Splendid isolation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


Our anchor chain is still rattling through the hawser when we spot him. Round and furry and still clumsy with youth, the bear is taking its time, looking under rocks and logs for an early evening snack as it ambles along the beach, oblivious to our presence.

We are sailing through the heart of the Inside Passage, a narrow, winding route that runs north from Seattle, in the United States, past Canada's British Columbia and along the Alaskan coast, which is, again, US territory. We are in Canadian waters, between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast, and among the quiet Gulf Islands.

The entrance to Beaver Harbour is guarded by an island and a string of rocks, which makes it tricky to enter but ensures it is a safe place to drop anchor for the night, before lighting the barbecue for dinner.

We could be in any number of anchorages nearby; these waters offer a plethora of small coves and inlets, all of which are inviting places in which to settle down for the night. Sit back on deck, drink in hand, and listen to the sounds of the forested shore, safe in the knowledge you'll be afforded a generous dose of privacy.

The chartering of yachts normally conjures up images of tropical beaches or parties in chic Mediterranean ports, but the Pacific Northwest offers a refreshing alternative, particularly if you live in Asia. Easily accessible on regular and affordable flights between Hong Kong and Vancouver, sailing the Gulf Islands is a holiday that can easily be tacked onto other Canadian travel plans and one that is far removed from the clamour of urban life. And you can cast off into these waters from several towns and cities. Seattle and Vancouver Island's Victoria and Nanaimo are popular entry points.

Although the Canadian portion of this route alone stretches for more than 600 nautical miles, the many islands and starting points in the region allow for weekend or even day trips that still take in plenty of rugged scenery.

Orca whales slice through the waves, showing flashes of their sleek black and white bodies before disappearing into the sea. Seals pop out of the water to watch yachts cruise by, whiskers waving before they dive back under with a soft plop. Miles pass without any other boats coming into view.

The province's largest marine park, Desolation Sound features narrow fjords nestled between soaring mountains, roaring waterfalls and a rich variety of wildlife. Glacial runoff turns the sea a milky green, which complements the spectacular scenery. Despite being so far north and the icy waterfalls that feed into it, Desolation Sound boasts the warmest seawater north of Mexico: an ideal environment for oysters, clams, prawns and salmon.

The islands and coastlines here are rich in the history of the Salish and the Haida, and other native tribes. This was one of the gateways into Canada for Europeans when they first began surveying these coasts, more than 200 years ago. Captains James Cook and George Vancouver both spent a lot of time steering their square-riggers through these waters. Early Spanish explorers also left their names on landmarks such as Vesuvius Bay and Galiano Island.

Despite centuries of gold mining and logging, much of the coastline looks almost as it did in the grand days of exploration. Darkly verdant forests start at the water's edge and climb up snow-capped mountains.

Narrow gaps between islands offer a navigational challenge, their swirling whirlpools spitting out yachts at an exhilarating speed and adding to a maritime test that has spawned its fair share of books.

Passage to Juneau, by Jonathan Raban, is the best-known of them, describing the author's 1,600-kilometre solo voyage from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska. Along with descriptions of the strong tides and storms he encounters, Raban dedicates page after page to the salt-of-the-earth types he comes across in remote towns along the route. Meeting people in ports along the way is one of the greatest pleasures cruising can offer and the small logging towns along the coasts of the Pacific Northwest are filled with friendly, colourful characters.

It's not all plain sailing, though; the idyllic beauty of the region comes with a hint of danger. The waters of the Inside Passage, particularly in the north, near Hecate Strait and Dixon Strait, are notorious for sudden squalls and high, steep waves. Good planning, with close attention to the weather forecast, is a must when considering a crossing between island groups. A further challenge are the sizeable tides, both in height and speed. It's not unusual to see boats pulling out of an anchorage in the early hours of the morning to ride favourable tides, rather than spend a day fighting their way upstream.

Sansum Narrows, between Saltspring Island and Vancouver Island, forms a lovely S-shaped route, with the forested shoreline hiding small summer cabins. But don't get too absorbed in the scenery; the currents here can easily run at four to five knots.

Dodd Narrows, just before Nanaimo, is a thrill to navigate, with currents reaching nine knots. Our boat steadily picks up speed as we approach the gap between Mudge Island and Vancouver Island, which offers less than 50 metres of navigable water. Once we are in the middle of the narrows there is little to do but whoop and hang onto to the helm, until we are spat out into the swirling tidal pool on the other side.

Nearly all the cruising boats here carry crab pots on deck. Every night, once the anchor is set, the traps are dropped over the side to catch the following day's lunch.

If you are planning a sailing holiday, you'll need to decide whether to go it alone or plump for a crewed charter. Crewed cruises, mandatory on the larger, more luxurious yachts, can include a chef and wildlife guide. Other options include hiring a boat with a captain who doubles as a sailing instructor, giving you a chance to learn your knots while leaving the heavy lifting to the experts. The crew will do the route planning while you have the fun.

Charter services vary from company to company, Infinity Yachts (www.infinityyachts.com) and Blue Pacific Yacht Charters (www.bluepacificcharters.ca) being among the best. Some offer yachts for as little as half a day of sailing while others specialise in trips of a week or longer. Most companies will stock the boat with food and drinks for you at an additional cost. Some provide set sailing itineraries, with a mixed set of passengers, giving you a chance to head off to sea even when your friends or family want to stay ashore.

To charter a yacht without a crew, you will need a Pleasure Craft Operator Card, which can be obtained by completing a basic online exam of maritime knowledge. Charter boats come with all the charts and cruising guides you'll need to find your own private Pacific paradise.

The best seasons in which to set sail through the Inside Passage are the spring or autumn, as winds die out in the heat of the summer, although the hottest months are a great time to tour the islands on a motor yacht - and if you're trying to escape the heat of Hong Kong, the Canadian summer will feel like a cool fresh morning by comparison.