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The characters of Princess Louisa Inlet

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A mini-cruise aboard the Malibu Princess retraces history into a spectacular corner of the B.C. Coast

On June 14, at precisely 1 p.m., the Malibu Princess pulled away from the Egmont dock and headed for Jervis Inlet on her first scheduled sightseeing cruise of the 2005 season. Exactly 213 years earlier, on the 14th of June 1792, Captain George Vancouver and a few men from HMS Discovery were on their way to that same inlet in a small open sailboat – searching uncharted waters for the fabled northwest passage.

I filled my cup with complimentary coffee and climbed up to the wheelhouse for a chat with captain Ed Roach and the crew. Surrounded by the latest navigational aids, GPS, side-scan radar, depth sounder, and precise marine charts we talked about those early explorers who had no idea what lay ahead. Yet powered by sail and ore, guided by the sun and stars, and equipped with nothing more than a compass, sextant, and vague rumors of a seaway through the mountains, they blazed the way for those who followed.

In 1792 Captain Vancouver was in command of the three-masted sailing sloop HMS Discovery. His orders were to survey the Pacific Northwest, enforce British territorial claims, and locate the northwest passage. Because the 340-ton Discovery was too large to navigate the myriad passages and channels she was left at anchor in what is now Birch Bay while Vancouver and a few crewmen set out in her small Pinnace to explore the coast. With provisions on board their open craft for a week, they sailed north into the unknown and discovered the entrance to the mighty fjord he would later name Jervis Inlet. Convinced he had found the Northwest Passage he and his small group of explorers toiled up the channel for three days, bucking foul weather and adverse winds only to end up on a muddy flat where the Squawaka River empties into the head of the Inlet.

Standing on the deck of the Malibu Princess as she swings out of Prince of Wales Reach and steadies on a new course up Princess Royal Reach it's easy to see why George Vancouver mistook this broad channel for the elusive Northwest Passage. Eighty kilometres long and three km wide, Jervis Inlet cuts a zigzag gash through the outer ranges of the Coast Mountains and even at a steady 10 knots in the comfort of the Malibu Princess it seems to go on forever.

The 126-foot Malibu Princess was launched from Vancouver's Allied shipyard in 1966. She has three decks that contain all the amenities of a much larger ship – snack bar with complimentary coffee and tea, large windows, comfortable seating and a spacious observation deck. Although licensed to carry up to 368 passengers the sightseeing tours are limited to 200 so there is ample space to wander about the ship and talk to the friendly, well-informed crew.

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