Cruising the Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island

boat gear
West Beach Pruthe Bay

Pacific Northwest live aboard sailors experience sailing along the unspoiled side of Vancouver Island

After a glorious summer cruising down through the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia, we decided to sail down the west coast of Vancouver Island before arriving in Canoe Cove, Sidney where we intended to hole up for the winter and get some work done on our 45ft sailboat Distant Drummer.

west coast Vancouver Island
The craggy profile of the mountain ranges on Vancouver island

Our only disappointment with cruising the Inside Passage was how little sailing we actually did. There was not much wind and when it did funnel along the steep sided straits it was normally right on the nose with inadequate room for tacking. So we were looking forward to shaking out the sails and blowing a few cobwebs away on the wild West Coast.

I would like to share some of our experiences and hopefully encourage other boaters to visit this less crowded unspoiled side of Vancouver Island.

Crossing Queen Charlotte Sound

West Beach Pruthe Bay
The stunning West Beach is a short walk from the Hakai Institute dock in Pruthe Bay

We arrived in Pruthe Bay, Calvert Island in mid-September and were ready to cross Queen Charlotte Sound however the weather was not quite ready to cooperate. We waited six days until a big fat high finally settled in to the NE Pacific and brought us favourable northerly winds for the passage.

As we sailed down the outside of Calvert Island we kept a sharp lookout for logs. In the calm water of the Inside passage they were quite easy to spot but it was much more difficult in a 2-3m swell with rough choppy water.

We only saw a couple which allayed our fears and we had a lovely sail across Queen Charlotte Sound in a 15-20kt breeze – perfect!

We rounded Cape Scott at sunset and gave it a wide berth as it is renowned for its steep seas and strong currents. After an overnight passage we passed Brooks Peninsula in heavy fog with a non-functioning auto-pilot. We were tired and decided to cut in to the coast and look for an anchorage in Esperanza Inlet.

Esperanza Inlet to Tofino

The route into was Nuchatlitz Bay is a tortuous conduit between islands, rocks and shoals; it was exhilarating and the anchorage was well worth it. The west facing bay is wonderfully serene and after a spectacular sunset we had a long, sound sleep.

sunset Nuchatlitz Bay
Nuchatlitz Bay in Esperanza Inlet faces west and catches some brilliant sunsets

The next day the wind had dropped so we motorsailed, but it picked up a bit in the afternoon and we had a good beat across to Hot Springs Cove, at the mouth of Sidney Inlet. Again the entrance is narrow and shallow but fairly straight forward and we had plotted a course up the middle of the channel on the electronic charts.

As we motored in we seemed to be alarmingly close to some charted rocks and I had to steer off course in order to keep a safe distance away. Once we had set anchor we compared the electronic charts with raster images of the old charts and they were mis-positioned by about 120m – yikes – it could have been disastrous!! We usually check the two charts against one another but had failed to do so in this case. We won’t forget that again in a hurry!

It is about a 2km walk to the hot springs through a magnificent forest and many of the planks of the boardwalk are engraved with the names of yachts that have passed by. It’s fun to try and “spot-your-friends” as you walk along.

path to Hot Springs
Yacht names carved in the boardwalk to the hot springs at Hot Springs Cove

The springs were the nicest we had visited as they were natural rock with no pipes or concrete. Even at nine o’clock in the morning they were quite crowded; tourists come here from Tofino which is about an hour away by fast boat. Even so, it was so lovely bask in the warm sunshine and soak in the steaming hot water.

Hot Springs cove
The hot springs and the natural rock pool are glorious but can get quite crowded

By lunch time we were on our way to Tofino ourselves. We motored at a leisurely 5kt across the mouth of the Clayoquot Sound through the channels and islands.

One thing we found surprizing about the West Coast was the shallow depth of the water; unlike the steep cliffs and deep waters of the inland passages the coastal shelf here is less than 100m deep and extends 15-20NM offshore. The passage into Tofino was very shallow in places and in the marina we were touching bottom at low tide!

Tofino is a very touristy town but consequently has several good restaurants, the kind that “serves meals without french fries” as our guide book said! We had a superb meal at The Wolf in the Fog and, amazingly, we were sitting next to the people we had shared the hot springs with!

It was an easy cycle the next day to Chesterman beach which is a spectacular beach in stormy weather. We had a walk on the beach and watched the surfers grappling with the heaving waves.

Tofino to Victoria

From Tofino we had a four day passage to Victoria. We stopped at Ucleulet which is a pretty and historic little fishing town with a huge shallow bay to anchor in at the head of the inlet.

The next day we entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca and had a long stretch of coast to the southern point of Vancouver Island. We broke the journey at San Juan Bay where we anchored overnight on the east side of the inlet. It wasn’t a great anchorage as it was catching a bit of swell but as we arrived late and left early we didn’t mind.

The next day we passed Sooke Harbour and anchored in Campbell Cove in Becher Bay. We managed to find a spot to drop the pick among the crab pots on the east side of Wolf Island.

Empress Hotel
Husband Neil with Distant Drummer in the Causeway Marina in front of the Empress Hotel, Victoria

On the last day into Victoria we passed Race Rocks in thick fog. We couldn’t see more than 200m ahead of us and it was quite stressful with only two people on board.

With Neil helming and keeping a very close eye on the charts, and me blasting the fog horn and keeping a sharp lookout, we managed to avoid the rocks, the fishing boats and the container ships and we arrived safely at the Causeway Marina in Victoria Inner Harbour.

Royals and Trudeau
Justin Trudeau with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on holiday in Canada

We very much enjoyed Victoria and, by luck, our visit coincided with the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Will and Kate) and their family. I’m not a fervent royalist but I waited in the crowd outside Parliament House for four hours and was in a good position to get some photos of the royals, Justin Trudeau and the other dignitaries. It was a magnificent end to a stimulating voyage.

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Suzy Carmody

View posts by Suzy Carmody
Suzy (52) and Neil Carmody (62) live on board Distant Drummer, a Liberty 458 cutter rigged sloop which they bought in Thailand in 2006. With a background in the oil and gas business, sailing had always been just a hobby until they eased themselves out of the industry, cast off the lines and departed Phuket. Eleven years on and 26,000 nautical miles later, they are enjoying the bounties of the Pacific Northwest. Their blog Carmody Clan tells stories of their adventures exploring the world on a cruising yacht and gives some useful tips for living aboard.
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