Friday, May 20, 2011

Whidbey Island Kayak Circumnavigation

After our failed attempt last year (Whidbey Island Circumnavigation: Take 1), Andrew and I planned ahead to make sure that the currents would be work well with us for our next attempt. We scheduled it months ahead of time for May 21st, but after some last minute changes (weather was going to deteriorate, Andrew's mother-in-law was in the hospital and could get worse any day), we decided to make an attempt on Whidbey for Friday, May 20th. Despite our months of planning, however, Andrew and I managed to put in a total of two hours of kayak training between us for the calendar year, so we hoped to rely on our grzzled determination and penchant for misery. Luckily, the weather report for Friday said that morning winds would be light, although possible 15-25 mph northwest winds were predicted to pick up in the afternoon. We planned to be through Deception Pass by the afternoon, protected by Whidbey Island and heading south, so the forecast looked good.

Andrew's wife, Jen, drove us to Mukilteo to launch or boat, as there was no all day/all night parking (maybe on a Sunday we could have parked somewhere?). Andrew and I launched from the boat ramp just south of the ferry terminal at 6:30, exactly at the slack before the ebb current in Admiralty Inlet. Using our GPS units, we found that we could keep up a 10km/hr speed as we headed down around Possession Point to catch the strong ebb flow up the west side of Whidbey. Catching the correct current is a key part of making this voyage fun. An hour later, we passed Possession Point and started to speed up as the current picked up carrying us north. Rhinoceros auklets bounced in the currents around us, and pacific loons dove for their breakfast.

By 10:30 am, we pass Port Townsend. I think that a great trip would be to kayak from Edmonds or Mukilteo to Port Townsend on the ebb, have lunch, then catch the flood back home. You can travel the 30 mile one-way trip in about four hours, as we had done this morning. The mountains are out today, both the Olympics to the west, and the Cascades to the east.

Another hour or so brings us to Point Partridge, the end of our ebb boost. From here to Deception Pass, the currents are less well defined, and our last attempt left us struggling against unexpectedly large currents against us. Today, we are slow, but still moving at a reasonable 8km/hr. As we pass Whidbey Naval Air Station, we watch them launching every plane they have, one after another. The planes bank into a turn only a few hundred feet above us and make a circle back to the base. Pigeon guillemots also practice their flight drills here on the north half of the island.

We enter Deception Pass at 2:45pm, just before maximum flood. Currents through the pass are 6+ knots today. Andrew wants me to aim for the good stuff, but I am steering and try to stay in the flat deep water; however, after we get through the pass, the merging, shifting waters zig zag across each other and we cannot help but jump a few eddy lines and bash through a dinner plate sized whirlpool here and there. I recall that I wanted to kayak through Deception Pass at midnight in one of our pre-planning scenarios, and I am now glad to have rejected that idea. Going through the pass at maximum flood even with the current would be a little scary if you couldn't see the eddy lines, whirlpools and boils that form as the water rushes through the narrow gap here at the north end of the island.

The current is varied but mostly strong, especially as we scoot pass Hope Island and into Skagit Bay. We stay to the right side of the bay, as the water to the left side is deceptively shallow and drains away leaving only mud flats at low tide. Our favorable current peters away. We are quite optimistic, as we have only 55 kilometers to go and we have been on the water for only 10 hours. At this rate, we will be done barely after dark.

Then the wind picks up, and the current seems to turn against us. Our GPS units read dismal numbers. Are we really only going 5km/hr, in a double kayak? We attempt to cross from Strawberry Point to Utsalady, and we are now only going 3km/hr. We suspect that demons are at work. Last year, we bailed out at Utsalady after several demoralizing hours battlng currents against us through the pass and afterwards; somehow, the Utsalady curse is out to grab us and hold us back again. We are determined to push on, but it is almost as if a wall is in the way. Andrew and I both stop paddling, and then I mention that our GPS now says that we are going faster. Andrew says "Great!", but after thinking for a second, he groans. We are going faster, but backwards.

After an interminable time, we reach Utsalady Point and pull off onto the beach. Our rosy optimism is dashed. Andrew turns on the weather radio and gets conflicting reports. Winds from the south, maybe the north. Small craft advisory. Winds picking up. Is the deteriorating weather already moving in? A large halo glimmers around the sun, suggesting rain in 12 to 24 hours.

Utsalady is the easiest spot to get picked up if we need to get rescued again, and we both silently think about whether we can make it through the night should conditions keep deteriorating. Rocky Point is not too far away, so we decide to look around the corner and see if things are a little better on the west side of Camano Island. We can always come back.

On the water again after a 20 minute break, we discover that kayaking is a little easier, and already we are making better time. It's as if Utsalady has lost her grip on us, and we escape around the corner. Our speed goes up to 7 or 8 km/hr, and while not fast, we feel that we can finish. The closer that we get to Mukilteo, the more we will start picking up the evening ebb. Game on.

The sun goes down. I begin to realize that my headlamp is not very adequate. Andrew has a good headlamp, and he is in front to light the way. I have two lights on my PFD (one - the DoubleFly - also doubles as a strobe), which I turn on. One will later die due to lack of batteries, along with my less than waterproof headlamp, so I'm glad I backed up my lack of preparation with extra redundancy. I've forgotten to familiarize myself with the navigation lights, but Andrew is on top of things. We look for the red and green lights to guide us down the channel. How far away are they? Night time is a little disorienting.

One green light is not on the chart, but it is right in the middle of a group of lights on the shore. Two minutes later, it is much further north than the lights on the shore. That's odd. Just about the time that I realize that it is the starboard light on a boat that is a couple hundred yards away, the boat shines a spotlight on us. The crew is curious what the small headlamp in the water is. We watch the tugboat go by and I wonder if it is pulling a barge behind it. I know that tugboats pulling barges must show a specific set of lights, but I don't know what it is. I should have studied. In any case, we decide to steer wide. It is very, very dark out. The wind start to pick up.

As we round Sandy Point, the wind is strong at our back and getting stronger. Our kayak starts to surf, and I feel as if I cannot turn it appropriately. I really don't like the steering system on our kayak, which involves a rotating pedal system rather than the old sliding pedals. When our kayak is getting thrown around by waves, I really cannot tell what position the rudder is in, and I feel like I cannot respond adequately. Also, when I press hard on both pedals (which happens when I start to get in bigger wind waves), I think that the tension straps start to loosen, which causes the rudder to become harder to control. A wave picks up the back of our kayak and swings it sideways. I am not too happy. Andrew wants to run the kayak straight down the channel, as we can see Mukilteo now in the distance. The small craft advisory lingers in my mind as I turn us towards the Whidbey shoreline instead. Being near the shoreline is more comforting after midnight, I am leery of getting caught in mid-channel with a squall approaching (which never comes). Better safe than sorry.

As we approach the Clinton ferry terminal, we can see that the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry is still running. The wind has died down again, and we cross the 3.5 mile channel, aiming north of where the ferry landed in order to counteract any ebb current. Our eyes start playing weird tricks on us. Both of us see a giant breakwater sticking out from Mukilteo (which are actually just lights on the shoreline), and I look back to see the Clinton ferry terminal a hundred yards behind us (when it was actually probably a mile away). We try to identify other bright lights along the shoreline and are invariably wrong about what we see. Kayaking at night is a very different experience. The ferry leaves Mukilteo again, eliminating the last obstacle to a successful landing. We land on the beach just south of the ferry terminal at 1:20am, 18 hours and 50 minutes after we started, and 92 miles of paddling later.

With our sweet success came a sadness. Andrew had been on the phone with his wife many times throughout the trip, to hear that her mother was deteriorating throughout the day. Her mother passed away twenty minutes before Andrew and I arrived back at the beach in Mukilteo. I'm sad that he couldn't be there. I'm very thankful that Jen helped support our trip today on a day that she was suffering more than we were, and my thoughts are with her.