Kayak Adventures, High and Low

2021 Jul 20

On the holiday weekend I went on a kayaking trip that had more adventure than I’ve had in a long time. We were a group of 2 guys and 5 gals. The good news was that everybody survived although we lost two people.

The float plan was to kayak from Washington Park in Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We would have ebb current down Rosario Strait. The tide would change while we were south of Lopez. Then by the time we got to Cattle Pass between Lopez and San Juan Islands, we would have flood current up to Friday Harbor. It was a long trip and the currents would help a lot.

The complication was that there were winds up to about 15 mi/hr out of the west. This meant that there was a lot of fetch up the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the rollers out of the Strait had become quite big. Also initially the current was against the wind - which made the rollers even bigger.

Washington Park was sheltered, but when we came around the corner, the water was busy! I noticed one gal was veering off away from the group so I went to check on her. She was simply unable to control her direction against the wind, and she soon decided to abort.

No kayaker in distress should have to go off by themselves. So, I radioed the rest of the group and accompanied her back with no difficulties. However, this now put me by myself and a mile behind the rest of the group. I didn’t know exactly where the others were, but I went back out into the melee to catch up. I could hear chatter from them on the radio; they were talking about which way to go and trying to keep track of each other.

GPS track of kayaking trip

As I got further down Rosario, the water got bigger. At times I couldn’t see the land. The effect was mostly of being lifted way up and down. The wave at a crest could slap at you, or the boat could slap down after going over the top of a crest. It is hard to estimate heights, but at one point near the mouth of the Strait I looked back and the water below me was farther down than I am tall - maybe 7 feet or more! It wasn’t worrisome to me at all; it was just amazing.

I had been going down the middle of Rosario Strait with the main current. About that time someone asked on the radio when anybody had last seen Jane. Nobody had seen her in about 10 minutes even though she had an easily visible red kayak. However, it is difficult to keep an eye on others because of the height of the waves, the current and also that a kayak is mere inches out of the water. And it is much harder to find a lost boat. We were near the southeast corner of Lopez.

After looking for a while, one of our group called on the radio for help. About 10 minutes later a red Coast Guard helicopter flew over us. We talked to them on the radio giving them search info like kayak color and last known location. They swung out south of Lopez and then out into the greater Puget Sound area. After a while they spotted a fishing boat towing a red kayak out where the current had been flowing and hovered over it. It seemed to me to be a mile or more beyond us. She had been picked up; when the chopper was satisfied that she was safe, they flew away.

We found out later that Jane had been knocked over into the water (maybe by an unexpected wave). She could not get back into her boat and had been in the water for 30 minutes. She had a shorty wetsuit on, so she did not die of hypothermia (however, she would have been quite cold). The fishing boat saw her and got her out of the water. They handed her off to a Sheriff’s Deputy (boat) that took her back to our launch location and from there she got home.

One of the other gals in our group had been emotionally compromised by this. For at least half an hour she was thinking that her good friend was dying out on the water. The rescue news was good, but now we needed to decide what to do. Going back the way we came though the same seas seemed overwhelming, so we decided to complete the trip.

As we approached Cattle Pass (at the pinch point between San Juan and Lopez, where the water stampedes through) we could see white water while we were yet a mile away, and we could hear the water too! (It sounds like a rushing mountain river.) When we got close we could see a concentrated region of confused standing waves. A couple of other kayakers were already there playing in the waves. I went briefly into the mix. It was exhilarating and I would have liked to spend more time there. However, the rest of the group was picking up the flood current and moving fast north along Lopez.

After we were through, we went to the middle of the current and were helped along greatly. You don’t notice it out in the middle of the bay because all the water you are in is moving with you. However, the distances certainly slip by more quickly. This part of the trip was calm and contemplative.

We ended up at Friday Harbor about the same time as the incoming ferry. We got out, wheeled up our boats and were in line to get on before all the cars had gotten off the boat. As a group we were in good spirits for the outcome of the day! The rest of the trip was conventional.

I started my day at 6 AM, kayaked 28 miles and got home at 10 PM. I was very tired!


Saturday last I went on another kayaking trip. It was a substantial contrast.

27 people met at a park on Lake Washington’s west side and kayaked across to Kirkland on the east side. We got coffee at the shops there and returned across the lake. The water vessels were sea kayaks (like mine), recreational kayaks and standup paddleboards (SUP).

The water had modest chop from powerboats - enough to knock one gal on a SUP partway into the water. However on this trip, nobody got scared or needed rescue. Everybody had a great social time!

2021-07-20 updated 2022-02-19   © 2022 Larry Grove