In promotional photographs of the islands, the water is flat, resembling the surface of a lake.  This illusion has caused problems for the uninitiated. Beneath that calm surface are the currents of an ever-changing river.  How many Islanders have chuckled as they watched sailboats with sails filled slowly slipping backwards, tide trumping wind?

obstructionriverDuring some months we have 13-foot tide swings.  That is a tremendous amount of water passing any given point in the Islands.  Even with lesser tides the currents may be formidable.  Instead of an impediment, these currents may be used to advantage much as sailors tack the wind.

If you are going out on the water it is essential that you consult a tide chart for the direction of the major flow. But between the Islands it isn’t as simple as water flows toward the sea with the ebb, and back when the tide is coming in.  Frequently there are currents close to the islands moving in the opposition to the direction to the main body of water. In the photo above, a counter current is rushing past the NW corner of Obstruction Island.

Knowing the tidal direction, you may notice that the movement of flotsam or of birds floating near shore is going the other way, a counter current. Look for the direction of the tresses of the bull kelp floating with the current.  Also look for a line of flotsam or of birds out from shore.  This is an indication of the changing interface between the main tidal movement and the counter current.

To show how you can tack the currents or use counter currents to help you, take a look at the photo of Obstruction Island.  If we agree it is shaped like a pork chop, north parallels the left or loin side and the tail points south. Obstruction Pass Dock is across the water on the left (Orcas) and Deer Point is across from the north side of the island. When at ebb, the water flows toward the lower left corner of the photo.

smallestobstructionislandWhat if you wish to leave the west side of Obstruction and row to the county dock on the Orcas side during an ebb tide? If you aim directly toward the Orcas dock, chances are you will be pushed south of the Orcas point on the left.  The current here runs extremely fast and you and will have a battle rounding the point.  Even small powerboats get in trouble here.

wshoreOBInstead, stay close to Obstruction’s shore paralleling the shore past its NW point and continuing on that trajectory straight ahead.  You are rowing at a right angle to the Orcas dock (one side of a triangle) but with the tide coming out of Rosario Straits (2nd side of a triangle) and pushing your side (abeam),  you will arrive exactly at the dock.  The combination has taken on a trajectory making the 3rd side of the triangle (the set).  Rowing my 17’ Whitehall with the adverse tide combines for my fastest crossings – 7 minutes.

When returning from Orcas with a fast-running ebb, it is quicker if you stay close to the Orcas shore and ride the river rather than heading point-to-point.  And fun — you seem to be flying!  When you are across from the middle of the west side, above, turn and head back NE across the open water – you will end up at the indent above the tail, south of your set.

For me, the most difficult course in Obstruction Pass is rowing from Orcas to the dock on the north side of Obstruction against an ebb tide.  I’ve learned to stay close to the Orcas shore toward Deer Point. One must avoid the temptation to turn by the house across from the North Dock.  If I turn too soon I end up pushed into Obstruction west of the dock and battling the strong outward flow close to the rocky shore.  I have found I must keep going along the Orcas shore until I reach the next house toward Deer Point and, instead of rowing across to the dock, row hard southeast as though headed to the refineries in Anacortes.  Voila, the North Dock!


The photo above, taken from the North Dock looking back at the Orcas dock, shows the rocks you want to have passed before getting caught in the outbound current.!

The same challenges are found along all of the shores of our Islands.  To enjoy the water more, take time to notice what is happening in your area.  Harney Channel, for example, gets the tides in an out from both ends, affecting boating in the Channel, in West Sound and in Deer Harbor. I can attest that rowers in the September Deer Harbor race don’t always think of the tides when circumnavigating Fawn Island. Those who have done their homework are more likely to win.


80 years ago June Burns and her husband homesteaded Sentinel Island with just a rowboat for travel. In her book, Living High, June Burns tells many stories of their adventures with the tides.  The silent rivers were running then and are today.  For me, learning how to use this day’s currents has made a frequent passage a rewarding, always-changing challenge.

Does tide beat wind? Next month – stories of adventures when the wind was a major player.

©Caroline Buchanan 2009

A somewhat different version was first published on November 17, 2009 in Project Home, a division of Sound Publishing, Inc. and circulated with The Islands’ Sounder, The Islands Weekly, and The Journal of the San Juans.