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“We call it Hell’s Half Acre.” That’s what Chris, a college friend of 25 years, told me some hours after I landed at Washington Park in Anacortes, Washington, and learned firsthand about the stretch of water. By “we,” he meant his family, his dozen or so neighbors who own cabins at Strawberry Bay on the west side of Cypress Island, and now, me.

A day earlier, I’d towed my 13-foot Boston Whaler Super Sport to Washington Park, intent on launching there and then transiting the roughly 4.2 nautical miles to Strawberry Bay. It was a Friday afternoon in late October, the weather was clear, the wind calm, and I had navigated this water on numerous occasions—albeit, generally during the summer months, while piloting a larger displacement-hull vessel.

Consistent directional seas often become multidirectional in Hell’s Half Acre.

Consistent directional seas often become multidirectional in Hell’s Half Acre.

I launched, fired up the chartplotter, and headed north under the smooth power of my 40-hp 4-stroke Mercury outboard. The cruise was uneventful, and it did not take long to land at Strawberry Bay, where I met up with Chris and my younger brother, Dan. We spent the afternoon and well into the evening cutting and splitting firewood for Chris’ family cabin. As the evening wore on, we found the weather to be balmy and unusually warm for a late October evening. That probably should have been an indicator of things to come.

Saturday morning arrived, and the wind was distinctly from the south; the sky was overcast and gray. It was time for me to head back. Chris and Dan were staying another day, having made the journey by way of a 22-foot aluminum landing craft.

Now is probably as good of time as any to define “Hell’s Half Acre” geographically. I view it as a triangle. It runs south from Reef Point on the southwest corner of Cypress Island to the red No. 2 marker just west of Shannon Point on Fidalgo Island. Using Reef Point as the northern “point,” the second arm of the triangle runs southeast to roughly the Washington State ferry dock at Anacortes. This body of water sits at the meeting point of Rosario Strait (running north-south), Bellingham Channel (running north-south between Cypress and Guemes islands), and Guemes Channel (running east-west). Flood and ebb tides converge here to create rough, confused seas with currents that can exceed 4 knots. Rosario Strait is open water, and depending on the time of year, the prevailing winds from the north (summer) or the south (winter) can be strong. Under the right conditions, tide and wind create strong currents, short and steep waves, random rollers, and inconsistent wave directions.

This mess of water is what I encountered on my way back to Washington Park that Saturday.

Leaving Strawberry Bay, I cruised for a bit and, nearing Reef Point, slowed the Whaler to smooth out the ride. Conditions had deteriorated some, but progress was being made, and the boat launch at Washington Park was within 3 nautical miles.

Conditions further deteriorated at Reef Point. Maintaining a planing speed was not possible; I now had periodic waves overtaking from the stern and spitting water into the boat. I picked up speed to stay ahead of the following seas, adjusted my position in the boat to more evenly disperse the seawater that had accumulated, and, at about 2 or 3 knots, made my way toward Washington Park.

The seas required constant steering adjustments for wave direction and for making dang sure I didn’t find myself in the path of a Washington State Ferry leaving or arriving at the Anacortes dock.

My arrival at Washington Park was a relief. And looking back, I recalled another time I had met Hell’s Half Acre. That occasion was a good decade earlier, on my 30-foot trawler that had a blistering top cruising speed of 7 knots. Heading east from James Island and crossing Rosario Strait, I encountered a strong current running from the north as I neared the red No. 2 marker west of Shannon Point. Eventually, my course changed from an east heading to nearly due north as I tried to make my way into Guemes Channel.

That day in July was sunny and warm, so the hour or so I spent looking at the navigation aid while netting 2 knots of headway was not so bad. But it could have been otherwise.

And so, I take four key boating lessons away from my experiences at Hell’s Half Acre.

First, even normally benign and somewhat familiar stretches of water can have a nasty temperament in certain sea and wind conditions. With Hell’s Half Acre, the confluence of three waterways compounds that issue. A pleasant, sunny day of cruising isn’t going to improve the adverse wave conditions that can come with the rise and fall of the tide.

Calmer weather and a slightly longer model than the author ran through Hell’s Half Acre.

Calmer weather and a slightly longer model than the author ran through Hell’s Half Acre.

Second, while larger, displacement-hull vessels may transit Hell’s Half Acre in relative safety, pushing against a current consumes additional fuel, delays arrival at the destination, and sometimes makes navigation tricky (say, if fog descends or if a ferry is approaching).

Third, smaller craft should take particular caution in this area, and maintain awareness of significant tidal changes. Water depth isn’t the issue; the current and resulting wave buildup are. Transiting at slack tide would seem prudent.

Last, this stretch of water is often heavy with boating traffic as vessels head west to the San Juan Islands or east to Anacortes or La Conner. The boats range from trawlers and sailboats to large commercial vessels and ferries. Not much can be done about the traffic, but it is possible to adjust a float plan.

While time and tide wait for no one, we do have the option of waiting for the tide we want, to make this stretch of water a bit less hellish.

Douglas M. Wartelle is a Pacific Northwest native with 40 years of boating experience in the waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands. An attorney in Everett, Washington, by day, when he’s not in the office he can often be found on the water or, in the off-season, planning his next boating adventure.