British Columbians and the meaning of cruising

Our visit to the museum in Courtenay left me hungry for more local history so when we got off the bus in Comox, we stopped at the bookstore. Waggoner’s mentions Blue Heron Books so I entered with high expectations, which were suitably rewarded.

The proprietor, a woman in her fifties, ushered me to the appropriate section and started introducing her tomes one by one. Explorations into First Nations culture. Accounts by George Vancouver and crew members (with names like James Johnstone, Peter Puget and Joseph Whidbey). Nature studies. A thick academic history of British Columbia. Dairies of homesteading immigrants. A new biography of Muriel Wylie Blanchet, author of the Canadian classic The Curve of Time.

Before settling on Heather Harbord’s 2007 Desolation Sound: A History, I’d asked a few questions; soon nearby browsers had joined in, making comments about their favorite islands in the great wilderness across Georgia Strait from Comox. In the course of this conversation, the owner mentioned that she’d never been to Desolation Sound! Quite extraordinary for a middle class business owner in a town with a harbor jam packed with well used boats, many are just big enough to make the crossing on a fair day and would probably welcome extra hands. Then she added, “I have to learn to sail first.”

Here it was again! That fathomlessly deep passion for cruising the people of British Columbia know in a way none of the rest of us can. Without cruising, they would be quite ignorant of their history, both of the lives of the native tribes and the exploits of early settlers. They would have no wilderness access to experience the creatures that live in their seas and on their land.

And cruising means do it yourself in a small boat. To take a “cruise” along the “Inside Passage” in an ocean liner is an utter oxymoron! First of all, a cruise implies moving without a fixed route or destination. Second, the “Inside Passage” is really the outer, most western of the routes to Alaska; it is only “inside” in the sense that it does not go into the open ocean around Vancouver Island.Cruising in British Columbia by ordinary people – recreational cruising, if you will – is about a century old. Captain George Vancouver wrote about every nook and cranny later cruisers would visit. Since his mission was to find the Northwest Passage, that’s what he had to do. He got along relatively well with Captain Dionisio Galiano of the Spanish fleet, which was also exploring these coasts in 1792. The crews of both expeditions had fairly good relations with the Indians, too, trading bits of metal for fish, fowl and game. Had they bothered to ask the natives if any in the maze of channels led deep into the mainland, they might have had the answer on the Northwest Passage. But Vancouver’s legacy is the superb mapping of every passage, channel, arm and inlet.

Vancouver’s charts allowed the British to exploit the coast for timber, minerals and marine life. At the end of the 19th century, the first settlers followed the loggers, fishermen, miners, and trappers. They included loners running from old lives or bad debts, Scandinavian immigrant families and even intellectual idealists, Thoreau-types but unlike Thoreau, unable to sneak back home for Sunday dinner. Living in nearly total isolation, they developed the fishing, hunting and logging skills needed to survive.

According to author Harbord, the first cruisers up the BC Coast were Amy and Francis Barrow, who set out every summer shortly after they were married in Vancouver in 1906. I’m eager to read their journals, though those before 1926 were lost in a fire.

Muriel Wylie Blanchet is the cruiser who inspires everyone who has come after her. After she was widowed – her banker husband presumed drowned when his rowboat was found not far their coastal home – Capi Blanchet cruised with her five children in the 24-foot Caprice. For fifteen summers they rented out their house on Vancouver Island for much needed income and explored desolation Sound and the coves and channels to the north. The Curve of Time is Blanchet’s account of the native people and settlers they visited, about their encounters with wildlife, the zen of marine engine maintenance and her own journey through life.

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1 Response to “British Columbians and the meaning of cruising”


  1. 1 hrippey August 21, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    Oh Baggywrinkles! I’ve finally taken the time to catch up with your blog and it so so beautifully written and wonderful. I hope you will let us meet you somewhere and crew for you coming down South. Paul’s off to India but I know he joins me in sending love.


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