Sea Kayaking in the San Juans: Anacortes to Friday Harbor
At 21+ nautical miles, this would also be my longest paddle to date. Leaving Washington Park in Anacortes, the route would take us across Rosario Strait, trace the beautiful southern end of Lopez Island, and lead us through the notorious Cattle Pass and into Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Once there, the plan was a bite to eat before catching the ferry for the hour ride back to Anacortes.
We’d aim for south of Bird Rocks as we crossed Rosario, stopping for a bio/rehydration break in the Watmouth Head area (southeast end of Lopez Island). Back on the water, we’d make our way to Iceberg Point for lunch. Lunch would be longer than usual to time our journey through Cattle Pass at peak flood – 4.7 knots. Once through the Pass, there would be a quick bio/rehydration stop on Turn Island. Then, a left turn as we scooted behind Brown Island and into Friday Harbor.
Being a one way trip with an open water crossing of roughly six nautical miles and heading through Cattle Pass with its large back eddies and boils, we needed to watch conditions carefully.
The final decision was made Wednesday morning. Forecasts for the Rosario Strait, Cattle Pass, and San Juan Lighthouse were used. All were within the skills of our group. The barometric pressure looked steady (minimizing the risk of incoming bad weather). South-southeast winds would be steady most of the day, suggesting we’d have a wind assist once we rounded Lopez Island.
We set 8 AM as our meeting time. This would give us enough time to load gear (extra water, change of clothes, and kayak wheels for the ferry ride back), as well as move cars to shuttle between the ferry dock and the park on our return.
The drive up for me is close to two hours. Even that early, I gave myself extra time to account for potential traffic. The reward: when I arrived it was quiet except for the sound of the water as it met the beach. Deer were the only creatures stirring. I had a chance to sit with the rest of my coffee and relax.
Very different conditions than the last time we were to launch from Washington Park.
We left the beach around 9:30 AM with some cloud cover and relatively warm air for early on a June morning. I was a bit grateful. I prefer overcast skies to sun, finding it more comfortable, especially on long paddles.
We left the beach, turning south. Before crossing, we reached out to VTS (Vessel Traffic Service), checking in on any traffic we could expect in the shipping channel. We were given the all-clear and set out for Bird Rocks. Some mild chop and current, plus a small pod of porpoises passing just off the right of our bows, made for an easy and fun paddle.
Bird Rocks was our target, as reaching it assured we’d have finished crossing the shipping lane. Once off Bird Rocks, we switched over to channel 5A and radioed VTS to let them know. Formalities completed, we adjusted our heading and made our way to Watmouth Head. Rain clearly off to our right gave us a bit of misty air and sprinkles. Those quickly tapered off as we reached Watmouth Bay. We opted to continue a bit further before taking a short bio and nourishment break.
Back on the water, the skies cleared and we were greeted by sun. The next few miles would take us around the south end of Lopez Island and some incredible scenery. The glass-like water gave us a chance to meander along the rocky coastline looking for sea stars, anemone, snails, limpets, and crabs.
We’d continue on to Iceberg Point under sunny skies.
Iceberg Point turned out to be an idyllic spot. With more than an hour for lunch as we timed the current, my gear came off, I grabbed a bite to eat, and had the chance to explore. A few opted for a quick nap.
No matter how much time I spend in the Pacific Northwest, I am constantly awed by its beauty.
Climbing the rocks offered an incredible view. In the distance…Cattle Pass.
Cattle Pass is a narrow channel between the southern tip of San Juan Island and Lopez Island. It’s marked by Deadman’s Island on the Lopez side and Goose Island on the San Juan side.
The narrow passage means increased currents as water moves through it. The shoreline, combined with changes in the height of the sea floor, creates large back eddies and boils. Navigating the it in a sea kayak requires rough water paddling skills (and solid rough water rescues should the need arise). Add in a westerly wind, especially on a strong ebb, and you’ll get big, wind-driven waves to add to the fun.
There’s an added element of risk not found in Deception Pass. In Deception Pass, except in the worst conditions, you’ll get washed out if you capsize. Hold onto your kayak and in a couple of minutes you’re in calmer water. There are places you can duck out of the currents. Crossing the current takes a minute or two, tops.
A large boil (the smooth water) is clearly visible at 1:25 in the video. All of that ‘smooth water’ you see around us – that’s what we needed to avoid. Capsize and you’ll stay in the Pass and the currents. Getting through it? It took us a good 15 minutes (with a 4.7 knot flood in our favor) to traverse.
With no wind, Cattle Pass was easy to read
The group split as we hit the entrance. Our band of four slowed for an on-the-water bio break, leaving the others to head in first. A bit of a mis-read and they hit a back eddy. We nailed the line, ending up passing them and raced through at greater than 9 knots. As we waited for them to join, three of us rafted up within a whirlpool, completing four full revolutions before everyone met up.
That I could handle Cattle Pass, that I was looking forward to it, that there was no trepidation or concern enroute to or moving through it….all signs that my confidence in my skills has caught up to the level of those skills. Still, I am aware of my limitations.
Our last stop be Friday Harbor would be a short 10 minutes on Turn Island State Marine Park, a 35-acre marine park with 16,000 feet of shoreline. The island is part of the San Juan National Wildlife Refuge and affectionately – or not – nicknamed Raccoon Island.
The entrance to Friday Harbor marked the end of our day, the adventure culminating in calm water and sun.
At the end of a long paddle, it tends to feel longer than the miles left.
While this time I could have paddled further, I was grateful to have some fun. Making our way to the docks, there was a chance to practice boat handling skills with a game of buoy tag – the goal to get close enough to buoys to touch the top of them with a hand, but not the kayak…all while maintaining momentum.
Reaching the dock, we all climbed out, exhausted and with another epic paddle behind us. Kayaks now on the dock, the last part of our trip meant wheeling them up the dock, changing, grabbing a beer and a bite to eat, then onto the ferry to head back to Anacortes.
Waiting to board the ferry
Walking the plank
The ride home
By 8:00 PM, my gear was stowed and the kayak loaded for the two-hour drive home. At least when I got home, I’d get to leave all the wet gear in the rig. I’d be back on the water coaching the next two days.