Destination Canada

Sailing Through British Columbia

Two very different families, united by a long-standing friendship, have come to the Canadian coast to sail through an intricate network of channels and inlets etched by ancient glaciers.

By: Ximena de la Pava
Photos: Javier Pinzón


One of the highlights of this rhapsodic expedition occurs on the second day, around ten at night, when our young host invites us up on deck and then suddenly plunges into the saltwater at latitude 49N. Looking like a human flashlight, his body paints a trail of light through the inky sea when he pierces the water. The rest of the young people excitedly dive in after him; gentle movements of their arms and legs activate the natural lights provided by millions of microscopic bioluminescent beings that inhabit these waters.

Another unforgettable moment happens on our third day as dusk falls: while sea and sky deepen to an unbelievable red, we board a dinghy to approach a rock islet known as Ray Rock, a favored resting place for an enormous colony of seals. The fading twilight, our absolute silence as we try to avoid intruding on nature, the stillness of the glassy water perfectly mirroring the sky, and the heads of the seals, suddenly breaking the surface of the water to stare at us inquisitively and call to one another, come together to create magic that night.

These occurrences are snapshots, memories of one intense moment after another during our sailing tour around Redonda Island. This landmark off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, has been molded as if by a gargantuan sculptor: the water has carved the mountainous coastline into a complex labyrinth of channels and inlets.

Our adventure begins one Sunday in Powell River, a peaceful city on the Malaspina Peninsula in southwestern Canada, where we board our sailboat, the Katerena I, a 46-footer with four cabins, three heads, a comfortable living area, and a beautiful deck. We start the engine on Monday and head for our first destination: Desolation Sound, a large marine park in British Columbia, named by Captain George Vancouver, who was the first person to explore it.

Ken, our host and captain, is rounding Sarah Point, and when the wind picks up, he turns off the engine and hoists the sails for the first time. Our friends are expert sailors, but we, their Colombian guests, have trouble understanding how anyone   can sail into the wind. I ask our hosts if they have learned to master the wind, and their son explains that no one masters the wind; people can only respect the wind and learn to read it well enough to use it to fill the sails and guide the boat in the desired direction. We are quickly seduced by the first delight of sailing without engines: the silence is overpowering, but essential for communing with the landscape.

This might be a good time to describe our surroundings. Desolation. The vastness and the absence of humans, which changes everything, help me understand the name of this place. Everything here is full and whole: the mountains dressed in pine trees march toward the sea’s unfathomable abysses, the immensity expressed in total silence, and the sleepy waters are only occasionally disturbed by the discreet noiseless wake of a sailboat.

And yet, “desolation” is not quite the right word. It has a connotation of absence, and while humans are indeed absent here, this ensemble of land and water abounds in beauty, splashes of color, and utter peace. Rather than desolation, this place speaks of harmony, peace, and pure nature.

The wind suddenly drops. We have to lower the sails and turn the engine on again, and for a moment it seems like the magic might disappear. But we soon reach another enchanting spot:  Tenedos Bay. We spend only a few hours there, but those hours are so intense that in memory they seem like a hallucination.

Ray Rock, the islet inhabited by seagulls and a  colony of seals that sleep placidly as we arrive —but whose distant cries later impel us to board the dinghy at sunset— and the combination of elements (earth, sea, air, and the fiery sky) make Tenedos Bay a phantasmagoric memory. Its waters are dark, so dark they are opaque from the boat, and you certainly can’t see the bottom, which is nearly 300 feet down. Hundreds of jellyfish, inflated like balloons, float around the boat and tempt us with their rhythmic undulations. We dive in for an evening swim among these harmless jellyfish that do nothing more than dance around us. This is the night that the youngsters go wild with the bioluminescence in this place that marks the beginning of a trail to Unwin Lake.

We reach the lake the following morning after a hike through the forest. We swim in the clear, deep, and surprisingly warm waters, surrounded by a landscape of peaks crowned with traces of snow. The calm waters reflecting the mountains are an excellent place to read Muriel Wylie Blanchet. In 1926, this mother of five small children decided to ease the pain of her husband’s premature death with a trip that became legendary. For sixteen years she and her brood traveled on a sailboat smaller than ours through these same landscapes, and her profound musings, published in 1961 in The Curve of Time, are the tourist guide par excellence for most travelers who come here.

In the afternoon, we head for Homfray Channel, where a stiff wind invites us to hoist the sails. This time, my young Latin American companions try to help, and while the experts offer instructions, one member of my group takes the tiller and the others await the captain’s order to “tack.” Tacking means shifting the sails with a rapid movement of the lines so that the wind, which had been filling the sails from the left, begins to fill them from the right; gently zigzagging, we are able to sail into the wind. This may have been easy for sailors in the age of Vancouver or for those who have been sailing since childhood, but it took us some time to figure out the mystery.

Before the day ends, we enter Roscoe Bay to look for a suitable place to drop anchor, and then we take a short walk in search of Black Lake. Night falls as we savor a delicious gin and tonic and try to find a suitable word in English or Spanish to describe the luminous path laid down by the moon on the perfectly still water.

We spend Wednesday in Pendrell Sound and anchor in Oyster Cove, where we meet another family of friends also traveling by sailboat. This place is famous for its abundant oysters and clams; the youngsters soon collect a pail of the mollusks, which will be served in an exquisite linguini that night.

Our next destination is Toba Inlet, which we reach via Homfray Channel. Toba Inlet is a U-shaped valley which was carved by glaciers through steep mountains millennia ago and then later flooded by the sea. The intense milky white blue of the Toba Inlet (approximately 1.5 miles wide by 22 miles long) reveals its glacial origins.

Entering the inlet, we raise the sails and position ourselves on the side of the boat to quietly let the wind do its work; its gentle cadence pushes us slowly, so slowly toward our goal: a huge waterfall crashing down to the sea from the snow line high on the mountain. We drift in front of the waterfall until the only sound is the roar of the falling torrent, and watch the sunlight reflect off the water into a prism of colors.

Leaving the inlet, we sail against the wind and discover just how exciting this can be. Our young friend takes the tiller while his parents handle the lines for our tacks. The wind is very strong and the boat heals onto its side. We cling to the seats and don’t say a word, but when the nautmeter reaches ten knots—very fast for this kind of craft—we celebrate enthusiastically.

In the evening we arrive at the Toba Wilderness Resort, a small wooden house with a pier, water, ice, and a cool shower. This is a popular landing where cruising vessels of all sizes stop to refill their water tanks and spend the night. We walk picturesque roads that take us to hidden waterfalls, we cook hamburgers, and as the afternoon draws in, we see the outline of the mountains fringing the horizon glow a fiery red. The night is impressively star-speckled and, as though something was missing, an unexpected visitor adds a special touch before we go to sleep: a killer whale delights us by coming within a few yards of the pier.

The following morning, we head for Teakerne Arm Marine Park, on West Redonda Island. The major attractions are the warm waters of Cassel Lake and its spectacular waterfalls. The only way to enjoy the clear water and warmth is to literally jump in, since the shore is a steep rock outcropping requiring that swimmers climb back out of the water with the help of ropes.

In the afternoon we leave for Copeland Island, and use the sails along the way. Now my young ones confidently take over the tiller and tack under the Davidsons’ careful guidance.

This is our last night on the boat. We pass the time playing cards until the sky darkens, and we lie down on the deck to admire the stars. It is August: the perfect time (and place) to observe the Milky Way in all its glory. Despite the spectacular celestial light show, our hearts are heavy because we are approaching port and we know that our sailing trip will soon be no more than a memory.

By Saturday morning, we are already feeling nostalgic as we leave the Copeland Islands. We don’t know when we might be back, so we try to memorize every inch of the landscape. The view unfolds in deep and intense colors. Farther away, the enormous snow-capped mountains are softly green and barely discernible in the mist. The deeper green of the lower mountains renders them more visible and they seem even closer, creating a perfect picture of piney beaches stretching to the water. Sitting at my computer today, what comes to mind is that multi-layered impressionist painting, and how the layers defined the horizon as the boat approached Powell River all too quickly.