Taking the picturesque Swinomish Channel is supposed to be the safer alternative for boaters to get to and from the San Juan Islands and points north compared with crossing the notorious Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Not in my book.
Sure, the chances of getting walloped by breaking seas and knocked down by gale-force winds is a lot lower in the channel than the strait, but the not-insignificant chances of running aground or getting caught crosswise in a current is pretty cold comfort on the Swinomish.
On our recent shakedown cruise to the San Juans, Deborah and I decided to take the Swinomish — a journey that brought back a few terrifying memories and reminded me of a few tricks we’ve learned through the years to make it through safely.
Dredging of the channel scheduled to start in late August should make this tricky passage a little bit easier, but a moment of inattention will still be enough to land you and your boat in a jam.
The approach to getting through the Swinomish Channel safely isn’t hard to grasp:
- Know your chart
- Know your currents
- Know your weather
But all three of these ingredients are critically important when mudflats lurk below the water, weather can turn on a dime and boats of all shapes and sizes are crowding you for limited space.
Know your chart
The good news is that the approaches to both the north and south entrances to the channel are well and clearly marked. The bad news is, it’s pretty easy to make a mistake if you aren’t careful. Oh, and there’s a little switcheroo that has caught more than a few boaters unaware and hard aground. I’ll get to that later.
Approaching from the south, Deborah and I get into our full-on navigator stance just before we approach Strawberry Point on Whidbey Island – just northwest of Camano’s Utsalady Point. This is where the string of navigation aids will begin to guide you through the channel.
Heading north, keep the series of red nun buoys to your starboard side. We break out the binoculars and call out when we get a good visual fix on each of the numbered markers, starting with number 2, then number 4, 6, 8 and finally 10 as you work your way along the shore of Whidbey. The water off your starboard side might look blue and inviting, but don’t be fooled. It is a mud trap waiting to grab your keel.
Things start getting really interesting when you get closer to Goat Island and the south entrance to the channel. Here you need to start looking for the markers that will guide you through the narrowest part of your journey. You’ll know you’re where you should be when you can spot the green number 1 and red number 2 buoys, along with the two ranging marks behind you to the west.
Normally, ranging marks around here are used by large ships. But this is a great example of how the marks can be a lifesaver for the pleasure boater.
Since we have a sailboat with a modified fin keel, we take the ranging marks very seriously. One of us will take the job of keeping track of the marks and providing information to the person on the wheel to keep us literally on the straight and narrow as we make our way along the long channel entrance just north of Goat Island.
It is a little unnerving seeing just how close you get to the old pilings and rock piles on the south side of the entrance.
Wind and current can set your boat badly in this stretch. I’ve had to travel through at nearly a 45-degree angle just to keep mid-channel. That’s why I love those ranging marks.
We keep our eye on the lower, forward mark. If it seems to drift north of the taller mark, we know to steer our boat to the north. If it drifts south, we correct to the south.
The payoff for all this diligence is passing through Hole in the Wall. This is the sharp dogleg turn you have to make to enter the Swinomish Channel proper, and it’s particularly pretty. You’ll want to make sure all of the crew is awake to enjoy it.
Once into the channel, the navigators can relax slightly. Just keep close to mid-channel, keep your speed slow and your wake non-existent and give other boaters the sea room they need to pass safely.
Enjoy the scenery passing through La Conner (or stop for the night and enjoy the town). But don’t get too complacent, because you’ll need to be alert and ready to navigate the northern end of the channel.
And here’s where that twist I mentioned earlier comes into play. Heading north, you follow the old “red, right, returning” rule — keep the red markers to starboard and you’ll be just fine. But around the train bridge, the red and green rules switch. Heading north, you’ll need to keep those green buoys to starboard to stay off the mud.
And again, looks can be deceiving. Once you pass the twin bridges connecting Fidalgo Island with the mainland and skirt past the rotating train bridge (charming in an old, industrial sort of way), the waters of Padilla Bay will stretch out before you. On a high tide, they will look inviting, but don’t buy it. Much of what you see will turn to mudflats as the tide goes out.
Keep a close eye on the charts and markers until you reach the fixed red number 2 marker — north of March Point and the big oil refinery — which means you’ve finally found some deeper water.
Know your currents (and tides)
Apparently, understanding how the currents flow in the Swinomish Channel requires some sort of black magic. Ask the locals and you’ll get several rules of thumb, none of which will apply when you actually make the transit.
However, being prudent in these sorts of things, I try to hit the channel about halfway up a rising tide.
The currents, whether running north or south, can be very strong in the channel. If you are going to land your boat, first take some time to really get a sense of the direction and velocity of the water.
I once decided to tie up to a linear float on the channel. My landing was uneventful and there was adequate space in front of and behind me on the dock for other boats to land, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because in the space of 30 minutes, a boat slammed into my bow and another into my stern because their skippers didn’t take the time to factor current into their landing plans. But that’s a story for another time.
Years ago I came across a cheat sheet on currents for the channel and am sharing the tips here, for what they’re worth. If you have a better rule of thumb, please share it in the comments section below:
- Use the Seattle station tide chart and add 30 minutes.
- Slack current occurs at 2.5 to 4 hours after the point of high or low tide.
- Current flows north from 2.5 to 4 hours before high tide to 2.5 to 4 hours after.
- Current flows south from 2.5 to 4 hours before low tide to 2.5 to 4 hours after.
See what I mean?
Know your weather
Some folks may think the Swinomish is sheltered from the rough and tumble weather out on the strait. And that may be true to some degree. But always keep in mind that the relatively thin width of Whidbey Island can provide only so much protection from wind roaring down the strait.
The channel might not be as rough. But you also have very little room to maneuver if something goes wrong.
So if you’re unsure about how your boat will handle in rough weather and tight quarters, it might be a good idea to stay at the dock when a low pressure system comes barreling down on the Northwest.
The Swinomish may be considered the safer route — but don’t think it’s the easier one.