Sailing Johnstone Strait in 2 Days – What a Wild Ride!

Heading up Johnstone Strait is one of the hardest sailing challenges we anticipated for our cruise, and this year we planned for it to take as long as 5 days. Many boats motor it in 1-2 days, but we wanted to sail, and had a detailed strategy for different wind and current conditions.

We ended up doing it in just two days – thanks to good timing of a super ebb (very strong ebb tide giving us a 1 to 5 knot push) and a ripping southeasterly on the second day which propelled us on a crazy downwind ride that got a bit too windy towards the end.

Two years ago on our 3 month cruise to the Broughtons we took the back route, going through several rapids to avoid northwesterly wind in Johnstone. Details on that route are here.  The downside to this approach is it can take longer because it’s a greater distance and the tidal passes have to be timed around slack. Also it’s even more difficult to sail 100% of the way because the channels are narrower and some areas are big wind holes.

Yet taking Johnstone head-on risks battling 30-40 knot head winds and a 2 knot  opposing current (or current push, which can cause massive standing waves from wind against current). So Johnstone Strait warrants plenty of prudent caution. If you want to see some photos of Johnstone in terrible conditions, check out this page where it shows a sailboat bucking upwind (motoring) into 40 knots.

We were really lucky with our conditions this year and had an easy day followed by a very tiring but fast day.

May 2 – Octopus Islands to Johnstone Strait, East Bear Cove

We got up early (6:15 am) to catch the start of the ebb out Okisollo Channel and go through Upper Rapids and Lower Rapids. After Lower Rapids we were able to sail slowly in Okisollo, and planned to just go to Otter Cove near Chatham Point for the night.

But as we approached Chatham we could see Johnstone looked beautifully flat and we were having some great upwind sailing in 12 kts with a current push – sailing 6 knots but going 7.5 over ground. So we decided to keep going – a good call, as we rode the super ebb past Knox Bay and the weather turned sunny and warm.

We pulled into East Bear Bight south of Knox Bay for the night, because the ebb was ending. It’s not super protected and was a bit bumpy / rolly at night (especially when a cruise ship went by at 1am!) but was okay. A challenge of Johnstone for sailors is that most anchorages are marginal.

May 3 – Johnstone to Growler Cove

The BC marine forecast for today was SE 10-20, switching to NW 15-25 in the late afternoon. SE is great, but there’s a big difference between 10 and 20 knots, and how long would we get the southeast wind for? Our frustration with BC wind forecasts in comparison to US NOAA forecasts is the BC ones are often very ambiguous, and very often outright wrong.

Fortunately we did get our SE wind, but for a little while it went to 30 – way outside the forecast range! (Keep in mind 30 kts is 2x the force on our sails than 20 kts). I have to cut them some slack though because forecasting Johnstone Strait has to be one of the toughest prediction tasks there is.

We headed out from our anchorage at 8:30 to catch the ebb, and right away were able to sail in SE 5-8, with a 2 kt current push helping out. Going through Race Passage south of Helmcken Island we hit 9.5 knots over ground as the wind built to 12 kts and we had 4-5 knots of current. The water was amazingly flat, and we only had one section of massive whirlpools and upwelling we went through just after Kelsey Bay.

And Then It Got Really Windy

Going past Port Neville we were doing great, almost keeping pace with a flotilla of 6 Broughtons-bound powerboats (we called them the “Broughtons Brigade”) and a tug towing a barge. It felt really weird because we almost never can keep pace with powerboats – but current plus fast downwind sailing meant wind power was almost matching diesel power.

Photos from before the winds built, in about 18-20 kts here.

Then, a few miles before Robson Bight and on the south side of the channel, winds picked up suddenly to 30 knots, possibly gusting to 35. Things went sideways fast, as we were still flying a full main and a double reefed genoa – manageable in the 18-20 knots we had a few minutes ago but way too much main for 30.

During a gybe we rounded up and the genoa was flogging for a while as we wrestled the helm back to dead downwind and struggled to furl the genoa completely. One of the genoa sheets pulled out (the figure eight stopped knot isn’t big enough apparently) and wrapped the other sheet.

We still had too much sail up with the full main, but were able to keep things under control until winds lightened to 20-25. Things can go from easy to difficult very fast in Johnstone!

Lessons Learned

  1. We should have reefed earlier, as soon as we noticed boat speed hitting 7 knots and waves that we were surfing. The wind rose so quickly that we hadn’t really seen it coming. And the forecast was for 10-20, switching to NW in the afternoon, so I was expecting our 20 to disappear into a lull before the NW switch.
  2. Johnstone winds always build at one end of the channel, as funneling and fetch distance increases. In SE winds they build near the end of the strait, and in NW winds they build near Fanny Island and Helmcken.
  3. Reef early. We somehow need to relearn this lesson every year. The prior month’s winds made us overconfident because they never went much beyond 20. And reefing our main while we’re already running in 15-20 is a big ordeal – so there’s an incentive to try to just ride it out.

Growler Cove

At the end of Johnstone we anchored in Growler Cove, a west facing nook which is part of Blackfish Sound. In the morning I took the paddleboard out and explored near low tide, spotting 7 big red crabs, tons of sea anemones of at least 5 varieties, and a seal that followed me for a bit.

Looking Forward to the Broughtons

Overall it was a fantastic Johnstone passage – one challenging period and the rest of the time conditions were ideal. We’re surprised and elated to be in the Broughtons now – it feels like we got here very quickly. We do hope some more sailboats decide to join us up here – it’s motorboat season in the Broughtons (as we experienced 2 years ago) but the sailing is great too.

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