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Voyages: Saltspring Island

The Circumnavigation of Saltspring Island

This vacation, we wanted to circumnavigate Saltspring Island and see Pirates Cove. We managed to accomplish both of these goals plus we discovered Conover Cove, Wallace Island, Telegraph Harbor, Maple Bay, Cowichan Marina, and revisited Montague Harbor, Ganges Harbor, Bedwell, Otter Bay, and the beautiful Todd Inlet.

Following the same entry route into Canada as last year, we headed for Bedwell Harbor, South Pender Island to clear customs. As we entered Bedwell Harbor, we noticed that there were very few boats moored in the harbor. We tied up to the customs dock and my wife went up to the customs office to clear in. When she returned to the boat, she repeated a story from the Customs officer. The week before our arrival, one of the Foss tugs used for pleasure cruising was quietly sitting along the dock when it inadvertently went to full forward thrust and demolished several rows of docks and "T" boned a fiber glass boat against the customs dock. A little boy was in the crushed boat at the time but luckily, they got him out unharmed before it sank. The Foss family operates a large fleet of tugs from Alaska to Puget Sound. The tug involved in the accident was an older vessel long retired from commercial service and now used as a pleasure craft. The incident ruined the rest of the tourist season for the Bedwell Harbor. The grocery store and other Bedwell shops were closed. So, with our customs clearance in hand, we departed for Montague Harbor, the jewel of Galliano Island.

Montague Harbor has a wonderful park, lots of buoys and a good ice cream shop. Once secured to a buoy, we blew up the rubber dink and set off for cones and exploration. Last year we were hard core and used a hard dink and oars. This year we brought a 9 foot rubber dink and a 2 hp engine. We found that depending on oars for locomotion limited our exploration as my back is not as strong as it once was. The 2 hp engine allows us to travel further and more importantly, quietly wander through the tide pools and shallows without disturbing the wildlife. At the end of our exploration, the engine provides enough extra power to overcome currents and wind during the trip back to the boat. We traveled the entire Montague Harbor shoreline plus several miles of the surrounding waters.

Early the next morning we headed northward to Wallace Island. About 30 minutes into our journey we passed through a brief rain shower but the visibility continued to be good, so the navigating was easy. Wallace Island is long, narrow and provides two safe anchorages. At the southern end of the island is Conover Cove. This small cove has a narrow entrance, 50 foot dock, and a rather shallow lagoon. At low tide, several boats reported bouncing off the bottom. If you are not luckly enough to secure a spot on the dock, then you must use a bow anchor/stern line to shore combination to maintain your position in the small cove. There is no room to swing at anchor.

We tied up to the dock and then began a walk around the island. Our exploration revealed another protected cove on the west side of the island. We took time to sit on the rocky beach and enjoy the sea life and the orange glow from the autumn sun. Later, we took the dink and motored to the far north end of the island. A fellow in a neighboring boat took his sailing dink completely around the island. He reported ample wind and enjoyed the trip. Wallace Island Marine Park is very beautiful and well worth the visit. In the future, we plan to come back and take our time exploring the entire park. But, for this vacation, we elected not to stay over night due to the shallow depth of the lagoon. On the chart we could see that Telegraph Harbor at Thetis Island would be a good anchorage, so we slipped the mooring lines at Conover Cove and headed northward.


Dock at Conover Cove


North Wallace Island

The trip to Telegraph Harbor was a short one and we quickly made fast to the dock. The next morning we planned to head further north to Pirates Cove.

Several years ago I read an article about Pirates Cove in a national sailing magazine. The article described the challenge of entering the small cove. The cove is shaped somewhat like an oblong letter "P" with the stem of the letter representing the entrance and the belly being the lagoon. The listed hazards were, no protection from a north wind, plenty of submerged reefs near the entrance, a narrow and shallow entrance, and once in the cove, you were rewarded with lousy anchor holding. Sounds like my kind a place.

Pirates Cove entrance

So, we motored up to about 200 yards from the entrance to take a look (see above picture) and watched as several boats went into the lagoon. Sometimes ya just have to follow the crowd, so I zipped into my sheep's costume and headed in. About this time my prudent wife starts to get nervous. She sez "do you know what you're doin'?". Her statement is the usual sign that I'm about to do something loony. Little does she know that I'm searching my brain cells to remember the correct route needed to get through the reef. Then like a bolt of lightning, luck comes my way. I see the arrow and corresponding "X" on the shore and align the boat with these markers. We press onward until the entrance is on the port beam and swing the boat 90 degrees to port. I spot the floating red buoy to starboard and head for a route equidistant between the red buoy and the concrete marker to port (square marker in the above picture). We were both watching the bottom as the boat glided past the concrete monument and slowly into the lagoon. The lagoon was quiet and rather small. I recalled the embellished description in the magazine article and after the challenge of "gettin' in", I felt a touch of disappointment creep into my sole. I was expecting a quiet undeveloped lagoon but instead we found lots of boats, a private dock, and no place to anchor without swinging around into everyone's way. We drifted for awhile and then departed for greener pastures. It felt good to step out of the sheep's costume.

Because Pirates Cove is located at the far north end of the Canadian Gulf Islands, we headed south bound intending to complete the circumnavigation of Saltspring Island. It became readily apparent that strong winds were building. Although last years experiences improved our boat handling skills, we still run for cover when the seas and winds get too high. As the wind continued to build, we decided to head back to Telegraph Harbor to find protection from the wind and waves. It is great to be in a snug harbor when the wires are singing.

The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.
- MacNiece

Thankfully We were not in the Southern Ocean that inspired the writing of the above words. We were securely tied to the end of the rambling wooden walkway in Telegraph Harbor on Thetis Island. I could hear the whistle of wind through the rigging and feel the jostling of boats as mother nature was only beginning to remind us that fall weather would soon be upon us and that winter's cold and blustery mood would follow. The mono-toned weather radio announcer whined over the static "gales 35 on the Straits of Juan de Fuca" followed by "gales 35 on the Straits of Georgia".

Not willing to give up all exploring for the day, we looked around and found a narrow meandering channel called "THE CUT" passing between Thetis and Kuper Islands. The tall trees and narrow watery reaches provided protection from the wind and offered glimpses of nature at her best. It is always fun to take the dink into shallow off beaten waterways where you glide along not having to worry about the depth of the fin keel. Peering down through the clear water you could spot occasional thrusts of sand coming up from the bottom as hidden creatures sieved the water for life. Sea gulls stopped their fighting long enough to watch us glide past. Along the way, the sea bottom changed from undulating fine brown sand, to eel grass, then to rock as the channel continued to the eastern side of the island. The tide was of medium height which resulted in a depth of three to fifteen feet. As if the increasing wind and growing waves were not a sufficient signal that we should retrace our wanderings, a tall wooden piling marked the far eastern end of our channel and turn around point. Natures wonder warmed our hearts as we wandered our way back to the boat and dinner.

Our second goal of circumnavigating Saltspring Island was still not accomplished so, in the morning we headed southwest bound. In contrast to the preceding day, the wind was calm and therefore required the iron sail to push us along. We headed down Stuart Channel, Sansum Narrows and took a tourist look at Maple Bay, Genoa Bay and then Cowichan Harbor Marina. Around midday, we decided to head for Ganges Harbor and anchor for the evening. Upon reaching Ganges Harbor, we achieved the circumnavigation of Saltspring Island.

Ganges Harbor

We gave Ganges a call on the radio and they assigned a slip. When we glided up to where the harbor diagram showed the location of the slip. Guess what? The slip numbers did not match. As we later discovered, the previous year, Ganges suffered a very damaging wind storm that destroyed or rearranged many of the docks and as a result many of the slip numbers changed locations. We wandered around like lost sheep until we finally found the correct space. After making the lines fast, I started talking to a Canadian owned boat next door. They were telling me about their planned trip to the US San Juan Islands and it stuck me as ironic that we were US citizens seeing the Canadian Gulf Islands and they were Canadian citizens wanting to see the US San Juan Islands. It seems like the grass is always greener on the other side. From our prospective, we find the San Juan Islands beautiful but limited in area. The Canadian islands cover a larger area and therefore provide more opportunities for exploration.

Winter Cove, is another anchorage that requires a prescribed path into the cove. Most of the cove is rather shallow and there are many stories of groundings at low tide. On the north side of the cove you can find the feature I like best about the entire area, "Boat Pass". This pass is about 40 feet wide and every time I have seen it, the current out of the cove was very swift (8 to 10 knots). A person can walk out on the nearby rocks and watch the boats take the wild ride through the turbulent water. The passage through Winter Cove and Boat Pass is a short cut into the Straits of Georgia thereby eliminating the need to go completely around Saturna Island. However, in addition to the swift current and narrow pass, there are many submerged reefs as you exit the pass. As I sat on the rocks with my camera, I witnessed one boat hit a reef. They were lucky as they were able to continue their travels, although very slowly. They must have suffered a bent propeller.

Swift current through Boat Pass

When I was standing out on the rocky pinnsula adjacent to Boat Pass, two boats approached the pass from opposite sides. Neither boat could see the other so I waived at a sail boat to halt progress and in turn waived the Coast Guard boat to proceed. The CG boat made their way through the pass as shown in the following picture. Believe me, they used plenty of power to punch through the current.

Canadian Coast Guard in Boat Pass

Leepin' Lizards Molly, the big fish are jumpin'

Dolphins are my favorite marine creatures. We are usually quietly cruising along in a stupor when suddenly they come upon our boat in a flash. Their grace, speed and sounds capture your entire consciousness. Photographing them seems impossible. The camera is never handy or it never has the proper lens attached. Some day I would like to feel their skin. It appears so silky, glistening and smooth. We were heading out of Montague Harbor when we spotted this group. For a brief few seconds we watched them play and then they returned to their own hidden world.

Unlike the dolphins, our time for exploration and observation was coming to an end for this summer. The trip home now consumed our thoughts.

Her expression says it all.
Oh Fun!? Back in the locks again.

Happy Sailing to all!

Last modified by Phil Imhof, Monday, August 09, 2004 . Copyright 2001 by Catalina 34 International Association.  All rights reserved.