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Riding San Juan Currents in the Grand Adventure

Published on 8/29/2013

by Dave Ortland

Several of my sea kayaking trips this year have explored the use of currents.  The best time to get a good ride from the tide is when the moon is full or new (aligned with the sun and invisible to us). 


During full and new moon times, the tidal force due to the sun reinforces that due to the moon and the tide's range is at its maximum. This is called a ‘spring tide’ (as in a natural spring, not the season).


Full moon currents have a slightly larger magnitude than new moon currents, so my longest excursions were planned around the full moon. 


For a summer time ‘spring tide’ north of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, a large southward tidal ebb occurs in the morning, with slack water around midday, and a large northward flood tide reversing things in the afternoon.  This greatly assists island circumnavigations in the San Juan Archipelago, assuming  that you start at the island’s north end and take a lunch break near the south end. 


Spring tide is a wonderful time to paddle around and explore Lummi Island, check out Burrows and Allen Islands, or travel from Anacortes to Friday Harbor.  I encourage you to think of other trips which are optimal during spring tide, and excursions where other tide conditions work better.  You will start to notice how the tide pattern is tied to the moon and the season.

This year I used these currents for various trips:  a 20-nautical mile round trip from Anacortes to the south side of Lopez Island, visiting Burrows and Allen on the return leg (May 26); a 19-mile circumnavigation of Lummi Island (June 23); a 32-mile circumnavigation of Orcas Island (July 21) and a five-day 60-mile Grand Adventure.
Details of how we utilized the spring tide to speed our progress follow.  

Around Orcas Island In a Day

Thanks to the moon and some large magnitude currents on July 21, four of us completed a 32-mile circumnavigation of Orcas Island in 10.5 hours. Just under eight of those hours was actual paddling, averaging over four knots/hr, with a maximum speed close to seven knots/hr along some stretches (one knot is about 1.151 mph)


We camped the night before at West Beach Resort, and launched the next morning at 7am.  We rode four+ knot ebb currents south through President’s Channel, arriving at Jones Island in one hour, then rode weaker but still substantial currents through Wasp Passage, arriving at Blind Island in two hours for our first break (or second breakfast, whichever you prefer). 


Another hour of paddling got us to Peavine Pass, a little under half-way around, just before the slack current at noon.  South of Peavine Pass is the Blakely Island Marina, one of the best lunch stops in the San Juans, where we relaxed for about an hour waiting for the north-bound flood tide to build. 


Setting out again at 1pm we literally shot out of Peavine Pass, rode the rip tide coming out of Obstruction Pass, passed inside Peapod Rocks, and arrived at Pt. Lawrence, six miles away, in only 50 minutes!  There was a long half-mile line of moderate rip currents coming off Pt Thompson.   Cutting across right at the shore line there was the easiest and safest thing to do.


At this point, our big current ride had ended, but the most beautiful part of the paddle began.  The northeast side of Orcas Island is wild, with a steep rocky shore, massive trees, and lots of wild flowers.  It took us about two hours to get to Pt. Thompson (where civilization returns) in basically still water. 


The faster current on this side of Orcas is in the shipping lane, where you don’t want to be.  Closer to the island is a flood convergence zone with confused water and big circular eddies.  After a snack break on the northeast corner, we more or less sprinted for home with a slight current assist as the tide turned back to a southward ebb once again, rounded Pt. Doughty, and arrived back at West Beach at 6pm. 


Most of this trip was done at a fairly relaxed pace with frequent stops.  With some conditioning throughout the year, we did not feel overly tired and sore by the end, certainly no more so than our other day paddles this year.  This trip was so much fun and full of scenery that perhaps we’ll do it every year.  Please join us, its not as crazy as it might sound!

San Juan Grand Adventure

Photos from this trip may be found in the photo album

On August 20, seven paddlers, led by Captain Marty ‘Merganser’ Geslak, loaded up their boats with granola and prepackaged Indian curries and set out for five days from Washington Park in Anacortes to explore the outskirts of the San Juan Islands.  Once again the date of the trip was picked to utilize the large spring tide currents.  Northward travel occurred during the afternoon and southward travel during the afternoon.  We had very fast rides through Bellingham Channel, Rosario Strait, and Boundary Pass, with almost 8 knot net speed near Skipjack Island in what appeared to be glassy calm water.

Day 1

Our most ambitious day was a ride on the Bellingham and Rosario express to Matia Island, 18 miles from Washington Park.   We launched just after flood started at noon.  The flood currents build rapidly at Green Point and take you right into Bellingham Channel.  We chose to go up the east side of Cypress because 1) the flood starts 1 hour earlier than in Rosario; 2) there are more places to stop; 3) it is possibly more protected from westerly winds.  (Also, it is a struggle to get into Rosario from Washington Park on the flood.  If this is your goal, the best strategy is to go close to shore around Fidalgo head and then let currents from Burrows Pass shoot you out.)  It only took 1 hour to get to Cypress Head.  There were mild tide rips at Cypress head.  If they are not to strong, it is best to follow these away from Cypress Island to avoid a big back eddy.  After another hour through the Cone Islands we took our first break at Pelican Beach. 

For the next leg we aimed our boats at the Peapods and let the big current in Rosario Strait take us past Pt Lawrence on Orcas.  This was essentially down the shipping lane, but we were tuned to vessel traffic (channel 5a on your marine radio), and learned that it was all clear since the freighters were heading up the west side of Lummi into Fidalgo Bay.  The rips around Pt. Lawrence were not as well defined as on our Orcas trip – there was a large extent of moderately choppy water until we were north of the point.  Then the currents took us right to the lovely sandy beach on the east side Clark Island for our second stop at 4:30.

The final leg passed through eddies where the flood heading east along the top of Orcas meets the flood going north through Rosario.  We actually had to fight a slight head current, and getting to Matia took a bit longer than expected.  We arrived at 7pm.  Matia and Puffin Islands are extraordinarily beautiful, with weirdly sculpted cliffs and some old growth forest. 

Day 2

We hiked around the trails on Matia for a lazy morning, then headed to Patos past Sucia for a short 6 mile day.  The ebb currents pulled us along the southwest side of Sucia until 1 pm.  After a stop for water, we headed through the shallows of West Bank for Patos.  Just off the east side of Patos is a very deep channel with very fast 3 knot flood currents heading north.  We wanted to avoid that, and our strategy paid off – once south of Patos, the flood current took us gently right into Active Cove.


Most people on the trip said afterwards that Patos was their favorite spot on the trip.  The camp site is perhaps the most scenic in the San Juans, with long views in all directions.  A long stay requires bringing lots of water - and coexisting with a swarm of yellow jackets.  Active Cove has a nice little tide race to play in on the flood.  Also on the flood there is danger of getting swept by strong current into massive tide rips off of Aiden Point if you get too close to the west side of the island.

Day 3
We rose early and launched at 9am to catch the ebb toward Stewart.  We wanted to arrive before 2pm before the tide changed.  Currents north of Waldron were 4.8 knots at 10 am.  We were afraid this would take us into large rips north of Waldron where the fast current would be split by the island.  There did not appear to be any rips, however, but it was probably a prudent precaution to take when approaching an unfamiliar area.  We plan to return to Waldron for further exploration next year.  Our goal was to head down the west side of Waldron, but at the last minute we decided to stay away from the potentially turbulent water around Skipjack, so we headed through president’s Channel instead.  This was our fastest ride of the trip – north of Waldron GPS readings clocked us over 7 knots!  In just 1 hour we were along the east side of Waldron, which is one of the most scenic coasts in the San Juans.  
We stopped for a brief snack on the west side of Point Disney, part of a San Juan Preservation Trust preserve open to the public.  Much of the shore of Cowlitz Bay on the south side of Waldron is also SJPT land, the only place the public is welcome to land on Waldron.


From Waldron, we paddled past White Rocks, where a strong current pulled us west toward Johns Island.  A lazy paddle then took us into the west side of Prevost Harbor, to the State Park where we camped for two nights.  The camp site on the top of the bluff is far nicer than the marshy Water Trails site in Reid Harbor. Fresh well water was conveniently available in our campsite and camp fires were permitted.  Stewart Island is a bit like a KOA for sail boats, but it is still nice.  There is a lot to explore and the people there were a pleasure to meet.

Day 4
This was a chill out and do what ever you want day.  Four of us decided to circumnavigate 10 miles around Stewart.  Ebb currents took us around Turn Point for a view of the lighthouse, and then we were in Haro Strait.  The weather was changing this day, and we found 15-20 knot head winds in our face and 2-3 foot waves that gently rocked us into a state of bliss.  Progress was slow but steady with wind driven current against us, but the scenery had us riveted.  

Finally the weather blew us past Reid Harbor on the southeast side and between Stewart and Johns Island on the beginning of the flood.  Here we found an unexpected treat – a nice tide race in Johns Pass with 1 foot standing waves that we surfed until our arms grew tired.

Day 5

The last day dawned grey and moist, reflecting our mood that the adventure was almost over.  We had a long 14 mile paddle back to the ferry at Friday Harbor or Orcas.  We launched at 8am to take advantage of the last of flood currents heading east, where we would catch the beginning ebb southward through President’s Channel.  The current ride helped offset the building wind in our faces later in the morning.  

We paddled north of Flattop to avoid current heading into Speiden Channel – and to bag another island.  Flattop is a wildlife refuge with lots of seals and birds on the rocks.  From Flattop we headed to Jones for a quick lunch.  

At this point we split up – one headed for Friday Harbor, one to Deer Harbor and their car on Orcas, and the rest of us to the Orcas ferry to avoid the wind funneling through San Juan Passage.  We had a very quick ride through Wasp Passage, and significant current to the ferry dock.  The dock next to the ferry is a bit high, but with a little team work it is fairly easy to get yourself and the boats out of the water.  We sailed to Anacortes and (sadly) back to reality on the 2:20.  Washed ashore safely: Marty, Treasurer for Life Jackie Brown, Linda Cooley, Gerry Bashein, Geoff Gegwich, Max Stevens, and myself.


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