Swirls of Deception
10/18/2006At Deception Pass, a rising tide endangers all boats. Some of the world's fastest tidal currents shoot through the narrow passage north of Whidbey Island. In part three of his series on the swirling waters of Puget Sound, Producer John Ryan joins a group of kayakers as they learn to ride the fire hose of Puget Sound's strongest currents.
IN MOST PLACES, TIDES MOVE SLOWLY. IF YOU SIT ON THE SHORE LONG ENOUGH, YOU MIGHT NOTICE THE SEA MAKING ITS SIX-HOUR JOURNEY FROM LOW TIDE TO HIGH TIDE. BUT IN DECEPTION PASS, THE SEA MOVES SO FAST YOU CAN HEAR IT. MOST BOATERS HAVE THE GOOD SENSE TO AVOID DECEPTION PASS WHEN THE CURRENT'S RUNNING.
THEN THERE'S LEON SOMME AND SHAWNA FRANKLIN. THEY TRAVEL THE WORLD TO PLAY IN CURRENTS AND WAVES THAT KEEP MOST SMALL CRAFT OUT OF THE WATER. AT HOME ON ORCAS ISLAND, THEY NOTIFY THE FIRE DEPARTMENT WHEN THEY TAKE THEIR SEA KAYAKS OUT IN WINDS OVER 25 KNOTS. THAT WAY, DISPATCHERS CAN IGNORE THE 9-1-1 CALLS FROM CONCERNED LANDLUBBERS.
THEY RUN A KAYAKING SCHOOL, CALLED BODY BOAT BLADE. TODAY, THEY'RE HELPING A HALF-DOZEN PADDLERS GAIN CONFIDENCE SITTING ON THE OCEAN IN WOBBLY TUBES OF FIBERGLASS.
ON A RAINY BEACH JUST NORTH OF DECEPTION PASS, SOMME SPREADS A NAUTICAL CHART ON A PICNIC TABLE AS HE GETS CLASS UNDER WAY.
SOMME: "We're on this chart right now, we're in Bowman Bay, we'll paddle from here, we'll go out around this headland, and this is Deception Pass over here, the bridge goes across, and this is where the biggest whirlpools and eddies are."
DECEPTION PASS IS A NARROW AND SHALLOW SPOT IN THE DEEP FJORD OF PUGET SOUND. AS HUGE VOLUMES OF TIDEWATER FUNNEL THROUGH THE PASS, IT TURNS INTO A SALTWATER RIVER.
SOMME: "Any time water gets condensed, it's like putting your thumb over the end of a hose, the same amount of water has to get through, but it gets accelerated, so it goes faster."
SHAWNA FRANKLIN TUNES IN THE MARINE WEATHER FORECAST, WHILE SOMME GOES OVER THE CURRENT TABLES.
SOMME: "It says max current is 6.6 knots, so much faster than we can paddle at. Most paddlers go about 3 knots. So even at an hour after, we're going to be working against something fast."
FAST AND CHAOTIC. WHIRLPOOLS AND BOILS APPEAR WITHOUT WARNING. IT'S PRETTY MUCH GUARANTEED STUDENTS WILL CAPSIZE. IF THE TOILET-LIKE SUCK OF A WHIRLPOOL PREVENTS THEM FROM ROLLING BACK UPRIGHT, THEY HAVE TO DO WHAT KAYAKERS CALLS A 'WET EXIT', POPPING OUT OF THEIR COCKPIT WHILE UPSIDE DOWN AND UNDER WATER.
VICKIE MCCONNELL IS A NURSE FROM SPOKANE. SHE AND THE OTHER STUDENTS FIND THE WHOLE WHIRLPOOL THING A LITTLE UNNERVING.
MCCONNELL: "If we get sucked into one of these things, doesn't it make a rescue pretty hard?"
FRANKLIN: "The most important thing is to hang onto your boat. Because your boat is very buoyant and it will keep you on the surface."
RYAN: "How deep would a whirlpool like that be? Are we talking six inches?"
SOMME: "In the kind of currents we're working at, we've had 'em a couple feet deep down to the middle. You'll see somebody's helmet, down here, spinning around. As long as you hang on to the boat, you're going to stay up..."
ONCE ON THE WATER, STUDENTS TRY PADDLING FROM A SHELTERED BACK-EDDY INTO THE MAIN CURRENT. THE TRICK IS LEANING HARD DOWNSTREAM TO TILT THE UPSTREAM SIDE OF YOUR BOAT AWAY FROM THE SALTWATER FIRE HOSE. DO IT RIGHT, AND IT'S LIKE STEPPING ON A MOVING SIDEWALK AT AN AIRPORT. GET IT WRONG, ANDů
FRANKLIN: "Boat over!"
THE CURRENT HAS GRABBED THE EDGE OF VICKIE MCCONNELL'S BOAT AND FLIPPED HER. IT SWEEPS HER TOWARD THE SHIPPING CHANNEL OF THE STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA, AS SHE DOES A WET EXIT.
FRANKLIN: "Vickie, hang on to your boat... Leon is on the rescue."
SOMME PADDLES HARD TO CATCH UP TO MCCONNELL AND DUMP THE WATER FROM HER BOAT. HE STEADIES IT AS SHE BELLY FLOPS ON TOP, AND SQUEEZES HER LEGS BACK INSIDE.
IT'S THE FIRST OF MANY CAPSIZES DURING THE TWO-DAY CLASS. EVEN SOMME TIPS OVER WHEN A WHIRLPOOL OPENS BENEATH HIS STERN AND POINTS HIS BOW TOWARD THE SKY, LIKE A MINIATURE TITANIC.
WHEN THE TIDE IS SLACK, DECEPTION PASS IS DECEPTIVELY TRANQUIL. HERONS FLAP OVERHEAD, CURIOUS SEALS POP THEIR HEADS ABOVE THE WATER, AND DOUGLAS FIRS GIVE WAY TO SEA ANEMONES AND SUNFLOWER STARS AT WATER'S EDGE.
IT'S WASHINGTON'S MOST POPULAR STATE PARK. BUT UNWARY PADDLERS OFTEN HAVE TO BE RESCUED FROM ITS UNFORGIVING WATERS. TWO YEARS AGO, A KAYAKER SET OUT ALONE JUST NORTH OF THE PASS. TWO DAYS LATER, HE WASHED UP DEAD, TEN MILES TO THE SOUTH.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO KAYAK TO APPRECIATE THE POWER OF THE PASS. A GROUP OF INVESTORS HAS APPLIED FOR A PERMIT TO TURN DECEPTION'S CURRENTS INTO CLIMATE-FRIENDLY ELECTRICITY.
IT WOULD TAKE YEARS OF STUDIES AND PERMITS TO PUT UNDERWATER TURBINES IN PUGET SOUND, NOT TO MENTION IN A STATE PARK. BUT THE YOUNG TECHNOLOGY HAS LOCAL POTENTIAL. THE CITY OF TACOMA IS EXPLORING THE USE OF TIDE POWER IN THE TACOMA NARROWS.
THE RACE ROCKS NATURE RESERVE, ON THE CANADIAN SIDE OF THE STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA, HAS STARTED INSTALLING THE REGION'S FIRST TIDAL POWER GENERATOR.
BACK IN DECEPTION PASS, THE KAYAK STUDENTS ARE MOVING MORE EASILY THROUGH THE GUSHING WATERS.
FRANKLIN: "Woo! Nice, Vickie!"
THE CLASS WATCHES WITH SOME AMUSEMENT, AS A 40-FOOT SAILBOAT TRIES TO MOTOR INTO THE PASS. ITS ENGINE IS NO MATCH FOR THE CURRENT.
RYAN: "The current's about six knots, about as fast as a sailboat with a motor can go, but we're able to go in close to shore, where the current stops or reverses, and work with it."
SOMME SAYS THAT'S THE BEAUTY OF KAYAKS.
SOMME: "We can get in close to shore, we can do things no other craft can do."
THEN AGAIN, ON A YACHT, YOU DON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT HANGING UPSIDE DOWN FROM YOUR VESSEL, INSIDE A WHIRLPOOL.
RYAN: "There's little whirlpools everywhere, and they're moving around. ... "
ONE OF THOSE WHIRLPOOLS APPARENTLY HAS MY NAME ON IT.
AND THAT IS THE HORRIBLE SOUND OF MY MICROPHONE FLOODING WITH SALTWATER AS I CAPSIZE. BUT THANKS TO A THICK WETSUIT, A LIFE VEST AND THE EXPERT ASSISTANCE OF THE BODY BOAT BLADE INSTRUCTORS, THE ONLY THING TO DROWN IN DECEPTION PASS TODAY WAS MY AUDIO RECORDER.
RYAN: "In Deception Pass, I'm John Ryan for KUOW News. [sniff, cough]."
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