D’Arcy Island: The Island of Death

Summer-Sailing at Russell Island, BC

From 1891 to 1924, D’Arcy Island, British Columbia, was known as the “Island of Death” to BC’s Chinese community. It earned the morbid moniker due to the fact that is was the site of a leper colony for afflicted Chinese immigrants from all over Canada. There was no care or support for those abandoned/sentenced there, and the lepers had to look out for each other in lieu of medical assistance.

In 1924 it was decided by the provincial government that D’Arcy Island would no longer used for this purpose, and the remaining lepers were moved to nearby Bentinck Island, which was closer to medical quarantine facilities. (Just to note, I would have added a link for more information on D’Arcy Island, but every source I found was so pathetically amateur that I’d be embarrassed to do so).

D’Arcy Island’s role following it’s discontinuation as a leper colony was slightly more noble.

During a dark time called Prohibition, when the good ol’ US of A was suffering through a ridiculously ineffective and hopelessly puritan dream of an alcohol-free nation, the island was also used as a transfer point for bootlegged liquor going from Vancouver Island to Washington State.

In conditions unfavourable for seafaring, it was unlikely that Coast Guards of either nation would be patrolling the surrounding waters. Luckily for Americans, that fact was regularly capitalized upon by local booze pirates/angels. Many a crate of contraband nectar was smuggled under the cover of wind, rain, and darkness from Canada’s D’Arcy Island to the US during those bleak years. From my nation to yours, you’re welcome.

Today, the Island(s) (there is a Little D’Arcy as well), is/are a marine park with a nice little anchorage to the west side. It’s primarily an off-grid destination for kayakers, and, because it’s accessible by private boat only (and the ridiculously popular Sidney Island is only a short shot directly north), D’Arcy Island is one of the few places in the area a person can go that’s not overrun with visitors during the summer. In fact, when we stayed there for three days in August of 2020, we hardly saw another soul.

The day before arriving at D’Arcy Island, three of us: my wife, my son, and myself, departed Todd Inlet, near Brentwood Bay, and, because our departure time was not exactly at first light, we overnighted at a small but busy anchorage at Russell Island.

We weren’t in a rush, and sailing these busy waters at night was something I avoided whenever possible. D’Arcy Island would be right where it always was if we arrived a day late.

Russell Island was undoubtedly used by local natives for ages, but was eventually settled around 1886 by Hawaiians, and their homestead, called Kanaka House, remains there still. A walking trail around the western half of the island affords some beautiful views of, well, everything, because everything in the area is beautiful. It’s an easy stroll, suitable for all ages, and doesn’t take long but is definitely worth the small amount of effort to enjoy. Russell Island is a pleasant visit for a day or a night, and I’ve used it as a stopover on multiple sailing trips.

From Russell Island, D’Arcy Island is what I consider a perfect day-cruise, about 13 nautical miles to the south, south-east. With the obligatory bit of sightseeing along the way (the undoubtedly stunning weekend mecca of Sidney Spit is enroute, as well as James Island and a number of others), the trip should take no more than four hours.

There wasn’t another soul in sight when we arrived at the little bay on the west side of D’Arcy that serves as the island’s only anchorage, so we had the luxury of unhurriedly scouting around a bit before agreeing on the best spot to drop anchor. Which indeed proved to be the ideal site for our stay. We were little affected by any breeze or the strong ocean currents flowing around the island.

Dusk at D’Arcy Island

Only two other sailors came by while we were at D’Arcy, and they didn’t stay long. It got me wondering if our perfect position was the only good anchorage. Probably not, but I didn’t find the solitude unfavourable.

While exploring the Arbutus-tree lined shores of the island, my son and I discovered what remained of the dwellings used during the period D’Arcy Island was used as a leper colony.

Thinking about how amazing it was for us compared to how terrible it must have been for them, illustrated to me how much I consistently have to be grateful for. It also absolutely confirmed the importance of finding/having the courage to make the most of a life many people will never have the opportunity to experience.

Our few days at D’Arcy could accurately be described as paradisaical. The sun shone hot every day, we cooked lunch on the beautiful pebble beach, which we were fortunate enough to have to ourselves, and, well, we were on a sailing trip. What’s better than that?

Floating serenely at the end of the anchor line in the evenings, I was constantly reminded of just how fantastic boat life really is. Watching the sun set as we ate fettuccine and fresh Crab Alfredo, while sipping wine and relaxing in paradise, kind of has that affect. More wine and cold German beer only served to make the idyllic nights even better, until it was time to lay down for the night and let the gentle rolling of the water lull us to sleep.

Dusk at D'Arcy Island
Our Faithful Little Tender

Our lazy interlude from reality, spent exploring the island, or rowing about, or fishing, or simply lounging, seemed, like all good things, to be over far too soon. Which I don’t really mind all that much. Because, if I like something enough to regret leaving it, I’ll assuredly be more than happy to return later to enjoy it again. And even after many following sailing adventures, this former “Island of Death” remains highlighted on my radar as a place I look forward to returning.

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