Johnstone Strait: A Tale of Careful Planning

Updated: Feb 1

Everyone who has sailed Johnstone Strait seems to have an intense story from their adventures. This bit of water which separates the Salish Sea from the Northern Pacific Ocean is notorious for fast building, high winds that hit from unpredictable directions. The strait is flanked by tall mountain cliffs that reach from the sea to the sky and fjords that funnel wind up and down them, and into the strait. On top of the tall mountains funnelling wind, the strait has strong currents that run upwards of 7 knots, creating very volatile conditions when wind and current are against one another.

johnstone strait in 20 knots of wind

When we started planning our trip to the Broughton Archipelago, we knew that we would have to pass through Johnstone Strait at least twice because the strait is the only way to sail from the Salish Sea to the Broughtons (without going all the way around Vancouver Island!). So we watched the weather and very carefully planned our journey north, and then south. We didn't want to be in the strait when there was strong or gale force wind warnings because of our lack of experience on the boat and some boat work we needed to do, so we decided to plan for days with calmer weather.


Heading North


For this trip we had two major things to consider: wind strength/ direction and current. A northwest wind had set in early in the summer and seemed to be blowing strong or gale force winds every day from June to September. We made our way north of Campbell River, quite literally two days before the northwest winds set in and weren't quite brave enough to head through the strait with the winds against us, so instead we hunkered down in the back channels until we thought we had a calmer day to head through Johnstone Strait. This meant that we waited a week and a half for the right winds, but it was worth it!


johnstone strait in calm waters

The night after a full moon we woke up at 5am to catch the current out of Green Point Rapids. We had chosen to take the back route through the discovery islands in order to bypass as much of Johnstone as we could. Weather reports for the day said to expect light winds switching to southeast in the afternoon, which is exactly what we needed! So we left at slack current, with the rest of the day slated to have the current moving with us.



By the time we had reached the center of the strait, we were travelling at 8-9 knots at less than normal power with a 4 knot current pushing us forward. This is also where we realized we had made a really dumb mistake with our fuel, but you can find out more about that in the video below.



As you can see in the pictures, it turned out that we picked the perfect day for our travels north. Although there was no wind for sailing, that made the conditions a lot better than the 35 knots that would have been right on our nose if we had left the day before. The wind only picked up to about 10 knots SE on this entire journey, and when it was there we raised the sails to utilize it the best we could. But for the most part, the water was glass calm. It wasn't great for sailing, but it was so beautiful that I wasn't mad.



Heading South The trip on the way back, however, was a different story. We headed south in hopes that we could make it half way down the strait in a day. However, as we headed south the weather reports became worse and winds started to pick up where we were. We knew that we hadn't even reached the worst area for winds yet, and with 25 knot gusts hitting us early on in the day, we decided to tuck into Port Harvey for the night. Weather reports were showing that the next few days were going to be as bad as the first one, but we had friends ahead of us who had nearly gotten themselves into some serious trouble farther down the strait, so we decided to play it safe and tuck in for the night.


The worst spot along the strait in Northwest winds is usually between Port Neville and Helmken Island. This bit of water has winds that will blow from more than one direction at a time and there are very few opportunities to tuck out of the weather, so we thought it was best to avoid that stretch when winds were already higher than expected.


anchored at helmken island

Luckily for us, the next morning we woke up to a very favourable weather report and decided to continue our travels south. We motor sailed and motored our way to Helmken Island where we decided to spend our second night. Although we reached the island with quite a bit of current behind us, we were still able to make our way into a protected anchorage on the island as the current seemed to somehow die down to almost nothing close to the island itself.


The next day brought a report that said the morning was supposed to be calm, but winds would be building later in the day. The current was favourable earlier on in the day, so we decided to finish the rest of our journey south. We sailed and motor sailed our way to Campbell River, caught a fish on the way, avoided any overwhelming wind and only had one dangerous experience along the way (check out the video for more about that)! We even had a chance to sail without the motor and still make the proper current windows through dangerous passes, which was amazing.



After hearing so many horror stories about sailboats getting knocked down by gusts coming from unexpected directions in Johnstone Strait, people almost having their boats capsized, and otherwise extremely uncomfortable conditions, we felt extremely blessed to have made it to and from the northern island without suffering too much in Johnstone Strait! Next time we will feel more comfortable experiencing larger winds in the strait, but being able to experience a more gentle strait was great for our first adventures in these waters!

clouds moving over mountains near seyward


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