I have always been an excellent armchair sailor. Before any major voyage, I scour bookstores, websites, libraries, archives, and friends’ bookshelves. Sure, I’ll pick up cruising guides, nature studies, or an occasional history – practical reads for information and background – but I really relish the nautical narratives that are part memoir and part travelogue. The best of these first-hand accounts capture the magic of a destination, connecting readers to the voyagers and their vessels that have gone before us. I brought several of my favorite narratives, some of which are Pacific Northwest classics, on a recent cruise through British Columbia with my husband Frank and our friend Alan.

Fortunately for me, they love books, too, and were tolerant of the small library I brought on board. As three sailors that chartered a 42-foot Grand Banks trawler for several weeks, we were almost giddy about the ample space available. We filled two shelves with books (and yes, I have a Kindle). During our trip, I discovered that nearly everything we experienced could be found in the pages of our books on board. After all, they are classics because they resonate with readers, who recognize their own adventures in these voices from the past.

The Sublime Scenery of Desolation Sound

The waterfall at Teakerne Arm tumbles down from nearby Cassel Lake.

Like countless boaters before me, I was awestruck when our trawler approached Desolation Sound. “No matter how many times you see it,” Alan commented from the helm, ”it has that effect.” In a region known for spectacular scenery, Desolation Sound stands out, with multiple fjords cutting long and deep through steep, jagged mountains that plunge to a vertical shoreline. The blues and greens are vivid here, and because we arrived in May, early in the season, snow still accented the highest peaks. The weather could not have been better. Each day brought bright sunshine and warm breezes, allowing for incomparable long-distance views. Teakerne Arm, with its thunderous waterfall dropping straight into the sea, was a highlight of our visit to the area and we were able to maneuver our boat right up to the spectacle.

Yet I was reminded (since we carried his journals on board) that Captain George Vancouver reacted differently to all this splendor. While anchored at Teakerne Arm in 1792, Vancouver surveyed the scene and pronounced it desolate. “This Sound afforded not a single prospect that was pleasing to the eye,” he complained. At one point he grumbled that the “roaring of the falling cataracts” made it impossible to hear anything else.

One of our books, Jonathan Rabin’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (1999), explained Vancouver’s foul mood: the weather was rainy and dreary, for instance, and Vancouver had been frustrated in his attempt to locate the Northwest Passage among the many dead-end inlets of the area. Rabin, however, dug deeper, noting that Vancouver lacked the poetic sensibilities of some of his more educated shipmates, who were familiar with the concept of the “Sublime” — a new movement in 18th-century art and literature that celebrated the craggy peaks, swirling mists, gnarled trees, and churning waters of the wild. Vancouver seemed to prefer the tame, pastoral landscapes not found in Desolation Sound. Rabin’s book made me realize that my view of this beloved cruising destination has been shaped by cultural forces, including tourist promotions and fellow recreational boaters who have raved for decades about this postcard-beautiful marine park. Whatever the reason, I now join all those cruisers before me in singing its praises.

Stern-tied at Melanie Cove, Desolation Sound.


We found it easy to appreciate scenery when cruising on a trawler with abundant food in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Accustomed to our 26-foot sailboat with its small ice chest, Frank and I marveled at the meals we were able to prepare on board our chartered Grand Banks: truffle risotto with glazed ham; barbecued chicken and potato salad; steamed broccoli and carrots; and a variety of soups. Whereas Vancouver worried continually about replenishing the stores on his Northwest voyages, we spent evenings eating ice cream on the fly bridge while at anchor.

Our most memorable meal came from the oysters harvested and grilled on the shore of Cortes Bay in Desolation Sound. Frank and Alan gathered the shellfish while I scanned the scene with my binoculars, watching a pair of black oystercatchers — birds with long, brilliant orange bills — poke around on the rocks next to them. I spotted two boats bobbing in the distance and quickly guessed why they were there: orcas! Their large black dorsal fins broke the surface of the water every few seconds. It seemed everyone was on the hunt that morning.

Visiting Refuge Cove
General Store is a rite of passage in Desolation Sound.

Back at our boat, I stumbled on an eerily relevant passage in Vancouver’s 1793 journal describing how some of his crew “breakfasted” on roasted mussels in B.C. waters. John Carter, one of the men, became violently ill and died a few hours later. “There was no doubt that this was occasioned by a poison contained in the mussels he had eaten,” Vancouver wrote. He named the “fatal spot” where the shellfish had been taken Poison Cove. I repeated this tale as Frank and Alan walked up the dock with their pail of oysters. “Yikes!” they responded, and proceeded to shuck them anyway. Still, we felt sad for John Carter and hoped to avoid his fate.

Frank purchased the ingredients for his oyster sauce at the Refuge Cove General Store. A visit to this rustic building, located on the southern tip of West Redonda Island, seems to be a rite of passage for cruisers in Desolation Sound. Reached by a long wooden gangplank and surrounded by structures sagging with moss, it has an early waterfront vibe that has not changed much over the decades. Grant Lawrence, author of the lively memoir Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound (2010) lists the store as a favorite spot. We arrived in our trawler before it opened for the season. “Have faith,” Alan said as we approached the dock. He was right. The proprietor allowed us to peruse the mostly empty shelves as we happily selected a few dusty bottles of wine and some hot sauce from last year’s inventory.


A favorite passtime in Desolation Sound;
exporing in the dinghy.

We rarely encountered other boats. For a while, we had Melanie Cove, a gem of an anchorage in Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park, entirely to ourselves. Yet many classic stories suggested that the character of this region has been defined by people. Ironically, Lawrence’s Adventures in Solitude devoted most of its pages to describing the locals he met during his years in Desolation Sound. These included an assortment of oyster farmers, loggers, aging hippies, nudists, dreamers, and a gun-toting “cougar lady.” Summers always brought “a two-month population boost from adventure-seeking tourists in yachts, sailboats, and kayaks” (some of whom may be reading this magazine right now). These folks made Lawrence’s book worth reading. If you are looking for humorous, irreverent tales of Desolation Sound’s inhabitants that include a deep sense of place, this is the book for you. Spilsbury’s Coast: Pioneer Years in the Wet West, by Howard White and Jim Spilsbury (1987), is also worth a look for its vignettes of the region’s “wild animals and wilder people.”

Muriel Wylie “Capi” Blanchet’s The Curve of Time (1961) remains my favorite BC book, partly because of her description of 20th-century residents. So popular is this memoir that our charter company provided it on board. We consulted its pages repeatedly during our journey, often reading passages aloud. It recounts the summer trips that the widowed Blanchet and her five children took along the inland waterways in the 1920s and 1930s. In some ways, their explorations in a 25-foot powerboat seem closer to Vancouver’s experience than ours today, given their lack of GPS and other technological advances, along with the need to accommodate a large crew in very limited space. Perhaps the biggest marvel of Blanchet’s travels is how she managed six people and a dog on a 25-foot vessel for months.

Her characters included Mike Shuttler (also described in Lawrence’s book), a rough-hewn logger turned hermit philosopher who had settled on the shores of Melanie Cove. Mike, who reminded Blanchet of Don Quixote, planted apple trees and filled his rustic cabin with books that he would discuss with just about anyone. “He talked and tried to explain his ideas to the old Frenchman in [nearby] Laura Cove – old Phil Lavine,” Blanchet recalled. Phil could not read or write and appeared unreceptive, but when Mike died his books ended up on newly built shelves in Phil’s cabin.

Frank and I dinghied along the shoreline of Melanie and Laura coves, looking for remnants of these cabins. While we thought we saw a terraced landscape and some cultivated plants, we did not notice any structures. Few traces remain of the settlements that Mike and Phil had carved out of the wilderness. Even so, it was easy to imagine them rowing through these same waters that now carried our inflatable.

Desolation Sound is located in the traditional territories of the Tla’amin, Klahoose, and Homalco people. Blanchet pointed out that Indigenous canoeists had paddled the waterways of the Salish Sea and north coast for thousands of years before settler colonists appeared. Native fishers “still make these dugouts” from cedar, she observed. Continuity between past and present was a major theme in The Curve of Time, and Blanchet felt connected to early inhabitants as her boat probed deep into inlets and channels, getting “lost somewhere down the centuries.”

Rough Water

Alan at the helm using electronic and paper charts to navigate.

Frank and I often joke about a rule on our boat: no seaweed on the windows. We woke at our moorage in Vancouver to a strong wind warning for the Strait of Georgia, which we knew could complicate our trip south to return our chartered trawler. Our navigation software advised a delayed departure. We went anyway. The Strait of Georgia, which had been smooth as glass during our trip north to Desolation Sound just a few weeks earlier, now unleashed a fury of breaking waves and gushing foam in all directions. Reluctant to risk turning around, we plunged ahead, with Alan standing steady at the helm and Frank keeping watch while bracing himself with both arms to remain standing upright. Me? I sat whimpering to myself, trying to grab the chairs — furniture that now seemed more suited to a land house than a boat — as they flew around the salon. Eventually I crawled along the floor, laying everything flat.

At one point we watched in horror as an entire tree went roiling past. It was a formidable specimen, with a robust trunk, elaborate root structure, and full branches. Momentarily I was distracted by the bizarre sight. We were accustomed to seeing logs, but how did a whole tree end up out here? Several hours later we arrived at a dock, and when I climbed gratefully out of the boat and glanced up, I saw it: seaweed on the windows.

Many boaters have similar stories from the Strait of Georgia. I remembered that Rabin encountered heavy seas while cruising through B.C. and found the section describing the 5-foot waves he fought in Malaspina Strait, which runs parallel to the Strait of Georgia between Texada Island and the mainland. “It was plenty rough enough for me,” he recalled in Passage to Juneau. “I had no choice but to stick to my course” or risk “serious violence” from wind and sea on the beam. Suddenly he was cheered to spot an open fishing boat carrying two men ahead in the distance. “Their black silhouette, rising and falling, became my friend,” he wrote. “We were in this together.” If they could take it, so could he. “They couldn’t know how glad I was to share the water with them,” he mused, hoping to pass close enough to wave. Just when he reached the fishermen “the sea raised them high into the sunlight on the gathering crest of a big wave.” To his surprise, Rabin realized that this was not a boat but the fragment of an enormous old-growth Douglas-fir with two thick branches protruding from the trunk. With its “trailing skirt of roots, this serious hazard to navigation could have sunk a tugboat,” he concluded.

Like Rabin, we were lucky that our tree did not hit us. And like Rabin, I found comfort and inspiration in the idea that others similarly have cruised through rough patches. Such experiences become boating stories, which, when shared, connect us all.

A rare occurance, the author and crew had Melanie Cove all to themselves in their chartered Grand Banks trawler.

Lisa Mighetto is a sailor and historian living in Seattle. For the cruise described here, she is grateful to Alan Newell – skipper, mentor, friend, and generous supplier of books.