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Located 95 miles north of Vancouver, BC at the tip of the Strait of Georgia, Desolation Sound is a jewel for boaters in the Pacific North West. Deep water coves and mountainous fjords are a magical backdrop for power and sail boaters as well as kayakers. Minimal tidal exchange in the sound contributes to exceptionally warm ocean waters, and the numerous fresh water lakes ashore, some with tropical like white sand and aqua blue water, simply add to the attraction.
Our group of seven, chose to spend one magical week aboard a 45’ Bavaria yacht. When the pandemic threatened international travel in 2020, and shut down the Canada/USA border, we were forced to recreate closer to home. But calling beautiful British Columbia home, and with a past history of chartering sailboats, we were able to take advantage of a last-minute cancellation, courtesy of an American party unable to cross the border. Scoring the premier yacht in the charter fleet, for our week in early August was a bonus.
We chartered out of Comox on Vancouver Island, with Desolation Sound Yacht Charters. While boats can be rented in Nanaimo or Vancouver, Comox was the closest departure point.
Savary Island, just short of the entrance to Desolation Sound, looks to have been plucked from the tropics, rather than the wilderness of Canada. It is a popular afternoon anchorage for an ocean swim or row to the sandy shore.
Desolation Sound could easily keep you busy for days gunkholing (boater lingo for meandering from anchorage to anchorage), while fishing, harvesting oysters, kayaking, stand up paddle-boarding, swimming, hiking or whale watching.
Whether you want to fulfill a high seas fantasy at the helm of sailboat, or prefer to experience the magic of being at sea, with a hired skipper, there are ways to access this ultimate cruising area without owning a boat.
1. How to charter a boat
Will it be a bareboat charter or hired skipper? The answer depends on your experience. Charter companies will require a resume of boating and sailing experience, including coastal navigation and marine radio certification. Be prepared to document proof of competence, complete a navigation quiz and demonstrate your abilities during an on the water boat check out prior to departure. Having crew on board with boating experience is preferred for yachts greater than 40 feet. You can also hire a certified skipper for the entire charter. Additional fees will apply. Most skippers are fun loving and amicable with holiday groups, but you will need to accommodate for sleeping arrangements.
If you’ve sailed before, but need to brush up on a few things, Chapman’s Piloting & Seamanship is a fabulous guide. Chapman’s has been the leading reference for both power and sail boaters for nearly a century. This essential guide with 928 pages and 1,500 full-color illustrations as well as charts is the bible of boating for anything you may be feeling rusty on. Even if you’re not skippering the boat, knowing a little more about how it all works is sure to add to your enjoyment on the water. Grab a copy on Amazon here, or through Chapters/Indigo.
2. Places to see
There are numerous “must see” destinations in Desolation Sound. This is far from an exhaustive list, but a great place to start.
British explorer Captain George Vancouver first visited Teakerne Arm in 1792, while mapping the area. At the time he was less than impressed with the remoteness of the area, which now seems laughable as people savor the seclusion and soaring peaks rising from deep fjords, particularly striking within Teakerne Arm. No visit is complete without a hike and swim to Cassel Lake above the cliff, and then frolicking in the cascading waterfall below.
Prideaux Haven is undoubtedly one of the most scenic anchorages in Desolation Sound. This well protected harbor has enough arms and interconnecting coves and passageways to accommodate many boats and still offer space, while presenting endless corners to kayak, or explore by dinghy or SUP.
Entrance to Prideaux Haven
Manson’s Landing Marine Park and Hague Lake
The 117-acre Marine Park was established in 1973 to protect the magnificent sand beaches, including 4,000 feet of ocean beach facing Marina Island, 3,400 feet of beach facing the Lagoon, and 1,300 feet of freshwater beach at Hague Lake. Hague Lake’s glistening white sand beach and tropical aqua blue water seem bizarrely transplanted from the tropics.
Roscoe Bay and Black Lake
Roscoe Bay is restricted by tides, but visiting by dinghy or timing it as an overnight stay, will give you access to Black Lake, and a short hike to bare rocks, ideal for sunbathing or diving into warm, fresh water. We found our Earth Pak waterproof dry bag indispensable for the dinghy trips to shore when exploring fresh water lakes.
Refuge Cove on Cortes Island, is the major supply centre for yachts visiting Desolation Sound. Fuel, water and provisions make it a popular stop. The General Store is also a great place to secure a copy of “The Curve of Time” by M. Wylie Blanchet – the true story of a young widowed mother cruising coastal British Columbia with her five young children in a 25-foot sailboat during the summer of 1926. Order it on Amazon here, or through Chapters/Indigo. Reading the book as you explore the same waters is an immersive experience. https://www.newyorker.com/recommends/read/the-curve-of-time-a-mothers-account-of-cruising-the-coast-of-british-columbia-with-her-children
3. Things to do
While good winds are likely to make sailing from Comox to Desolation Sound and back exciting, light winds within the Sound are likely, making fishing, prawning, kayaking, swimming, hiking, stand up paddle boarding, whale watching, oyster and mussel harvesting all viable activities. Provided you have secured a fishing license and there are no shell fish warnings, a dinner from the sea to reward your efforts is absolutely possible! So is whale watching. We spotted several orcas rounding Spitsbury Pt as we approached Cortes Island.
The setting sun at anchor is a daily reward, but a full moon reflecting over the water at night is a bonus for those who plan their charter with the lunar cycle in mind.
4. Pick your crew wisely
Half the fun of cruising is the company you share it with! Our crew was game for adventure and took theme nights seriously, allowing for Mexican, Hawaiian, Italian, Western and Pirate Night to dictate not only food and drinks, but also attire. We kicked it off with the Pirate theme our first evening in Cortes Bay, complete with sabering several bottles of champagne.
We affectionately referred to our trip as the DESO(ISO)LATION SOUND 2020 trip! Feel like getting some custom T-Shirts made for your crew and trip? Order a set for your crew here. Design it online and they’ll ship them to your house!
Pirate flag off stern in Cortes Bay
5. Select a time to go
July and August offer the warmest stable weather, but can be busy with summer holidays. September, a fringe alternative, offers quieter anchorages and lakes still warmed from the heat of the summer. Since wildfires have plagued BC, WA, OR and CA the last couple summers, the possibility of smoke as a threat is a consideration. Typically, August is more susceptible.
6. Staying safe and comfortable
All charter boats are equipped with PFDs. Being on the water, even in the hot summer can be cool, as can mornings and evenings. It’s best to pack something warm. Bring rain gear with the hope of never needing it. Charter’s come with basic linens and towels, but having a few extras for fresh and salt water swimming is nice. Since taking this trip we invested in inflatable PDFs by Mustang. They’re not cheap, but they are super comfortable to wear all the time when on the water – and honestly, the peace of mind their provide is priceless. As year round power boaters on the coast, I only wish we had made the purchase sooner, and had them for our sailing trip!
7. Eating and drinking
Non-greasy food, made easy to eat on the go when sailing is key. But nothing beats fresh oysters shucked off the back of the boat or a fresh catch of salmon. Even if you’re not an angler, you can buy direct from fishing boats in Comox Harbor prior to departure. Boats typically have portable BBQs, cook tops with smaller ovens, and more limited refrigeration, so consider that when meal planning.
Shucking fresh oysters
8. Sample itinerary
There are many ways to enjoy Desolation Sound. This was our route:
- Day 1: Comox to Savary Island, anchor for swim and SUP, destination Cortes Bay
- Day 2: Cortes Bay, past Squirrel Cove to Teakern Arm + waterfall (Cassel Lake)
- Day 3: Teakern Arm to Squirrel Cove via Refuge Cove, destination Prideau Haven
- Day 4: Prideau Haven to Roscoe Bay (Black Lake), destination Tenedos Bay (Unwin Lake)
- Day 5: Tenedos Bay to Manson’s Landing (Hague Lake)
- Day 6: Manson’s Landing to Henry Bay (north end Denman Island) – 30 miles return
- Day 7: Henry Bay and return to Comox Harbor – 1 hour in the morning
9. Pro tips
Bringing charging blocks for cell phones is a good back up to the yachts charging system, especially since you will be on anchor without shore power most nights. A fishing license is a must if you plan to harvest from the sea. Learn more: https://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/rec/licence-permis/index-eng.html Ginger tea or sea sickness bands are a good things to have on hand for crew, and sunglasses, a sunhat (I love my Einskey wide brimmed folding hat with chin cord for the wind) and sunscreen are a must for the intense reflection off the water. Non-marking white sole deck shoes will insure you leave no trace (you can’t go wrong with authentic Sperry’s with leather & rubber soles), and frozen water in jugs to keep food cold, turns into extra drinking water after it thaws, rather than a sloppy mess from an ice block. Canned drinks are always better than bottles to avoid breakage, and your friend with glasses will thank you for bringing the peeper keepers that they forgot! (Check out this 6-pack of floating sunglasses straps, sure to keep the entire crew happy)
10. Planning guides & charter contact
The Desolation Sound cruising guide by Peter Vassilopoulos is a great resource for not only planning, but also interpreting the history of the area. The Dreamspeaker Cruising Guide to Desolation Sound & the Discovery Islands is another respected resource. The Boaters Blue Pages and Marine Guide by Pacific Yachting is an indispensable directory of marine services. You can purchase all of these books at chapters.indigo.ca or search by “Desolation Sound” and see other suggestions available.
We highly recommend Desolation Sound Yacht Charters http://www.desolationsoundyachtcharters.com/ out of Comox. All boats come with charts on board, and most newer yachts have electronic navigation, but it you want to mark up a chart and plot courses, you’re best to bring your own.
Getting to Comox from Vancouver is best done by ferry. Depending on where you are departing from, you could take the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo ferry, or the Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay. Both will still require you to drive north along Vancouver Island to get to Comox. Check BC Ferries for schedule. Driving from Nanaimo is much shorter. There is also an airport in Comox servicing major airlines from across Canada and the US. Check Expedia or CheapOair.ca for options. If you’re flying from the US, CheapOair.com is worth checking for deals too. Their When to Buy Flights Tool is handy for planning. If you want to spend some time in the BC coastal town of Comox before or after your charter, Booking.com and VRBO list some options in the area.
A MUST READ: Adventures in Solitude – by Grant Lawrence
From Captain George Vancouver to Muriel Curve of Time” Blanchet to Jim Spilsbury’s Coast” Spilsbury, visitors to Desolation Sound have left behind a trail of books endowing the area with a romantic aura that helps to make it British Columbia’s most popular marine park. In this hilarious and captivating book, CBC personality Grant Lawrence adds a whole new chapter to the saga of this storied piece of BC coastline. Adventures in Solitude is a must read before your trip – or pack it along for the ride and share some laughter with others aboard! You can purchase it at chapters.indigo.ca or on Amazon. If you prefer immediate access in e-book format you can get that through Chapters/Indigo as well, or at eBooks.com
And if you don’t own a boat, and can’t find a charter this summer, you might want to consider RVing in beautiful British Columbia instead. Read about what that adventure could look like in Taking A Life Detour in a 1975 Trillium Trailer Exploring Beautiful British Columbia. It is a guest post contributed by one of our crew members on this trip to Desolation Sound!
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