Except for a few mechanical problems, now fixed, and summer pretending it’s fall, our experiences of traveling by boat through some of the most beautiful country in the world is unmatched, overwhelming, and unforgettable.
But two of our latest transits were more “interesting” than beautiful, these were Johnstone Strait and Discovery Passage.
Ocean tides rise and fall, all of us that have visited an ocean coast accept the sinusoidal periodicity of the tide that comes from the orbit of the moon. What isn’t so obvious is the currents needed when the tide needs to flow through limited passageways. The Inside Passage in BC and on up to Alaska is a maze of passageways, straits and fiords all of them connect to the ocean so tides affect everywhere. To make it interesting there are only a few passageways to carry all that water to/from the ocean. Some of the more restricted passes form tidal rapids, some running up to 16 kn (18 mph) these are places where boats need be careful.
Two of the larger passages where tidal currents flow are Discovery Passage and Johnstone Straight. 50-mile-long Johnstone Straight is just a nasty place. I’ve been over it three times and have yet to see it without some whitecaps, especially the eastern half. When the tide waters are running at their maximum these passages are full of unpredictable currents whirlpools, white capped waves, and can be dangerous when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.
Seymour Narrows is another place we need be cautious..
Discovery Passage was named by George Vancouver. It runs 26 miles north and south near the British Columbian town of Campbell River. For about three miles, the geography of the land squeezes the waterway to about half its width, named Seymour Narrows. The Narrows is kind of like putting your thumb over the end of a garden hose the water pressure makes the water faster. Captain George Vancouver called it “one of the vilest stretches of water in the world”.
Whatever chaos existed on the wider part of Seymour exponentially increases in the Narrows.
There was a submerged rock in the middle of the Narrows before 1958. Over the last decades the rock caused 119 vessels to sink taking 114 lives. In 1958 a tunnel was dug under the narrows and ripple rock blown up in the largest, commercial, non-nuclear blast ever. The rock is gone now but the boils and general disorder and chaos caused by that much water has not.
There are 3-4 times each day that the Narrows looks like a bathtub. It’s calm, still, harmless and becomes a charming piece of water. For a few minutes each day, the water goes from a flood to an ebb and the currents are at zero during that reversal. How long these calm periods lasts depend mostly on the size of the tidal exchange that day. It’s usually only minutes, in the order of 5-15, then the water reverses. The rate of currents follows a sinusoidal pattern; the peaks of the sine wave are when the water reverses direction, the slack.
A few minutes before and after slack the water is moving slowly, it’s the top and bottom round parts of the sine wave. I had planned to be halfway through the narrows at slack. It didn’t work out that way.
We have a 600 page book, aboard, that lists the exact slack times for the most dangerous tidal rapids and narrows in British Columbia for every day of 2022. The slack time we picked for our transit that morning was 10:16 AM.
We left our anchorage at 6:30 in the morning, we knew it would take about four hours at the speed we travel. Trouble is we travel over currents, some are fair others, foul.
After a short period on the water, we were doing 10-11 knots, not the 8 we planed. The engine almost at idle. In case we later hit a foul current we did not want to delay by detours. I don’t like being early for a party, but being early for slack has consequences. When we got to the narrows we were one hour early.
That morning the maximum predicted speed in the Narrows was less than the speed we capable of, so we entered.
For a time the ride was ok and then every 6th or 7th waves had white foam tips. When we’d hit a wave the bow would go up, sometimes, on the down side of the wave was a valley we’d dip into and spray would douse the boat. One memorable wave caused our dinning (salon) table to tip over, books toppled to the floor in a loud (oh shit) crash. Luckily, nothing was broken, not even the wine glasses and thankfully, there wasn’t another wave that big.
Pretty soon, after a lot of up then down into the wave troughs and lots of water over the bow, we came to enjoy ourselves, in spited of chanting Kaddish every so.
Our trust was building in Pacific Northwest built Nordics and in our boat Endeavor. Trust has to be earned over time, that’s with people and machines too.
Part way through, I handed the steering over to Judy, and almost at once a smile pulled the ends of her mouth up, I’d swear she started to aim for the largest waves. It became fun.
Judy steered the rest of the way through the narrows, we crashed into waves, lots of water over our bow. I was trying to hold on with one hand while shooting stills and video with the other trying for dramatic shots of Judy smiling, water over the bow splashing on the windshield like the hardest rain. I had to wait a time to get one I liked.
We should have waited for slack, at Dodd Narrows we had transited a a few days earlier was a definite wait, we would not have entered before slack. This one turned from trepidation to fun, I think for both of us.
After a nights rest in a beautiful, quiet lagoon with one other boat floating on not a ripple and forest all around we started the transited of Johnstone Strait another troublesome place.
We’ve done Johnstone Strait three times, two times on our last sailboat and have never ever seen it quiet. We bumped and splashed through waves for 50 miles (over two days) to an anchorage that was unlike any other to date (spoiler; related to an abandon Indian village).
Secretly, I think both us enjoyed those bumpy trips even in spite of chanting Kaddish every once in a while.