Deception Pass, located in Deception Pass State Park in Washington, is notorious for its strong tidal currents and swirling eddies. The pass can be treacherous for boaters and kayakers. Here are some tips for navigating safely through the Pass:
|Looking inbound at what actually is two separate bridges.|
You can see narrow slot of Canoe Pass on left side, Deception Pass on right side.
First, let's understand that in the San Juans, Puget Sound, Gulf Islands, pretty much everywhere, there are nasty places where you can get into trouble if you are prone to doing stupid things. Driving into a storm or wild surf with breaking waves is a mistake for most of us regardless of our boat or skill level.
That being said, the rising/falling tides cause currents. Large tide ranges usually mean faster currents. Narrow passes or jutting headlands tend to intensify things. Add to that, strong winds and storms and you get places to avoid on your vacation cruise.
Deception Pass is very narrow, but only narrow for a short section directly under the bridge. Consequently, the high current speed and accompanying swirlies and waves are confined. As you approach the bridge you notice your speed or lack of it rapidly changing making you acutely aware or your boats agility's. Most sailboats don't have the top speed needed to overcome normal pass conditions on a calm summer day. The water may be mostly flat, whirlpools minimal, no waves and yet the boat stalls out under the bridge with the skipper wishing his 6.75 mph boat could make 7 for just another hundred feet. Of course going the other way the same boat will whisk through at a breath taking 12 mph.
If the current and wind oppose each other and this is very common, the conditions will be pretty much the same except with increasing wind there will be standing waves directly under the bridge for a short distance. These waves could range from not much to something that buries the bow and sheets across the deck into the cockpit, making an open boat a very big mistake and a wet thrill ride for sailboaters.
Slack water: There is no way for me to predict what you will face, that is up to you but slack water happens four times every 24 hrs when the tide changes from incoming to outgoing and vice versa. Normally during slack water it is flat, the whirlies go away and you can paddle a dinghy around Pass Island. Keep in mind though that a far away storm can still send swells and waves your way, so no guarantees. Slack water may last just five minutes before a change is noticeable, up to an hour before things reverse and really get going again. You can figure that if you missed the window by three hours, then you really didn't care. Powerful, capable boats generally don't pay much attention except when stormy weather is afoot, then even the big boys watch out.
Pass Island: Deception Pass is actually two passes and two bridges separated by Pass Island. Canoe Pass on the north is quite narrow, not wide enough for boats to safely pass each other. There is a S curve causing limited sight distance and probably should not be attempted by anyone reading this article. From time to time excursion jet boats will run through Canoe Pass and competent boaters looking for a thrill will shoot through but it is not worth the risk of life or vessel. On the other hand, I have taken my dinghy and circled Pass Island many times taking pictures but only during slack water. I remember vividly once stalling out in Canoe Pass with my 2.5 hp outboard, unable to make headway. I moved back and forth for a minute trying to gain a little ground. When I gave up and prepared to turn around I was shocked to see how the waves had grown behind me. A chill of fear hit me because to turn around I would be broadside for a bit and in a very bad place mere feet from cliffs and in an S turn no less.
Cornet Bay: Less than a mile inside the pass is Cornet Bay. At Cornet Bay is a large boat ramp, transient docks, restrooms, showers, long term parking, fuel and a convenience store. Cornet Bay is a great place to start and end your cruise or just hang out while waiting for pass conditions to improve.
Bowman Bay, Sharpe Cove: Is just a short half mile outside the pass. There is a small dock and protected bay where you can wait for pass conditions to swing your way.
Swinomish Channel: Fog and bad weather sometimes plague Deception Pass and the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Sometimes, even in summer the weather gods wont line up with the best planned vacation. If that happens, simply go another way. Swinomish Channel is about four or five miles from Deception Pass, back towards Seattle. Going through the eleven mile channel pops you out near Anacortes and very handily avoids, waves, currents and sometimes pea soup fog. Along the way you can visit La Conner, walk the boardwalk, or even spend the night at one of three city docks or the county marina.
|Tiny Sharpe Cove dock, outside Deception Pass|
|Deception Pass on left, current beginning to speed up, directly under bridge about 5mph|
|Cornet Bay transient floats, 3 day max.|
In this article I have tried not to downplay risk nor make it seem that the pass doesn't deserve your utmost respect, it does. Just make it part of your trip, time you passage for near slack water and have a great cruise.
more Deception Pass insights > Almost losing our battle with the pass