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Deception Pass




The Deception Pass tide race offers some challenging paddling in a beautiful setting on Whidbey Island in Washington State, USA. From Seattle Times Article: “…At a peak flow of nearly nine knots, 2 million cubic feet of water pour through Deception Pass per second. That's eight times the average flow of Washington's mighty Columbia River. It's more than 50 times the average flow of all the rivers emptying into Puget Sound.”

Keep in mind Conditions at Deception Pass are hugely variable and seemingly never exactly the same. Even when all of the weather predictors indicate the same conditions you may have paddled in before, the on-water conditions are highly variable which you will discover only when you paddle out. Challenges will rise or subside while you are on the water depending on tide and weather changes. There are days when a good section of the Pass is manageable for intermediate paddlers, other days when only the edges are, other days when only the edges are okay for experts, and still other days (logs in the water, etc.) when no one should be out there. The Pass can be very big even with little local wind if the tide and swell are rocking.


  • South side - launching on the south side of the tidal current there are two primary paddling options: The Pass Paddle and West Beach Paddle. They are both lap paddles, not downwinders.The Pass Paddle is paddling laps east and west between West Point and Deception Island. The West Beach Paddle is paddling laps north and south in the Rosario Straight parallel to West Beach.

  • Northside Launch - launching from the northside is also possible albeit with a longer paddle to the main tidal current. There are 2 convenient Deception Pass State Park launches on the north side - Bowman Bay and Rosario Head (less paddling, longer carry). As with the southside, you are looking at lap paddling, surfing to the east with east moving waves closer to Lighthouse Point, then easily floating with the ebb tidal current back to the west to start over again.
    • Video Denise Week's 1st paddle at DP on medium small day, launch from Rosario Head (there is a small beach and dock on the east side) and surfing laps on the north side of the tide rip close to Lighthouse Point
    • The warnings listed in the next section below apply for south side launches and runs and they also apply on the north side of the tidal current except
      • the warning about large beach breakers probably applies only occasionally (like with a strong SW) to the more protected north side beaches - somewhat for Bowman's and not really for the dock at Rosario.
      • additional warning - you may have to watch out for the rocky shore of Deception Island if you swim and are carried down current
      • additional warning - there are some large rocks (Coffin Rocks) (Gull Rocks usually should not be in your path) out a ways in between Bowman and Rosario that need to be avoided. At lower tides you can see the waves breaking on them but they do not stick up far above the surface. (* need info here about visibility at higher tide *)
    • There can be a somewhat tumultuous convergence of swell on the north side of Deception Island where it comes into contact with the main tidal current from the east. Judge how far you want to venture in or back off and wait for conditions to improve. If you can safely make it past this zone, heading east toward the top of the wave section and tidal current usually reaches smoother and diminishing waves (this is true for south side launches also “usually”). On very large days the big waves can continue to the bridge and actually get bigger again.
    • On bigger days, if the swell going into Bowman Bay is sufficient, you may be able to do laps at the entrance of Bowman Bay. You won't have to deal with the kind of current there is out in the Pass. Just remember where the rocks are. There is plenty of room available to keep away from them.



  • It can get extremely technical with waves coming from three directions.
  • The beach launch can require paddling over large breakers (applies to south side launch more often than to northside)
    • And during and after storms there can be logs large and small jamming up beaches and out in the water
  • Currents vary and can reach near 9 knots stopping the forward progress of strong paddlers.
  • Limited places to land in the Pass as the shore is rocky.
  • Boats and Ships do travel through the Pass even when the tide current is strong and you should be alert for traffic. Boats traveling with the tide may be going through fairly fast and surfskis can be relatively hidden by the waves.
  • Coldwater paddling requires proper dress.
  • If local winds are over 20 mph, danger ratchets up significantly. (And not necessarily just from the increased turbulence - big wind days can blow limbs and logs into the channel that pose significant risk)
  • Typically the roughest area of the tidal current waves is at the west end where you can be washed by the current if you go for a swim. On smaller days you will be flushed beyond this rough area into calmer seas in which case remount can once again be easier if you are not exhausted. On bigger days there may only be rough sea to the west. If you are too exhausted to remount or you have lost your paddle or boat, you had better have a buddy to help you and/or a VHF radio to call for rescue (although boat traffic is intermittent here and the CG is far away)
  • In the eastern part of the pass where it is more constricted under the bridge, eddies form along the shorelines and on bigger days can create significant, shifting whirlpools along the boundaries of the eddies and the tidal current.

Skills Required

Pass Laps - Conditions

  • Best conditions are with a west wind and ebb tide. If it's been building for awhile out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (ikitesurf Smith Island), the long fetch will build the incoming ocean swell. The whole beauty of the waves there is the opposing swell against the out-flowing ebb tide. Generally showing up an hour before max ebb yields the largest waves. Watch for a decent west wind in the Strait and time it with max ebb through the pass. If you are looking for smaller waves you can of course wait for the ebb current to be dropping. Large waves do not require very high local wind - the swell coming from the west is important. Most of the play is in line with Deception Island - outside (farther west) gets manky and inside (closer to bridge) gets glassy in the normal range of paddleable conditions.
  • Water is glassy and smooth closer to the bridge, getting progressively more technical as you go out west past the island. Bigger conditions push the glassy section further east (it can disappear entirely on really big days). The manky outside section generally aligns with a dropoff where the water goes from 50 feet deep to 250 feet deep a bit west of Deception Island.


Source: Bay Area Sea Kayakers (click to enlarge)


Video showing glassy and rough (low local wind, medium+ wave day) starting in glassy section west of bridge and going 2km straight west with current instead of surfing waves from west to east (expert level surfskier in video - stayed north of the roughest water that day).

  • A S-SW wind can make the conditions funky. It gives you two choices. Paddling in toward the bridge where the waves usually smooth out (except really big days), or paddle south and do West Beach Laps. Actually laps going in and out at Bowman Bay can be another option which also means not having to deal with strong tidal current.
  • It's common for sizeable conditions even with little local wind. This also allows a person who can’t remount to flush out into calmer water. When Smith Island shows 20+ west winds a swimmer will be flushed out into conditions that will still create a challenging remount.

West Beach Laps - Conditions

  • With a south wind, paddle south toward the naval air station where you can meet some larger and cleaner swell about halfway to the naval station (approx. 3/4 to 1 mile south of West Point). Along the south, you can run into waves and currents coming from both sides making it very technical paddling.


  • Southside - normally launch from the West Beach parking lot in Deception Pass State Park. If the shore break gets too big you can launch from around the corner at the amphitheater parking lot. The Amphitheater and its parking are just to the east of West Beach - still on West Point. There is a sign on the road for the right turn to the Amphitheater immediately before you enter the West Beach parking lot. There is more grass for OC setup at the north end of the West Beach parking lot.
  • Northside - launch by the east dock on Rosario Head (less paddling, longer carry) or Bowman Bay. Both options have plenty of grass for OC setup close to your parking.
  • All suggested parking locations require possession and display of an annual Discover Pass, or purchase of a day pass. Overall the West Beach parking lot has more parking space than the options on the north side, but they may all be full on sunny summer weekend days. You may either need to get there early or be willing to wait a while until someone leaves and opens a parking space. Amphitheater parking is another option to check out if West Beach parking is full.

Paddling Alternatives

Big Days

On days when you get to the Pass and it's too big or maybe after you paddle for awhile and are too worn out to overcome the tidal current but would still like to paddle some more….(on really big days there can be too many logs in the water to watch out for and the parks with beach access will sometimes be closed too)

  • Bowman Bay as described above in the North launch section may provide cleaner waves with no tide to paddle against.
  • Nearby Burrows Bay on the south side of Anacortes

Days with Little Wave Action for Downwind Laps

You can paddle anywhere in this beautiful area. Just remember, as the tide strengthens, currents get more turbulent. Eddies form close to shorelines, particularly near where there is the greatest constriction in Canoe Pass and in the main Pass close to the bridge. Eddy lines get stronger and whirlpools form with strong current and eddy lines. Also boats can come through either side (ships on the main side) of Pass Island (the island that separates Canoe Pass from the main pass at the bridge) with a lot of speed and less room to maneuver than in other areas of Deception.


Most OC paddlers usually find catching the waves here more difficult than surfskiers do - at least in part due to the strong counter current. But some days are easier than others and when you do catch waves it can be very satisfying.

Whatever boat you paddle, you will get a heck of a workout. Laps at the Pass can be heavy duty interval work and Lipps can be particularly rare.

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