Although it is narrow, dangerously shoal in places, and subject to a slow-bell speed limit, the Swinomish Channel can be a thoroughfare at times.
When a west wind from the Pacific smashes inland over the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca – prohibiting a crossing by pleasure craft en-route to the Seattle area from Canada or the San Juan islands – the Swinomish Channel is a safer, calmer alternative.
The channel route presents significant and hard-to-predict currents and shallow areas, despite recent dredging of the worst places. You may find log tows and commercial fishing boats under way as well.
But there also is one area of confusing and possibly dangerous channel markers that boaters have complained about for years. The Coast Guard is about to correct that, according to a recent notice to mariners.
From the San Juans, boaters follow Guemes Channel to Anacortes and turn south into a narrow waterway that leads across Padilla Bay to the railroad bridge that marks the north end of Swinomish Channel. The markers on the Padilla Bay channel are what southbound boaters would expect – red, right, returning. But a few miles beyond the railroad bridge the Swinomish Channel bends slightly to the left and the first thing the southbound skipper sees after the turn is a red buoy ON THE LEFT. Worse, it’s only a few yards from shore.
What the (****) is the usual comment as skippers ponder the wisdom of keeping the buoy on the right. Looking for an escape route, they usually spot a green marker farther south and on the opposite shore and realize a mid-channel course is okay.
The Coast Guard explains in a notice to mariners that in channels like Swinomish that can be reached from two entrances “there must be a point where the colors and numbers on [aids to navigation[ switch to conform to the rule of red [aids] on the starboard side when returning from sea.”
Currently the configuration changes directions at Entrance Buoy 26, about two miles north of LaConner, an old farming community that has become a popular tourist destination because of its array of shops and restaurants. The boating public has griped to the Coast Guard, arguing that the existing changeover is confusing and dangerous.
Now, the Coast Guard intends to make LaConner the navigation destination of boaters entering from either end of the channel, according to the notice to mariners. The confusing buoys will remain in place, but colors will be swapped and they will get new numbers and the confusion should end.
So, southbound boaters will see red buoys on the right until it they reach downtown LaConner. Northbound traffic will find RRR in effect as usual when entering the channel from Skagit Bay, navigating the sharp turn at the Hole in the Wall and crossing beneath the Rainbow Bridge. When northbound boaters reach downtown LaConner red buoys will be seen on the left through town and all the way to Padilla Bay. It seems to make sense.
Confused? Stop in LaConner for lunch and an hour of shopping. The currents flowing past town docks may be the only challenge Swinomish Channel has to offer from now on.