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Chartering a Boat to Explore British Columbia's Gulf Islands

By: Bill Jennings

Every true boater thinks about taking a holiday cruise in their own boat. Perhaps you have cruised some big lakes and are ready for something more adventurous but cannot decide on the perfect location?To answer this key question, begin by writing down what you believe would constitute the perfect cruise. Here is the list of ‘ingredients’ that I used to decide on a great family cruise destination.

  • I wanted protected waters that provide smooth sailing.

  • A variety of destinations that provide a variety of things to see and do.

  • A total vacation time investment of between one to three weeks.

  • A cruise route that calls for an easy to manage cruise time on the water each day.

  • A route that provides a round trip for a different destination every day.

  • Travel through natural beauty, but within easy reach of civilization and safety.`

  • A total cost that is the same or less than a quality, inclusive travel package.

If these objectives are close to what you are looking for, you should consider the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, off the West Coast of BC. Here are some details on the route and travel stops that we took.

The Gulf Islands can be navigated in a relatively small boat. Surprisingly, you will see a lot of aluminum outboards plying these ocean waters. If you can trailer your 25’ cuddy to a boat ramp in Vancouver, you will be able to enjoy these magnificent waters. That said, a boat size between 30 and 48 feet would be ideal.

Pre-planning is important for any trip, but even more-so when boating. Buy the overview charts for Gulf Islands. They include valuable information about each of the islands as well as measurable reference points. It is fun and practical to meet with your whole crew a few weeks before the trip. Using the charts, plan your stops and then, call the harbour master for each stop and book a slip. Overnight marina space varies from $1 to $2 per foot. They will usually adjust your date without charge if circumstances require. Much of your on-route navigation will be done with a GPS chart plotter or the Navionics app on your laptop or tablet. Our chartered boat from False Creek in Vancouver came loaded with electronics including radar, autopilot and an AIS, (which automatically identifies the location, speed and direction of traffic).

For provisions, we found it sufficient to make a list and go shopping on the night before we departed Vancouver. The food we bought covered breakfast for six every day, light sandwiches for lunch, and liquids for happy hour. We knew that at each destination there would be a choice of good restaurants for dinner and after all, the ladies were on vacation too. Casual clothing and rain gear will cover everything you will need to wear.

If you are chartering, the internet will help you select a charter company that has the right boat for you. “Shoulder seasons” offer discounted prices where the weather can still be excellent. Be sure the company is clear on exactly when you plan to pick up and return the boat. They will perform a safety briefing for you that includes a brief ride around the docks. Assuming you can walk away from this, you are good to go. Be sure to fill the tanks as soon as you take delivery of the boat in order to avoid any discrepancies regarding fuel used. Total fuel consumption for this cruise is low because daily running time is low and you can travel slowly. Of course, these charter details won’t apply if you use your own boat.

For day one of our cruise, we departed False Creek, toured Vancouver Harbour then cruised the 15 miles to Snug Harbour on Bowen Island. This short trip gave everyone a chance to learn the boat and get comfortable with its operation. Bowen Island is a bedroom community for Vancouver. The marina offers shopping at the Union Steamship Company stores and Doc Morgan’s is always a fun place to eat. The visitor information centre has walking trail maps and interesting details about the island.

After an early departure on day two, we rounded the south end of Bowen Island and plotted a direct route to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. This 35-mile open water crossing can be flat or a little lumpy, but your speed can be adjusted to avoid trauma. Crossing to the islands will take between 3 and 4 hours at comfortable speeds. Closing in on Newcastle Island you will spot one of the famous B.C. ferries and you can use them for reference as you motor through Departure Bay.

The Nanaimo marinas are lined up on the channel between the city and Newcastle Island. We chose the city owned marina at the south and moored close to several restaurants. Nanaimo has a big city feel with multiple amenities and restaurants to choose from. The water’s edge Maffeo Sutton park gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs before dining. If your schedule permits, visit the Petroglyph Park and one of the beer breweries.

In the morning of day three, we took a 15-minute water taxi ride from downtown Nanaimo to Newcastle Island. This island offers a beautiful shoreline walk that includes remnants of the coal mine that put Nanaimo on the map. We were back on our boat before lunchtime and zipped through the fast-moving water in Dodd Narrows, exiting into the Trincomali Channel, heading southeast. This route offers some spectacular views and while you will refer to your GPS, it is well marked. Halfway down Salt Spring Island we rounded Nose Point and into Ganges Harbour. The marinas are close to the small-town action and restaurants. The Tree House Cafe on the water is a unique place to stop to quench your thirst. Ganges is a base for Harbour Air, the first seaplane airline in the world to operate electric powered aircraft. You will see lots of them, flying in travelers from the mainland.

Heading south from Salt Spring on day four, we passed through a group of scenic islands, each with its own interesting history. Within two hours we passed Swartz Bay and pulled into the huge Sidney Marina. Souvenir and art shops are sprinkled along a downtown walk. The seafood restaurant on the pier is excellent.

On day five, we motored down the east coast of Vancouver Island, through the Chatham Island group, then west into Victoria Harbour. There is plenty of boat and aircraft action here, so large floaters are used to separate marine traffic. While we had several marinas to chose from, we chose to moor in central downtown, directly in front of the Empress Hotel. This historic hotel is a destination in itself, so be sure to tour the gardens and old architecture. Victoria is the capital of B.C. and at night the parliament buildings light up the skyline. Time permitting, the close by Victoria Museum is home to a spectacular collection of west coast history.

While you may want to spend more time at any of the destinations we visited, I will continue to describe this cruise as a one day stop at each marina to keep within a logical sequence of stops. Day six is an interesting cruise north, through a series of islands. By this point you will have purchased a book on the Gulf Islands and can appreciate the historical significance of each one as you pass. Because Vancouver Island juts south of the 48th parallel, you must be careful on this leg not to intrude into the USA. If you spot in your wake a nasty looking patrol boat with a 50 caliber machine gun on the bow, you have made this mistake. To avoid the problem, head north to Moresby Island before turning east to South Pender Island. Bedwell Harbour on South Pender is a chance to relax and enjoy the country life offered by the Gulf Islands. The restaurant overlooking the marina offers quality fare and a quiet evening.

If you enjoyed Bedwell Harbour, an option play here would be to travel north to Galiano Island and spend a night in rustic Montague Harbour. If you skip this stop, your day seven destination is Telegraph Harbour, on the west side of Thetis and Kuper Islands. We used our dingy to cross the channel to the local pub for dinner. Telegraph is known for good fishing and whale watching.

Day eight begins your return to mainland B.C. We cruised north through the Gabriola Passage and once in open water, followed a north, northeast heading towards the town of Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast. Care is required through the tidal depths of Shoal Channel, but once through, Gibsons is on your immediate left. Chose one of the two marinas and enjoy a host of activities for the balance of the day that include a large public art gallery, a marine education centre and whale watching.

On our final day, we took a relaxing cruise through Howe Sound (which I have written about before), around Keats and Bowen Islands and into the Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. Pictures cannot do justice to the beauty you will encounter on this exciting cruise through the B.C. Gulf Islands. If you as a boater have any desire to plan a cruise, my recommendation would be the same as a popular sporting goods company: “Just Do It."

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Dan Wickham
Dan Wickham

The Interpretive Center you refer to is not in Telegraph Harbour. It is in Telegraph COVE, about 185NM northwest, in Johnstone Strait. Quite a voyage from the Gulf Islands.

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