Cruising British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, luxury toy box in tow

GULF ISLANDS, Canada — “I’m not ashamed to say it,” Colin Griffinson says, as he scans the island-dotted Strait of Georgia, “I have wooden boat disease!”

And as he spins the very big wheel of his 1943 Pacific Yellowfin, one of a string of wooden boats the Dublin, Ireland-born captain and master carpenter has bought and restored over the years, he looks like a kid playing with his favorite toy.

And so do we, eight passengers cruising British Columbia’s Gulf Islands aboard this floating toy box stacked with mountain bikes, mopeds, kayaks, golf clubs, fishing rods, shotguns for skeet shooting and a water slide, with a hot tub on deck and a speed boat with wakeboards and water skis.

This 114-foot vessel boasts varnished mahogany and gleaming brass but modern conveniences. Griffinson has poured more than $2 million into this retro gem, which has been plying the Inside Passage along British Columbia’s coast as a luxury charter yacht for the last decade — around the Gulf Islands, into Desolation Sound and north to the Great Bear Rainforest.


In spring 2013, the Yellowfin began accepting individual passengers for the pampered experiences once enjoyed only by the likes of Pearl Jam, Uma Thurman and the Saudi Arabian oil minister. The experience is active small-boat cruising with four traditional staterooms comfortably holding eight passengers.

We set sail on a June afternoon from the 1880s Britannia Shipyards in Richmond, near Vancouver International Airport, for four days of touring the Gulf Islands. The other passengers are two Vancouver families — Marc and Karen Telio with their teens Sophia and Jack, and Cyndie Martinez and Gus Jassal with 5-year-old Javeen.

We chug from the mouth of the Fraser River into the Strait of Georgia to the original engines’ “pocketa-pocketa” rhythm while sipping the ship’s signature Bloody Caesars — spiked with Pemberton, British Columbia’s organic Schramm potato vodka. They’re delivered on the sunny front deck in vase-sized glasses just as a pod of harbor porpoises surfaces port side.

We overnight in Montague Harbour off Galiano Island, and I awaken at dawn to cawing gulls and the aroma of salt air and brewing coffee. I treasure the serenity of being the first guest awake, cradling a steaming latte and a freshly baked banana muffin as I settle into my favorite hangout — an ornate 19th century barber’s chair in the wheelhouse, a prop from the movie “Mississippi Burning” that serves as the captain’s chair.


When I see Dominic “Dom” Giossan, our guide, lower the first of the kayaks, I drop everything and slide into a red one, gliding across the glassy water that ripples as seal heads pop up around me. A bald eagle hovers above the mossy forest. Pink light creeps across white beaches with the rising sun.

Lighted by those soft rays, the cream-colored Pacific Yellowfin looks every bit the classic character it is. Built in Maine by the U.S. military and named JMP64 — a Junior Mine Planter to protect East Coast harbors from a German invasion in World War II — the 450-ton vessel saw only a few months of military service before the war ended. It was bought by California’s Department of Fish and Game for tuna research (hence the name). It boasts a colorful résumé, including an early 1960s stint in the Caribbean with mysterious CIA connections during the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco. Then it lounged, deteriorating for a decade on the Sacramento River as a houseboat, until oilman Pete Whittier bought and nursed it back to health as his private yacht.

At the Olympia, Wash., tugboat races in the 1990s, Griffinson, who had already converted a 72-foot salmon seiner into his family’s home, spotted the Yellowfin. It was love at first sight. He finally persuaded Whittier, who had become a friend, to swap boats.

“She’s the only vessel of her kind still in existence,” says Griffinson. “She was built with a sea-kindly hull to carry heavy loads with stability. That and the fact that we only sail sheltered Inside Passage waters makes her a great cruising yacht even for people who fear they’ll be queasy. No one ever gets seasick.”

The characters manning the Pacific Yellowfin are as intriguing as the boat. Engineer Jack Dixon likes to blast opera and bluegrass in his pristine engine room. He studied applied mathematics before running off to sea for a 50-year career aboard West Coast tugboats and freighters. Though retired for more than a decade, he loves to work summers on the Yellowfin.

So does chef Milan Kocourek, who has taken summers off from top Whistler Mountain restaurants to solo-commandeer a tiny open galley to make magic meals served at a round wooden table on the fantail deck. The surroundings are Old World luxury, but the atmosphere is cozy, casual ski lodge.

Our second day is whirlwind of beachcombing, a forest walk on Galiano Island and soaking in the on-deck hot tub after paddling past seals and sea lions lounging on seaweed-covered rocks. In between, the Pacific Yellowfin squeezes through narrow Active Pass between the Gulf Islands, sharing space with two hulking ferries.

On Saturday morning — Day 3 — we paddle in the morning, then head ashore to peruse the weekly market on Saltspring, the biggest of the Gulf Islands. It’s a lively waterfront event in the funky village of Ganges, a gathering of farmers, new agers and graying hippies offering free-range lamb and spelt bread, chair massages and kale chips. A sitar player sits cross-legged among the booths strumming while Kocourek picks up fresh organic veggies and local island cheeses.


After an on-board lunch of deconstructed sushi that we reconstruct ourselves, we drop crab traps over the side as we had toward North Pender Island. Half our group heads off to fish, but Karen Telio and I follow Giossan along a pebble beach littered with driftwood logs to the trail head for the hike up Mt. Norman. It’s a steady climb on a scenic route among cedar and red-barked arbutus trees. At the summit he hands out celebratory hydrating liquid electrolytes — chilled local microbrews from Victoria.

Several line-caught rockfish join a crab bounty raised on the way back to the boat. “Some trips we catch our own meals, then watch Milan prepare it,” Griffinson says. “We might pull up salmon, trout, halibut, prawns, crabs, fill buckets clam-digging or pick our own wild oysters — a one-nautical-mile diet!”

Our last day is spent cycling on Saturna Island along a quiet seaside country road with distant views of Washington’s snowy Mt. Baker.

At the East Point Lighthouse, we find a picnic table set with our lunch, including chilled British Columbia wines. Then we putter back to the Yellowfin in the speedboat alongside rocky colonies crowded with seals and sea lions. The whales so often seen in this area remain elusive, even to the whale watch boats Griffinson contacts regularly.

After a brief and chilly swim alongside the Yellowfin, it’s time to warm up in the hot tub with a glass of Champagne.

Finishing our final supper, the engineer — our reserved Jack of all trades — makes a rare appearance to share one of his offbeat hobbies, reciting from memory 1930s vaudeville monologues designed to keep theater patrons entertained during scene changes.

With only the sepia glow of sunset and a single voice, we are swept up by a ridiculous tale about Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom who take their son to the Blackpool Zoo, where he is eaten by a lion. Perhaps not a politically correct story these days, but it was a moving experience to be transported to the era of this 70-year-old ship, without even raising its anchor.


Get our weekly Escapes newsletter