Location: Vashon Island, WA; south Puget Sound between Seattle and Tacoma.
Wind Direction: S; for the opposite run, N, NW
Time of Year: October through April (S wind). May-August (N, NW)
Hazards: Boat traffic, cold water
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About the Run: There are two main N/S passages flanking the island. Colvos passage on the west side of Vashon is the go-to route for most winter downwind runs due to a propensity for the southerlies to actually be SW. Paddling the eastern side does present the potential for larger fetch and swell, but with a SW wind, its a struggle to stay on a line stays on the Vashon Island side of eastern passage. Landing on the mainland side in Burien turns your afternoon downwind session into an unplanned all-day logistical nightmare. But not to worry, Colvos Passage at 15 mph and above is a treat. The narrow channel funnels the wind effectively and the strong tidal currents make for a variety of swell conditions as you head from south to north. Put in at Lisabuela Park, which sits protected in Christensen Cove and paddle cross-wind to the center of the channel so your line will clear the next point.
Colvos passage has a unique tidal flow, always flowing north, on both the ebb and the flood. The ebb tide is stronger and creates eddies at the southern points of the coves that scallop the island shore. Check out the video below for an example.
After seven miles, you can land at Fern Cove, hopefully at mid-to-high tide. This nature reserve is an estuary with a fine silt build up in the cove that makes for long, soft mudflats on a negative tide. There is public shore access here, and it's a very short trail from beach to parking through Shinglemill Creek.
For a longer route, keep going to the north end of the island. Some of the best wind on Colvos can be found at the north end of the passage, as the funneled winds release into central Puget Sound. Turn east to the north end ferry dock and land at the boat ramp next to the dock. There is a Mexican restaurant at the top of the ramp, so you won't be long for tacos and a beverage of your choosing.
For a summer northerly on the west side, start at the boat ramp at the North End Ferry dock and head east to clear Dolphin Point and turn south. Large swells will accumulate here even in lighter winds. Make your way about seven miles south to Tramp Harbor where there are multiple landing spots with easy access to car parking. At low tide, make your way to the fishing pier, where a steep gravel beach provides a cleaner beach landing and stairway access to the road. Marine life is abundant, with seals, osprey, otters, and sea fowl and eagles a common sight. If you are lucky, you may run across orca, grey whales or Dall’s porpoise. Boat traffic is light but consistent on Colvos. Eastern Passage is much wider and accommodates commercial shipping so be careful.
With the relatively mild Pacific Northwest climate, winter conditions are cold, but not usually icy. Water temperatures, though, are a real threat and a wet or dry suit is necessary in the winter, along with the standard leash, PFD and whistle. I also carry a cell phone. Warm summertime air temperatures mean I can lose the wetsuit, but I don't get wet on purpose in the Puget Sound. With the right gear, I feel confident in paddling new routes solo, even with heavy conditions. I know I can't get blown out to sea. I just might have to land on the surrounding mainland and use my wits and my cell phone to get home.