Geography and Location

Vancouver Island’s coastal geography has played an important role in shipwreck history. The coast was shaped by glaciers and spurs that created steep drop-offs, rock shoals and headlands. Vessels can come in very close to the rocks because the deep waters reach right up to the shore. With a sand or mud bottom, vessels can scrape but do little damage, but hitting a rock bottom is like hitting an iceberg.

Many shipwrecks on the coast are caused because vessels can not regain their ‘sea room’ before being blown up on the rocks. Strong currents and the ebb and flow of the tide can increase the danger caused by submerged rocks. Many ships attempting to navigate a narrow channel are forced out of position and are damaged by hidden underwater pinnacles, reefs, rocks and outcroppings. In 1967, the Queen of Prince Rupert went up on Haddington Reef, just outside of Alert Bay. Several years later, the bottom was ripped open after an attempt to go through Gunboat Passage on the wrong side of the buoy.

Geographical hazards can be avoided by using navigational aids, such as bouys and lights that mark obstacles and dangerous areas. Navigational charts made by the Canadian Hydrographic Service are also very important. During navigational training, there is extensive work with these charts. Navigators learn to read these specialised nautical maps, and to chart hazards themselves.

Today, mariners rely on navigational tools such as parallel indexing, which works with the radar. This is very much like setting an electronic curb feeler along the side of the ship so that the vessel does not come inside a pre-set minimum distance from the shore or the navigational hazard.

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