Sailing the Gulf Islands – Cabbage Island, Pirate’s Cove, Nanaimo

As we left our nice calm anchorage at Sucia Island in the San Juans with a 20 knot southerly, we knew the winds would build quickly. We raised the mainsail with one reef as we left the anchorage, and seconds later hit the wind and waves outside the anchorage, nearly burying the bow in the steep 3 foot tidal rips. It was wind against current – tough to avoid entirely because the currents run fast through this area and we had several tidal streams to negotiate.

Out came the genoa reefed to 95% and we took off like a train. Slaloming through steep waves with gusts to 25 knots, we hit 7.5 knots over water for a moment. Water sloshed over the toerail and wave spray hit the dodger. Our day had gone from calm to crazy in just a few minutes.

The marsh near Cabbage Island, on the Tumbo Island hike.

Cabbage Island

We kept a high speed for the short 6 nm jaunt across the strait and got behind the protection of Cabbage Island, furling the genoa and very slowly working 4 knot gusts till we picked up a mooring ball. It took a half hour, but as we reminded ourselves, we have nothing but time now.

Cabbage Island and adjacent Tumbo Island on the southeast of Saturna Island are beautiful, and we were the only boat there. We rowed over to Cabbage to pay our mooring fee (14 CDN) and went for a walk around the island, spotting a lone deer. It’s really fun to explore at low tide because there are many rock formations that are only visible then. The anchorage looks completely different after the tide rises 8 feet.


Taking the Strait of Georgia to Clam Bay

The next morning we did the 4.5 km hike on Tumbo Island while waiting for the flood current to start. It turned out to be really cool hike, with a unique marsh area holding many birds, and some old cabins.

We came upon lots of Canadian geese, and realized why they were honking so much when we found these four eggs right beside the trail!

If you go for the hike on Tumbo Island, be mindful of a dropping tide. We had to carry our 100 lb dinghy 30-40 feet across slippery rocks and boulders after the tide went out.

We set sail upwind in NW 6 kts that later built to NW 10, heading for the top of Galiano Island. It was slow going, upwind in light wind, and Galiano is a long island – about 16 miles. The tough part about being outside the Gulf Islands is the passes all act as gates (the currents flow 7-12 knots at peak), and we knew we couldn’t go through any until about 7:30pm. So we sailed on, and eventually motored the last couple hours to get through Porlier Pass, dropping anchor at 9pm in Clam Bay just as the last visible light was fading.

It was our 3rd time to Clam Bay – it’s a convenient stopping point close to Porlier Pass. And it was dead calm and quiet, making for a very restful sleep to catch up on some of our missed sleep from rolly nights in the northern San Juans.

Pirate’s Cove

By Thursday (April 19) the weather had turned super nice – nothing like the perpetual rain last week. A downside to nice weather is sometimes we have no wind. We sailed in 3-6 knots for a couple hours and when it went to zero had to motor the rest of the way to Pirate’s Cove.

Pirate’s Cove has a tricky shallow entrance, and we were arriving just an hour after low tide, on a 3.3 foot tide. We motored in dead slow (in neutral for a while) with Natalie on bow watch, and 8.5 ft was the lowest depth sounder reading (our draft is 5 feet) – no problem.

We could see the anchor deploy as it dropped, and I was disappointed to see it go in upside down. But then I was able to watch it flip and set. Seeing the bottom of an anchorage is still a novelty to us (although no big deal in other areas of the world) because it’s so rare in the PNW.

Pirate’s Cove was sunny and beautiful (and we were the only boat there, other than the boats on the private dock which weren’t occupied) so we dropped the paddleboard in and explored the tiny harbor. As I paddleboarded around I noticed the dozen stern tie chains on the west wall, and wondered how they pack so many boats into this tiny harbor in the summer. We were very appreciative to have it all to ourselves in April, and again wondered why more people don’t cruise in the early season.

These birds are hard to get a photo of because they often take flight as soon as you get within 100 feet. They’re super cool looking, make funny chirps, and always seem to be in pairs. Anyone know what species they are?

Docking Aggravations in Nanaimo

We’ve been to Nanaimo before but only on a mooring ball. This time we decided to go into the marina because a lot of wind (and some rain) was coming for the night. First we had to pump-out though – after docking into a quickly rising 15 knot wind, we found the pump-out hoses were so short that they wouldn’t reach the opposite side of our boat – we’d have to move all the bumpers and docking lines to dock on starboard side. We decided to do that tomorrow.

We also had some confusion about where to go in the marina. BC marinas are typically pretty small, with narrower fairways than US marinas – with a 15 knot crosswind and little room to turn, it can make things pretty stressful. We ended up on S dock, which is easier to dock to, although a further walk from the showers.

To round out our marina stress, one more mistake lay in wait: we had decided to go into the marina partly because their website advertises their winter rate extends through April 30. When I got to the marina office the wharfmaster said the summer rates, which are 50% more, started April 1 – apparently their website is wrong. I pointed out the mistake, but his response amounted to “Oops.” I didn’t get the sense they’re necessarily interested in fixing the website listing, so FYI in case anyone else is going there in April.

The next morning the southerly blow had switched to a sunny 15 knot northwesterly, so we quickly worked through our shore tasks – grocery shopping, filling the water tank, showers, a final garbage drop, and folding up the dinghy on deck. Stowing the dinghy was a good call, as we later pounded upwind in some pretty sizeable current-influenced waves.

The northern Gulf Islands and Nanaimo are a container ship parking lot currently – 4-5 ships anchored in each location. Not sure what’s up – maybe Vancouver is running out of container ship wharfage?

Wallis Point Cove, west of Winchelsea Island

There aren’t many anchorages between Nanaimo and Lasqueti, but we had gotten a late start to the day due to our shore tasks, and it would be 4-6 hours more upwind to get to Lasqueti. So we went with an anchorage identified by a Navionics recommendation (noting it offers moderate protection) – not mentioned in any of our cruising guides – Wallis Point Cove, to the west of Winchelsea Island and north of Nanoose Harbor.

Despite NW 15, it was flat and calm in there, with a string of barrier islets protecting the anchorage. Around midnight things did get a bit rolly, when wind rose to W 20 (according to nearby BC weather stations) but overall it was a pretty good stopping point for splitting up an upwind journey to Lasqueti.

[This post took place 4/17 – 4/21. We’re now at Blubber Bay at the top of Texada Island.]

8 thoughts on “Sailing the Gulf Islands – Cabbage Island, Pirate’s Cove, Nanaimo

  1. Mark Jabbusch

    Those are wonderful pictures of a Black Oystercatcher, and a Harlequin Duck.
    We follow you regularly, as we both bought boats at the same time… and we sailed the waters last summer that you are now enjoying. Only you stretch boundaries that are a bit beyond our comfort and season of life. Godspeed on your journey.
    Mark and Barbara

  2. Never for Ever

    Three cheers for spring cruising! We were just pulling into Smuggler this time last year—I am getting antsy. Love the oystercatcher pic…

    Are you going to slow down in Desolation?

    1. Patrick

      We’re planning to skip past Desolation, although we’ve debated it (we know a lot of people would think we’re crazy to skip it). Our reasons are we want to go thru Campbell River to the direct route of Johnstone Strait, and we’re going to stop at the Octopus Islands which we think will be about as scenic as Desolation.

      We have been going pretty slow though too – just 10-20 nm per day, mostly because there hasn’t been south wind in about 1 1/2 weeks now.

      1. Never for Ever

        Oddly enough when were up there last year, Octopus was the busiest anchorage (3 boats). I guess that’s because people were heading north. We will be in the Broughtons in for June so maybe we might just cross paths.


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