Northwest

Charter in the San Juans

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"It really was warmer last week (last month/yesterday).”

We heard that refrain throughout our brief week’s cruise. Wherever the warmth was, we missed it. Chartering in mid-August in the San Juan Islands, the storied archipelago of the Pacific Northwest, we weren’t prepared to don multiple layers, burrow in sleeping bags, and crank up our in-cabin heater every morning. Nor, however, were we prepared for the amazing beauty, intriguing discoveries, and welter of islands that gave us much more to do than complain about the temperature.

“It’s like Maine, only better,” friends who had cruised the San Juans reported. Checking the charts of the islands, nestled between Vancouver and the continent from 60 to 100 miles north of Seattle, it was clear we’d have no shortage of targets. “So many islands, so little time” we commiserated with Ron and Maria, our cruising partners. Visiting Canada would have added spice but produced complications, so we decided to stay within the U.S. Still, the American islands offer a multitude of choices. Reading the guides, checking with Anacortes Yacht Charters (who proved to deserve their excellent reputation), and grilling our friends, we sought a plan to help us make the most of our six days on Leap of Faith, a Moorings Beneteau 350. In the end, we enjoyed ourselves and our cruise not so much because of wisely chosen destinations and passages, but because the San Juan Islands are a sumptuous (albeit chilly) movable feast that rewarded us at just about every turn, no matter where we went or what we did.

First there was the scenery. Steep-to, deeply wooded, rocky, and verdant, the islands are beautiful. Forests, beaches, meadows, mountains—there’s a wealth of appealing nature to appreciate. Cut through with channels, passes, straits, and sounds, the San Juans offer exquisite vistas, vantages, and perspectives. What took some getting used to was that they are ringed round with mountains. Mount Baker, alpine, snow-clad, and colossal in the eastern distance, is the tallest and most striking, but just about everywhere you look there are majestic high horizons. Caribbean, Pacific, Baltic, Mediterranean, we’ve cruised them all—and the San Juans are among the prettiest places to cruise we’ve found.

The wildlife is spectacular, too. We searched for whales, but never found them. Harbor seals, bald eagles, and porpoises, however, popped up all the time. Kingfisher, loon, and grebe frequented our anchorages, and we surprised blue heron patrolling marina docks. The story of European rabbits imported for meat and turned loose to run rampant when the importers went broke amused us. Sighting a red fox enlivened one of our hikes. Watching sika deer and mouflon sheep graze on Spieden Island confirmed that they had been imported to stock an exotic hunting preserve but, like the rabbits, were left on their own when the scheme didn’t work out.

Majestic and wild though the San Juans are, they provided even more. Cruising is essentially discovery, and this trip succeeded, I think, because it provided so much of it. Ron and Maria have sailed with us before, and my wife, Carol, and I have spent more than four decades cruising. We were still surprised how often exploring the Pacific Northwest presented us with something new. From the ridiculous (offering a mini-bag of pretzels in place of an in-flight meal) to the sublime (approaching Sea-Tac Airport through the smoke of a forest fire on Mount Rainier), even our flight from Boston afforded us some eye-openers.

When Carol stepped outside our rental car and left the keys in its ignition, we learned about automatic locking systems. When Ron called AAA to free us, I learned once again why some people make great traveling friends. And when we arrived at last, 18 hours from departing home, in an Anacortes brew pub to decompress and eat something other than pretzels before boarding our boat, I got another surprise. Expecting the soft-shelled, long-necked bivalves that we enjoy in New England, I ordered a plate of “steamers.” What I got was a mound of steaming little hard-shells swimming in a garlic sauce, quite unlike the clambakes I have known.


A discovery that might have marred the cruise was the presence and power of the island ferries. Monstrous and unswerving along their monorail routes, they need to be reckoned with. Once we got clear of Anacortes, though, they were much less dense and we learned to avoid them, though we passed up some anchorages for fear of ferry-wake disturbance.

Spencer Spit, only 12 miles from the charter base, was our first stop. Leaving a beetling cliff to port, we rounded into a broad cove. A campsite and several moorings let us know we’d found the right spot. Shelter was good on either side of a low, sandy isthmus. Jumbled and piled along the foreshore were mounds of drift logs, left from generations of timbering. In the middle of the point was a shallow salt pond, and at its end stood a salt-gray cabin built by a hermit named Spencer generations ago and restored to its original rusticity by his family. Excellent shelter, piles of logs, evocative heritage—Spencer Spit State Park was a good introduction to the rest of the islands.

We reached Friday Harbor, the yachting center of the islands, from Spencer on one of the few extended sails we were able to enjoy. The week offered a variety of breezes, mostly light. The currents don’t vary, however. If we’d been better about choosing downstream destinations we would have used the engine less, but often by the time the four of us evolved a plan for the day we wound up powering to get where we wanted to go. We saw a lot, though.

More civilized and commercial than anyplace else we visited, Friday Harbor nevertheless has charm. What we liked best, though, was the waterfront fish market where Carol and Maria bought Alaskan cod and Dungeness crabs.

“Put the crabs on their backs half an hour before you boil them up in some sea water. They taste much better when they’re relaxed,” the man said.

We did as instructed. I can’t say what an uptight crab tastes like, but our carefree critters were superb. Otherwise, we ate organic, non-processed, and crunchy much of the time, but missed the weekend farmers’ markets.

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