Deception Pass. September 16, 2017.
22 September 2017 | Posted in Seattle
Photo: Deception Pass bridge from the west
We could see the Deception Pass Bridge from a long way out in Rosario Strait. A muted sun shone through smoky clouds and the sea was glassy smooth. Today was forecast to be the last of good weather for a while. As a result we had decided to take the inside, more protected route through Deception Pass then south down Skagit Bay, Saratoga Passage and Possession Sound instead of our usual route across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and south through Puget Sound.
We had left Friday Harbor at 9:00 am that morning, a time we had calculated would allow us to get to Deception Pass a half hour before the slack-before-ebb at 1:43 pm.
I was uneasy about transiting Deception Pass. I grew up believing Deception Pass can be dangerous, with fast currents and whirlpools capable of dashing boats to pieces on the rocks. The only way to be safe, I believed, was to go through close to slack water. Steve was less concerned. He reminded me that we had had easy transits of Seymour Narrows, where the currents flow at 12 knots compared to 8 knots in Deception Pass, even when we'd gone through an hour away from slack water.
We compromised on a half hour before slack: early enough to ride through while the current was still flooding, but late enough to avoid the swiftest currents.
The first thing that struck me as we approached the Pass was how impressive it was. Tall rock cliffs rose on both sides. The spans of the bridge soared across the pass.
As we approached the entrance, my confidence rose. The water looked flat, and I could see other boats going through ahead of us. We left Deception Island to port and then started through. Soon we were racing by the shore, earlier than planned by 15 minutes.
To starboard a stream of people walked along the beach. Others lined the bridge watching from above. Deception Pass is a major park with campgrounds, parking lots and launch ramps.
As we passed under the bridge, the currents picked up and started swirling -- not whirlpools but strong enough so that Steve had to struggle with the wheel to keep us on course and on the right side of the channel.
I was trying to photograph turbulence meeting smooth water when I heard Steve swear. I looked ahead to see another sailboat motoring directly towards us -- against the current in the center of the channel. Steve moved to starboard to keep as far away from the boat as he could. I gasped to see a wall of black rocks uncomfortably close to starboard.
What was the boat's captain thinking, I wondered, to go against the tide? It was a small boat, powered only by an outboard, not the sort of boat to fight strong currents.
The currents grabbed us and swung us to port, toward the oncoming sailboat. Only one person was on deck, a tanned looking man probably in his 40s wearing a baseball cap squinting into the sun as he steered. I expected him to turn to starboard to avoid us but he kept on straight. Steve struggled with the wheel, and at the last second Osprey straightened, out of danger.
We swept by the boat, whose helmsmen gave us a friendly wave. "Go right! Go right!" Steve shouted at him, pointing at the opposite shore.
"Oh thanks," the helmsman said as we swept by -- as if we were just giving friendly advice. A few minutes later I looked back and saw the boat had moved slightly to the right but was still near the middle of the channel and making only slight progress against the flood. The helmsman seemed oblivious to the danger he had put both our boats in, oblivious to the navigation rule requiring boats to keep to their starboard in narrow channels, and oblivious to the rule requiring power-driven vessels to alter course to starboard to avoid collisions.
A few minutes later we exited the pass and I gave a sigh of relief as the current slowed to near nothing. Ahead we could see tree-covered Skagit and Hope Islands -- safe anchorages. I had been right to be nervous about going through Deception Pass, but not because of the current. A careless boater had almost done us in.
Although this is the closest call we had in our two week trip to the San Juan it wasn’t the only stressful interaction we had with other boats. We saw powerboats that didn’t yield to sailboats when they were sailing and boaters on collision courses turning to port rather than starboard, risking confusion. Washington State Boaters Education isn’t working.
From the Navigation Rules Inland and International. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. United States Coast Guard. COMDTINSTM16672.2D (free on line)
Rule 9. International Steering and Sailing Rules. Narrow Channels. A Vessel Proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable.
Rule 14. International Steering and Sailing Rules. When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or near reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision, each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.