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Deception Pass is for Sissies

Located about 60 miles north of Seattle, Deception Pass is the name given to two channels (separated by a rocky islet) that separates Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island in Puget Sound. The narrow nature of these channels combined with the huge

My 1972 21-ft Streamline Trailer and Dodge Pickup at Deception Pass Campground

My 1972 21-ft Streamline Trailer and Dodge Pickup at Deception Pass Campground

volume of water that must fill the basin between Whidbey Island and the mainland of Washington State means that when the tide changes the water runs swiftly. Deception Pass is, depending upon your skill level, either a wonderful playground or a place to avoid at all costs in a kayak. I’m here to debunk at least a little of this.

I just spent a weekend paddling the Deception Pass waters in virtually calm conditions. Except for a few eddy lines my 8-year-old friend Hailey could have made this trip. From my camp spot on the Whidbey Island side of the Pass (Deception Pass State Park) I could take my F-1 kayak and paddle miles of protected water. But by choosing to paddle during the right tides and in the right weather I could safely mooch around Deception Pass; no whirlpools required. Let me explain how I did it.

The periods between the tidal changes – the pauses between ebb tide and flood tide – are called “slack” because the currents in the channels are essentially zero (or nearly so). As the tidal waters build up on one side or the other this changes rapidly so that often the amount of time between zero current and virtually full current is only a matter of a half-hour or an hour. But for about 10 or 15 minutes of every tide cycle, Deception Pass is not much worse than any other salt water body of water.

But you can often have a lot more time than that. Because of the vagaries of Puget Sound tidal cycles there are often 2 high tides and 2 low tides in every 24-hour cycle. In general there is a pair with a higher tidal range and a pair with a lower tidal range. Because the time of high/low tide increments about an hour every day, sometimes the high tidal range period is at night and the low tidal range period is right in the middle of a nice summer day.

If you want a raucous kayak ride you simply paddle when the current is at maximum; which coincides with the higher tidal range. But if you want to just test your skills in Deception Pass or if you simply want to paddle the shorelines on either side of the Pass, you simply choose a time when there is very little tidal range.

To illustrate this let me show you the tide for Cornet Bay for October 10, 2009:

Tides at Cornet Bay for October 10, 2009

Tides at Cornet Bay for October 10, 2009

Cornet Bay is located just east (inside) Deception Pass on the Whidbey Island side and is a common launch area for paddling the area (the other common launch is at Bowman Bay just west of the Pass on the Fidalgo Island side).  This tide chart is read like a graph with water height (in meters above mean lower low tide) on the left and time at the bottom. You can see that there are two relatively deep lows on either side of what looks more like a saddle.  It’s a bit difficult to see but between the hours of about 11:30am and 8:30pm on the tenth of October, 2009 there was less than one meter of tidal range. This would make me think that there would be smaller currents associated with this low tidal range. Let’s look at the current tables and see.

Deception Pass currents for October 10, 2009

Deception Pass currents for October 10, 2009

Sure enough. See that little slightly lower blue hump just to the left of the center of the image? That is the current graph for October 10, 2009 and it indicates that the maximum current is about 2.8 knots. Much less current than you’d encounter with a higher tidal range.

The lesson to be learned here is that not all tidal currents in Deception Pass are equal. But there two other variables that can make your paddling trip to Deception Pass more, or less, exciting and that’s the wind speed and wind direction. Any wind out of the west or southwest against an ebb tide will create some really exciting wave trains on the western side (Bowman Bay side) of the Pass. Similarly a strong easterly will have an effect on the Cornet Bay side during a flood (although not so much due to the smaller fetch).

A maximum current of less than 3 knots is much easier to deal with than a maximum current of 6 or 7 knots so if you want to get your feet wet at Deception Pass then you might want to choose a time and tide (along with weather) that suits your purposes.

I have launched at both Bowman Bay and at Cornet Bay but I generally prefer Cornet Bay and a flood tide so that I can work my way into the Pass without being carried willy-nilly into it. It is generally felt that the flood current presents more exciting paddling than the ebb tide, however. Remember that the wind can alter all conditions. If I have to swim out on a flood current it merely washes me back past Cornet Bay and within an easy swim to land. On a strong ebb it could carry me past Lopez Island and out the Straits!!!

It bears mentioning that you should never paddle the Pass alone unless you are very experienced and that you should always dress for immersion. I always wear a drysuit with a one-piece polypro base layer as a starting point. If you are expecting or planning immersion (rolling, etc.) then you should also wear some head protection for both heat retention (to avoid that ice cream headache) and rock protection. I recommend warm socks or booties and gloves, as well.

If you are unable to self-rescue or roll then by all means take a class to get you to the point where you can safely get back into your kayak in the event that you have to swim out.

Three knots of current can – and does – produce some sharp eddy lines that are fully capable of capsizing an unwary paddler but it’s a lot easier to learn to cross eddies in 3 kts than in 7 kts. Read my articles to the right in the sidebar, Getting Along with Eddy and Working the Tides in the Pacific Northwest to familiarize yourself with the concepts. Take a class from a reputable instructor to learn how to deal with eddies and currents, self-rescue, group rescue and rolling.

Despite the title of this article, Deception Pass can be a dangerous place for the complete novice in a poorly equipped boat. But if you don’t want to try the Pass at its harshest, plan your trip to take advantage of conditions so that you can just ease yourself in.

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