A Brief Foray into the Dangerous Waters of Nitinat

 By Jennifer and James Hamilton


We've never outgrown that youthful reaction to being told not to do something because it's dangerous. Invariably, we must try. This is partly how we came to be west of the treacherous Nitinat Narrows on Vancouver Island's southwest coast, gauging the risk of entry.

The Nitinat Narrows are situated midway along the shoreline known as the "Graveyard of the Pacific".  But their locale does not overshadow them. "More boats have been capsized in the attempt," notes George Nicholson in Vancouver Island's West Coast, "some with considerable loss of life, than at any other passage of its kind on the British Columbia Coast."  The waterway bisects the West Coast Trial and connects Nitinat Lake, world-famous for windsurfing, to the Pacific Ocean. This natural tidal estuary is locally known as "The Gap."  It is barely 30 meters wide at points, and the current can reach eight knots. These are not the only hazards. The waterway empties into the Pacific Ocean over Nitinat Bar, a shallow sandbar with a least charted depth of 1 to 2 meters. At the bar, incoming ocean seas clash with an outgoing tide from the narrows and multiply the danger of transit.  And a 1-meter reef lies only 75 meters from the bar entrance channel.  The reef is visible in calm conditions, but would disappear under breaking surf. It is known locally as Sawtooth Rock, and its teeth have likely sunk into many a hull.

These waters lie within the territory of the Ditidaht First Nation, from whose language Nitinat is derived, meaning "dangerous rushing water". "A crossing of this bar and negotiation of the narrows to Nitinat Lake," writes Robert Hale in the 2004 Waggoner Cruising Guide, "is considered a supreme Northwest navigation challenge by a small number of adventurers."   How could we resist?


A Dangerous Passage

We're willing to take risks, but we do try to go in prepared. We knew that there must be a safe way to enter, because a cannery once operated inside.  Ships of substantial size must have passed through to transport people, provisions, and the canned salmon. Under the right circumstances, we reasoned, we could safely do the same in our 40-foot power boat Dirona.  

In researching how to enter, we found plenty of references to Nitinat Narrows. However, most described fatal or frightening crossings. According to Shipwrecks off Juan de Fuca, the 52-foot pleasure cruiser Inlet Queen struck the bar in 1912, filled with water, and sank.  Fortunately, all aboard made it to shore.  In "Breakers Ahead!" Bruce Scott describes the wreck, six years later, of the cannery tender Renfrew.  A breaker splashed through an open skylight and stalled the engine—the ship immediately turned broadside to the waves and sank.  The surf tore the pilot house from the vessel, which washed ashore with the captain clinging to it.  Of the twenty-six on board that day, only half survived. Keith Keller's Dangerous Waters tells a modern-day tale of disaster. In 1994, a small sports-fishing boat was sucked into the narrows from lakeside and demolished by breakers exceeding 25 feet. Those aboard were nearly killed. They were rescued by two local fisherman who pursued them through The Gap and were awarded medals of bravery from the Royal Lifesaving Society of Canada. The Douglass's Exploring the West Coast of Vancouver Island contains a less harrowing, but no more encouraging, account. "While it was exciting, it was not enjoyable" is how the authors summarized their entry on a fast flood. They could see the bottom while crossing the bar, and estimated the minimum depth to be 3 feet, not the charted 2 meters. Once in the narrows, they could barely maintain course in the swift, swirling current. With no room to turn, they spun their vessel around in a large whirlpool and retreated.  In Day by Day to Alaska, Dale Petersen relates his less-traumatic transit on an estimated 3-knot ebb current, but he touched bottom en route.   


Crossing the Bar

When was it safe to enter?  We couldn't find the answer to this question anywhere.  Based on some assumptions confirmed by local knowledge (see sidebar), we concluded that entry should be attempted only at high-water slack, with calm seas.  As we approached the narrows on our planned day of transit, conditions seemed perfect. The swell was less than 1 meter and it was an hour before the turn to ebb. This gave us plenty of time to take stock.  Our first problem was that we couldn't see the opening.  There was only the relentless Pacific pounding against barren bluffs.  Despite the calm conditions, surf exploded well up the sides.

A few sports-fishing boats clustered near shore were our first clue—they must have come through The Gap. As we neared, an opening in the cliff came into view. Even though we'd seen pictures, we were surprised at how narrow and steep-to it was. The slim gash in the cliff looked almost supernatural, as if it led to some evil sorcerer's lair.  The bar itself was evident by the swells, which steepened at the shallow water.  The waves were small though, and none were breaking.   We cautiously nosed towards them and monitored the depth while studying the narrows through binoculars.  The current did not seem active, so we decided to proceed.

The channel through the bar is less than ten meters wide and bounded by two-meter contour lines. On either side, the charted depths are 0.9 and 1.5 meters.  The channel is unmarked and difficult to locate—the only reference point is Sawtooth Rock. As we neared, the depth fell from over 50 meters to less than 10. We crept ahead, trying to find the entrance channel through GPS and depth readings.

Sawtooth Rock appeared to port. It was conspicuous in these calm conditions, but it still looked ominous.  The depth fell below eight meters and Dirona's undulating motion became more pronounced in the steeper swells.  At roughly where the entrance channel should be, the depth dropped to 2.5 meters. We did not expect to see less than 5 meters, as we had nearly 3 meters of tide height. The chart might be inaccurate, but we were probably slightly off course.  The entrance channel is short, and we were soon into deeper water on the other side.  


Through the Narrows

The depth increased beyond 10 meters as we entered the narrows. High water slack was a half hour away and the current was still flooding at perhaps 1-2 knots. But there were no whirlpools or overfalls. We had no difficulty staying centered up in the channel and had plenty of depth, so were able to take in the surroundings.  To our right were the remains of Whyac, which was once a major village of the Ditidaht.  A small campsite was setup there, with a view to the open Pacific. Just inside, the inhospitable terrain gave way to a lush, green forest. It was as if the forbidding entrance was merely a facade to discourage unwelcome visitors.

Our plan was to drop the hook in Cannery Bay, explore further by dinghy, and depart at high water slack the following day. Near the entrance to this bay, a float on the western shore marked the West Coast Trail—hikers must purchase a ferry ride across the narrows. The waterway widens here and continues into Nitinat Lake, but the navigable channel is constricted by several charted rocks at the southern end of Cannery Bay. To avoid them, you must hug the southeast shore as you enter the bay. As we turned to starboard, the flooding current pushed us broadside towards the rocks, which were visible just under the surface. A little horsepower helped us through, but a vessel with minimal power should transit closer to slack.


Cannery Bay

Cannery Bay was serene; a multi-hued forest crowded the shore.  To the north were the remains of an old cable car, presumably once used to cross the narrows.  The cannery ruins, a few pilings and some stonework, were visible to the east. A dozen or so hikers had gathered to await the ferry on the southeast shore. The ferry crew were elated at our appearance and called out many questions.  Carl Edgar, our source of local knowledge and a member of the Ditidaht First Nation, has long operated both the West Coast Trail ferry at Nitinat and the adjacent Nitinaht Bar and Grill. Dungeness crab is abundant here, the feature item on the menu. We hoped to visit with Carl and purchase one of their t-shirts, which showed the restaurant name and its fare.

Anchoring would turn out to be a greater challenge than transiting the narrows.  We dropped the hook just west of the old cannery, but the anchor would not set. After several attempts with successively more scope, we raised the anchor and discovered our problem: a huge rock was wedged in the flukes. It filled the cradle of our 40kg Bruce and must have weighed at least 50kg. The rock was firmly wedged—the flukes were even sprung open slightly.  It would take time and leverage to remove it, so we had to either anchor with our spare or find room to drift. We tried to cross to the west side of the bay in order to proceed north into Nitinat Lake. However, we couldn't locate the charted 2.4-meter channel across. To get to the lake, we would need to return to the southern end of Cannery Bay and manoeuvre around the rocks at the entrance. We considered setting the spare anchor while releasing the rock. However, with our main disabled, we were feeling less adventuresome and the appeal of this anchorage was wearing thin. Fortunately, the current was not yet ebbing. So we hauled the tackle up, rock and all, and made our exit.

The return was even less stressful than the entry, barring the fact that we had the rock to deal with. We were soon back out and into the Pacific, where we loosened the rock with hammer and chisel, dumped it, and proceeded to Bamfield for the night. While we hadn't accomplished all that we'd planned, we had conquered the dangerous waters of Nitinat.

Sidebar: If you go

You don't just arrive at Nitinat Narrows and decide to go through—you must plan in advance for ideal conditions. We found no advice on how to enter, so we made an educated guess. Pacific Ocean river bars are safest to cross near the end of a flooding current, as depths are maximal and the tidal action is in the same direction as the ocean swell.  When they are in opposition, steep and dangerous seas can result. Calm seas are preferable, as heavy ocean swell alone can produce breakers over a shallow bar. Further, any tidal passage is safest at slack water.  Given the minimal depths, we concluded that high-water slack, with calm seas, were the ideal conditions for crossing the bar and transiting the narrows.  Seeking confirmation and local knowledge, we eventually spoke with Carl Edgar of the Ditidaht First Nation.  Carl lives in the region and has passed through the narrows many times. Edgar's advice, that we could enter any time on the flood, but not on the ebb, supported our plan. He also confirmed that the chart and slack water calculations were accurate.  

High-water slack at Nitinat Bar is 2 hours and fifteen minutes after high water at Tofino. To cross the bar, aim for the deepest part of channel, just outside the 2-meter line, and keep the charted rocks off Tsuquanah Point to port. The narrow themselves are well-charted and easily transited at high-water slack. As you approach Cannery Bay, keep clear of the rocks at the entrance by either turning sharply to starboard or hugging the western shore of the channel to Nitinat Lake.

Cannery Bay itself is extremely shallow at both ends. According to CHS, readings taken at the cannery give the tidal range as 0.3 to 0.5 meters, so actual and charted depths will be similar.

This article originally appeared in Pacific Yachting, August 2004. 


Comments or questions? Feel free to contact us at or

Copyright 2012 Jennifer and James Hamilton