’ new harnesses. The life raft was strapped to the wheel pedestal in the cockpit. Water, fuel jugs and miscellaneous gear were tied down on the aft deck. As we were tucking the girls in, Michael and I talked with our daughters about what the next day would be like, rocking and rolling in the ocean swells like they’d never felt before. “Like a big powerboat wake?” asked Leah. “Exactly! Except over and over …” We parents harbored a swell of emotions — anxiety, excitement, dread, giddiness. When we went to bed, the boat was as ready as she’d ever be. I woke up at 0400 in a cold sweat and with a pounding heart, imagining huge freak waves overtaking us as we attempted to cross the Nahwitti Bar.

Vancouver Island

We tied Wondertime to the public wharf in Kyuquot, Walters Cove. The general store at the head of the dock is the hub of the village, as is typical in outpost Vancouver Island communities.

Sara Dawn Johnson

Morning finally came, and we motored away from Bull Harbour in calm, glassy waters under a dreary gray sky. We arrived at the bar just as the flood was ending and motored across it like any other body of water, except for the Pacific swells carrying our little boat up and down, up and down. As we continued along Vancouver Island’s northern coast, the wind remained calm, but the northwest swells were mixing with the westerly ebb, and we bounced around for hours in confused, triangular seas. Not dangerous, just nauseating. The girls stayed in bed too long, and by the time we got them strapped into the cockpit with us they were green.

A few hours later we reached Cape Scott, the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, still motoring in less than 5 knots of wind. When we turned south with the ebbing sea, the motion calmed down as we, the swell and the water were running together. The girls had fallen asleep in the cockpit earlier, snuggled in their blankets, and in the calmer motion Leah woke and exclaimed, “That’s much better!” Holly was soon awake, and they were bouncing around the cockpit, wearing their new offshore harnesses like it was any other day at sea. All was well again on board.

Soon after, we could feel small puffs of wind at our backs, which slowly got stronger until we were sure the promised northwest wind had arrived. We unfurled the genoa to starboard, prevented the main to port and sailed for the next five hours wing on wing. The wind built until little whitecaps appeared all around us, glowing in the blue sea. We’d left the clouds behind and were surrounded by blue sky and sun. Wondertime glided down the waves, rocking slightly back and forth as the swells rolled under us. The rugged shoreline of Vancouver Island slowly passed by to port, and the endless horizon of the Pacific to starboard. It was the perfect magic carpet ride.

We rolled right into Quatsino Sound, the first of the west coast’s five major sounds, past the lighthouse guarding the entrance, and found our first anchorage in North Harbour, tucked just inside. We were the only boat. Just us, mountains covered with giant old-growth trees, water, sky and the satisfaction of our first Pacific passage well made. We slept solidly that night.

The next morning, we launched the dinghy and set out to explore. We puttered a mile farther up the inlet, past ancient trees growing right down to the tide line. Reaching the tiny fishing outpost of Winter Harbour, we tied the dinghy to a floating wooden dock. The town consists of a smattering of small cabins lining the shoreline, connected by a wooden boardwalk. We nearly missed the post office, about the size of a large outhouse. In the town’s small, well-stocked store — the hub of the village — we completed our mission to find ice cream. We sat enjoying our cones on the store’s front porch, underneath a sign written in big, red letters: “Bear Alert!”

Vancouver Island

An up-to-date, detailed tide and current schedule (either in book or electronic format) is crucial for timing narrow-passage transits at slack water. Any other time is slow-going at best and potentially treacherous at worst.

Sara Dawn Johnson

“Hey!” a woman’s voice called down from a nearby balcony, a small child clinging to her jeans. “You might want to keep a close eye on your girls. There’s been a black bear wandering around here recently.”

“Oh. Thanks! Sure will,” I responded and went back to wiping ice cream off the girls’ chins. Of course there are bears around here. But still, I was curious: “When was the last one seen?”

“About a half hour ago. Right behind this building here,” she replied. We hustled to finish up those ice creams and marched straight back to our dinghy. If the locals were warning us about bears, then we felt it was best to take heed and move along.

A few days later, we poked our bow out again into the Pacific for another hop down the coast. The northwesterly winds were light, seas calm. We found ourselves motorsailing in the morning, then by noon the wind picked up a bit, so we were able to unfurl the genoa. We drifted around Brooks Peninsula, which sticks out like a middle finger — and acts like one, too, sometimes when the wind and currents are up. But this leg was an easy one: Nobody vomited, I cooked lunch and the girls spent the day building blanket forts in the cockpit.

As we ducked under the mountainous, thickly treed peninsula and neared our destination — the Bunsby Islands tucked underneath — we began to fully comprehend the meaning of “rock-strewn.” The coast is peppered with rocks and reefs. They jut far above the surface of the sea — and lie hidden just beneath it — all marked by crashing, spraying, swirling white water. We were sure glad to drop our hook in Scow Bay, on Big Bunsby Island, after successfully dodging them on the way in.

Our girls were exhausted after another long day’s sail, so we tucked them into bed early. Michael and I sat back in the cockpit, sipping a bit of our favorite wine and watching the sun set over the Brooks mountains. The show was stunning: The last of the day’s sunbeams spilled down over the jagged peaks, through low clouds caught in the treetops. Tucked away between the Pacific Ocean and miles and miles of protected forests, it was absolutely still except for the sound of a bald eagle calling out in the distance.

It was nearly dark when Michael heard another sound on the shoreline just a few boat lengths away. A rustling. We both strained our eyes to see what was making the noise and watched in awe as a huge black shape emerged from the bushes. For the next 15 minutes we watched the enormous bear stroll along the shore, reaching on its hind legs to grab a clearly delicious something off the highest branches and sniffing among the rocks for other morsels.

There are no trails on the Bunsbys, which was just fine by me. We spent hours trolling slowly along in our dinghy, exploring hidden lagoons and nooks, marveling at some of the most amazing rock sculptures we’d ever seen. We gazed into crystal-­clear tide pools teeming with life: hermit crabs, sea stars, fluorescent-­green anemones and small fish, all fighting for room. We explored little pocket beaches, the girls finding favorite seashells and bits of glowing sea glass in the sand. Every now and then we’d spot a sea otter popping its head up out of the water to peek at us, guests in her wilderness.

Vancouver Island

Wondertime sails downwind in a brisk afternoon breeze to her first anchorage on Vancouver Island’s west coast, Quatsino Sound.

Sara Dawn Johnson

The main problem with a sail down Vancouver Island’s west coast is not the rocks or the ocean swells, or even the bears. It’s the passing by of countless perfect anchorages, each one with its own unique flavor. You just can’t see them all. There are thousands, and as summer grows long you are forced to pick and choose. With every one we passed by I was filled with a pang of longing, with the desire to turn around and go back to each spot we’d had to miss. But summer was growing late, and we had to keep moving southward. I marked in our guidebook the anchorages I’ll be sure not to miss next time.

After winding our way back out of the forested jewels that are the Bunsbys, we tucked into the village of Kyuquot, in Walters Cove. The Houpsitas First Nation Indian reserve lies on the shore opposite the provincial public pier. The reserve side is a bit more laid back, and we saw kids and dogs running on the shore and hurling themselves into the icy cold water with glee. The side of the bay where we were moored was lined with tidy homes, mostly occupied by European Canadians who have moved way out west from the city of Vancouver to try out a more rugged life.

At the head of the wooden pier where we tied up Wondertime we found the village store, post office and showers. People from both sides of the bay gather there to talk, catch up on the news and greet newcomers such as ourselves and those from a few other boats. We met up with several crews we had last seen in Bull Harbour, all of us far more at ease than we had been then. It had a jovial vibe, and when the rain started — and didn’t let up for two days — we just moved inside to chat.

Besides the drenching rain, I’ll always remember Kyuquot for pie. Michael celebrated his birthday there, and undeterred by the wet conditions outside, we piled on our raincoats, boots and hats. We splashed in the puddles of the muddy trail to the small coffee shop near the entrance to Walters Cove. As the rain poured outside, we drank warm cafe lattes and ate hot apple pie a la mode, the best we’ve ever had, I’m pretty sure.

At Queen Cove in Esperanza Inlet, our next stop down the coast, we watched the full moon rise over dark, untouched hillsides. We had the desolate, still bay all to ourselves for several days. Farther down the coast, in Hot Springs Cove, we followed a boardwalk from the anchorage over a mile to wonderfully steamy hot pools and waterfalls. The wide planks were ornately carved with the names of visiting boats — many familiar ones — that have stopped there over the years. Sailors we knew had started their South Pacific journeys there too.

We sailed through fog so thick we couldn’t see past our bow pulpit (why locals call the last month of summer “Fogust”) and into our last sound, Barkley. There were so many places in Barkley Sound that I’ll remember: Ucluelet for its hardy, friendly fishing folk; Nettle Island for sea lions swimming in phosphorescent water; Effingham Island for feeling like we’d stepped onto the set of Avatar. Quirky Bamfield had a “hotel” for feral cats, a world-class marine center the girls loved and rope swings over rugged, gray beaches. Each nook had its own tempting flavor, leaving us wanting more of Vancouver Island’s wild west coast. It’s the kind of hard-won place that calls you back the moment you leave.


Sara, her husband and their two daughters continued aboard Wondertime to New Zealand, where they currently reside. Sara is a co-author of Voyaging with Kids: A Guide to Family Life Afloat. Follow their adventures at ­svwondertime.com.

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