A Sailing Adventure in Desolation Sound soothes the soul and revives the spirit

A week-long sailing adventure in the Salish Sea brings our writer closer to nature, wildlife, rustic beauty and herself.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Photo By: Steve Ogle | All Canada Photos.

By Diane Selkirk

On the second morning of our week of sailing around Desolation Sound, I woke up early. I was about to roll over and go back to sleep when I caught sight of a pink glow outside the porthole. Quietly, so as not to wake my husband Evan or our friends in the next cabin, I headed out on the deck of our 30-foot sailboat. Inhaling deeply, I felt a month’s worth of stress fade away as the light changed and the morning sunrise painted the trees, rocky shoreline, mountains and still green water with a rosy tint.

This was what I had come here for. Spending time at a popular beach or in a resort town is lovely — but being able to sail out of our hectic world and into a remote cove, where the landscape feels ancient and unchanging, is a special kind of bliss.

As the sky brightened, the dozen or so other boats sharing our anchorage came to life. One man rowed his dog to shore for a morning walk. A woman on another boat cradled a mug in her hands as she gazed out at the view. Suddenly, a seal popped up with a splash. He swam around our boat, as though beckoning me to join him, and I decided he might have a point. Quickly slipping into my swimsuit, I jumped into the warm water. Swimming along the shore, playing a goofy game of hide and seek with the seal, I barely noticed the time passing until Evan called me for coffee and breakfast.

We’d travelled 200 kilometres north from Victoria to enjoy the gin-clear waters of the northern Salish Sea, a reset after a frantic year. Our adventure was already exactly what I needed.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Photo By: Diane Selkirk.

An Ancient Home

Falling within the traditional and unsurrendered territories of the Tla’amin, Homalco and Klahoose First Nations, the winding inlets and islands of Desolation Sound have, since time immemorial, provided everything the Nations need to thrive. The First People established dozens of villages throughout these abundant islands, taking advantage of the forests, lakes and tidal flats to build homes and harvest food while developing complex cultures. 

Contrast that with Captain George Vancouver, who visited this area on an expedition in 1792. The explorer thought it was such a dreary, inhospitable place, with a too-rugged shoreline and too-few resources, that he named it Desolation Sound.

But anyone who really knows the Sound knows it’s anything but desolate. 

In fact, the region is considered a boater’s paradise — one of the top cruising grounds in the world. The area, which spans the area north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island and Lund on the mainland’s Sunshine Coast, up to Johnstone Strait, has only experienced limited development. The islands feature hundreds of secure anchorages as well as a wealth of conservation areas including Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park, Octopus Islands Marine Provincial Park, Malaspina Provincial Park and Teakerne Arm Provincial Park. 

And unlike most of this coast, the water is warm — currents flowing north and south around Vancouver Island travel through a maze of islands and over sun-warmed tidal flats before meeting here, in the middle, with temperatures as high as 21°C to 24°C in summer. 

Perfect Sailing

Over breakfast, as we made plans for the day, I was inclined to agree with the perspective of the Tla’amin, Homalco and Klahoose people. Desolation Sound is a rich place, with islands, woodsy hikes, warm-water lakes, waterfalls and friendly boardwalk hamlets. The trick was to choose between all the things to do without becoming so busy we’d miss the entire point of being here.

Our first choice was easy. We were already anchored in Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island, and years earlier we’d made special memories with our daughter Maia when we belly surfed, theme-park-like, into the inner lagoon on a fast-moving flood tide. Then, on the reverse tide, we snorkelled over a veritable sea garden. We wanted to share the same adventure with our friends. 

Unfortunately, this time we hadn’t checked the tide table. By the time we arrived, the tide had almost finished ebbing out of the lagoon, leaving only small, shallow rapids instead of water deep enough to swim in. But we quickly realized the trickle of water offered something almost as good and for an hour we explored the shifting tidal pools, marvelling at the colourful sea stars, anemones, crabs and urchins.

Back at the boat, we prepared to depart. Hoping to visit a few anchorages that were new to us, we pointed our bow at the jagged peak of Mount Denman and set out for what we’d read were the warmest waters in the region: Pendrell Sound on East Redonda Island. As we raised our bright white sails and settled into a fast beam reach, a humpback spouted in the distance. Another month of stress seemed to drift away in our wake. 

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Anchoring in Teakerne Arm, at the base of the imposing cliffs that Captain Vancouver found so unwelcoming. Photo By: Diane Selkirk.

After an exhilarating sail, we threaded our way up the long, narrow inlet of Pendrell Sound and anchored among even fewer boats. Eager to cool off, we all jumped in the water and soon found ourselves happily caught in a current leading into yet another inner lagoon. Almost an hour passed as we swam and drifted in the warm water — amazed that we could look up at snow- capped mountains while floating in water that seemed to belong in Mexico.

Eventually, the sun started to set, the current slowed and it was time to swim back to the boat. As dusk fell, anchor lights twinkled on around us. Not long after, stars began filling the sky. Over dinner and wine we listened to the weather report and then looked at the charts. Where we were was beautiful, but there was still so much to see.

Walks and Waterfalls

The next day dawned bright, hot and breezeless. We all were in the mood for a walk on shore; preferably a hike that ended at a lake where we could go for a cooling swim. As we set sail toward West Redonda Island, I imagined for a moment how the early explorers may have seen this place. With its winding inlets, blind passages and towering mountains in almost every direction, it must have been unsettling. But with charts and guidebooks at our disposal, it simply felt like a good adventure.

With the wind dropping and the heat rising, we soon doused the sails and fired up our engine, eager to get to our next anchorage. A few hours later, we were in Teakerne Arm, where the thunderous roar of 30-metre-high Cassel Falls drowned out the rumble of the boat’s engine as we set our anchor and stern line.

On shore, it was a slow one-kilometre hike to Cassel Lake — slow because the view from the top of the cliff needed to be admired, as did the lookout over top of the falls. When we reached the lake, I caught my breath. Clear, warm and fringed by steep, velvet-green forested slopes, it was gorgeous, and I couldn’t believe we had it to ourselves.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Swimming in secluded Cassel Lake. Photo By: Diane Selkirk.

When Captain Vancouver departed Teakerne Arm in June of 1792, he declared: “This Sound afforded not a single prospect that was pleasing to the eye, the smallest recreation on shore, nor animal or vegetable food.”

When we departed, I commented on how lucky we were that he was so very wrong. There was nothing desolate about our experience — unless you count the feeling I had when I realized it was time to sail home. Happily, our crew has already started making Desolation Sound plans for this year.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Photo By: Diane Selkirk.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
One of the colourful sea stars spotted in the tidal pools. Photo By: Diane Selkirk.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Stocking up on supplies in Refuge Cove, one of the small settlements in Desolation Sound; the channel flowing out of Squirrel Cove’s inner lagoon. Photo By: Diane Selkirk.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
One way to explore Desolation Sound in relative ease is aboard Maple Leaf Adventures’ fully crewed expedition catamaran, Cascadia. Photo from: Maple Leaf Adventures.

Falling within the traditional and unsurrendered territories of the Tla’amin, Homalco and Klahoose First Nations, Desolation Sound has provided everything the First Peoples have needed since time immemorial. 

Learn to Sail

Don’t know your jib from your boom but wish you did? There are several clubs, outfitters and others around Victoria who can teach you the ropes — er, lines — including these five:

  1. BC Sailing (bcsailing.bc.ca)
  2. Royal Victoria Yacht Club (rvyc.bc.ca)
  3. Blackfish Sailing Adventure (blackfishsailing.com)
  4. Big Blue Sailing (bigbluesailing.ca)
  5. Starlight Sailing Adventures (starlightsailing.com)

Plan to Go

Whether you prefer to paddle a kayak through the winding inlets, voyage in casual luxury with a trained crew or set out on a bareboat charter, there are many ways to explore Desolation Sound and the waters of the Salish Sea.

Not so desolate at all - YAM May/June 2023
Photo By: Jo-Anne Johnson.

Maple Leaf Adventures
Join Maple Leaf’s welcoming crew for a five- or eight-day voyage through the islands and fjords of Desolation Sound aboard the 88-foot converted tug Swell or Cascadia, a 138-foot expedition catamaran.


Desolation Sound Yacht Charters
Independent boaters can plan their own trip, lasting six days or more, on a bareboat or skippered sailboat or powerboat charter. 


Paddle your way through Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park via an expedition-style kayaking tour and camp. The six-day tours begin on Quadra Island and offer an up-close view of the park’s unique ecosystems.