While one cannot entirely avoid Johnstone Strait, there is an alternative route on the Inside Passage that is more protected,
intimate, and scenically diverse.
Sailors heading north to Alaska or exploring upper coastal British Columbia must reckon with Johnstone Strait, a 54 mile-long and often two-mile wide wind tunnel through which prevailing northwesterlies blow frequently at 25 to 30 knots. While one cannot entirely avoid Johnstone Strait, there is an alternative route on the Inside Passage that is more protected, intimate, and scenically diverse. The price to be paid for this advantage is traversing four sets of rapids.
Having sailed our 40-foot Beneteau sloop to Alaska and back in the summer of 1998, using the full length of Johnstone Strait in each direction, my husband Larry and I wanted to test the alternate passage during two months of cruising coastal BC in the summer of 2000. Curiously, we had never taken this route before although we have sailed in the Northwest for 15 years. Perhaps the thought of rapids intimidated us !
We left our moorage in Sidney, BC, and proceeded to the familiar anchorage of Newcastle Island across from the city of Nanaimo, which is on the east side of Vancouver Island. Then, instead of setting a northwesterly course on the Strait of Georgia to Campbell River and the entrance of Discovery Passage, the usual Inside Passage route, we angled slightly eastward to approach Desolation Sound from Lund on the BC mainland. Without wind, we motored 68 nautical miles across the strait to reach Lund in the late afternoon. We tied up at the government dock adjacent to the Breakwater Inn that would celebrate its grand re-opening the next day. The historic white frame hotel, built in 1895 by Swedish immigrant brothers, closed in the fall of 1998 after falling into disrepair. The Sliammon Development Corp., controlled by a local band of the Coast Salish First Nation, purchased the property in November, 1999, and had it completely renovated and enlarged by the following May. The June 24 celebration opened with a parade of native elders — men and women — clad in colorful crest button blankets walking and singing to traditional drums.
That afternoon, under sunny skies and with a gentle northwest wind, we sailed 20 miles, first between the Copeland Islands and the mainland to Desolation Sound and, then, across the sound to Refuge Cove on West Redonda Island. Some of our tacks were to avoid tugboats pulling half-mile-long rafts of logs toward the pulp mills in Powell River to the south.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Desolation Sound, flood tides from the north and south ends of Vancouver Island meet. The ocean encounters little resistance moving north from the Strait of San Juan de Fuca during flood, but its flow southward from Queen Charlotte Sound is impeded. Squeezed by a myriad of islands that clog the space between Vancouver Island and the mainland, it is forced to rush in places, resulting in rapids.
Refuge Cove is a good spot to prepare for the fast water ahead. The well-stocked island grocery store includes frozen meats and breads, ice cream and an enticing collection of marine books, making it a good place to provision. Diesel fuel is available as well as ice and propane. A laundry, coffee shop and gift shop sit at the head of the dock. All power comes from a generator so lights are out at 9:00 PM.
We planned our departure the next morning to catch a noon slack tide at Yuculta Rapids, 21 miles from Refuge Cove. This was to be our first test on this “inner” Inside Passage north. Our route took us NNW up Lewis Channel between verdant, steep hillsides. Mountain peaks creased with snow lay ahead. The effects of a century of logging were evident. Relatively small areas of clear-cut land lay within a patchwork of fully or partially re-grown forest. We listened for the pulsating hum of tugs pulling log rafts. You could hear them before you could see them.
Out of Lewis Channel, we continued NNW in Calm Channel to the entrance of a passage between Sonora Island to the west and Stuart Island to the east. During flood tide, water moving from the north is compressed by the narrowing walls of this passage to create Yuculta Rapids. Coming from Colorado, where my only experience with rapids was negotiating fast-moving river water in a rubber raft, I did not know what to expect at Yuculta. Stories tell of incredible turbulence when strong east winds blow against the flood. Even large trawlers have met with disaster under these conditions, according to John Chappell whose book CRUISING BEYOND DESOLATION SOUND (Naikoon Marine) is a valuable aid in negotiating the rapids.
Just below a rocky peak on Sonora Island and opposite Mt. Stokes with its snowfilled crevices, we slowed our speed and circled waiting for near-slack tide. The wind had dropped from 11 to only 3 knots but Larry’s adrenaline was running as he changed charts and camera lenses. Water depth in these rapids is not a problem. It is the velocity of flow, sometimes causing 30 foot-wide whirlpools, that raises concern. Moving again, we hugged the Stuart Island shore to take advantage of an eddy of the dying flood. From the jutting rocky reef named Kellsey Point (devoid of a marker), we turned to port and crossed to the Sonora Island side of the entrance. Two smaller sloops ahead of us led the way. They were no doubt reading the same cruising guide!
Just opposite Kellsey Point, our propeller spit out a small piece of wood, a warning that these waters can harbor logs and deadheads like the 20-foot trunk just off our port quarter. Just two hundred yards away was Yuculta. We motored through at slack on a slight rippling of whitewater. A few small whirlpools formed off (where else?) Whirlpool Point near Gillard Passage. The first challenge was conquered.
We proceeded from Yuculta through Gillard Passage hugging the Sonoran shore and advanced less than a mile to Dent Rapids with its infamous Devil’s Hole. The Hole can mount violent eddies and whirlpools. Passage at the wrong time is dangerous even for a boat of our size. The rapids are most violent between Sonora and Little Dent Islands. Current from Cordero Channel curves southwest along the north side of Dent Island to meet the flood surging along its south side. The confluence forms a large standing wave at the height of flood. This wave often ends in a giant whirlpool that moves slowly down current.
Now, a half-hour after slack, we passed Big Dent Island and approached Little Dent, staying close to the Sonora Island shore. Devil’s Hole was no threat but its considerable ebbing current made us feel that the boat was skating on oil. In less than a minute, we slipped through the turbulence to enter placid water in Cordero Channel. Two rapids down. Two more to go tomorrow.
We motored northwestward through Cordero Channel to its confluence with Nodales Channel that enters from the southwest. From this juncture, one can follow Nodales to access the eastern end of Johnstone Strait and the northern end of Discovery Passage, passing Thurston Bay Marine Park and Cameleon Harbor en route. We continued in Cordero moving under power beneath incredibly steep, heavily lumbered slopes. Workers cutting near the top of a high mountain used helicopters to lower trimmed and de-barked trunks to the water below. A small tug was already rafting up the logs.
Forgoing an attractive but exposed anchorage behind Crawford Island, we turned southwest into Mayne Passage and motored about a mile to the Blind Channel Marina on the eastern end of West Thurlow Island. Here is a lovely little resort complete with a restaurant, grocery store, laundry, and fuel dock selling diesel and propane. Along the dock walkway and decorating the resort buildings are framed mosaics of broken china and found objects that the owner’s wife creates during the off season. She also makes delicious homemade bread that is sold in the store. A short distance from the resort is a trailhead from which we hiked for more than a mile through dense, moss-covered, second-growth forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock and amabilis fir. The trail crosses a rushing stream and passes beside a cedar tree estimated to be 800 years old, whose trunk is 16 feet in diameter.
The next morning we left Blind Channel Marina in the company of several boats and rejoined Cordero Channel to the north. Immediately, we entered Greene Point Rapids where the flood tide from the north was a little less than an hour from peak slack. The rapids are at a T-shaped junction where the flood goes east in Cordero Channel and north through Mayne Passage. Although turbulence is less than in Yuculta and Dent rapids, care must be taken to avoid being washed against rocks and small islands in the narrow entrance where current can reach 5 knots at mid-tide.
While Larry shot photos from the bow, I took the wheel. We were behind two other boats; five more followed us. The surface of the water was disturbed but no current was detectable. I didn’t really know when we were in the rapids proper. As I anticipated the critical time and place, Larry announced, “That was it!” Three rapids completed. One to go!
Cordero Channel ends at its junction with Loughborough Inlet. The resulting channel, which angles southwest for seven miles to join Johnstone Strait, is called Chancellor. Before Chancellor meets the strait, we turned northwestward into Wellbore Channel with Hardwicke Island on our port side and mainland BC on our starboard side. Wellbore, like all the waterways in this spectacular region, is flanked by undulating rocky mountains covered with stands of old and new-growth timber. These fjords compare favorably to ones we have seen in Norway and New Zealand but without the crush of commercial tourism. Although the elevation of the mountains here is not as great as in Princess Louisa Inlet, northern BC, or southwest Alaska, the terrain is, nevertheless, breathtaking.
After motoring a mile and a half in Wellbore, we reached Whirlpool Rapids, located where the eastern shore of Hardwicke closes with the mainland. It was thirty minutes after slack tide and the ebb was running northwesterly but there was almost no perceptible current. At full flood or ebb, the current speed can reach 7 knots in these rapids. Most of the activity is on the east side of the narrowed channel at Carterer Point. On a small ebb, warns John Chappell, the bay just north of Carterer Point has swirls and upheavals but no whirlpools. At mid-ebb, passage is possible only for boats with considerable power or speed. For us, the fourth and last set of rapids was as easily traversed as were all the others. Slack tide is a great friend. Tide and current manuals are worth every penny of their cost!
The rapids were benign but a cold wind was rising. Many of the boats traveling with us turned right to enter superbly protected Forward Harbor with its picturesque anchorage at Douglas Bay. We pushed ahead around the north side of Hardwicke into Sunderland Channel, to keep our appointment with Johnstone Strait a few miles away. What we met when exposed to the full fury of the strait were 25 to 30 knot winds on our bow and steep waves of 5 to 8 feet hitting us at short intervals. Beating in this weather was no fun. Our destination was Port Neville only five miles away but we didn’t make it. Instead of bucking such seas, we ducked behind Tuna Point on the mainland shore of the strait and anchored for the night.
So what did we profit by taking the alternative route north? The rapids presented no problem but they slowed our travel by a day in order to wait for slack water. Scenery was magnificent as we sailed among the islands north of Desolation Sound but what part of the BC coast is not beautiful? Anchorages and marinas are plentiful along the “inner” Inside Passage. The route encourages more leisurely travel than when following Johnstone Strait throughout but this fact may not be a compelling reason to choose the diversion.
Our experience in Johnstone Strait is the clincher. Eliminating about one-third of the length of the strait when the northwest wind is blowing strongly is a boon. It makes the “inner” Inside Passage a happy alternative to the usual course. Whether heading for Alaska or exploring northern British Columbia, if you intend to sail from Puget Sound or the San Juan Islands, try the “inner” Inside Passage for beauty and adventure.
Ann Norton, a journalist, has sailed with her surgeon husband on their Beneteau sloops in the Pacific Northwest since 1984. They have bareboated in New Zealand, Tonga, Turkey, the BVI, and the Grenadines. The Nortons plan to revisit Alaska by way of the Inside Passage.
The “Inner” Inside Passage appeared in the
January 2003 issue of 48° North