Anchorages Bute Inlet

Destination | Bute Inlet

Wednesday, July 06, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA


Disclaimer:  This blog article is not to be used for navigation.  It is purely an account of our personal experience in Bute Inlet, a remote wilderness location, during settled weather conditions.  There are no services or VHF reception and any boat that enters should be self-sufficient.

With some cruising destinations, it's all about what lies at the end of the road – a sandy beach, a waterfall, a special hike. With others, it's what takes place along the way. Bute Inlet, one of British Columbia's longest and deepest fjords, falls into the latter category where mile after mile of high, steep mountains and snow-capped peaks surround boaters as they sail deep into the mainland and through some of the most beautiful scenery in and around Desolation Sound.

There's no question that both David and I are fjord people – we can't get enough of them – and one of the things we've tried to accomplish during the years we've been cruising the Inside Passage is to explore as many as we can. But try as we might one fjord, more than any other, has eluded us until recently because of inclement weather – Bute Inlet. This year, the forecast was in our favour so we seized the opportunity when we could. Unfortunately, our plans to spend a few nights exploring and enjoying several of its anchorages would have to change. 

Every Experience is Different

There isn't a lot of information written about Bute Inlet in the cruising guides and what there is, is out of date and doesn't provide a complete picture. Some guides have opted to use generalized statements and singular accounts to describe an area that is unpredictable, remote and has its own micro-climate thanks, in part, to the steep mountain ranges and large ice fields. For example, the Waggoner Cruising Guide has been printing the following account from correspondents Gil and Karen Flanagan for several years regarding the head of Bute Inlet, Waddington Harbour:

There is no protection from wind, but we had no wind. We didn't see much driftwood on the beach, either. We doubt if inflow winds blow hard or long, probably because even on hot days the massive ice fields in the mountains above preclude high land temperatures (p. 267).

And Dreamspeaker makes a similar claim in their guide, "A Dreamspeaker Cruising Guide: Desolation Sound":

Afternoon inflow winds occur during settled, sunny weather. They are generally light but can be accelerated by the inlet's length and steep-sided shoreline (p. 111).

While both statements stem from personal experience and Bute Inlet surely has its share of fine days, they're both somewhat misleading. Inflow winds can blow hard and long . . . and they can reach the entire length of the inlet. Our personal experience is an example of that. The day we went up-inlet, it was sunny and warm. But the further we sailed, the less settled the weather became. The inflow winds didn't die out; instead, they built to a steady 20 to 25 knots, running the entire length of the inlet. Some cruisers we know had a similar experience and turned around before reaching Waddington Harbour when katabatic winds knocked their sailboat on its side. And while Bute Inlet is better known for strong outflow winds, inflow winds deserve just as much consideration because anchorages along the 35-mile inlet don't offer adequate protection.

Lack of Anchoring Possibilities

Before our trip up-inlet, we studied the charts and cruising guides and had a few anchorages in mind: Leask Creek, Orford Bay and Waddington Harbour, in particular. But by the time we reached the head of the inlet on our first day, both David and I were concerned about the changing weather and were ready to get out of there so the only first-hand information we have is for Waddington Harbour. Here's what the Flanagans had to say in Waggoner Cruising Guide:

Waddington Harbour, at the head of Bute Inlet, has a lot of good anchoring spots in 10 to 50 foot depths (p. 267).

Like so many heads of inlets we've visited over the years, Waddington Harbour is a roadstead anchorage at best, and we didn't feel that there were a lot of good anchoring opportunities despite its shallow depths. Additionally, the flats at the head of the inlet shoal rapidly and the milky, glacial waters make reading the bottom more difficult so careful sounding was required (though there was agreement between the charted depths and the depths we saw along the southeast corner). We were able to find a place to anchor (50°53.64 N, 124°47.65 W) that got us out of the bulk of the wind, but the better protected spots were fouled with deadheads (logs that stand upright in the water with only a few inches or feet showing) and logging equipment from the Southgate River operation that occupies the southeastern section of the bay.

What we can tell you about the other anchorages I mentioned is that none of them provide protection from inflow winds and Leask Creek has been taken over by (what appears to be) a high-dollar fishing resort, Orford Bay is home to a large-scale logging operation and Waddington Harbour, as I've already mentioned, is a roadstead anchorage only suitable in settled conditions. There's also a little nook along the eastern shore just south of the Orford River at 50°34.38 N, 124°52.46 W (mentioned in Waggoner) that looks like it would provide some protection from inflow and outflow winds on the chart but we didn't take a look at it ourselves.  

Despite their inclusion of the Flanagan account, the 2016 edition of Waggoner Cruising Guide has the most helpful advice when it comes to the anchorages inside Bute Inlet:

Except in small areas near the mouths of rivers and at the head of the inlet, it is not good for anchorage. Usually, the bottom drops away steeply, making a stern-tie to shore necessary. Anchorages should be chosen with an eye to strong inflow winds during the afternoon, followed by calm, then by icy outflow winds in the morning (p. 267).

And the Douglass guide, "Exploring the South Coast of British Columbia", provides the most information, devoting two and a half pages to Bute Inlet, including excerpts from Sailing Directions.

Our Thoughts

At the end of the day, we're glad that we finally had the opportunity to make a run up Bute Inlet: It's a beautiful fjord with arguably the most dramatic and striking scenery in the Desolation Sound area. The shore is lined with steep, rugged mountains but they've been heavily logged along the entire length and, for us, that's huge downside (along with the lack of good anchorages). It's also very wide, spanning over a mile at its narrowest point, and lacks the intimacy of many of the other fjords along the Inside Passage. And for what's considered to be a wilderness destination, there's a lot in the way of commercial development. Having spent so much time along the Central and North Coast of British Columbia exploring pristine fjords, Bute Inlet is somewhat of a letdown and we won't be back. But if time doesn't allow a trip beyond Cape Caution, Bute Inlet might be a good alternative for those in search of a more remote cruising experience closer to home.

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  1. Seriously, the logging operations in the Pacific NW and British Columbia can spoil an otherwise lovely area. charts should show logging operations so that there is less disappointment when you come upon a scalped view. We had some very strong winds up the fjords last summer on the west coast. I can't imagine anyone thinking the wind wouldn't build as it progresses up the fjord. I believe the best, most positive term would be 'sporty'. And ditto on the anchorages, which, I suppose, makes sense given the geology of the area. Thanks for giving us a view to a place we don't feel the need to go now. We'll just check it off the list! Still, any day on the boat exploring, even when it's disappointing, is worth it.

    1. It's definitely one of the prettiest spots in the Desolation Sound Area but doesn't hold a candle to the fjords up north thanks to the commercialism. It's just a shame the weather turned on us and we weren't able to see more.

  2. Glad you finally got to check out the fjord! Everyone's experience is different, so even when Active Captain (Grumpy Captain) says this marina / anchorage is the worst, we have to check it out for ourselves to know for sure - and usually we find the opposite - we love the "hateful" places and are a solid "meh" on the best places.

    1. I'm glad too! It really was beautiful despite being so inhospitable (some fjords are just plain rude!). Besides, we got to sail up-inlet and that's always a good way to spend a day.

  3. Just like Lucy said, opinions vary and are so dependent on weather and mood conditions. :-) I'm glad you finally made it into the Bute inlet to check it out for yourselves. Often, the place we expect a lot of or look forward to the most, are disappointing. And, when we expect the worst, we might be pleasantly surprised. For these reasons, I don't like to look forward or anticipate too much, because I hate feeling disappointed. Easier said than done, though...

  4. Thanks for sharing. I am eager to check out the inlets of the southcoast such as Bute and you provide some great tips.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I am eager to check out the inlets of the southcoast such as Bute and you provide some great tips.