For three summers now, the boat launch at Robinson Beach in Freeland has been closed off by a build-up of sand.
This closure has not gone unnoticed by the community, especially when a catastrophic seaplane crash occurred in Mutiny Bay just two weeks ago. As a result, rescue boats launched further north of the deadly accident.
“In a crisis like that, seconds matter,” said Chris Brooks, a fisherman who lives near the closed boat launch.
Yet the troubles with this one boat ramp only scratch the surface of the larger issues first responders face when performing marine rescues from a limited number of accessible boat launches on Whidbey Island.
“Whidbey has quite a few shallow bays and for whatever reason we decided to build quite a few boat launches on shallow bays,” said Sgt. Chris Garden, who runs the marine safety program for the Island County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office has one of the biggest rescue boats on Whidbey Island, meaning there are few launches that are in deep enough water that can be utilized in an emergency. Those include Cornet Bay in North Whidbey, Keystone Harbor in Central Whidbey and Possession Point in South Whidbey. The latter ramp is not sheltered from adverse weather conditions by a land mass, making waters rough during launching. Being the southernmost launch on the island, it is also the furthest away and can take the sheriff’s office 40 to 45 minutes to reach.
Garden acknowledged that a lack of accessible boat ramps on the island could potentially hinder rescue efforts.
In 2017, The Whidbey News-Times reported on an Oak Harbor man who fell out of his kayak near Joseph Whidbey State Park. Witnesses on the beach were powerless to help the drowning man and rescue boats arrived nearly an hour after the incident occurred, which by then was too late to save the man.
David Carnes, the volunteer lead for the marine rescue unit of North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, estimated that there can be up to four water-related calls per week during the summertime.
In addition to the launches at Cornet Bay and Keystone Harbor, the fire department also uses ramps at the Oak Harbor marina and the Navy seaplane base.
Ed Hartin, fire chief for Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue, said the use of launches are dependent on tidal conditions.
The department’s rescue boat, which was damaged in a storm last year and has been out of commission since, previously used ramps in downtown Coupeville, Keystone Harbor and Holmes Harbor.
“If you’ve got a really low tide, it’s pretty difficult to get a boat on the water,” Hartin said, adding that conditions can be adverse on the inner, eastern side of Whidbey.
If tides are too low to launch, the department is dependent on other vessels already in the water, such as boats from the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Camano Island Fire and Rescue also assists in rescues from time to time.
South Whidbey Fire/EMS has to contend with a shortage of boat launches on the South End. Between Bush Point and Cultus Bay, there are no usable ramps that the fire department can access.
“This does delay our responses into Mutiny Bay and Useless Bay, as we have to either go farther north to Bush Point, or farther south to Sandy Hook or even Possession Point, depending on the tide level,” Deputy Chief Terry Ney said.
Bush Point and Possession Point are the department’s two more reliable boat launches and can be used, even during very low tides, he explained. The ramps at Freeland Park and the South Whidbey Harbor in Langley cannot be used during low tides, which is one of the reasons why the department keeps a boat in the water, ready to go, at the Langley marina.
The Mutiny Bay boat ramp at Robinson Beach has been sanded in since the end of 2019, when a maintenance permit to clear the sand away expired, according to a story from The South Whidbey Record. A neighborhood dispute about where to put the sand hit an impasse when some property owners expressed that they did not want the sand on their nearby private beaches.
Before then, Island County workers swept the accumulated sand away on a weekly basis. Fred Snoderly, the county’s assistant director of Public Works, said the ever-changing tides make it impossible to keep clean for long. There is also currently no permitted place to dump the excess of sand.
An ongoing study, due to be completed by the end of this year, will take a comprehensive look at all the boat ramps around the county.
The lack or closure of boat ramps does not only affect emergency responders.
Gary Reeves, a longtime fisherman from Langley, said the Mutiny Bay boat launch was frequently used by recreational boaters, although not all of the time. It being closed is a loss for the community.
“I see people that come down there with their boats that aren’t aware of it,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before a boat tries to launch and gets stuck in the sand.”
The Mutiny Bay boat launch is not the only ramp to be lost to the sands of time. The launch at Dave Mackie Park has been closed since 2007. The Maxwelton Beach ramp is covered with sand so deep, there is now a channel for seawater to pass into a lagoon in front of the park’s playground.
Solutions have been elusive.
In the past, county officials have floated ideas of a deep water launching point to combat some of the issues encountered with low tides. Commissioner Melanie Bacon said the issue is part of the county’s six-year plan.
“The fact is, what happened over the weekend, it shows why we have to have a really effective boat launch on the southwest side of Whidbey,” she said. “It’s for emergencies.”
Helen Price Johnson said elevated ramps were one solution discussed during her time as county commissioner, but are too expensive for a small county to fund by itself.
The cost, exact location and permitting of such a project will likely prove challenging. As Garden pointed out, the permitting for the replacement of the dock in Keystone Harbor alone took two years.
He suggested a cheaper solution might be finding a permanent place for rescue boats to be docked and ready to go when the need arises, which would significantly reduce the time spent launching the vessels in an emergency situation.