The Deception Pass Dash is fast becoming a Northwest paddling tradition, and like holiday season gatherings everywhere, it attracts something of an eclectic crowd. Some 200 members of the extended paddling family showed up at the sixth-annual Dash near Anacortes, Wash. on Dec. 4, bringing sea kayaks, surf skis, standup paddleboards, outrigger canoes, rowing shells and more.

They came to test themselves on a six-mile course through the raucous Deception Pass, known for its swift tidal currents and tempestuous moods. The starting horn blew at 10:30 Sunday morning, just prior to the high-tide slack, when the Pass was predicted to be on its best behavior. As the race wore on and ebb began to build, the pass would start in with its unpredictable swirls and wild current shifts, like your wife’s uncle after too much eggnog.

Luckily, the festival-goers knew what was coming and how to handle it, thanks to Saturday’s program of free pre-race instruction, on-the-water safety practice, boat demos and a dinner. Kayak Academy’s George Gronseth, who taught a Saturday course on reading moving water, says a more predictable Deception Pass just wouldn’t be as much fun. “I really like the Dash because it’s not just about speed. The currents create a dynamic environment, so you have to react to what’s there,” he says. “No two days are the same.”

On race day, the lead paddlers swung wide into the main channel after exiting Canoe Pass. George explained this was a two-fold benefit: “the current is faster out toward the middle, and you don’t get caught fighting the ebb cross-current that turns to the north before reaching Deception Island.” More simply, “the shortest distance is not the fastest path.”

After the finish, Sho Nuff Foods dished out barbeque, Pitchfork Revolution strummed a raucous beat and race director Bill Walker handed out awards. The sun gods beamed. – Gary Luhm