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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.