Fidalgo Island

“Why not go down to Deception Pass?” my buddy Mike asked as I took a drink from a pint of cold IPA. We were bellied up to the bar at the Brown Lantern in Anacortes on Sunday night after Round the County talking about what else, but sailing, and he was right. “Why not?”

For a multitude of reasons — none of which were good — we’d never been to Deception Pass before and as the beer-induced cruising plan grew legs I added a trip up the Swinomish Channel to LaConner into the mix before bringing it full circle back to Anacortes. “What a plan. It’ll be a circumnavigation of Fidalgo Island!” I half-jokingly enthused. And that was all it took.

I picked my mother-in-law Donna up from the airport on Wednesday evening during a calm before the storm and the drive back up I-5 to Anacortes was painless. But the agony of knowing that we probably wouldn’t shove off the dock until after a good kicking by a classic fall storm swirled in the back of my mind.

Sure enough, we got walloped on Thursday, but by Friday morning the wind had abated. As soon as it did, Yahtzee’s engine was fired up and the docklines were set free for our trip around H-shaped Fidalgo Island.

A favorable current swept us out of Guemes Channel and we put the mainsail up just past Anacortes’ prominent shipyards. Our destination was Deception Pass but we weren’t in a hurry, as slack water at the infamously treacherous narrows wasn’t for a few hours. So I rolled out the genoa and trimmed for close hauled on the gentle southerly breeze.

Sailing close hauled into Rosario Strait
Sailing close hauled into Rosario Strait

Rain soaked my foul weather gear and fog closed in as we made our way out into Rosario Strait. The sailing was suberb while tacking back and forth across the Strait and when we made our final approach towards Deception, the wind went aft, setting us up for a perfect broad reach straight towards the steep cliffs that flank the pass.

Inbound towards Deception Pass
Inbound towards Deception Pass

Once under the bridge, we made for Cornet Bay and found just a few other boats tied to the state park dock. Jill backed us into our spot and after getting tied up, we made a quick trip to shore as darkness fell.

We spent the next few days exploring the trails and beaches of Deception Pass State Park and enjoyed having no place to be but right there in the moment. Cell and Internet reception was nearly nonexistent, which was actually much appreciated. Each evening, we fired up the diesel heater to warm Yahtzee’s cabin and flipped on the VHF to listen to the latest marine forecasts and conditions. Of course, another strong fall storm was on the way, meaning that we probably needed to be moving on, too.


Before this next windy punch landed, we made for the Swinomish Channel and LaConner where we’d be protected from the brunt of the forecasted 40 to 50 knot gusts. The Swinomish is a narrow channel on the east side of Fidalgo Island that is talked about with great respect in cruising guides and by boaters who have plied its shallow waters. Having cruised the majority of the similarily narrow, shallow and current-swept Intracoastal Waterway on the east coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Tampa Bay, I didn’t really see what the big deal was — stay in the channel and respect the tides and you should be fine, I reasoned.

Heading into the Swinomish Channel
Heading into the Swinomish Channel

A cold breeze blew out of the south and the sun broke through fast-moving clouds as we entered the southwestern end of the Swinomish. The rocky, tree-lined shores of Goat Island to starboard and Fidalgo Island to port showed their rugged beauty and we gave a friendly wave to a power-cruiser who seemed oddly bothered to return the gesture as we passed. Then, before making the sharp northerly turn in the channel, we looked back to see the boat hard aground outside the green channel markers north of Goat Island (and quickly heard him on the VHF hailing TowBoat U.S.). Oops, I guess the Swinomish’s reputation does serve true.

Admirring the scenery before taking the turn north towards LaConner
Admiring the scenery before taking the turn north towards LaConner

LaConner turned out to be not only a great place to wait out one heck of storm, but also a wonderful, quaint little Northwest town. With a charming main street filled with shops, inns, pubs and restaurants, we gladly spent a couple days exploring everything from the public library and parks to the LaConner Brewing Co. and the walk along the waterfront. I could easily envision the town being packed with cruisers passing through in the high season, but we had the place all to ourselves.

Yahtzee tucked tied up and waiting for the next storm
The guest dock was nearly empty. Yahtzee tied up in LaConner, awaiting the next storm.

When the storm blew through and calm descended, we continued our way north along the Swinomish. With a following current, we passed under the I-20 bridges and into Padilla Bay before closing our loop back in Anacortes.

Heading north from LaConner towards the last stretch of the Swinomish Channel
Heading north from LaConner towards our last stretch of the Swinomish Channel

Punctuated by storms, our circumnavigation of Fidalgo Island was late fall Pacific Northwest cruising at its finest. We took our time, played the weather right and didn’t stick to a stringent schedule. This time of year, that’s really how the game works — and we love it.