29 Jun

Private Moorings? Le Sigh…

We’ve only been cruising the PNW for five years or so and it is already starting to bug me —every year we set out and anchorages that we enjoyed the previous year are now limited or inaccessible because of private mooring balls. Entire harbours are now full of permanent moorages and any hope of anchoring has completely disappeared. And try as I may to see both sides of the issue, it really bugs me.

The Rules

The first thing you have to realize is, in Canada at least, that  the waters of the Salish Sea fall under the control of the Federal Government. That means even though derelict and abandoned boats (another issue entirely) are becoming problems in many harbours, there isn’t a clean and straightforward path for the various jurisdictions to deal with them. Places like Nanaimo and Victoria have been working for years to clean up the mess of boats and are faced with issues like legitimate authority, murky ownership and disposal costs.

One of the things that has seemed to help is that the Canada Shipping Act 2001 (CSA 2001) now includes specific regulations on how to mark private mooring buoys. This included contact information. It further states that when a private buoy does not meet legal standards, the Minister may remove or order the owner to modify it to meet current standards. And The Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA), which protects the public right of navigation in all Canadian waters, states, “No work shall be built or placed in, on, over, under, through or across any navigable water unless it is approved by the Minister.” Transport Canada considers mooring buoys as “works” under the NWPA. Of course enforcement is spotty. Or, more accurately, almost non-existent where it doesn’t interfere with commercial traffic.

So I can’t believe every single one of the new “legal” moorage buoys I have seen has been reviewed and approved by the Feds. And given the strange triumvirate we have up here in Canada between the Coast Guard, RCMP, and Fisheries Department, I am not sure who is actually responsible for enforcement (I think the Americans got this one right with their Coast Guard). I can’t imagine that any of them wander around with a database of GPS coordinates detailing “approved” buoys; as far as I can tell there are no licence or registration numbers attached to private buoyage and no other way to track them making the task even more difficult. I do know it is often left to local government to deal with any issues arising in their local waters and only in larger urban places like Vancouver, Victoria or Nanaimo have I heard of any successful regulation.

I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that at least the newer buoys popping up everywhere tend to conform to the regulations. But it doesn’t really seem to make the problem any easier to deal with.

Mooring Positive

I am not completely down on mooring balls. A couple of years ago I was looking for a temporary place for our boat and a friend had a new mooring buoy in Degnen Bay that we contemplated using. I also found a few to rent in places like Cadboro Bay and Tsehum. A mooring buoy would have been a great, cost-effective option for us and I really appreciated the opportunity. Finding moorage is often difficult and expensive, and it is one of those factors that tends to make boating a more elite activity. Imagine if you had to pay to park your car in your garage. It would make you think twice about owning one.

Private moorings outside Gibsons mean there is more room for everyone.

And a good mooring field can cram a heck of a lot more boats into a harbour and — if done correctly — can do it much more safely and effectively than just having a bunch of boats anchored out all year. If I lived on the coast full time and could have a permanent moorage for a reasonable one-time cost I would be pretty gung-ho about it. Owning a boat has been a long-time dream for me and who am I to deny anyone else something that takes them closer to their dreams.

Private moorings can also make bad or mediocre anchorages safer to use. And rather than building one of those monster docks that seem to choke the the life out of the shorelines of places like Pender Harbour, boats can be kept out on a mooring making the whole shoreline more beautiful. What could possibly be wrong with that?

And while I won’t swear they are better for the environment up here in the PNW, they are used to help save the sea bottom in the tropics. Who knows how much better the crabbing would be if we stopped tearing up the bottom in popular anchorages. (OK, maybe it’s not that likely but still…)

The Parker Ridge Effect

The dilemma for me falls under a phenomenon I personally refer to as the Parker Ridge Effect. Parker Ridge is a short but steep hike in the Canadian Rockies that takes you to the top of a ridge overlooking the Saskatchewan Glacier and the Columbia Icefields. I first hiked it in my early 20s and blithely cut across the switchbacks and trampled the delicate alpine terrain with no thought other than to get to the top the quickest way possible. Years later I went back and the entire trail was marked with “No Cutting Across…”  and “Stay ON the Trail” signs and had huge areas blocked off for trail rehabilitation. And I quipped something along the lines of “If only the other people would stop wrecking things for everyone, then I would still be able to cut across the switchbacks…” I received a baleful look in response and I dutifully stayed on the trail.

Because you see, it’s not that shortcuts (or mooring balls) are in any way inherently wrong, and it’s also not (unfortunately) that there are idiots out there wrecking it for the rest of us (although there are). The real issue is there are too many people all wanting to do something the local environment can’t handle. And if we don’t regulate it (a word that occasionally makes me shudder), then the combined selfishness and/or thoughtlessness of us common people in pursuit of our own, largely innocent goals, means that eventually it will be unavailable to everyone. And that, as much as it irks me, also includes me.

The Downside of Private Balls

First and foremost they are crowding out anchorages. I mentioned Degnen Bay. The only place left to anchor here is in what is (according to a local) technically a seaplane right-of-way. Silva Bay also has virtually zero anchorage space left. The same for Telegraph Harbour. I laugh every time I see Tsehum written up as having an anchorage. When we visited Ganges in May, I kept an eye out for anchoring room and didn’t spot a single place left where I might want to drop a hook. And places like Garden Bay, Nanaimo, Heriot Bay, and Montague all had less space than last time we’d visited due to private mooring balls. I get that locals want inexpensive and convenient moorage, but not all cruisers are wealthy yacht owners and $50-70/night at a marina is a big hit. Visiting boaters want inexpensive and convenient options too.

Not much room left in Degnen Bay.

Degnen Bay from the other angle.

For relative beginners like us, another thing that is really irksome is that anchoring in the mix of randomly spaced mooring balls and other anchored boats is hard. A boat on a mooring line doesn’t swing the same way, and with multiple mooring balls in the anchorage, distances that are already tricky (for us) to judge suddenly become a geometrical nightmare.  And if the mooring balls are empty or occupied by a dinghy, we have no idea how much swing the owner’s boat will have when (or if—more about that later) it returns.

Funny story. I was caught out in Garden Bay when I went to anchor in our favourite spot off the Royal Van docks. Our spot was occupied by an old aluminum boat tied to what I thought was a mooring buoy. So I grumbled a bit and anchored some distance over with lots of room for the owner of the mooring buoy to tie up a fairly large boat. Half a day later the aluminum boat was ominously closing in on me, and I was starting to doubt my ability to judge distances again. That evening the owner showed up in a slightly larger aluminum and told me that in fact the float marked the end of his (permanent) 150 foot anchor rode and that we were destined to go bump in the night. So we moved.

What this does illustrate —even though it was, in the end, not so much about mooring balls — is that if permanent moorages are made badly or thoughtlessly, they are just plain stupid. We’ve all experienced an anchorage where the first few people in haven’t been overly considerate and a cove that could hold 10 boats now only has room for 4. But that situation resolves itself eventually as people move on. When people are being thoughtless about where they drop their permanent mooring, then an anchorage can be virtually ruined for anyone else on a permanent basis. Not cool.

Mooring ball or anchor? You tell me…

And since the balls are private, they take up the space even when not being used. And I know for a fact that some of these moorings go unused for long periods of time. I even know of a few people who have dropped moorings in places on the off chance they may need them later and have no intention of using them. I suppose some people will go ahead and tie up to one of these private balls anyway and move on if the owner comes back, but that’s not really my schtick. Especially if it involves an already-crowded space and the potential of having to relocate in the middle of the night. So all that previously useful communal anchorage space is now taken up by a bunch of seldom-used or unused private mooring balls. Talk about inefficient.

So What’s the Answer?

Sure some of them are park buoys, but those are mostly empty. Except for a few anchored boats, the rest are private ones in one of my favourite anchorages.

Realistically? There isn’t one. Like all Parker Ridge Effect scenarios, growth in popularity and ease of access means the amount of people wanting cheap moorage will continue to grow and transients are, by their very nature, at a disadvantage. The congestion is just going to continue and likely get worse; unless we start spending tons of tax dollars on regulation and enforcement — and frankly, it wouldn’t work any better than posting speed limits prevents speeding. And to be fair, I guess that a lot of cruisers occupy the “tourist” slot and it’s not unreasonable for them to contribute to local economies by paying for their moorage. But we took up cruising to avoid that “tourist” stigma, and I while I enjoy a day at the docks hobnobbing and sampling the local wares, I would much rather swing on my hook in Mark Bay and stare at the lights of Nanaimo, happily self-sufficient. That is, until there’s no more room left for me.

Disclaimer: a lot of the preceding is based on my own personal knowledge and interpretation of the rules governing mooring and I did some background research but make no guarantees about the completeness or accuracy of the facts as I state them.

8 thoughts on “Private Moorings? Le Sigh…

  1. Great article!
    There apparently is a rule that you can pick up a “private” mooring ball if no one is using it. You run the risk of it being badly maintained therefore unsafe OR the “owner” coming home late at night. As a full time sailing industry person I’m also very frustrated with best anchoring bays being ruined by moorings. BUT they’re good if people leave phone #’s so we can call and request use of them in a pinch. More boats in a space is a good thing when a regulation is followed and when there is the ability to rent them.
    BTW …. in the 70’s I lived at Lake Louise and come summer my friends and I hiked and skied Parkers Ridge often. Always just us and no one else. In the days before the back country touring craze took hold ;-)
    I’ll watch for your boat and introduce myself if I see you. Im presently skippering a boat from France to the Mediterranean. Cheers!

    • Thanks Marla. I’ve never thought of phone the number—good idea. I think we met once when I was chartering from Cooper; if not, I have certainly heard enough about you from Tim Melville :-)

  2. When we were trying to decide what we wanted to next, moorings played a role in that decision. From what we understand, the East Coast and the Caribbean have the same issue. It’s not for us. As a side note, the further north you go along the Inside Passage, the fewer moorings there are (none in Desolation Sound that I can think of) and the ones provided in the North Coast are free to use.

    Stephanie @ SV CAMBRIA

    • None in Desolation per se but Heriot Bay is looking pretty full these days :-) Every time we go north it becomes harder and harder not to keep going. Hopefully next year has us finally testing the water north of Cape Caution.

    • Thanks Andy. We are slowly coming to the realization that we aren’t the “norm” by trying to avoid marinas and moorings and so we are finding it irksome that the new “favourite” place in an anchorage is now taken up by an empty mooring ball.

  3. A well written article Bruce, and your thoughts are certainly shared by many.
    You have also looked at the issue from both sides, which I greatly appreciate! Not many people take the time to do that these days.
    I’m personally the owner of a mooring in Tsehum Hbr, and have a few thoughts I would like to share.
    To me the problems with mooring balls all boil down to 2 basic elements.
    1. GREED. And this issue is two-fold. First and foremost, marinas need to charge fees that are at least somewhat in line with the service they provide.
    If the cost was reasonable I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be a boater out there anywhere who wouldn’t rather be tied up to a dock with power, water and real toilets! I have a 30 foot boat and when the cost to keep it on the dock pushes $5K per year (remember your 30′ boat will ‘technically’ measure about 34′ with pulpit overhang, davits, outboards, etc…) then it becomes unaffordable to the average middle-class family.
    Secondly, greed comes into play at the individual level, and you spoke to this above. There are far more boats on the water than ever before. That’s just a fact. We all get nostalgic of the good old days when you could have a bay to yourself, but that isn’t possible anymore. And that’s fine, but is it right for someone to drop a mooring somewhere in the ‘off-chance’ that they might use it in the future. Honestly – I have heard of one wealthy individual who dropped a number of moorings in the Gulf Islands at his favourite spots; just so that he could ensure he’d have the ‘sweet-spot’ once or twice a year when he visited. Talk about greedy!!! I have also seen ‘professionals’ advertising on sites like UsedVictoria that they will put a “TC Compliant” mooring ball down in locations such as Tsehum Hbr and this misleading statement leads me right into my next point –
    2. BUREAUCRACY As you say, jurisdiction of the mooring field falls under Transport Canada. In their wisdom they have set clear guidelines and specifications around private moorings and are always happy to help you with questions you might have. But…regulations without enforcement are WORSE than having no regulations at all! During my tenure in Tsehum it has been surveyed for compliance by TC two times (that I’m aware of). Yes, some derelict boats were removed. Yes, people were notified if they had a “non-compliant” mooring ball and were given a chance to get it up to snuff. However, there are very clear rules around inter-vessel spacing and this element was completely ignored by TC. Sure, if a vessel was in the navigation channel it was made to move…but that’s it. When I purchased my mooring (I think it was in 2010) I made sure that the spacing between me and my neighbours was correct per the regulations. Since then, people have dropped several new balls near me, one so close that at low tide, I could hop in the dinghy tied to my stern and then reach out to touch the ball.
    Last time I looked, I also had the ONLY mooring ball in Tsehum harbour with a Navigation Protection Act registration number (another requirement of ownership) written on the side.
    If you have rules – enforce them – otherwise all you do is keep the honest people honest…..and they’re usually honestly pissed off! In 2010 when I spoke with TC, they said to me –
    You’ll have to purchase an existing mooring if you want to be in Tsehum Harbour. That bay is full.
    Well, I’m a mapper by trade, and in 2011 there were approximately 42 moorings. As of 2015 there were about 87 permanent moorings….
    I hope the Government can figure it out before it becomes such a problem that they just yank them all. But it isn’t easy. I get it. And I really do wish there was a way that someone with a legitimate mooring, who was away sailing for the summer, could let others tie on for a spell….but it’s a legal nightmare! What if the visitor broke free and hit another boat in the bay? Who is liable? What if somebody – AND I HAVE SEEN THIS – decided to temporarily tie a commercial barge onto a private mooring. And what if a storm then came up and it caused your anchor block to drag… How could you ever prove a thing after returning to your mooring after a week long sail. “I swear that neighbour is closer to me now than when I left last week….”
    Cheers and happy boating.

    • Thanks for the great comment! It really is the greed thing that gets to me. I think we all have to start realizing that there is only enough to go around if we don’t keep trying to screw the other guy for our own benefit.

      The liability issues bugs me too as I have heard stories about some of the mooring down in the Caribbean. I don’t know what the solution is but I have my fingers crossed we will arrive at one before something idiotic happens like mooring being banned altogether.

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