Desolation Sound…Finally!

Sailing across Desolation Sound

We’re sitting in Walsh Cove right now, stern tied at a rocky shore that rises from a depth of 15m straight up into a steep pine covered slope over a space of maybe 10m. There are narrow, sun-drenched ledges all along the shore that reveal all the marine animals and the fishes swimming by. Nearby there is a steep “painted” cliff that Jerome says looks as though someone has spilled a bottle of ink down from the top. There are petroglyphs there too and caves. There are two or three caves that are right at water level at a medium tide and although they’re not deep it is interesting to swim into them. It seems that fish skeletons wash in here in the current and make it a little spooky! There is a little archipelago just off the shore here that has some great shallows around the islands and some narrow steep walled channels carved through that separate what could easily be one large island into several smaller ones. All of these are warm water because of the sun baked rocks just below the surface and they make great swimming and snorkeling spots. Probably this is one of the loveliest places we’ve been but we’ll come back to this in a moment.

Since the 13th of July we’ve been in the area of Desolation Sound. We’ve actually spent very little time in Desolation Sound proper but have passed through and skirted around it quite a bit. Partly we’ve just been avoiding the places that we expect to be overcrowded but mostly its just been because there are so many other great places to be! On the 13th we made our way to Drew Harbour / Heriot Bay which is actually only 2.1 nautical miles from our previous anchorage at April Point on the East side of the narrow southern end of Quadra Island. Getting there, however requires that we sail almost 16 miles around the island. It also requires a little bit of timing because in order to leave April Point we have to sail south in the Discovery Passage where currents easily reach five or six knots. You want to time your passage so that the current is cooperating with you. If you time it correctly you can be out of the channel in 20 or 30 minutes; if you time it wrong it could be three hours of frustrating fuel burning. Worse still, if you pick a day when the wind is blowing south, the current is heading north and you’re trying to head into the current, the opposing wind and current can generate some uncomfortably large waves to enhance your already frustrating journey. So, timing is everything. Of course, this becomes even more important in other places around here. There are places called Surge Narrows, Hole in the Wall, Cape Caution, Grief Point. These places have earned their names but in any case Discovery Passage was a good place for us to learn our lesson about currents.

Once out of Discovery Passage and around the Wilby Shoal and Cape Mudge we turned back north along the east coast of Quadra Island. We weren’t far up when we saw whales blowing in the distance. Very soon we were able to see them breaching and it became apparent that one was on course to pass very close to us. At first we just slowed the boat but as it became clear that the whale was going to be very close we shut the engine down entirely. It was a good choice. As we drifted along the three of us moved up to the bow of the boat to get a good look and were rewarded when a giant Humpback whale broke the surface within ten feet of where we were sitting! He wasn’t nearly as interested in us as we were in him and he continued his leisurely pace to the south east for half a mile before we broke the spell and started up the engine to head into Drew Harbour where we could share our story with our wonderful friends (who had supper waiting for us!).

In Drew Harbour we were anchored just off of Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park. It is a narrow isthmus that juts out to the north from Quadra Island and encloses the large bay that is Drew Harbour and partially encloses the more popularly known Heriot Bay. Heriot Bay is a nice town with a marina and a fuel dock as well as the usual boater destinations such as the grocery store and the liquor store. We did visit Heriot and walked up to their grocery store. Its a pleasant setting and we enjoyed a quick lunch of grocery store supplies sitting on a rock just outside the local shopping area before rushing our bag of block ice back to the boat. That was it for Heriot Bay…it was nice but not terribly interesting. Rebecca Spit though, was another matter. It is less well-known probably because it has no marina which seems to be important to a lot of people (many people seem to prefer not to anchor). However, it is a beautiful park with long beaches crowded with driftwood, a large open field in the middle where we played Frisbee and badminton and long trails through the trees with a great view of the harbour to the west and Sutil Channel to the east. We spent one morning watching the whales in the channel. There were many more of them but they were much further away. Even at these distances its a pretty amazing thing to see! We saw June bugs and heard of (but never actually saw) a deer and her fawn that were living in the trees nearby. The anchorage had been a bit crowded when we arrived so we had ended up in a spot that was good for the weather at the time but any significant westerly or southwesterly would crowd us uncomfortably close to shallow water. On Saturday the weather report was for winds shifting to five to ten knots from the southwest and a falling tide in the early hours of the morning so, rather than wake up on the sandy beach the next morning, we elected to weigh anchor and move over to the west side of the harbour where we would have more protection from the wind and much more room to swing on the anchor. Its a good thing we chose to move too! We had been anchored between a boat that appeared to have an absent owner and another boat that belonged to friends of friends. In the morning we learned that the former had dragged anchor right through the spot where we had been and collided with the latter. No serious damage done as far as we know but I hate getting up in the middle of the night to deal with other people’s problems! (Yes, that’s a work-related joke).

On Sunday we were on the move again. This time we moved to Gorge Harbour on Cortes Island. This is only about a ten mile trip and we had favourable wind so we sailed the whole way. We were hoping to see more of the whales but they had either moved on or they just weren’t visible to us in the higher waves that day. The sailing was fantastic, we sailed on all points and ran downwind wing-on-wing for quite a while. When we reached Uganda Passage we started up the motor. Uganda Passage has a 90 degree dog leg around some rocks with maybe 50m between them at the corner. We’re just not that comfortable in our close-quarters sailing ability yet! It is a remarkable place; long sandy Shark Spit extends north from Marina Island and nearly touches the south shore of Cortes Island. Given a photo and no further information you might assume that it was a beach in Hawaii or the South Pacific. Maureen expertly piloted us through the passage and then into Gorge Harbour. Gorge Harbour is named for the entrance to the place which is a third of a mile long about 50m wide and is bordered by a very tall cliff on one side and a steep bank on the other.

Once inside the harbour we had a quick lesson in Karma. There are actually few suitable places to anchor in this ideally sheltered looking harbour. It turns out that most of the bottom is shale and I don’t think there are any anchors that excel at shale. We motored up to the north west end where the cruising guides suggested the best anchoring was to be found. On our first try we dropped the anchor on a rocky bottom and it didn’t set. It dragged about fifty feet when we reversed the engine so we pulled it up (A bit of work with a manual windlass and then started to motor forward to try again. Just as we were motoring back to the spot a large powerboat raced in and dropped in our spot like it was a WalMart parking lot! After a few admonishing words we moved on north up the anchorage and selected another spot which turned out to be ideal. The boat that took the disputed spot rafted up with two other giant powerboats. Needless to say: anchors dragged, there was a rescue of the powerboats by some of the locals and we stayed snug where we had dropped our anchor. Karma.

Gorge Harbour is quite nice. They did a major renovation in 2009 that included some beautiful landscaping, new docks, fuel station, a restaurant, store and various other buildings including washrooms and laundry. The setting reminds me alternately of Panama and Disneyland. I’m still working on deciphering the similarity between the two but whatever it is, Gorge has it! The store and the restaurant are very expensive but there is water at the dock, the laundry is handy and the pool is great. You can sit in the pool or the hot tub and look out over the harbour where your boat is anchored! We stayed at Gorge for several days enjoying the pool and family movie night at the gazebo. There is also live music every night down by the shore. Maureen managed to wreck her cell phone by dropping it from the mast (the knot was not secured properly when she sent it up the mast for a better signal). The first day we were there we walked about two kilometres down the road to Whaletown hoping to make use of the local post office. Unfortunately, it closes at 16:00 and when we arrived at 15:55 the government employee was already closing and was not interested in selling us stamps. However, Whaletown is beautiful. Its as though it was lifted right out of Huckleberry Finn. The main street has four or five houses with picket fences and apple trees lining a narrow street overhung by large shady branches. One of the locals introduced us to the swimming hole where the sea water is calm and warm and we jumped right in to cool off after our walk.

On the 21st made the very short hop over to Manson’s Landing as it had been recommended by several people. The anchorage is pretty exposed and unsettled but there is an enormous lagoon there that we wandered around in at low tide for a few hours. We discovered that sand-dollars fly like frisbees! We walked up to the town (about 2 km from the anchorage) on a forested trail called the sea-to-school-trail that brings us into town via the school ground. We stopped for a quick game of tether ball at the school. Jerome has never seen tether ball and I haven’t played since I was Jerome’s age at my Grandpa’s house!We visited an interesting little museum and then wandered down the road to catch the last few minutes of the local market, mail some letters at (the much more professional) post office and visit the local Co-op. The Co-op has a little grocery store, a cafe and a bookstore. The courtyard there is a place where local families tend to gather to chat and swing on the half-moon tree swing. Jerome and Maureen checked in at the bookstore to pick up some new Tintin and Asterix books and then we gathered up some groceries and hiked back down the road to the anchorage. A nice visit and we would have liked to spend some more time at the lagoon, especially at a higher tide but the anchorage is marginal and a big blow was forecast so on the 22nd we set a course for Prideaux Haven. We never got there!

A snug spot in Refuge Cove

We sailed down the west coast of Cortes but by the time we got to the south end (all of a sudden you could see the mountains of Desolation Sound!) the winds were 10-15 knots coming from ESE which was directly where we wanted to go. Wave height is usually determined by two things: wind speed and fetch. Wind speed is self-explanatory and fetch is just the distance that the wind has to work on the water and create the waves. Where we were sailing that day the “fetch” is essentially the entire length of the Georgia Strait all the way down to Bellingham, Washington. To experienced sailors -and there were a few of these around making it look easy- these conditions were probably unremarkable but to us it was time to strike the sails and motor like newbies! Nobody was really enjoying the travelling and so, taking advantage of the freedom that we have to make decisions on-the-fly, we pulled into the aptly named Refuge Cove rather than suffer the next six or seven miles into Prideaux. Another fortuitous decision!

Refuge Cove on West Redonda Island is a nice harbour developed in the sixties or seventies by some “back-to-the-earth quasi-hippies” as one of the locals explained it to us. A group of relatively wealthy (and remarkably well educated) Vancouverites bought a large swath of land around the harbour and set up a Co-op. To this day there are only nine permanent residents. All are members of the Co-op and anyone who purchases one of the properties there has to be approved by the Co-op and buy into it. The commercial spaces are all owned by the Co-op and leased to businesses and furthermore, the businesses must be owned by Co-op members. There is a grocery store/general store with much better prices and selection than either Gorge or Manson’s, a fuel dock, a busy restaurant, showers ($5 for unlimited time), laundry, bathrooms and a bookstore that has neither staff nor doors. We’re all suckers for a book store but this one turned out to be a particular favourite place for Yasmin. For whatever reason she took an instant affinity for the bookstore and would probably have slept there during the nights if we’d let her. We met several interesting people here, Sandy runs a store there and gave us plenty of valuable information including some thoughts about places where we might spend the winter this year. We ran into John C a couple of times and spent several hours chatting about the local area and his considerable experience sailing there.

The forecast was for several days of strong winds and we were able to find a very secure spot to anchor here in a small shallow bay north east of the store. We took advantage of the warm water to have a look at the hull. It needed a bit of attention in that the stow-aways were definitely slowing the boat down! I also noticed that it was time to change the zinc on the propellor shaft and its a good thing that I did. On the third day of diving, I took the zinc and an Allen wrench down to change it and when I loosened off the old zinc it just crumbled in my hands! I hadn’t paid it too much attention because the hull zincs are still good so I just assumed… After a few days we had seen what there was to see and done what we needed to do (and Maureen had wrecked another cell phone by swimming with it) so it was time to move on. The night before we left we were sitting on deck watching a seagull when we heard a great splash. The source of the splash was a bit of a mystery but there were significant ripples spreading from the spot and a moment later we saw what for all the world looked like a tiny replay of Jaws! There was what appeared to be a tiny shark dorsal fin making its way across the surface in the direction of the seagull. Apparently the seagull had also seen Jaws because he immediately opted for discretion and flew off. From our perspective on deck we were able to make out a very large starry flounder swimming just under the surface. He swam clear across the bay and, having found a suitable spot, dove back down not to be heard from again. The seagull eventually recovered from the scare and returned looking for crumbs.

On July 27th after getting fuel, water and making sure Yas did her business on the pet path, we were off to Roscoe Bay Marine Provincial Park on the east side of West Redonda Island up Waddington Channel. Roscoe Bay is a “timed entry” park….you can only get into the bay when

Roscoe Bay

the tide is medium to high otherwise your boat will hit the bottom. We sailed over “the bar” in 8 feet of water (lots of room for Finn!) and dropped our anchor and stern tied to the south side of the bay. We hopped in the dingy, rowed over to the west side of the bay, went for a bit of a hike and finally reached Black Lake. It’s freshwater, very pretty and quite warm once you slide down the very slippery rocks and get in. Jerome had a great time looking at the bottom. Yas tried to swim but the slide down into the lake on bumpy rocks wasn’t working for her! She swam in the ocean when I took her for an evening expedition. We saw two otters playing in the bay and a harbour seal slapping his tail (possibly chasing fish).

Our dingy acquired a large slash in the forward compartment. Not so beneficial in an inflatable dingy! We managed to patch it while at Roscoe Bay. Just for your information, there are so many oysters along the shores in Desolation Sound. In fact in Pendrell Sound, its the perfect location to produce oyster spat or seed so the whole Sound is a stretch where you have to go slow in your boat (no wake zone). Japanese oysters were introduced to the area supposedly in the 1970s and they haven’t stopped expanding yet! Oysters may be great to eat but they are awful to walk or swim around – they are nature’s razors. It is common advice in Desolation Sound – always wear shoes (and leg armour) in the water….if the barnacles don’t cut you, the oysters will.

We also went snorkeling in the channel leading into Roscoe Bay. Yas sat in the trees along the shore while we checked out the very tiny sea stars and fish. Jerome and I went fishing outside of the bay but we didn’t catch anything and managed to lose the only jigging lure that we have. We will stock up on many of them the next time we see them!

On July 29th, we were off to Walsh Cove Marine Provincial Park going north between West and East Redonda Islands up the Waddington Channel. We went into Pendrell Sound on the way and motored almost to the head. The waters of Pendrell Sound are supposedly the warmest waters north of Mexico in the summer. The waters are very deep (1007 ft) with little tide changes and currents giving the water a chance to warm up to reach at least 20ºC. Because of this warmth, there was some fog that we sailed through as well. I jumped in and out many times when we stopped to look around but could not convince Maureen and Jerome to join me. We practised a man-overboard drill because I was in the water anyways and, after they successfully rescued me, we were on our way again continuing back out of Pendrell Sound and north up Waddington Channel to Walsh Cove.

It is really quite something to be sailing between so many mountains covered with so many trees! If there was different vegetation, you could almost think that you were in Hawaii. It is an incredibly beautiful area of our great country! On a different note, it’s really quite sad to see so many clear cuts along the mountains as you go by and to never see any old growth at all. The deforestation, the overpopulation of oysters, the abundance of fish farms in so many nooks along all the islands, the increased foreign ownership and the increased range and number of the whale watching boats, to name just five situations, are certainly changing the look of the area from what it must have been like in the classic Canadian novel The Curve of Time” by Muriel Wylie Blanchet. For being an area that is remote and desolate (no cell phone coverage or internet anywhere here!), man is making a substantial impact. Everyone should get there and see it before it is no longer.

We didn’t expect much for Walsh Cove by looking at the chart but it was a surprise winner and it seems to be a favourite for the American boaters. Almost every vessel in the cove was from south of the border. We anchored on the west side and stern tied (we are definitely getting better at that!) and went exploring. Jerome claimed many of the islands for his country and named the islands the Yassy Archipelago. There was Shattered Plate Island and Evergreen Island. When we went snorkeling we saw fish, sea stars (one was very unusual), big hermit crabs, sculpins, seeding oysters and drop offs and deep parts. We only meant to say overnight but stayed two days instead!

Trystan also made bread while we were at Walsh Cove with a recipe that uses a pressure cooker as an oven. This was a much better idea than lighting the oven which heats up all of us and the galley. The bread was absolutely amazing with butter and we are looking forward to perfecting the recipe to our tastes!