3 Lads Sailing to Pender Island

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My family and I lived on Pender Island in British Columbia for a couple of years before moving to Victoria. Pender Island is actually two islands, North and South Pender, separated by a narrow canal that was dredged in 1903 so boats could get to Port Browning on the northern island without having to go all the way around the southern tip, which can be a brutal passage in bad weather, especially in winter. The islands are connected by a single-lane bridge that’s far enough from the water for boats with no masts to pass underneath.

The Southern Gulf Islands of BC enjoy a sub-Mediterranean climate, kind of, and can be quite varied from one area to the next. Cacti sprout from volcanic rock formations just a few metres above the high-tide line in some of the special micro-climates to be found on both islands, and not that far away, a person will find themselves passing through Arbutus groves (my favourite trees on the planet). Hiking upwards into temperate rain-forests, you’ll find yourself among Fir, Cedar, Spruce, Pine, and also many Maple trees, to name but a few species. There are no shortage of blackberry bushes and fruit trees on the islands either.

This area is without a doubt, paradise. Even if much of it is populated by weirdos. The Penders are so indescribably, stunningly, amazingly, heart-achingly perfect, that when my friend James told me he and his father, Mike, were coming from Ontario for a sailing trip in late August of 2020, I knew where to take them.

It ended up being one of the very best weeks I’ve ever spent doing anything.

After getting well-stocked for a week or so in the town of Sidney, we loaded up the tender and shoved off the dock in nearby Brentwood Bay, my staging point for many such excursions. We stowed our provisions away on “Ready”, the 29’ C&C racing-cruiser my wife and I had bought and renovated earlier in the year, and got underway.

Provisions List:

  • Wine
  • More Wine
  • Liquor
  • Some Food

The first night was spent anchored just off the northwest end of Russell Island (an old Hawaiian settlement), which I often used while in transit around the area. I include a little more information on Russell Island in the D’Arcy Island post also found in the sailing section of this blog.

That afternoon the three of us did the short hike around the island, pigged out a bit on some blackberries and fruit from the little orchard on the homestead, and hung out on one of the small beaches at the western tip of the island before making our way back to “Ready”. We had a few drinks and some good conversation as we made dinner. After dinner we enjoyed a few more libations and yet more conversation, as well as the lilting sounds of Mike playing his ever-present and ever-pleasant penny-whistle while bobbed about at the end of our tether.

From Russell Island we motored across Swanson Channel, in no great hurry, soaking in the countless miracles of nature witnessed absolutely everywhere. A hot August day on the waters of the Salish Sea is a thing to be experienced, and in my mind, can’t be topped by much, if anything. Equaled to some extent maybe, but not bettered.

For the final leg of the day’s journey we cruised up Bedwell Harbour to set anchor off of Medecine Beach on North Pender. Another good meal, a few drinks, much good conversation, and more lovely penny-whistle, something I now miss during evenings at sea, made another perfect day complete. We anchored two nights at Medicine Beach.

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Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, BC

The day following our arrival was spent exploring from the tender as we motored to Beaumont, where we beached the tender and secured it well before setting off into the woods for some trekking. The adventure developed from what was originally to be a stroll through the trees near sea level, to a short but rather intense hike to the top of Mount Norman, a hike I’d done countless times before, but not for some time. Neither of my shipmates had though, and as they suffered up the mountain, Mike, a cancer survivor in his sixties, had some doubts as to whether anything was worth such a trek.

All such misgivings evaporated upon reaching the summit (as you can probably understand after seeing the accompanying pictures).

The mountain is small by mountain standards, but offers such an incredible view from the top, that you might well think you had climbed to heaven. The walk back to our tender was all smiles and joy.

Yet another evening of the best that a boating lifestyle can offer ensued: food, drink, music and merriment. I believe I may have even built a bit of a hangover. No regrets.

❝At sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much.❞

Robin Lee Graham

For the remaining three nights of the trip we moved from Medicine Beach to Port Browning, a voyage which, because we had a mast and couldn’t pass beneath the bridge connecting the Penders, required us almost completely circumnavigating South Pender. Not exactly a hardship. South Pender might be the most beautiful place in all of existence.

Even if there are other beautiful planets somewhere out there in the vast universe, which most likely there are, I would be surprised if any of them have anything that could honestly be described as more lovely than South Pender. If I ever make it back to Canada to stay, I would probably pay whatever the asking price for a nice private piece of heaven there. Cruising around that island for a few hours on our way to Browning was certainly no hardship.

Port Browning is basically where it all happens for boaters, and many locals alike. There’s the pub, restaurant, and marina, owned by the best outfit in the entire region, Mill Bay Marine Group. Port Browning also has an oceanside camp-ground, laundry and showers, kayak and SUP rentals, and more. And the commercial hub of both Penders, The Driftwood Centre, is just a ten-minute, blackberry-lined walk from the beach.

Finding anchorage in Port Browning is easy, as the bay is huge and well protected, and in the high-season there are easily 100 boats out on the hook. Often more.

Over the remaining days, my friends and I did more of what makes being on the Gulf Islands perfect. We putted around in the tender, exploring Brooks Point Regional Park (the southernmost point of all parts Pender. Stunning, as usual), we hopped in the ocean at Mortimer Spit (never warm), saw Orcas in the distance, seals, birds of all sorts, and basked in the glory that’s present everywhere. Fine dinners, drinks, great company and much music were the mainstay of every excellent evening. Pender, as usual, was a treat.

Even after moving away from Pender Island, because my wife and I don’t like living in small communities, I worked and played on the Penders for years afterward. Obviously, I suppose. I’m still doing it. It’s a divine place to visit or even spend the entire summer.

There are local wineries, a few really good places to eat or just grab a coffee, stores that cover near all of a person’s summer-livin’ needs, and unbeatable nature.

I’ve hiked near every public trail on both islands, explored most of the beaches and parks, and circled almost every inch of both islands. And I’ll do it again when I can. The south island is far more private than the north, and other than Poets’s Cove, more rugged and indescribably……… I can’t find the words….. perfect. It’s nature done to perfection. If you get the chance, go there. Now! Just don’t move there unless you like small, island communities.

Leaving Pender that time was a bit sad for me. The experience was too wonderful to want to give up so soon, but, you know, all good things….. Our cruise back to Todd Inlet was delightfully uneventful, and the next morning I drove James and Mike to the airport to catch a bird back home. Thanks for the memories lads, let’s do it again some time.

Sailing Itinerary
  1. Sidney
  2. Russell Island
  3. Medicine Beach
  4. Beaumont Marine Park
  5. Mount Norman
  6. Port Browning
  7. Brooks Point Regional Park
  8. Todd Inlet
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Map of the Gulf Islands, BC
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