Les, Kai and I first visited Port Browning in mid-September 2019. Towards the end of August we were thinking that it was time to stop our wandering ways of the spring, summer and fall, and locate a habitat that would provide safe harbor over the winter. A wide range of locations was on our list. It included Port Sidney, Port Browning Comox, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Ganges, Cowichen Bay, Brentwood Bay, Genoa Bay, and Maple Bay on the Canadian side and Port Townsend, Gig Harbor, Port Ludlow on the American side. We were looking for a sheltered hidey hole where we could leave the boat for a few months if needed and we desired that the following criteria were substantively met:
- Safe shelter in heavy winds from all points of the compass
- An effective breakwater and limited fetch so what wind generated chop would not impact the docks and harm the boat
- Boatwatcher peeps that could watch the boat when we were gallivanting about out of “town” with enough knowledge to keep an eye on the boat and know when to call us and how to keep it from coming to harm.
- Restaurants, groceries, bakery, hardware, post office within walking distance
- Potable water
- Ability to live aboard when in ”town”
- Friendly marina management, dock warfinger, inhabitants and lots of wildlife:
Port Sidney, Sannich Peninsula, Vancouver Island: Excellent marina with all services available. Good marina management, close to Sidney airport and a good alternative for us. Great restaurants. A bit on the expensive side, but good for a month to provision and access to services that may not be available elsewhere
Comox, Vancouver Island: Delightful warfinger and staff. The only place during all of our journeys to date where we were presented with free beer after docking. Now… it was Budweiser which is barely beer in my humble opinion… but they were so happy to present it to us, and because we were American and all Americans love Bud… right?(and probably no-one in Canada would appreciate the finer points of… Bud so it had been sitting in their fridge for a long time). Anyhow, the Bud is resting in the wine cooler waiting for someone who wants a beer with a little bit of color and a very… very light taste sensation. In winter, Comox hosts the commercial fleet so it is next to impossible to get a winter berth. So it was taken off the winter list, but it is certainly on the list for another visit. Great restaurants and fun town to walk about.
Nanaimo: Interesting place that. It’s almost a city, a bit smaller than Tacoma. It has a wonderful aquatic center, great restaurants, public transportation and friendly people. For that matter, most Canadians we have met have been extremely friendly and likeable. At the downtown marina and elsewhere we wandered, it felt more like a city than a town. We like towns or places that are even less than a town. Also… Nanaimo is a very active seaplane terminus. We stayed at the Nanaimo Yacht club for a few days and the take off and landing glide path zone put the seaplanes right over our gull dern heads. Malas heirbos! I didn’t like it. Les didn’t like it. Kai thought we were overreacting, but compared to other places, Nanaimo for us will just be a stopover.
Ladysmith, Vancouver Island: Another interesting place. Great public marina and a very good private one. It is hilly. If you want to walk to town, it is uphill. Good restaurants and stores. Great places to walk Kai and ourselves. Around the edges, it is a working town. Mostly good… what disturbed me the most was the fact that the bay itself seems to be a superfund site. It has not been possible to harvest oysters there since the 1960s. Ladysmith was the terminus for coal exporting for most of the mines in the area. They exported hundreds of thousands of tons out of the main double decker wharf that is now long gone… but all of the beaches in the bay are… black sand. Well, actually it is coal left over from the heyday of coal exporting. It just seemed that spending extended time there was not in the cards… Did I mention that Ladysmith was hilly? Did I also mention that Ladysmith was the only place that I saw vultures in the trees?…
Ganges on Saltspring Island: The first time we visited we didn’t like it. There were no sidewalks from the marina to town and the traffic seemed incessent. The second time much nicer, and not in the middle of the tourist season. Nice little town with all the amenities, including a pot shop at the head of the dock! Not that Les and I would buy such, but there you have it. The problem is the marina and its location. It is at the head of a very long bay with lots of fetch with open exposure to SE winds. Docks at the marina show the effects of several storms that have dislodged pilings and destroyed parts of the docking. Most past damage has been repaired, but I’d hate to be out of town and hear that a strong SE system was moving in. Ganges is great for a week or so but no good if you need to leave a boat in a marina for a while.
Cowichen Bay, Vancouver Island: Funky. Nice place to visit. Nuf said… well except for the Vine restaurant. A nice sign right inside the door stated that kids were welcome, but that if you couldn’t control them you would be asked to leave. My kind of place, and a nice starting point for an adult experience. The Google machine stated that their service sucked. Well… the service sucked. After waiting 20 minutes to get drink orders… I told the waiter that if we had to wait any longer we would leave. Then I suggested that if he brought us some wine on the house that we would be inclined to stay. He brought us a liter of a nice cab. He took our order and then we…. waited some more. It was a beautiful evening, clear skys, 70 degrees or so… no mosquitos and a bona fide technicolor sunset was opening up. The waiter slinked over to our table . In my experience wait staff slinking bodes ill. He let us know that they only had 3 orders of the fresh halibut left, and would one of us like something else? 1 hour into this thing and he comes up with that. No wonder he slinked. “Well… what do you have?” I asked. “We have some really nice fresh oysters” he replied. “How do you prepare them?” I responded. “Any way you would like. But Chef does an amazing pan fry version. Light breading, light spice, oyster flavor forward”. Done! He scurried off and… we waited another bit of time, sipped the cab, waited a bit more, and finally our meal was brought to us. The halibut that Les, Jack and JoAnn had was perfectly cooked and delightfully presented… the oysters were the best I have ever tasted. Lightly breaded, lightly spiced and cooked to perfection. The cab was great. The sunset was enchanting eye candy. We will go back. You would too!
Brentwood Bay, Sanich Peninsula, Vancouver Island: Great “resort” at the head of the dock. Gym and hot tub at the head of the dock. Butchart Gardens is right around the corner. And… the ferry is right next door and they start the generators at 0530. Every day. Great for a visit. Great for a hot tub soak. Not so good as a steady diet.
Genoa Bay, Vancouver Island: Funky. Great restaurant on site. Would need a car to “live” there. That being said, the restaurant is very, very nice. Canadian funk. Great wait staff. Great wine list. Full of Canadians. There was this table of about 8 people right next to us. They were having great fun bashing Americans not knowing that there were two of them sitting right next to them. We listened and laughed for a bit and after a while I just couldn’t resist letting them know that we were the token Americans in the restaurant. They laughed and didn’t skip a beat. And… we were now part or the conversation. By the end of the meal they had invited us to meet up with them in Sidney and they would all meet at one of their houses and have another dinner with drinks. That is Soooo Canadian. We will be doing that probably in January.
Maple Bay, Vancouver Island: Same as Genoa really, but a bit exposed, so off the list for now.
Port Townsend, Washington: Port Townsend is THE boating community on the peninsula. Marinas, boat yards, naval of wooden boat building in the Northwest. Great little town. Has it all. We are on the wait list for the month of February.
Gig Harbor, Washington: Most amenities available. Great boating presence. Not as prolific as Port Townsend, but highly desirable. A car here would be helpful. But… for the most part a month would be the limit. A note of the world famous Tides Tavern: I grew up in Lakewood Center, a suburb of Tacoma across the Narrows bridge from Gig Harbor. When I was old enough… or a bit before, we went there often for the great beer, handmade organic sandwiches and pizza, and the pool tables. I’d put a quarter on the table and play the rest of the night for free… drinking what was then the beginnings of local craft beer. Well… the Tides has gone corporate. The pool tables are gone because tables make more money than pool tables… you know.. butts in the chairs. The menu is no longer organic for the most part. We had lunch there and we will probably not go back.
Port Ludlow, Washington: Interesting place that… Great informal marina. 23 miles of hiking trails. Great little yacht club that we had dinner at. It was potluck, informal, and great fun. The problem with the location is that there are no real boating amenities available without a car. Port Browning also hosts the commercial fleet during the winter. Great fun sharing slips with commercial boats. No, really, it is, but the fact that it is mostly a ruralish living area with few boating amenities at hand, takes it off our list.
Our Pick: Port Browning, North Pender Island, BC.
Here you can see the size of the bay and its opening. The marina at Port Browning lies at the head of a moderately sized bay. It is not a tortuous entrance, but is offset, meaning that the opening does allow ESE wind to penetrate but not in a direct manner. Other wind directions are deflected by the island. We have been at the marina during a wind event where we saw 30 knots of wind from the SE and the marina was just fine.
This structure is the breakwater. It consists of an outer series of heavy “barges that are chained together and an inner floating “tube/pipe” of some kind. It seems to stop or at least attenuate any chop that develops. Each “barge” is about 12 feet wide and rises 4 feet out of the water. The boats you see are anchored outside of the breakwater and marina on mooring buoys.
The marina has it’s very own pub and bistro at the head of the dock. They always have several great craft beers on tap and the food is very good to excellent. During the warmer months the Bistro is… closed, but they do have ab occasional dinner with a movie…
The poutine (fries with curds and gravy is a Canadian specialty, decadent, and comforting and it beats the heck out of biscuits and gravy! (Not that I ever eat biscuits and gravy…) Poutine is comfort food… beckoning, and has most of the food groups and is especially good when enjoyed with a nice “dark matter” ale.
Potable water: Well yeah… the water comes from 2 lakes. Lakes you say? Well it is mostly rain water. And… it is filtered, and goes under UV light and chlorine filtration. The marina uses the same water as the Pub / Bistro which is closely monitored per government decree. At the head of the dock a government water board report is posted that states zero bacterial growth of samples etc. There might be a very slight tint hinting of tannins, but the taste is quite good and we’ve certainly had no issues.
Ability to live aboard when in ”town”: Yes… and no… The marina is licensed to have one liveaboard, or something like that. But, if you have a PO Box at the Pender Island Post Office then, for some reason it is OK per marina management to live aboard. We are not sure what that means, but it is so Canadian and Pender Islandish… They are so accommodating.
On a recent walk around the marina area and to the “village” we saw… Great Blue Heron, river otters, Eagles, Ravens, Crows, Kingfishers, multiple types of gulls, deer, multiple varieties of ducks: Buffleheads, Goldeneye, Mallards, Terns, 2 cute donkeys, several horses, and some sort of highland cattle .
Boatwatcher peeps with enough knowledge to keep an eye on the boat and know when to call us: There are several including the marina manager and a professional captain / mechanic who hires out to provide periodic watch service and who is capable of providing repair assistance if needed.
Pictures that tell the story…