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Getting to the Broughton Islands

Posted by on January 9, 2013

The Broughton Archipeligo contains hundreds of islands, tiny to large.  It is located east of Vancouver Island, at the southern end of Queen Charlotte Strait.  It’s a long way from Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, and the other large pacific northwest cities but it’s worth the effort.  For more detailed info and some photos go to our Broughton Islands page.

The following is a discussion of how we get to the Broughton Islands, for some of the most beautiful cruising in the world.  These are our suggestions and by no means is there just one “right” way to do it.

1.             There are essentially three ways to get your cruising boat to the Broughton Islands from the southeast.  We will assume a starting point of Anacortes, Bellingham, or points near or around Vancouver, or points near or around Victoria and the southern Gulf Islands.

A.            Anacortes and Bellingham.  If you leave from these areas you have two choices.

First, go west to the Gulf Islands and then head northwest up through the protected waters to Nanaimo, with whatever stops along the way you desire.  If you and everyone on board have Nexus or Canpass permits you can check in by phone and then proceed to a variety of different stops to complete your passage into Canada.  If you do not have permits you must proceed to one of the fewer points of entry.  Popular points of entry are Bedwell Harbor, Sydney, and even Nanaimo if you make a very long first day.  The route northwest through the Gulf Islands is more protected than just going up the Georgia Strait but it will take longer.

Once you are in Nanaimo you must be sure that the torpedo range (Whiskey Golf) is not active, make sure the weather is suitable, and then proceed across the Georgia Strait to Malespina Strait (inside of Texada Island) and then northwest.  If Whiskey Golf is active you must head northwest to Ballenas Island, then continue NW or cut across the Georgia Strait to Malespina Strait.  From Nanaimo, if the weather is fair you can easily reach Pender Harbor, or points further north such as Blind Bay, Sturt Bay, West Sound, Lund, or even Desolation Sound.

From Nanaimo you can also proceed along the coast of Vancouver Island to Hornby Island (a decent anchorage except if winds come from the south) or Comox, or even as far as Campbell River.   But you must have good weather to make the long distances.  Since prevailing winds during the summer are from the NW you can expect to have winds working against you.  If the winds are blowing against the current you can expect an unpleasant experience.  This is why most folks leave from Nanaimo in the morning before the prevailing winds kick up and cross the Georgia Strait to Malespina Strait then stay inside Texada Island.

Second, from Anacortes or Bellingham you can proceed NW up the Georgia Strait.  If you can make it to Nanaimo you can do your customs check in there.  Or you can stay on the east side of the Strait and go to Vancouver and do your check in there.  Either involves a long day and the weather and currents must be favorable.  We prefer to stop at Point Roberts after a relatively short day and then proceed to Vancouver.  Another option is to go to Semiahmoo Marina in Blaine and then (if you have Nexus permits) check in at the White Rook public dock the next morning (about 2.5 miles away).  However, it gets shallow there and we only use that option if we can do the check in at or near high tide.  Power boats with less draft may not have to worry so much.  With the Nexus permits you can call ½ hour before your expected ETA and then proceed to the White Rock dock.  If no one is there to meet you (the usual case) you may proceed without landing.  Its very convenient.  Call in, get your clearance, proceed to the dock, wait offshore and if no one comes go from there.  From White Rock you can easily get to Vancouver, Snug Cove marina on Bowen Island, Gibsons, Plumper Cove, or even Smuggler Cove, Secret Cove, or Pender Harbor.

B.            Vancouver and surrounding areas.  From Vancouver and the area around it is best to simply go up the mainland coast.  You can easily get to Smuggler Cove, Secret Cove, or Pender Harbor or continue even further north.

2.             Assuming you make it to Campbell River or the Desolation Sound area, you have made it through the first Gate, that is the Strait of Georgia.  Now you have another choice.

A.            You can either go NW up Johnstone Strait (from Campbell River) or bypass most of Johnstone Strait by going the “inside route”.  We prefer the inside route.  The reason is that Johnstone Strait is long, has very strong currents (with some dangerous areas) and has prevailing winds from the NW.  If you have a boat that motors at 10 to 12 knots and good weather you can make it all the way up Johnstone Strait in one day but you must go through Seymor Narrows at slack water and then hope you do not get prevailing winds against the current.  If the wind comes up it can really howl at Chatham Point with rough seas and tough going.  If that’s the case, you can bail out by heading NE up Nodales Channel and take shelter at Thurston Bay Marine Park or continue N. to Shoal Bay.  Sailboats can also make the entire Johnstone Strait run in a single day if there are no Northwest winds and the ebb current pushes you along all day.  A southeast wind will help immensely.  With a strong ebb current a sailboat under power may make up to 10 knots over the ground.  However, if there is a NW wind don’t expect to do nearly so well as the wind against the tide will create confused and unpleasant seas.  There are several spots you can duck in and hide along the way in Johnston Strait but if you have to duck in and hide you are having a bad day.  This is why we (with our sailboat and maximum speed of 7.5 knots) prefer the inside route.  However, in 2011 we exited the inside route at Chancellor Channel and motor sailed with the southeast wind and 2 knot ebb current all the way to Havannah Channel and into Port Harvey.  We also encountered several sailboats that made it all the way from Campbell River with following winds and strong ebb current.

B.            The inside route is the best route from Desolation Sound and the Discovery Islands.  It involves navigating Yaculta Rapids, Gillard Pass, and Dent Rapids.  Yaculta Rapids can have very strong currents and during such times must be done at or near slack water.  Gillard Pass can have dangerously strong currents and must be made at or near slack water.  Dent Rapids can have dangerously strong currents and can develop whirlpools that will capsize and sink boats.  These are not areas to trifle with.  That said, the passage need not be dangerous or even nerve racking.

Every mariner must follow make their own calculations depending upon their vessel size and capabilities, their experience, their confidence and the weather.  We have our own basic plan we follow and it works for us.  How we do it is based upon our preference to minimize risk and the possibility of problems.  The following is not advice on how to proceed but simply a prescription of how we do it.

When we proceed through the rapids we do the following.

(1)           We select a time when the tides are not extreme and tidal ranges are at or near minimum.  When the tide ranges (the difference between the high and low tides) are at a minimum the currents will also be less.  There’s a big difference between a maximum current of 6 knots and a maximum current of 3.5 knots.  Its easier to navigate the passage through the rapids when the tidal range is at a low point.

(2)           We chose a time when we can pass through the rapids on the tide changing from flood to ebb.  This means we will exit Dent Rapids running with the current and make good time to our next destination.

(3)           We try to choose a day when the flood turns to ebb in mid-morning to early afternoon.  This means we will have plenty of time to leave our destination (usually someplace in Desolation Sound such as Squirrel Cove, Refuge Cove, Prideux Haven, etc. and arrive at the entry to Yaculta Rapids within our margin of error.  It also means we have an easy run to our next destination, Shoal Bay or Blind Channel Resort.  (We don’t usually leave from Roscoe Bay because then we also have to account for the tide and water depth to exit the Bay and leaving Roscoe Bay at high tide as is necessary means we will not be able to arrive at Yaculta Rapids when the flood is turning to ebb.) If we arrive at Yaculta Rapids bit early we can always slow down and wait a bit.  When we calculate our time to arrive we like to have time to account for the possibility of wind on our bow that will slow our boat speed a bit.

(3)           Since we plan our passage when the tidal range is low we like to arrive at Yaculta Rapids about 30 minutes before the flood changes to ebb.  We enter Yaculta Rapids a the end of the flood tide, on the NE side of the channel just off the marker on Harbott Point of Stuart Island.  Then we proceed NW to Kellsey Point, then cross to the Sonora Island side of the channel and proceed upstream.  This will allow you to ride back eddies on the end of the flood tide.  (An excellent little chart in the tide and current book “Ports and Passages” shows the way to do this.)  You will arrive at Gillard Pass just before or at slack water and can safely proceed and you will make Dent Rapids just after it has turned to ebb.  You should have current with you but since you are going during small tides the current will be less severe and on the ebb current the worst of the whirlpools are minimized. After you exit Dent Rapids you can ride the ebb current all the way to Shoal Bay (a favorite stop) or to Blind Channel Resort (another favorite).

From Shoal Bay or from Blind Channel Resort we can easily make it through Greene Point Rapids and Whirlpool rapids to another good anchorage, Forward Harbor.  If the weather, winds, and currents in Johnstone Strait are favorable we will enter the Strait from Blind Channel, or go through Greene Point Rapids and enter the Strait from Chancellor Channel.  If the conditions are not pleasant we go through Whirlpool Rapids and then we can anchor in Forward Harbor and wait.

Proceeding NW in Johnstone Strait can be uncomfortable if the NW wind is blowing against an ebb current.  The wind generally picks up after noon so going north in the morning is a good idea.  If conditions are bad we just wait it out.  Additionally, Port Neville on the east shore of Johnstone Strati makes a good stopping place if conditions deteriorate.  If not, we like to proceed to Havannah Channel and stop at Port Harvey.  There is a good anchorage at the head of the bay and the Port Harvey Marina is a very friendly and secure stopping point.  (To reach the Port Harvey Marina keep heading north in Port Harvey all the way past Range Island on your starboard side.)

The last “gate” we pass through is Chattam Channel.  It runs from the north end of Havannah Channel through a relatively narrow cut to Minstrel Island and Knight Inlet.  It is important to carefully navigate Chattam Channel but it’s not difficult.  We try and go through near slack water on the high tide.  This gives us a bit more room to maneuver.  There are range markers at the ends of the channel that will guide you through and the shallow points and obstructions can usually be identified by the kelp growth.  We do our planning, go slowly (4-5 knots) and steer carefully.

When we exit Chattam Channel we are at the doorstep to the Broughton Islands. Usually; our first stop is at the slowly disintegrating government docks at Minstrel Island (free moorage) or Lagoon Cove Marina.

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