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Braving Deception Pass just to become en snarled in Port Townsend Pea Soup Fog

          Is Deception Pass the fabled Northwest Passage?  Not if you are headed for the "Spice Islands"

       In the early days of exploring, Deception Pass was incorrectly charted as a narrow passage leading to a small bay.  As it turned out, it was indeed a narrow spot but it was not a small bay, instead it separated huge Whidbey Island from the mainland.  The small bay turned out to be a massive inland sea running all the way to Olympia, much of which ebbed and flooded through Deception Pass.

           The pass is really two passes with a small island in the middle.  Canoe Pass is on the north side and Deception Pass is on the south.  From a boaters viewpoint on the water, there is no confusing which side is the one to use.  Canoe Pass is much smaller and due to the curving cliff wall you cannot see all the way through.  The water flow routinely exceeds 8 kts,  (more on the Canoe side) which makes sailboat transits difficult without planning for slack tide and no current.

         On this trip we are on our way from Anacortes to Port Townsend and decide to spend the night at Cornet Bay, which is inside Deception Pass State Park.  Cornet Bay has a large dock facility with boat ramps, picnic tables, restrooms and hiking.  You may choose to tie up to the dock for a nominal fee, or anchor for free.  We arrive at and enter Deception pass on our 28 foot sailboat late in the day on an incoming tide.  Windsong cruises at about 5 knots and the pass current was probably running at 7 knots or so.  This adds up to a 12 knot ground speed, so the cliffs and gorgeous scenery just flew by as we raced along.  The water was turbulent with eddies and whirlpools tugging at our keel and rudder.  Steering the boat is a full time job.  The highway bridge overhead crosses at the narrowest point about 180 feet above. 
Deception Pass
Looking inward or east you can easily see large Deception Pass on the right and small Canoe Pass on the left. The current is minimal but may be four or five mph causing sailboats to wait for slack water.

Deception Pass and Canoe Pass
Again both passes are visible in this westward  (outbound view). Canoe Pass is on right, but due to S shape cannot be seen through. The current is obvious as shown by the whirls and eddies on the surface. The current is strongest directly under bridge and may be fast enough to stop a slow boat going against it.

Cornet Bay dock at Deception Pass
This is the Cornet Bay dock. Deception Pass is directly beyond little Ben Ure Island in background.  Only a third mile away the pass may be raging but at the dock it is a great place to be.  The four lane boat ramp is to the right outside the picture.

        Tourists are watching from the bridge, so it’s a good time to look up and wave.  Seconds later Deception Pass is behind us and we are cautiously making our way across a very shallow area most boaters avoid. We are sneaking into Cornet bay without going the long way around little Ben Ure Island.  It would’ve taken all of five minutes to go around but the gunkholer in me can’t resist thin water, and I am driving a five foot draft keel boat of all things. Besides, past experience has taught me that with the rising tide we can quickly float off any trouble I get us into.  By the time we complete our little short cut, I have added about thirty minutes by being super cautious, and traveled only a quarter mile.  

          While on final approach to the dock my crew is busy hanging out fenders and getting lines ready.  The only boat at the dock is a vintage sedan of about 50 feet. The skipper comes out and stands ready to receive our line.  She is a lady of the sea, she may be younger than her boat or maybe older.  It’s impossible to tell, and not polite to ask. 
           I don’t remember any problem with current or wind, but my crew seemed to be yelling and tripping over each other while trying to get us parked. I do remember handing our 12 foot telescoping boat hook to someone and the next thing I see is the handle disappearing into the water. After the pole is lost, everyone is silent, the lady on the dock holding our line must think we belong locked up somewhere safe and away from boats or at least saltwater. I don’t think you ever recover from a first impression gone bad.  

          I secure Windsong using four dock lines, a fore and aft line and two spring lines, picture perfect and by the book.  That should help our tainted image I think.  Smelt are running and there are about 20 fishermen on the docks.  Jaiden is 9 years old and is drawn to the fishing like a cat.  Soon a lady and her husband have him set up with a spare pole and he is busy catching the little silver fish about as fast as he can throw out the hook.  I am talking to the skipper of the older Chris Craft, she is up from the Tacoma area and has owned the boat for a long time.  It was a real beauty once, a classic, all wood hull, acres of mahogany and teak.  She had quit doing any bright work cosmetic maintenance years ago, the spar varnish was peeling and coming off in sheets.  She told me she was by herself and would spend the summer at one spot or another in the San Juan’s and Puget Sound. Judging by the blankets, tarps, and misc. junk hanging about, she’d been at it awhile already. 

        Around sunset Linda and I went for a hike out to a point where we had a good view toward Deception Pass.  It was high tide, the current had wound down to nothing, whirlpools and eddies were taking a short break.  We gaze out at the setting sun and spot a little boat being rowed in the pass as if it was a placid lake.  

         Back at the boat the fish have quit biting and the fishermen have left, a few more boats have arrived and taken their places at the dock for the night.  The Chris Craft has a couple long wood boat poles with shiny brass hook ends, they have either been stored inside or refinished recently.  The skipper says I can borrow one in the morning, just be sure to put it back when I’m done. I silently wonder if she thinks I’ll lose it like mine.  Ever since losing our pole I’ve been thinking of a way to get it back.  Low tide is just before noon and the water level may drop enough to see my pole on the bottom.  The water should be about 9 feet deep at low tide and with the Chris Craft skippers 12 foot pole I might be able to bring mine up.  

          In the morning a few fishermen are around but the smelt have left.  The kids don’t mind our planned late departure, they find plenty to do.  I’m waiting for all the waters of Puget Sound to rush through Deception Pass and lower the level enough to get my boat pole back.  I think, if we were under way as planned the current would flush Windsong back under the bridge and in seconds we would be shot into Juan De Fuca strait on our way to Port Townsend.  At about 30 minutes before low tide I am able to make out a light colored straight object on the bottom, I’m sure it’s my pole. I lower the skipper’s varnished wood pole into the water and check to make sure it floats. I don’t want to confirm any suspicions she already has.  It’s difficult to maneuver the wood pole under water because it floats, and my pole on the bottom is hard to see.  I manage to touch my pole and send it further away from the dock.  After more practice prodding I determine the middle of the pole and drag it closer. 

         The water is still dropping, but for how long?  Once we reach low tide the water will start back up, the current in the pass will reverse and we may be stuck on the inside until slack high tide in another six hours or so.  That means we won’t make Port Townsend. 

          Things are tensing up,  I want my pole back, but I want to make it through the pass too. I tell everyone to get ready to go, there’s no time to spare,  and we’re leaving in a few minutes.  The water drops some more and I can see the poles blurry outline quite well.  I lean over the edge between the boat and the dock and deftly drag my pole across the bottom until it is right below me. I can’t tell which end has the hook but I’m able to lift one end and begin to stand it up in the water when it slips and falls back to the bottom. Several times I  get it started up but each time it slips away.  I try picking up the other end while rotating the skippers pole just a little and manage to bring the end almost to the surface. I pin the pole against the dock, got it. 

       Lets go, I yell as I put the wood  pole back on the Chris Craft and thank the skipper.  We cast off and head for the pass. I don’t consider the shallow short cut we came in through, not at low tide and certainly not at full throttle. When we get around Ben Ure Island and see Deception Pass I fear we are too late.  Windsong is closing the distance fast, but as the canyon narrows the current increases, the fastest current is at the narrowest point.  

        Windsongs speed over the ground has steadily dropped even though her diesel motor is red lined at 3,000 rpm. We are just barely creeping forward until we are directly under the bridge, for awhile I thought we would make it.  I know there are people on the bridge watching us, but I’m not going to wave, I know they’re saying to each other “he’s not going to make it, he’s not going to make it.”  When I look at  shore 50 feet away I can tell we have stopped moving in spite of leaving a wake and the screaming motor.  Instinctively I shove the throttle lever harder and glance back at shore, no movement, we’ve lost the race. 

        It is loud on board, a wide open diesel is not quiet, the water is very turbulent and whirlpools form and move around in the eddies. Some of the bigger whirlpools make sucking sounds as they go by.  I’m at a loss, I don’t know what to do.  I’m about to give up and go back to Cornet Bay when Linda suggests moving closer to shore, where the current may be less.  The water depth is very deep in the pass, otherwise there would be massive rapids with this huge volume of water (sometimes there are).  We are only 50 feet from shore, but I gently steer us closer while studying the water beside us and ahead of us. At about 20 feet we start to gain a little and I look ahead watching for any sideways water that may slam us into the rock cliff. The narrowest place in Deception pass is only about 100 feet long.  If we can somehow make the next 100 feet we’ll have it.  For ten agonizing minutes we play tag with cliffs and whirlpools.  Time slows to a  crawl as we creep forward, gaining a little, losing a little, and then we win. Deception Pass lets us go.
Whirlpools in the San Juan's and Deception Pass
The picture flattens what is about fifteen feet across two feet deep and making sucking sounds.  This might be bad news for a kayak, canoe or small dinghy. Even bigger boats feel their tug on the keel.

     We definitely speed up, I know we have made it through. As our speed increases I move further from shore,  I turn and look up at the bridge and give everyone a big "we made it" wave.  Soon we clear the rocky point, turn south, running parallel to the shore on Whidbey Island.  The engine is quietly pushing us along at about 4 knots.  Looking at the chart I estimate it’s about 20 miles or so to Port Townsend.  Finally for the first time today I can relax.  We recovered our pole and beat the pass, let’s eat I say. 

         While skirting Whidbey Island the motion on board is uncomfortable, there’s a swell coming up the Strait of Juan De Fuca and when it meets shallow water near shore it piles up and we are on top of that pile rocking sideways. I have been following a depth line of about 50 feet which is pretty close to shore.  I like being close so I can see the scenery but I move out to over 100 feet deep and the motion gets a little better.  As I look ahead towards Port Townsend it looks hazy, most likely fog is on the verge of forming.  We have had several run-ins with thick fog and no longer consider it fun. Fog is dangerous and to be avoided. 

          The trip so far has been off the beaten track so to speak, close to shore and safe from commercial traffic, but Port Townsend is on the other side of Admiralty Inlet, the main route for overseas traffic in and out of Puget Sound. Where we cross is about three or four miles wide.  All ship and barge traffic headed to or from Seattle must use this stretch of water.  We’re glad the fog has held off when we make the crossing over to Port Townsend. We don’t see a single ship, just the Keystone-Port Townsend Ferry.  Several traveling boats like us are anchored just off shore from the seawall, we pull up to the town dock and tie up for free, no yelling or tripping and the boat hook stayed in its place, but no one is watching.  What luck I was expecting either no room at the inn or having to pay $25 a night.  Fore and aft dock lines, two spring lines, and we are set for the night. 

           The weather is not really overcast, it’s more like a high fog layer is just above our heads.  It is a little cold and damp.  To be sure, it is a dreary depressing day since we crossed over.  Soon we walk up the gangway and head into town. Port Townsend has a refurbished reborn old town area running along the shoreline and we quickly become immersed in gift shops.  The ice cream shop is a big hit.  There is a stairway that climbs the hill in the middle of town and we decide to walk up to the top and see what’s up there, our reward is nothing but some housing developments.  We follow a circuitous road back to the water and discover a maritime museum and the boat basin where we could’ve paid to stay.  Back at waters edge Jaiden is entertained playing in the city park. Next door is the police station with three police cars in the parking lot.  One car is an absolute mess, seagulls have been using it for target practice so much that it would be impossible to see out the windshield. I get a picture.  Kailey is in a snit, she wont talk, while we explored the Seafarers memorial earlier she just leaned against the wall and pouted.  Walking back to the boat is a short two minute trip in silence.  

           Visiting small towns by boat usually means you arrive at the back door right in the middle of town.  Port Townsend is no exception, any glitzy welcome display is probably up the hill somewhere on the main road.  Windsong looks cold, small and lonely at the bottom of the ramp. I see someone has come ashore by dinghy.  They have dragged their shore boat up onto the dock rather than tie up.  Probably a good idea, the passing ships wakes are pounding the seawall.  Out a ways are the same group of boats anchored, one undoubtedly belongs to the dinghy.  I busy myself making things ship shape.  Everything is getting wet, but it’s not raining.  The bean bag chair is getting wet but there’s no room in the cabin and it won’t fit in the lazarette.  I’m bored and restless, come on Jaiden, lets go for a walk I say. (I’m beginning to look forward to leaving in the morning).  We walk straight to a little wine shop I spotted earlier. Its thirty minutes from closing time and the owner is by himself.  I know less than nothing about wines so I busy myself comparing prices and looking for cool names.  I choose a red wine with a picture of a sailboat on the label. The shop keeper is a transplant from somewhere, so we have lots to talk about, every so often I tell Jaiden to be careful or don’t touch something.  Two hours after closing we leave the wine shop and walk  back to the boat to find a cork screw.  Linda is annoyed and concerned. Probably annoyed with being left behind with Kailey the grump and concerned for Jaidens safety.  I don’t remember if we ate or snacked for dinner.  It was a rough night Linda tells me in the morning, with all the waves rocking and slamming us into the dock, she hardly slept at all. I have to take her word for it, I slept well.  Outside the fog has dropped onto us, the anchored boats are not visible and yet they are less than 500 feet away.

Wind Song in pea soup at Port Townsend dock
Public dock at Port Townsend is right next to the ferry dock
but you would never know it in the thick fog.

I watch the ferry leave and disappear into the gloom before it’s wake reaches us. It’s obvious we can’t leave. With my morning coffee in hand I step onto the dock, and notice we are at an odd angle. Our half inch nylon stern line has parted from the pounding while I slept. I make a mental note to allow more slack, double the critical lines and look into chaffing protection. This may also explain why we had the free dock to ourselves. Linda and I study our charts and current tables while waiting for the fog to lift, but I know we will leave when the fog is gone not when the current is going the right way. Our plan is to head north across the eastern end of the Strait of Juan De Fuca. We will go through Cattle Pass and into the protected waters between San Juan and Lopez Islands.

         The run today is a distance of about 25 miles, just a little further than when we came from Deception Pass. The kids are still asleep when we cast off two hours later and quietly slide past the anchored boats. The wind as usual is not much help, We motor-sail most of this leg, mostly because the sails help stabilize us and reduce the swell induced rolling.

strait of Juan De Fuca
Motoring across the east end of the Strait of Juan De Fuca is rolly polly. There was little wind but soon we unfurled the sails trying to reduce the nauseating motion, it didn't help much.

Cattle Pass in the San Juan's
At last Cattle Pass and no more waves or fog. Fortunately the tide was incoming or we would've been stuck outside for awhile. As it was we shot through. Lopez Island on right, Orcas Island dead ahead, Friday Harbor on left will take about half an hour with the currents help.