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Transiting The Ditch, er Swinomish Channel

Dec 25, 2000
4,666
Hunter Passage 42 Shelter Bay, WA
Sometimes the weather will dictate our route to a destination. When the weather is favorable Admiralty Inlet cuts a shorter distance whether heading north or south. In doing so heading south on a flood and north on an ebb does speed things along. However when the weather sours, the ditch provides a somewhat protected route from the exposed elements of Admiralty Inlet.

We dock our boat in Shelter Bay across the ditch from Laconner. After several years of transiting the channel, I have found some truths from experience, at least as I interpret them.

1. Generally, there is a convergence zone in the area of the south side of town, about where the orange steel bridge crosses the channel. This convergence zone differs depending on tide state. Typically it floods into the north and south entrance to the channel and ebbs the same way.

2. When leaving our slip heading either north or south, I almost always try to leave soon after the flood changes to the ebb. Large tide swings can cause currents of two plus knots at maximum flow, so following the ebb out of the channel makes for a speedy discharge. When the tide state approaches one foot, I stay put. Water becomes very thin in spots around the south entrance buoy six and the swinging bridge in the north entrance. Recent dredging has helped, but overall, the channel is mud stuck risky at low water.

3. The south entrance has day board channel markers to help the navigator enter and depart the channel at least to the gorge. Following those you should be okay. Wandering off, well you know what might happen. The north entrance has no day boards, but just make it a point to stay in the center of the channel.

4. Recently the Coast Guard switched the two sets of channel buoys on the north end of town. Just remember red right returning and you should be okay. For some reason someone determined that that was half way through the channel where on one side it was red green and the other side was green red. Just make sure you stay between the two sets.

There are a few spots where some shoaling has occurred. Typically, these spots are on the inside of a bend in the channel. So, if the channel bends to port I favor the starboard side of the channel and vice versa. A couple of exceptions; when entering from the south where the channel bends to port coming into the gorge, I favor the port side of the boat. When passing by the swinging bridge heading north, I favor the port side of the channel.

And whatever you do, as others have found out, DO NOT wander off the channel. It looks as though there is plenty of water, but that water may only be a foot deep. The next time through, when you pass by and observe a Great Blue Heron standing in water up to its knees, you will see what I mean. The ditch is narrow, but certainly passable, providing a more protected passage when the weather sours.

Laconner is a very nice layover marina with nice restaurants, a well stocked grocery store, fuel dock, clean bathrooms, and two free pump out stations. Avoid trying to tie up on the east side of the pump out dock. Currents make docking on that side dicey. They also have a small reciprocal dock for those so inclined.

http://www.laconneryachtsales.com/navigation/
 
Last edited:
May 7, 2012
841
Hunter e33 Maple Bay, BC
I have intended on transiting this channel on several occasions but shied away at the last minute and continued on through Deception Pass, for the above reasons. I do think there is money to be had if one set you a piloting business through the summer months.
 
Dec 2, 2012
7
Hunter 450 Maple Bay
Thanks for the information. Like Len I have been relutant to transit the ditch. La Conner has been on the bucket list for years
will try it in March
 
Dec 25, 2000
4,666
Hunter Passage 42 Shelter Bay, WA
Thanks for the information. Like Len I have been relutant to transit the ditch. La Conner has been on the bucket list for years
will try it in March
You are most welcome. Please let us know how it goes.
 
Dec 25, 2000
4,666
Hunter Passage 42 Shelter Bay, WA
I have intended on transiting this channel on several occasions but shied away at the last minute and continued on through Deception Pass, for the above reasons. I do think there is money to be had if one set you a piloting business through the summer months.
Excellant idea, but that would interfere with my cruising plans.
 
Oct 24, 2010
2,304
Hunter 30 Everett, WA
One time we entering from the South encountered a tug with a log raft in tow came into view just before the turn toward town. Amazingly the tug kept the logs over the shallows to his starboard until we were past, then swung over to the log tie up area to his port. It's been a couple of years so my heart rate has since returned to normal.
 
Dec 25, 2000
4,666
Hunter Passage 42 Shelter Bay, WA
Feel your pain. Also when a sea going tug passes by at full throttle pushing a huge amount of water leaving a hapless small sailboat with no maneuvering room to deal with his wake in a no wake zone. Grrr. Amazing what those tug skippers can do.
 

forbin

.
Nov 4, 2013
156
Tartan 3700 Seattle - Elliot Bay
I try to avoid going that way if I can. I've been through a few times and the depth has been less than I expected. With a 6.5 foot draft and being fairly cautious generally, I don't like the risk. The last time (though I believe it was in August before the December 2014 dredging) I showed 8 feet deep in the center of the channel on a +3 tide which was too close for comfort. Like Terry mentioned, had a tug come through I could have easily bottomed in the trough of its wake. On the other hand, I haven't grounded yet and I've enjoyed the town the times I've stopped there.
 
Dec 25, 2000
4,666
Hunter Passage 42 Shelter Bay, WA
Hi Forbin, that discomfort does subside some with each transit. I'm assuming that you had eight feet under your keel at +3 tide? That would be pretty normal for some parts of the channel. Other places maybe even less. With your draft in a +3 tide you should have clear sailing. Ours is five with an eight foot offset alarm. In a +1 tide my alarm will go off at times.

The thinest places in the channel are south entrance around buoy #6 and as you make the turn after passing the swinging bridge heading north. There you want to make your turn smartly to port. Much shoaling to starboard.

After several years anchored in the channel just north of town the old party boat, Argosy, has been moved to the south dock La conner Marina. Not sure of its disposition. It was an older couple who lived on it. I do hope they are well.

La conner is a wonderful layover spot with much to see and do. I especially like the wood artisan shop at the south end of town. They do know their wood craft.
 

forbin

.
Nov 4, 2013
156
Tartan 3700 Seattle - Elliot Bay
Terry, that was 8 feet total! My sounder is calibrated from the bottom of the keel and we dipped in to the 1-2 range for about 50m. There were three of us aboard at the time, me at the helm and the range markers, another range marker watch, and the third watching two GPS units (Garmin and iPhone/Navionics), we were definitely in the channel. Maybe an anomaly, or hopefully.
 
Dec 25, 2000
4,666
Hunter Passage 42 Shelter Bay, WA
Several years ago, in my early days of transiting the ditch, heading south on a late strong ebbing current with about a +1.5 tide state, I made the turn out of the gorge heading west, put the genoa up in a southerly, with my off set alarm pinging. As I approached #6 buoy, with about 0.5 feet beneath the keel, I felt the first mud tug on the keel, then another a bit stronger. Right at the buoy the boat stopped and began to turn sideways in the channel.

A combination of wind pressure on the genoa and current pressure on the hull, the boat heeled over enough to reduce keel depth that allowed the boat to skitter past the buoy into deeper water. That did cause a bit of a sweat, but had it been any later I would have been stuck there for hours waiting for the tide change to bring in enough flooding waters. A close call.
 
Last edited:
Oct 1, 2015
63
Clark San Juan 30 Blaine WA
I have gone through many many times I stop every time through and have lunch or dinner even stayed the night a few times I like the scenery going through I have never touched the bottom ever I have forward looking sonar and have a route on the plotter that I have followed I think it is very safe and a nice way to get to the islands when I was moored in Seattle now up north in Blaine Boat is Moored there I still go for lunch on occasion but have seen plenty stuck and waiting for high tide good luck and safe Sailing Always