Saturday, April 2, 2011

Summer Trip Planning - Johnstone Strait

Traveling north from Puget Sound to get to some great Canadian cruising grounds such as the Broughtons, or Hakai, or the BC Central Coast, or farther yet to Alaska you've got several cruising challenges.  In a previous post I talked about "Crossing the Monster" or navigating across Georgia Strait.  I also talked about navigating the series of "Canadian Rapids."  This post is about one more challenging leg - navigating Johnstone Strait.
Click to view full image.
Johnstone Strait is a major marine highway to and from Salish Sea and places farther north.  Other than going "outside" you will have to navigate this Strait, and it is a busy route.  When traveling Johnstone Strait you will encounter all sorts of marine traffic - cruise ships, freighters, tugs & tows, log barges, fishing boats, and other pleasure boats.  If that's not enough, Johnstone Strait is also a natural weather and water "funnel."   Johnstone Strait goes pretty much east - west.  To the south you have the Vancouver Island mountains and to the north you have the Coast Range.  All the water in Johnstone Strait and the numerous connecting fjords and inlets all ebb west out of Johnstone Strait - this is important to note.  Weather wise, any bad weather out of the SE is comes up from the Strait of Georgia and gets funneled west into Johnstone Strait, and the summer high pressure that brings the good weather is funneled east down Johnstone Strait.  Depending on your route, at a minimum you will have to deal with about 13 miles of Johnstone Strait.  I have been traveling up and down Johnstone Strait for over 20 years and I have come up with five areas of caution.
  1. Chatham Point.  At this point Johnstone Strait starts from Discovery Passage.  The prevailing westerly winds coming down Johnstone Strait will meet a strong ebb current coming out of Discovery Passage possibly creating very rough sea conditions.  You can listen to the VHF weather radio to get wind speeds from the Chatham Point Light House.  It is not uncommon to hear of gale force winds and four or five foot moderate seas here.  You will also have to contend with marine traffic going north and south.  As a result I tend to avoid cruising this route.
  2. Helmcken Island.  Again, westerly winds and strong ebbing currents can create rough sea conditions here.  Note that north of Helmcken Island is called 'Current Passage' and westbound ship traffic uses this route.  South of Helmcken Island is called 'Race Passage' and eastbound ship traffic uses this route.  To avoid problems you'll probably want to travel the same direction as the marine traffic.You can listen to the continuous VHF weather radio (WX1 Comox Coast Guard Radio) for "Fanny Island" to get reports of wind speeds.  Fanny Island is about five nautical miles west of Helmcken Island.  Again, because of weather and marine traffic I generally avoid cruising this route.
  3. Port Neville.  I generally stay on the far northern side of Johnstone Strait which keeps me out of most of the marine traffic.  However, the seas can get quite rough and confused here from currents that drain out Port Neville as they hit Johnstone Strait.  Also, it seems that there is commonly a lot of debris in the water in this area.  I have seen logs, kelp knots, lines, plastic bags, and other things can can ruin your day.  So keep a sharp lookout and avoid going through any kelp knots where plastic bags and lines can commonly be.  You can find some refuge from strong westerly winds in Port Neville and I've anchored here before, but the current really moves through the channel.  I've only used it in an emergency.
  4. Central Johnstone Strait.  You will find no refuge from the frequent strong westerly winds that blow down Johnstone Strait here.  When looking at Johnstone Strait currents, you will notice that many times there is little or no flood current in Johnstone Strait because of all the rivers that drain into the surrounding inlets and fjords which drain into Johnstone Strait.  My experience is that you want to avoid traveling this stretch of Johnstone Strait during a strong ebb current.  When the westerly winds meet a strong ebb current moving west it will cause big waves to form providing you a rough and uncomfortable cruise.
  5. Western Johnstone Strait - Blackney & Weynton Passages.  Again, the problem here is the mix of westerly winds, strong ebb currents, and marine traffic.  I have been caught in this terrible and dangerous mix and it was not too fun.  One summer the westerly winds were 35 knots or more, the current was ebbing at 5+ knots creating seas of five to six feet with cresting waves.  I had to dodge several ships in the area - meaning I had to temporarily turn broadside to the seas.  When we reached Port McNeill the crew wanted off the boat just to stand on solid ground.
Sunderland Channel looking WSW into Johnstone Strait
The route I suggest (see above route is marked in red) is to travel down Chancellor Channel, Wellbore Channel, Sunderland Channel and turn to starboard just passing the Broken Islands and into Havannah Channel.  If you choose to go this route you will only have to travel about 13 nautical miles of Johnstone Strait. It is a bit longer route, but it makes up for the distance in comfort and scenery.  There are also several good anchorages to wait out any strong westerly blows - Greene Point Cove, Blind Channel Marina, Forward Harbor, and Port Harvey.  You'll get a good idea of what the sea conditions are in Johnstone Strait as soon as you exit Wellbore Channel and go into Sunderland Channel.  If they're too rough, you can choose to return to anchor in Forward Harbor. 

Currents for Central Johnstone Strait for July 25, 2011
In the summer the best plan is to often travel very early in the morning to avoid the stronger afternoon westerly winds.  Check WX 1 Comox Weather Radio and listen for the wind speeds at Fanny Island, along with light house reports from Chatham Point and Pulteney Point (Malcolm Island and by Port McNeill).  Pick your time to avoid traveling during any strong ebbs when there are strong westerly winds.  The currents for July 25 are good because you will be at the 'tail end' of the ebb in the morning.  If you combine this with the previous post of "Summer Trip Planning - Canadian Rapids" you will notice that they go together well.  Now I just hope the wind isn't blowing hard on that day.

Finally, when you get past Johnstone Strait you are in some of the best cruising grounds in the world.  So don't let the challenge of Johnstone Strait stop you.  And, when cruising Johnstone Strait keep a lookout for orcas (Killer Whales).  Near the far western end of Johnstone Strait on the Vancouver Island side is the famed "Robson Bight" where orcas can commonly be seen.

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