The Challenge of Crossing the Nitinat Bar on the West Coast of Vancouver Island

by John M. MacFarlane 2016


The seiner Ivana crossing the Nitinat Bar in heavy weather. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)


The tug Solander crossing the Nitinat Bar. It is difficult to understand now how a tug skipper would have the courage to cross waters boiling like this obviously in shallow water. Perhaps it was one lucky accident that brought the skipper to understand that under special conditions he could navigate his vessel through these troubled waters. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

The vast coastal forests on the west coast of Vancouver Island were a coveted source of timber for the forest industry. In the early days the trees around Nitinat Lake were considered inaccessible to harvesters. One of the earliest companies in the area was Cathels and Sorenson which had operations that introduced rail logging to the west coast of the Island. Charlie Sorenson and Ken Baird were the first to successfully log at Nitinat Lake where they had a camp. The big issue was to get the booms of logs from the lake, down the short Nitinat River and over the shallow bar at the mouth of the river.

Nitinat Lake

The Sorenson and Baird Lumber Camp on Nitinat Lake. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

The entrance to the Nitinat River is fully exposed to the Pacific Ocean. South and Southwest winds were the most dangerous. Ebb tides create heavy and confused surf particularly during periods of storms. The British Columbia Pilot (Southern) states, "... under these circumstances no vessel should attempt to enter. Even under favourable conditions local knowledge is required for entry."

Nitinat Bar

Following Wave While Crossing Nitinat Bar. Skippers crossing the bar had to make a sharp turn to Port immediately after the crossing to avoid running up on the beach which lays directly ahead. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

Captain D.B. MacPherson described the Nitinat Bar (which he knew well) as having only about eight feet (less than three metres) of water over it at low tide.

"Even in moderate weather", he wrote, "the waves break continuously". He described how around the First World War a seine boat had attempted to cross the Bar out bound when she was struck by a a heavy breaker and smashed to pieces immediately adjacent to the First–Nations village. Only one man out of the crew of twelve survived. MacPherson further described the channel inside the Bar to the cannery as "crooked with a vicious current running through it from one side to the other so that it was navigable for only a few minutes at the top of high water and safe to take a tow either way."
Shipwreck on Beach

Unwary skippers trying the bar crossing frequently met with disaster. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

MacPherson described another incident:

"On one trip from Victoria in late Fall bound for the head of Nitinat Lake to pick up a small Davis raft, we passed Port Renfrew. With the barometer dropping fast, and that old Indian sign of southerly weather to come – the appearance of phosphorescence on the water in the darkening night – we headed for the Nitinat Bar. With the increasing wind and poor visibility most of us were feeling very uneasy. These conditions bothered Captain MacFarlane not a bit. We ran over the bar in what seemed total darkness, and the only thing that saved us from crashing onto the rocks on either side of the narrow crooked channel was the bright glow of the phosphorus as it was churned up over the rocks by the current."

Captain Walter Larsen stated that the Nitinat operation evolved into raft towing in winter and flat raft towing in summer. The rafts were laced with wire rope to hold the logs between the side sticks. The flat booms drew little water floating on top. The rafts drew 9 to 10 feet. This meant that the crews had to understand that the fresh water in the Narrows might be going out on top and while deeper salty water might be coming in – and reverse on the turn of the tide. Reconciling all of this with the time of slack tide outside the bar had to be all taken into account. Bob Lea stated that the side sticks used in Nitinat operations were huge, about 3 feet in diameter, necessitating much longer and heavier boom chains. The sides ticks were often each 120 feet long.

Blowing Up Rock

Blowing up an obstacle to shipping in the Nitinat River. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

Another problem was two rocky obstacles in the channel of the Nitinat River which had to be avoided. The river is 1,500’ passing through a rocky gorge entrance. Charlie Sorenson had it blown up which eased navigation. This enabled 70’ x 120’ log rafts with 250,000 to 300,000 board feet each made up in 4 tiers drawing 9 feet. There is an 8 to 10 knot tidal current.

Blowing Up Rock

Blowing up an obstacle to shipping in the Nitinat River. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

Nitinat Lake is a long narrow stretch of tidal water. Strong winds blow down its reach at times. Waters flowing out of the lake are resisted by the incoming tide. This occurs twice a day except during the freshet or after periods of heavy rainfall. At these times the ebb flow is continuous. The flood tide is only noticed in the Narrows and in the shallows of the lake. Periods of rough seas are constantly building and eroding the shape of the bar. The First Nations village of Whyac was located in the first cove and the Lummi Bay Packers Co. cannery was located in the second. Captain Fred MacFarlane and Engineer Arthur MacFarlane towed scows and barges from the cannery in the Bonilla in the 1920s.

Between contracts towing scows and barges for the cannery the MacFarlane brothers towed log rafts with the Bonilla from the head of the lake. The Solander used teh cannery bay as a staging point while awaiting the ebb tide. The skipper would tie up and then scout out the bar conditions. The log rafts drew 9 to 10 feet so enough water had to be flowing down the river to keep them afloat. The low water slack was the period favoured by Captain MacFarlane.


The chart of the Nitinat River does not reflect the shoals and bars in the channel at the Narrows and in the shallows at the head of the lake. (Photograph from Nauticapedia collection.)

Clooose Beach

The beach at Clo–oose August 1940 (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

To land supplies the Princess Maquinna would stand off the coast and canoes and boats would row out to the ship and embark cargo to be landed on the beach. This could only happen on days when the sea was relatively calm.

Nitinat Bar

Assembling 72 Sections of Logs into a raft for the Nitinat Chief to tow to Victoria BC. (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

The late Robert Harvey, Q.C. reported that "flat booms had a very shallow draft as they floated on top of the water. Log rafts drew 9 or 10 feet of water. This meant that some forethought had to go into the movement of logs down the Nitinat River to the sea. As they hit the ‘narrows’ the fresh water on top might be going out to sea while the deeper saltwater was coming in with the tide. (or vice versa) Reconciling this with the time of slack water outside the Bar was essential."

The late Bob Lea said, "The sidesticks in a Nitinat raft in his time were huge, about 3 feet or more in diameter. This necessitated much longer and heavier boom chains.The sidestiks were often 120 feet long."

Logs 72 sections

The Solander towing flat boom over the bar on a rare calm day.(Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

Captain George MacFarlane was described in an article in Pacific Motor Boat magazine "He is Master of the new Nitinat Chief operated by the Nitinat Lake Logging Company, and as charming an Irish gentleman as ever you’ll meet. He doesn’t look tough, nor particularly full of nerve, though he’s bronzed and grey–haired and firm of mouth, but he must be tough and nervy to bring ships across that bar so often. It’s wrong to say he thinks nothing of it, he does."

Listen to him: "It’s a worry, a big worry, every time; even if it is exciting. You’ll never know exactly what it’ll be like. I’ve been surprised plenty, and don't believe the man who tells you different."
A yacht skipper can make the run, Captain MacFarlane says, if his owner will let him, but he advises him to wait for perfect weather, to be right up on his data about tides and to watch for the long swell. "Sometimes a long ground swell will smell out the bottom ground and pile up – and if you're caught watch out.–
But if getting into the lake is difficult, just try getting out with 200,000 to 400,000 feet of logs in tow. Captain MacFarlane does it, making the 12 mile run down the lake and through the canyon. That’s easy. He ties up behind a big rock, sheltered from the ocean. Then he studies the sea, for he knows every wave, every ripple. If the weather is too stormy he stays tied up. In the winter he’s often there a week or ten days. Every few hours he walks across the point to the open sea and sizes things up. Sometimes the waves and the wind are howling so you can’t actually hear a person shouting even when he’s right beside you.
Since he’s been skipper he figures he’s towed hundreds of millions of feet of logs, worth maybe a million dollars and he’s "never lost a log." "I’ve been awful lucky, I guess – it can’t all be good judgement," and he touches the wood of his bunk, just to be safe.

Captain George Alexander MacFarlane towed in the Doreen M at Cowichan Bay at the Cowichan Bay Booming Association (which was owned by his brother Captain Fred MacFarlane). He was the skipper of the Victoria Pilot Boat. After that he was the Master of the steam tug JWP towing log rafts out of Port Renfrew and flat booms from Crofton and Cowichan Bay to Victoria. He began towing log rafts over the bar in the Bonilla for his older brothers in the 1920s. He continued to gain experience in the Ispaco No. 2 a 65’ an ex–fish packer which he had chartered.

Nitinat Chief

Nitinat Chief (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)

Captain George Alexander MacFarlane

Captain George Alexander MacFarlane while Master of the Solander (Photograph from MacFarlane collection.)


  • – MacPherson, Captain D.B. (Fall 1984) From the Fo’c’sle Head: "He Never Knew Fear" In the Quarterly Newsletter of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, Victoria BC.
  • – Harvey, Robert J. (2004) (Emails with recollections, notes, data and narrative concerning the Nitinat Bar, the Nitinat Chief, the Solander).

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) The Challenge of Crossing the Nitinat Bar on the West Coast of Vancouver Island 2016.

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