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Exploring the Rugged Beauty of British Columbia's Howe Sound by Boat

By: Bill Jennings

Where can you go boating on blue seas and calm water, between white tipped mountains covered in green forests , all within a few minutes of a major Canadian city? If you live in greater Vancouver, you know the answer.


Howe Sound is a major fjord, located on the west side of the Sea to Sky Highway that runs north to join West Vancouver to Whistler Mountain. Within the Sound there are a number of large islands that provide additional attractions. Your day of boating on Howe Sound will likely begin from one of several marinas on the north shore coastline – Thunderbird Marine, Sewell’s Marina, Sunset Marine, or Lions Bay Marina. There are also two beautiful yacht clubs in West Vancouver that front onto the Sound, Eagle Harbour Y.C. and West Vancouver Y.C. If your boat is currently moored in Nova Scotia, you can still boat Howe Sound by renting a small runabout, chartering a cruise, or taking a B.C. Ferry. Let me take you on an imaginary trip around Howe Sound and tell you about some of the amazing places you will want to visit.

Boating in Howe Sound BC
Photo Courtesy of Bill Jennings

As we pull out of Sewell’s Marina in Horseshoe Bay we head north, with the West Vancouver coastline on our starboard. We pass Sunset Beach before reaching the community of Lions Bay. Above the town, remnants of a volcanic cone form the famous twin mountain peaks, called “The Lions.” They stand over 5,000 feet on the eastern Howe Sound shoreline. We can stop at Lions Bay Marina to pick up some water and watch the unique method they use to move boats between their dry storage and the water.

As you continue north, keep an eye out for commercial boats. Lumber is a major resource in British Columbia and getting that lumber to a mill can present a hazard for unsuspecting boaters. Small, slow moving tugs pull enormous log bundles on a single cable, up to 500 yards behind their boat. This tow line runs below the surface of the water and many a disaster has happened when small boats attempt to pass between the tug and the logs being pulled behind.

North of Lions Bay is the National Historic Site of Britannia Beach. There, the remains of the largest producing copper mine in the British Empire remains to be explored. If you like tunnels, this museum is a ‘must see.’

But we are looking for natural beauty today, so why not boat a little further north to Shannon Falls Provincial Park. Here, a magnificent 1000-foot cascade tumbles from the mountain and flows into Howe Sound. It is the third highest waterfall in B.C. The park is also close to the timber town of Squamish, located at the top of Howe Sound. This town is more easily viewed by car, so because of this and to have sufficient time to explore the west side of Howe Sound, we will stop short. We have already traveled 28 miles to this point.

Heading west/southwest we cross the open waters of the Sound and run between the islands of Gambier and Bowen. Rambling through the open waters of Howe Sound you will inevitably run across one or more of British Columbia’s famous ferry boats. As soon as you see one, make a course correction to stay as far away as possible. These ferries are very large, very white and very heavy - some holding close to 400 vehicles and over 2,000 passengers. The Crown Corporation “BC Ferries” is the largest passenger ferry service in North America and brings in over 850 million dollars in revenue each year. Just remember that they have the “right of weight.” Sometimes they will give you a blast with their ear-splitting bass horn, but other times they will give the impression they are trying to crush you.

BC Ferry Howe Sound British Columbia
Photo Courtesy Bill Jennings

It is interesting to note that despite the larger than life ocean environment of Howe Sound, boating in these waters is remarkably user friendly. A peek at winds, weather and tides and you are good for a day of cruising.

As you run along the south side of Gambier Island you pass by three large bays - Port Graves, Centre Bay then West Bay. The property in these bays is privately owned, but I often stop into Camp Artaban at Port Graves to wander the grounds and connecting roadways.

Rounding Keats Island, you turn southwest towards the town of Gibsons. You may recall the television program The Beachcombers? It was a CBC series that we thought would never end. The restaurant, Molly’s Reach, where the series played out each episode, was recently sold and we can now go there to grab a drink and watch one of the programs we missed. As well as being a fishing village full of atmosphere, Gibsons is also the southern end of the Sunshine Coast Highway. Interestingly, you can’t drive around Howe Sound by road. If you want to drive up the coast of BC on the Sunshine Coast Highway you must take a ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons, then drive north from there.

Gibsons Marina Howe Sound BC
Gibsons Marina / Photo Courtesy Bill Jennings

When heading home in the afternoon, I always stop at a government dock on the north side of Keats.The BC government maintains many such docks throughout the province, for both emergencies and island access. They are all painted bright red and offer short term free moorage. I particularly like this one on Keats Island because it is at the head of a beautiful hiking trail.

Rounding Bowen Island on the trip back to Horseshoe Bay, we spot the entrance buoy to Snug Cove. Entering the cove, we find free public moorage and close to twenty restaurants, coffee shops, pubs and bakeries awaiting our business. It is a great place to wind down the day and have light dinner. With so many things to see and do, Snug Cove can be an all-day destination on its own. It’s the many interesting destinations in Howe Sound that make this fjord so special.

From Snug Cove on Bowen Island back to Sewell’s Marina at Horseshoe Bay is just a 25-minute ride. While a day cruise on Howe Sound is spectacular, it will only serve to whet your appetite for the many other activities you will find. You can book one of Sewell Marine’s cruises to watch the seals on Pam Rocks, or have them take you on a salmon fishing expedition. For scuba divers there is a dedicated dive park within Howe Sound called Porteau Cove Provincial Park. It features a sunken ship, where divers can view over 100 different species.

And what could be better than doing all of this by boat?

Howe Sound BC
Photo Courtesy Bill Jennings
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