MacNeill Bay to the Trial Islands Paddle Route

Kayaking Routes around Victoria: MacNeill Bay to the Trial Islands

The Trial Islands are located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca just off the shores of Oak Bay with easy access from MacNeill Bay.  It is an excellent short day trip, which can easily be accomplished within 1 or 2 hours. Strong currents of up to 3 knots can be found in Enterprise Channel and even stronger currents of up to 6 knots,  occur off the south point of Trial Island, so caution should be taken when planning a trip out to these islands.  It is a trip best suited for intermediate to advanced paddlers and or novice paddlers travelling with them.  Please see the trip planning section of this post for more details.

Trial Islands

Trial Islands

It is said that the name for the Trial Islands came from the early days of the British Navy in Victoria, when refitted sailing vessels were sailed from Esquimalt Harbour to Trial Island to test the seaworthiness of the repairs.  The Trial Islands are now an ecological reserve, which was created in 1990, to protect one of the most outstanding assemblages of rare and endangered plant species found in British Columbia.  28 species are listed as rare and 15 are listed as greatest rarity.  Because of this, landing on the Trial Island Ecological Reserve is restricted and permission to land is required.  The likely reason for the abundance of rare plant species found here is because the islands escaped glaciation during the last ice age.

The lighthouse found on the southern tip of Trial Island was built in 1906 and was fully automated in 2009.  For more information on the lighthouse check out the Friends of Trial Island Lighthouse

Launch Location

MacNeill Bay, right along Beach drive in Oak Bay, offers the easiest access to the Trial Islands.  There is a small pocket beach in the left corner of the bay, which gives a very easy and sheltered access to the bay.  You will find a staircase going down to the beach.  This is a preferable launch spot to the main beach on MacNeill Bay, which is more exposed to wave action and can be covered at some high tides.  For a slightly longer paddle, you could also launch for Ross Bay, off Crescent Rd.

The Route


Trial Island Lighthouse

The total paddle route is approximately 4.2 km or 2.27 nautical miles.  Plan 1 to 2 hours for this trip depending on how much time you spend sightseeing, socializing and playing in the currents.

The key to picking a route to the Trial Islands is knowing which way the currents are flowing.  If the currents are flooding (flowing west to east), you best route will be to cross high above Enterprise Channel and ferry glide over to the west side of the islands.  This will set you up to ride the current around the southern tip of the islands (should you decide conditions are safe to do so, the largest rips will be found on the flood here).  A very large eddy forms on the south end of Trial, which can give you a good ‘sneak’ route past the rips, but be careful of the eddylines.  On your way back, you can work your way up against the currents between the two islands back to Enterprise Channel and ferry glide back to MacNeill Bay.

If the currents are ebbing (flowing east to west), depending on the strength of the current, you can once again ferry glide to the west side of the islands, then work your way down between the two islands with the current or you can let the current of Enterprise Channel carry you down to the east side of the islands.  Work you way up the shore and ride the current around the southern tip.  Paddle back along the west side of the islands and ferry glide back across Enterprise Channel to MacNeill Bay.


Grey Whale off Trial Island

Grey Whale off Trial Island

There is a wide variety of sea birds found on the islands, there has been a nesting pair of bald eagles, and even a couple of snowy owls have made a winter residence of the islands on occasion.  You will see harbour seals, river otters and if you really lucky you might see a pod of orcas, a grey whale or humpback whale passing by.

Planning the Trip

You will potentially run into tide rips in Enterprise Channel and off the southern tip of Trial Island as well as the channel between the two main islands.  While you can plan your crossing from MacNeill Bay to avoid the Enterprise Channel, you should still be aware of the direction and speed of the currents so you will know which way you are going to drift as you cross to the islands.

Check the weather forecast

Most importantly, check the winds (speed & direction) forecast for the day at the sites posted below.  Our recommendation for most paddlers is to keep the winds under 10-12 knots or 18 – 24 kph. .  Remember that wind against the current will create larger, steeper waves.  Also make sure you are aware of the current and wind changes that will occur later in the day on your return trip.  What was a nice calm crossing with light winds in the morning may change to steep breaking waves with a change of current direction in the afternoon.

Here are 2 recommended sites for good wind forecasts:?


?Big Wave Dave

Check the currents* for Trial Island

Warning:  If currents are running more than 2 knots in Enterprise Channel, caution should be exercised, as tide rips will occur here.   There is also a likely possibility of wind against current, creating larger steeper waves. As well, strong eddylines (the transition between the main current and slower water near the shoreline) can easily capsize unwary paddlers.

Trial Island

South Tip Of Trial Island

1. The easiest way to check the currents is with very convenient iPhone app called Aye Tides.   Just click ‘Find a Station’ and select Race Passage. This is the closest ‘main current station’ to the Trial Islands.  Currents in Baynes Channel, (between 10 Mile Pt and Chatham) run approximately half the speed of Race Rocks and do so 15 minutes earlier, regardless of the direction of flow. The currents in Enterprise Channel run approximately half that of Baynes Channel, so you can approximate what the currents are doing from this data.

2.  Optionally use the Canadian Tide and Current Tables.  Either by using the online tables or go to page 68 of the CT&CT printed version (available at Ocean River Sports) and you will find a listing for Race Passage, once again the closest ‘main current station’ to the Trial Islands.  The times of the turn to Ebb and Turn to Flood (essentially slack water), as well as the time of the maximum current flow are listed. The minus sign refers to the ebb or water flowing out  (a westerly direction at Race) and the positive sign is the Flood or inflow (easterly). Once you have this information, you will now use the ‘secondary current stations’ listed on page 135 to find a listing for Baynes Channel (the closest 2ndary station to Trial Island).  It will tell you that Baynes runs at about 75% of Race Passage and 15 minutes earlier. For example,  if the currents are 4 knots at Race, expect 3 knots in Baynes.  Another tidbit of information you can glean from the nautical charts of the area is that the currents in Enterprise Channel run about half the speed of Baynes Channel, therefore the current in these channels will be running around 1 1/2 knots.

*The differences between tides and currents. Tide stations only measure the depth of the water at high and low water at a particular location. A current station, on the other hand, measures the speed and direction of the water moving past a location.   Also be aware that times of high and low tide do not correspond to changes in current direction, so you cannot use tide tables to predict currents.  This is particularly relevant around southern Vancouver Island.

4. Feel free to check in with the staff at the Adventure Center either by emailing us at, or phone at 250-381-4233 and we will be more than happy to help you out with your trip planning and supply you with any of the gear you may need for your adventure including boat and equipment rentals.  If you would like to upgrade your paddling and/or navigational skills so you can safely participate in trips like this and learn more about paddling in currents and rough water, check out our awesome kayak course curriculum.

Other weather considerations

Fog:  Fog can form at any time of year around the Trial Islands, but it is more prevalent through the months of August and September.  Sea fog forms as a result of warmer air meeting the colder waters of the Juan De Fuca Straits.  Fog can roll in quickly and completely obscure visibility.  As a result you should be prepared with a compass and chart and/or a GPS so you can safely navigate your way back.  If you are using a compass, keep in mind you will have to compensate for drift caused by the current.  Also, be aware that unlike radiation fog, which forms over land in calm air conditions, sea fog can be associated with high winds.

Water Temperature:  The waters here are cold all year round with average winter temperatures running 7.0-8.0?C (44.5-46.5?F) and only warming to 10-11.5?C (50-53?F) from May through October.  In waters this cold exhaustion can occur in 30-60 minutes or less and survival times are between 1-3 hours.

Waves  The Trial Islands are quite exposed to the Straits of Juan de Fuca so there is the potential for large waves and swell.  There is also the potential for rebound waves off the cliffs on the southern tip of Trial Island which can create very confused sea conditions, particularly when combined with the tide rips.

It is imperative that you:

1)  Have the necessary skills to paddle the rough water conditions that can be experienced here, including assisted and self rescues.

2)  Do the necessary trip planning to avoid potentially hazardous conditions and keep in mind that conditions here can change rapidly, so once on the water, be aware.

3)  Wear the appropriate clothing, ie dress for the water temperature.

4)  Have the necessary rescue equipment with you including signal flares and some form of communication device such as a cell phone in a water proof case (make sure you can operate it in the case and the battery is charged), a VHF radio, Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger such as the Spot or inReach.  They could save your life! At Ocean River Sports, we carry signal flares, waterproof cases for cell phones, VHF Radios, PLB’s and satellite messengers. Click this link to see a full review of Electronic Communication Devices

How to get there

From Downtown Victoria, drive up either Pandora St or Fort St and turn right on to Cook St, turn left onto Fairfield Rd continue onto Beach Drive.  You will come to MacNeill Bay, which is in the 500 block of Beach Dr.  Drive to the far left side (east side) of the bay and park on the street.

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