Treasures of Newcastle Island
After taking the last of a northward flow through Dodd Narrows on a recent summer weekend in the Gulf Islands we were startled to see a long queue of boats awaiting the turn.
The summer has been late to arrive in the Salish Sea this year and the last few weekends have seen heavy boat traffic, mariners trying to take advantage of whatever is left of the high season.
We counted 20-some vessels bobbing at the southern end of the Northumberland Channel and passed many more as we continued north. For the most part, boaters here are good about radioing ahead their intentions before entering the narrow channel, and we motored north listening to their VHF warnings as they poured south.
Another surprise were the massive logs wallowing in the sea between Jack Point and Gabriola Island, as if a log barge had overturned nearby, though there were no such reports. We zigzagged the rest of the way to Nanaimo Harbour.
We took a mooring buoy in Mark Bay, the splendid anchorage sheltered by Newcastle and Protection islands. The buoys were placed in the bay, within the boundary of Newcastle Island Marine Park, in 2010 and now number more than 40. Some boaters still grumble about both the buoys and the $14 nightly charge.
We once anchored outside the mooring field, but have been spooked. On a succession of visits we have watched other boaters struggling without success to retrieve anchors snagged on cables and other bottom debris. So we don’t anchor, deciding it’s not worth risking the bother or loss, but many boaters happily do. If you do drop a hook, use an anchor buoy to assist retrieval if fouled.
It is unusual for the Mark Bay mooring buoys to be fully occupied, though there are two types — buoys for boats under 30 feet and for vessels up to 40 feet — and it seems the demand for the bigger boat buoys is often greater. There is also visitor moorage space at the park dock ($2/metre) which tends to fill with a flash during the summer.
Mark Bay and surrounding Nanaimo Harbour offer much for visiting boaters, whether its the excellent camping and hiking trails in Newcastle Island Marine Park or access to provisioning, marine parts and repair services in Nanaimo.
Newcastle Island was a seasonal fishing camp for the Coast Salish people for countless generations. The island is also the reason the community that is now Nanaimo grew up so quickly after European settlers arrived. Fish had nothing to do with it. It was coal found on the island, which settlers named for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, the English coal mining town. In the late 1800s, the island was home to two productive mines.
Today it offers a different sort of treasure, its natural wonders. The beautiful island is entirely parkland with 20-plus kilometres of hiking trails, with walk-in campsites, tidal pools and broad pebble beaches. The city of Nanaimo is a stone’s throw away, across the narrow passage, a world away.
The Nanaimo Boat Basin marina is just about a nautical mile away, across the harbour. If you dinghy across there is ample free space to tie, either at the fuel float or to the west and south of the pier from the wharfinger’s office to the Protection Island ferry tie. The Boat Basin also offers transient moorage.
If the weather is unpleasant, or you are fueled by muscle power alone, you can take the ferry. From the park dock, the ferry runs regularly ($9 return) to Maffeo Sutton Park or the Boat Basin, depending on the season.
From the Boat Basin, it’s a short walk to the Port Place mall, where there is a supermarket, large pharmacy, cafes, restaurants and other shops. A block farther along is Harbour Chandler, a large marine supply with most every bit a boatowner might need.
If something is broken, Stones Marina and Boatyard is found about midway north along the Newcastle Island Passage, about a nautical mile from the Boat Basin. There is also transient moorage here.
At the end of a long day, a visit to the popular Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island, about 200 metres from the Mark Bay mooring field, is a temptation hard to resist. Here there is fresh seafood, typical pub fare and a healthy selection of brews on tap.
The pub is a comfortable sort of place, which a few visitors discover on arrival and never seem to leave. It is Canada’s only registered floating pub afterall.
(Newcastle Island, the Newcastle Island Passage and the Nanaimo Boat Basin are covered in Salish Sea Pilot’s Cruising Guide to the Gulf Islands.)