False start: Deception Pass racers recalled for weather conditions

Strong winds made for choppy waters as rowers and paddlers gathered for the Deception Pass Dash.

Strong winds made for choppy waters near Deception Pass last Saturday morning, as around 100 rowers and paddlers gathered at Bowman Bay for the 15th year of the Deception Pass Dash.

Unfortunately, the annual winter challenge was cut short as racers struggled to reach Deception Island, and race officials eventually determined it was inadvisable to attempt to complete the course. Racers were encouraged to turn around, and the event came to an early end.

Event organizer Rob Casey, owner of Salmon Bay Paddle, said the annual winter event is known as a rough water race, and all participants are expected to be skilled in self-rescue and dressed for immersion, including wearing life jackets.

Casey said the race began during a window of auspicious weather, but conditions quickly took a turn for the worse.

“We canceled the race a few minutes after the second heat due to the sudden increase in wind. A few paddlers capsized off Bowman Bay,” Casey said.

On-site safety kayakers, search and rescue crews and Coast Guard boats that were already present at the race helped some participants right themselves in the rough waters or return to shore, Casey said. None were injured.

Casey said that Coast Guard helicopters spotted in the area arrived after all racers had made it back to land.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue Chief John Clark said he did not have an exact count of racers who received assistance, but despite the calm window in which Casey said the race began, Clark felt the day’s conditions merited an earlier cancellation.

“Given marine conditions, it was irresponsible to not cancel the race and put participants at risk as well as the marine rescue personnel,” he said. “It should be noted that both North Whidbey Fire and Rescue and Mt. Erie Fire cancelled scheduled trainings that morning due to high winds, which makes the decision to hold a non-essential recreational event in dangerous waters even more irresponsible.”