Sailing the San Juans

Two Weeks of Adventure in the San Juans

After a successful summer sailing season in Lake Michigan, we decide to take the next step. I had been to the San Juans decades earlier, and thought it would be an ideal place to sail. Chicago was daysailing (or evening sailing) as the most interesting destinations required crossing Lake Michigan or sailing way North into Wisconsin waters. In the San Juans, there are multiple moorings, anchorages and harbors within an easy day’s reach. We could sail from one spot to the next, not returning to our origin until the end of a week’s journey. Joie had not completed the American Sailing Association sequence of courses (ASA 101, 103 & 104). We arranged with Sail Northwest Charters for a week’s instruction on the water; the second week we would be on our own. We chartered a 32′ Islander, “Spotlight Gal,” and were boarded her on Sunday just after noon.


Our Captain and Instructor, Nate Harmon, had us out in Bellingham Bay in no time at all.


Joie knew the basics of boat handling, especially after our summer on Lake Michigan. So Nate went directly to reading charts and plotting courses. The waters of the San Juans conceal rocks and outcroppings that catch passing keels and rudders.


We sailed alongside Lummi Island, then around the ‘top’ of Orcas Island, arriving at Fossil Bay, Sucia Island in the late afternoon.

Bellingham to Sucia

Sucia is gorgeous . . .


Our first dinner looks terrific, but do not be deceived by appearances. The food was as good as it looks. But the BBQ was barely  hanging from the rail of the stern pulpit (pushpit if you prefer). Just waving a spatula in the general direction was enough to send it into swoops and wobbles. Grabbing to steady it was out of the question as the damn thing was sizzling hot! We managed to cook the salmon without serious mishap, but I told Nate that if he wanted anything from the grill for the rest of the week then he was in charge of taming the beast.


But even a recalcitrant and possibly dangerous BBQ couldn’t spoil the beauty of the evening.


The bright morning sun welcomed the day. The sailboat in the foreground is another from Sail Northwest, with a couple following the same course of instruction as Joie. We went ashore with them to explore.



Nate, always mugging for the camera . . .


The beauty of this Island is stunning. The next morning we moved on …

Sucia to Roche

Sailing from Sucia down the President Channel past Orcas Island, then West in the Spieden Channel to Roche Harbor.


Roche Harbor is, well, spiffy. Our 32′ boat, built in 1977, was in the company of fancy 50′-60′ motor yachts. (Those pictured above are among the more modest.)


Naming one’s boat is a point of pride as this clever example shows.


Or this example on the mobile, pump-out station.


Roche Harbor has a charming restaurant . . .


and a fine old hotel.


The Flag Lowering Ceremony also is impressive.

We spent the first part of the next day practicing boat handling skills in the harbor, and then set off …

Roche to Garrison

… Down Mosquito Pass and out into Mosquito Bay. The winds had picked up to 22 – 24 knots, with gusts reaching 28 knots. Nate decided these conditions were ideal for learning to reef the main. So he tied on a jackline, and I put on a harness, clipped myself to the line, and headed out on deck to put in a reef. Joie kept us pointed into the wind. I will say that things were a bit thrilling for a few moments getting everything into its new place and tightened down. We then retraced our route into Mosquito Pass, making our way along a narrow channel into Garrison Bay where we anchored for the night. The alert observer will notice evidence of our poor seamanship in the fender hanging off the port side.


On the shore of Garrison Bay is historic English Camp, dating from 1860 when the U.S. and the British jointly owned the San Juans.


It is worth a visit.

Wednesday morning we sailed up through Roche Harbor, East in the Spieden Channel to Jones Island – doing crew overboard drills as we crossed the San Juan Channel.

Garrison to Jones

I neglected to photograph Jones Island, but the photo above from the Washington State Seaplane Pilots Association fills in for my negligence. We spent the night rafted up to the other Sail Northwest boat at the dock.


The raccoons at James Island are legendary; while we were sleeping, one of the beasts clambered over to our boat, unsnapped the canvas hatch cover, and poked its snout into the cabin. Losing its balance, it tumbled head first down the companionway into a wastebasket. The commotion that ensued was alarming: screeching, scrabbling paws, and the shouts of Captain Nate as it made its way into the V-Berth where he was sleeping. We still are not sure exactly what happened.


Thursday morning found us heading for Friday Harbor.

Jones to Friday

Captain Nate left us for the day; we spent the afternoon practicing docking with the folks from the other Sail Northwest boat.


Friday Harbor lacks some of the upscale amenities Roche Harbor. It is more down to earth (water?), and definitely enjoyable.


It is a primary port for the Washington State Ferries that move from Anacortes, WA to Sidney (B.C.)


The fresh fish shop in the Harbor is closely monitored by Popeye; fail to give him his due and you will be splashed.


Friday we begin our return; first, carefully charting our route:


Then making our way through Upright Channel with Canoe Island passing to port, past Lopez Island into Peavine Pass, across Rosario Strait then pinching between Cypress Island and Toehead Rock, then on a Northeast heading past Sinclair (to port) and Vendovi (to starboard) Islands, rounding the tip of Lummi Island, and up to Inati Bay.

Friday to Inati

Weather in Inati was wet and cold; we anchored and stern tied to a tree on the shore. Saturday morning we sail back across Bellingham Bay in 20 knot winds and moderate chop. It is raining and miserable – too wet to bring out the camera!

We arrive at Squalicum Harbor, dock, clean the boat, and bid farewell to Captain Nate. Joie has passed her exams and sea trials. Our week with Spotlight Gal – just the two of us – begins Sunday afternoon, and Sail Northwest has graciously suggested that we stay on the boat in the Harbor.

Our second week largely retraced the same route as the first, and that was by intention. We liked the places we had been, and wanted to return. Also, sailing in the San Juans can be challenging. Monitoring currents is essential. This youtube video show a sailboat struggling against the current in Deception Pass:

Also, there is traffic:


No, that is not us sailing alongside the freighter.

Retracing much of our route enabled us to build confidence by practicing what we had initially learned with Nate in situations not entirely unfamiliar. The one new destination during our second week was Rosario Resort.


Rosario Resort sits on the shore of Cascade Bay, about halfway up the East Sound of Orcas Island. The jewel is the Moran Mansion (the white structure) built between 1906 and 1909 by a Seattle-based shipbuilder. The marina, though small, was welcoming and we spend a pleasant evening. (See for more information.)

Overall, this was an excellent adventure (to coin a phrase). We would do it again.


But we would do it differently. Two weeks on Spotlight Gal was a bargain, but there were unanticipated costs. The cabin top leaked onto the bunk in the Salon when it rained, and when it rained I got soaked. The diesel engine stank, and the control panel was finicky. The bow, stern and spring lines were so large in diameter (or the cleats so small in size) that removing and stowing them was an exercise in frustration. There were winches, but not self-tailing winches, and raising, lowering, and reefing the main meant crawling out on deck. The shackle connecting the halyard to the head of the mainsail was so stubborn I had to pry it open with the opener on my knife. (OK, yes, we are spoiled!). Stuff was just dumped into the lazarettes, so finding anything was next to impossible. We couldn’t find a hose to fill the water tanks so had to buy one in Friday Harbor. Lots of little complains, yes. But next time we would charter from San Juan Sailing and take one of their Tartans – the 3400, the 3500, or the 37.

We would also arrange to go with another couple – more fun, more hands on deck, and half the cost.

~ by raysparrowe on March 23, 2013.

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