Canada's Gulf Islands:
The San Juans with fewer people and a 64-cent dollar!
by Bruce Armstrong

My Lake Powell story in last year's Duckworks highlighted the one upgrade I felt my 20' Tolman skiff needed: a four-cycle outboard to replace the noisy, thirsty (but reliable) Suzuki two-cycle.   The 100hp Yamaha I chose weighs as much as the two Suzukis (85/9.9) I replaced, so I mounted the new 8hp kicker flat on the deck behind the seats in order to keep additional weight off the transom.   In 45 years of mechanical fiddling, I've never enjoyed such a happy!  Quiet, thrifty, and with a feeling of complete mechanical reliability, the Yamaha transformed the Tolman from a VW Microbus to a Porsche 911.  If you travel in an outboard-powered boat and are thinking of making the jump to one of the new 4-cycles, don't hesitate.  But on to the Canadian Gulf Islands.

Less well known to American boaters than the San Juans, the Gulf Islands are more numerous, larger and cover a bigger area than the San Juans. Amazingly, we spoke with lots of American boaters in the San Juans who have never crossed the border due to unfamiliarity with Canadian Customs procedures!   This is a shame because the Gulf Islands are far less crowded, more remote, and the exchange rate makes you feel guilty when paying for a great meal or moorage at any of the wonderful marinas. Well,  almost guilty.   Anyway, some thoughts on the Canadian Gulf Islands:

VICTORIA:  While south of the actual Gulf Islands, Victoria is a glorious port to visit.  I'd always wanted to moor in front of the grand old Empress Hotel, but was told upon arrival that the docks were stuffed--stuffed until I told them I was piloting a 20' powerboat, at which time the port authority told me to pull to the inside of the first dock and tie off.  A couple of young sweeties helped us into a snug berth and did the paper work, and we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring.  Between the air traffic, huge yachts, old wooden boats and speedy RIB whale-watching boats, Victoria is a mariner's feast.

SIDNEY:  Adjacent to the Victoria Airport and north of Victoria, Sidney is the entrance to the Gulf Islands and boasts the most spectacular marina we visited.  Sidney and Bedwell Harbor on East Pender Island are the most popular customs clearing points when coming in from the USA.

SALTSPRING ISLAND:  The largest island in the entire archipelago, Saltspring has several wonderful harbors.  Ganges is the most picturesque in the entire area.  If you were to be weathered in anywhere in the Gulf Islands and left to entertain yourself while a typical two-day low blew through, this is the spot you'd want to be.

TIDE RIPS/CURRENTS: Huge volumes of water fight to get in and out from behind Vancouver Island with every tide.  This creates sometimes-violent tidal currents at pinch points and openings between islands.  The geography of the Gulf Islands is NW to SE with the outer Island creating a shield, broken in three major places, between the protected inner islands and the more open Strait of Georgia and the Mainland/Vancouver City to the east.    North to South, these major openings are Gabriola Pass, Porlier Pass and Active Pass.  These passages, along with Dodd Narrows adjacent to the Gulf Island's northernmost city of Naniamo, should be approached by skippers of displacement hull/slow craft with caution and at slack tide.  Active Pass adds the thrill of large, fast-moving ferryboats in confined waterways.

HAZARDS/NAVIGATION:  We saw both a sailboat and a powerboat up on the rocks and, unlike my little skiff, both were large enough to support a large navigation station.   Canada's official charts, in addition to being beautiful, are expensive.  The Canadian Government does not hand them out to companies wishing to make cheap guide books.  You've got to pay for them, and pay you should since there are lots of hazards up there.  This ain't lake boatin'.  I crossed closely behind a fast-moving, unladen ocean-going tug to find the biggest wake I'd ever seen.  My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by the Tolman's willingness to cork over the top.  Not so happy were the folks beside us in the bowrider!  A local told me that the wake behind a nuclear submarine is far more exciting.  I guess this is what you call "local knowledge."  Additionally, if running a planing hull boat, two sets of eyes are needed at all times to spot debris in the water--some of it trip-ending debris!

SEASON:  Locals say summer doesn't start up there until July 1st. You'll talk to lots of locals who will describe "windows" of good weather both earlier and late into the fall.  Don't believe them if you are driving more than three hours to get there.

Perhaps more important than any of this is the welcome you get from your Canadian hosts when they find out you've traveled a long way to visit their corner of the world.  Even captaining the smallest boat in the harbor, my wife and I never felt anything but welcome.  Need a hand securing lines, finding a place to dock, a bit of information about local conditions?  It was always forthcoming.  Over seven days and 550 miles of running around Canada's Gulf Islands, the only unspoken undercurrent we got from our fellow boaters was the look in the eyes of captains of vastly bigger boats wondering if perhaps we were having more fun than they were.

North Seas Trawler

Air traffic

A bad day

BC Ferry


Victoria traffic

Sidney Harbor

Beautiful Italian Yacht

Ganges Harbor

A mega yacht

Navy tug underway

Victoria Harbor


Seattle-Victoria Ferry


Stern of trainers

A Tug-yacht