Sailing in Home Waters
Admit it: there’s something unbeatable about sailing in your home waters. You know every tidal pattern, every obscured rock and every fluky habit of the wind. You could navigate with your eyes closed, though you’d never close your eyes, for fear of missing out on the scenery. If anyone asked, you’d gladly tell them all about it, and how it’s hands-down the best place to sail in all the world. Then they’d quickly correct you and begin to tell you about their home waters.
We asked six sailors from six regions to answer one simple question: Where’s your favorite place to sail? Here are their answers.
Playing an Inside Strait
Exceeding expectations in Washington State’s
San Juan Islands By Paul VanDevelder
If you’ve ever hit an inside straight on the last card in a game of five-card stud poker, with your mortgage and grocery money shoved into the pile in the middle of the table, then you already know how it feels to sail in the San Juan archipelago. Sometimes you just get dumb lucky.
Those words, or words like them, opened my first cruising story for this magazine in May of 1990. The story was handsomely featured on the cover, and I was dang proud of it, and even though they say a writer is playing chicken with the devil when he starts stealing his own material, I’ll take that risk. The pile of good karma at the center of that metaphorical poker table has grown a hundredfold over the past two decades, as has my love for this region.
Even with all of my youthful zeal for the Salish Sea, I had no idea what I was writing about back then. This was a relatively new cruising ground for me, and I had only an inkling of the adventures that loomed ahead and the magical fairy dust that these myriad islands and their waterside characters would sprinkle over my life. Back then, all of that treasure lay in the future, a future that would be cobbled together willy-nilly out of crab feasts on the hook, ancient Indian villages, fierce storms, broken masts, hundred-mile views, a multitude of new friends, sub-Arctic daylight, fabulous sailing and the Northern Lights.
The term “San Juan Islands” is something of a lazy shorthand sailors use to describe an inland sea that stretches from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just north of Seattle, to the northern tip of Vancouver Island—five hundred miles of uncountable islands, fjords, harbors, fishing villages, solitary beaches, navigational perils and refuges.
Geographic and meteorological features unique to the Pacific Northwest shape the sailing personality of the San Juans. The islands lie in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and receive about half the annual precipitation of nearby Seattle. The high season for recreational cruising is May through September, with idyllic sunny weather and long temperate days, thanks to the high-pressure systems that tend to park for weeks at a time over the Gulf of Alaska.
However, don’t be fooled by the seemingly placid water. Tides swing through 15 feet or more, and currents run up to 9 knots in the narrower cuts between islands. At one point in my cruising life, the fastest I’d ever sailed over ground—8 knots—was backward on the Yuculta Rapids in Desolation Sound. If you’re new to these waters, don’t leave the dock without a cruising guide and up-to-date tide table. A sound auxiliary is another essential, as is good ground tackle, without which you could very easily end up standing on a rock, surrounded by water and on the phone with your insurance agent.
Around the next headland there’s always one more wonder. Due north of the known world of the San Juans is a place you can drop the hook called God’s Pocket, on Hurst Island, a few miles offshore of Port Hardy on Vancouver.
From there, a marine wonderland runs for another thousand miles through the largest temperate rainforest wilderness in the world, finally ending at the calving ice sheets of Glacier Bay, Alaska. This stretch of our planet is home to the white spirit bear, countless raptors, ravens, orcas, humpbacks, otters, seals and, even if you’ve never been there, it’s home to something wild in you, too. It’s a place where awe abides, and a kind of primordial silence still holds this planet, and our imaginations, in its grip.
Paul VanDevelder is an author, screenwriter, photographer and longtime contributor to SAIL. He keeps his 31ft Pacific Seacraft Mariah, Nehan, in Friday Harbor, Washington
Photo courtesy of Sailthesanjuans.com
Pure Wonderful for Sailin’
Racing, cruising and falling in love with Alamitos Bay
By Chris Caswell
What’s my favorite place to sail? That’s easy. Hands down, it’s Alamitos Bay, California, tucked into the southern corner of Long Beach.
I learned to sail there, first with the city-sponsored Leeway Sailing Club and then the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club, where I went on to be a junior instructor and later served on its board of directors. Over the years I worked my way up from 8-foot Sabots to an Olympic Flying Dutchman campaign, and I met my wife on a strip of sand my mother scornfully referred to as “the mating beach.”
Though I’ve gone on to join other clubs—New York Yacht Club, St. Francis Yacht Club, San Diego Yacht Club—my true loyalty still lies with Alamitos Bay YC, which continues to host an amazing number of national and world championship events, winning various different awards itself in the process.
The winding racecourses inside little Alamitos Bay (no room for those boring windward-leewards here!) taught me about tactics, current and winds that ranged from zephyrs to solid afternoon westerlies. What I learned surviving the hot desert gales known as santanas stood me in good stead when racing later in life in such places as San Francisco Bay and the Irish Sea.
Outside Alamitos Bay is the breakwater-protected Long Beach harbor, where a handful of yacht clubs stage regattas every weekend, year-round. The bay also serves as the launch pad for such major ocean races such as the biannual TransPac race to Hawaii.
If you’re more interested in cruising than racing, you would be hard-pressed to find a better place to learn than Alamitos Bay. Catalina Island is, as the song says, “26 miles across the sea,” and it’s the weekend destination for thousands of sailors. If you can anchor at Catalina on a mobbed Fourth of July weekend, you can anchor anywhere. In fact, that should be on bareboat charter questionnaires around the world: check here if you’ve anchored at Catalina on a summer weekend.
Alamitos Bay, to me, will always epitomize the fun of racing and cruising on sailboats. As a youngster, it was about water fights, sunburnt noses and burgers at the sail-up Chrisman’s Galley or Woody’s Goodies. It was hosting the Olympic Trials or a world championship regatta at ABYC and being able to talk to heroes like Ted Turner or Lowell North, who treated me as an equal.
As I grew older, Alamitos Bay was about serious racing followed by a drink or three over lies in the ABYC bar, a quiet evening sail with friends, and giving back to the sport by running a rescue boat during a championship regatta.
Today the mud flats are gone, having been turned into multi-million-dollar homes and a sprawling marina, but Alamitos Bay remains a hotbed of sailboat racing.
Some time ago, while quaffing pints in a waterfront pub in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, with a crowd of international sailors, someone asked where I was from. “California,” I said, and his eyes grew wistful. “Have ‘ya ever sailed in a place called Alamitos Bay?” he asked. “It’s pure wonderful for sailing.”
Yes, I have.
Chris Caswell is a longtime sailing journalist and editor of Charter Savvy. He sails his 20-ft ketch with his wife, Rhea, in West Palm Beach, Florida
Photo by Rich Roberts
In Praise of Shipwreck Coast
Adventure-seeking on Lake Superior’s Michigan coast
By Charles Scott
In the center of America’s heartland lie the Great Lakes. These are the largest bodies of fresh water in the world and home to some of the best cruising grounds in the country. At the northern end of Lake Huron is the North Channel, known far and wide as a cruisers’ favorite. But for those with a little more time and a lot more of an appetite for adventure, nothing beats the remote waters of Lake Superior.
Superior offers hundreds of secluded anchorages, welcoming small towns with protected harbors, and a natural, unspoiled beauty that could fill a lifetime of cruising memories. It’s also a force to be reckoned with.
Lake Superior is huge. With a surface area of 31,700 square miles, it’s about the size of the state of South Carolina. It’s 350 miles long, 160 wide and on average, 483 feet deep, with a maximum depth of 1,332 feet. If Lake Superior were spread out across the entire landmass of North and South America, it would cover it in 30 centimeters of freshwater. These ocean-like seas have swallowed hundreds of ships over the centuries. Vessels that sail here must be prepared for challenging conditions. Still, if you come in July or August and keep a prudent eye on the weather, you’ll find plenty of awe-inspiring places to take shelter. The clear water is cold, the mornings are sometimes foggy, and the nights are sometimes chilly: a cabin heater and radar both make a lot of sense.
The approach to Superior from points east is through Sault Ste. Marie, where enormous locks lift you up 22 feet from Lake Huron and the St. Marys River. After that comes Whitefish Bay, infamous for the numerous shipwrecks that occurred here after 1855 when the locks first opened, and which still line the lake’s bottom, where they attract avid divers. Then there’s the open lake, with the remote Canadian shore to the north and the somewhat more populated Michigan coast to the south and west.
I recently cruised the Michigan side, after a fascinating stop at Whitefish Point and its sobering Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. A small harbor called Little Lake was a great first stop—a lovely pond surrounded by tall pines and accessible through a narrow winding channel. Farther west is the village of Grand Marais, followed by a shoreline of high dunes and the rugged Pictured Rocks, with their towering limestone cliffs. The towns of Munising and Marquette both have protected harbors, and there are plenty of small bays and areas to explore as you continue west.
Like a giant upturned thumb, the Keweenaw Peninsula juts northeast into the lake. The Portage River runs across its base, and gives sailors a protected shortcut along the southern shore. Midway along that shortcut, the former mining towns of Houghton and Hancock, with their magnificent mansions, still stand as a reminder of the area’s 19th century glory days.
North of the Keweenaw lies the lake’s crown jewel: Isle Royale National Park. The least visited of the country’s national parks, it is accessible only by boat and seaplane. Without roads or electricity, it is a place of stunning natural beauty and immense quiet. Few places in North America are so remote, so little traveled. The island is a cruiser’s paradise with dozens of sheltered anchorages, many empty even in high summer.
It could take years to explore all of Superior. Not many venture to its coasts, but those who do promise soon to return.
Charles Scott is a sailor, writer and photographer. He sails the Great Lakes on his Westsail 32, Antares
Photos by Charles Scott
Narragansett Bay Nirvana
With this much to experience in one cruising ground, why leave?
By Chris Museler
My wife and I have a stout Phillip Rhodes-designed yawl that is capable of transporting our small family across the oceans of the world. During the darkest evenings of winter, we sometimes attempt to plan long cruises. We consider all of the enticing nearby destinations—the pine-studded shores of Maine, Long Island Sound’s endless line of yacht clubs, the warm creeks of the Chesapeake. Wanderlust hits hard.
Why then haven’t we ever filled up the tanks, left our cozy mooring in upper Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and taken off on a cruise of the East Coast? Simple, it’s perfect right here.
Narragansett Bay’s north-south orientation aligns it precisely with not only a local summer thermal wind, but with a coastal weather pattern that produces a seemingly endless supply of breeze. In these parts, whenever the urge strikes, a sailor can always go for a spin.
Of course, if wind were everything, we’d all move to San Francisco. And, fact, it’s the visual splendor of Narragansett Bay that keeps us coming back for more. The place is a pure geographic blessing, the result of the sea and land ending up in a perfect configuration for sailors. There are four bridges traversing the Bay, which splits Rhode Island in two, so it’s nearly impossible to drive anywhere in the state without catching a glimpse of its deep-water harbors and coves. To any eye, it is clear this area, once dominated by sectors of Native Americans, was destined to become one of the greatest sailing amphitheaters on the planet.
The distance between the corners of the upper and lower Bay is just enough to warrant overnight stopovers. When a long weekend vacation is in store, and the steady cycle of thermal winds and tides kicks up, these watery pathways provide a dreamy meander through the islands of Prudence, Patience, Hope and Despair. When you’re bopping around the Bay, it doesn’t take long to realize that sailing—actually sailing with great breeze on whichever point of sail you chose—will take you to some humble little village or a wildlife refuge in which you’ll have nothing but a lone quahogger as a neighbor.
If it’s speed you’re after, Newport Harbor is no stranger to the racing scene. Host of the America’s Cup World Series and now the Volvo Ocean Race, the lower bay is filled with every form of racing series imaginable, every night of the week. If you yearn to cruise a bit further, bucolic Block Island and Cuttyhunk Islands lie just offshore, across the sound.
This irresistible cocktail of wind and wanderlust combines in the warm summer months to unleash a child-like giddiness among local sailors. The first glittering fingers of an early May sea breeze sends the waterfront communities into a frenzy. Residents plan their week’s work around idyllic afternoon sails. Then afternoon sails around the local harbor become beam reaches to some distant cove, which become beer-can races in Newport and then cruises to Cuttyhunk and all of the sudden you’re left wondering—even if you have an oceangoing boat like we do—why would you ever leave?
Chris Museler has covered sailing for SAIL and the New York Times for 15 years. He lives and sails in Newport, RI
Photos by Cory Silken
We’ve Got Wind
Urban to rural to primeval: cruising Florida’s St. Johns River
By Peter Swanson
The St. Johns River in northeastern Florida is one of the last great, unexploited cruising grounds in the United States. A few minutes before I began to write this, I was sitting down by the riverbank. The breeze was blowing 15 knots from the east. Even though it was Memorial Day weekend just a few boats were under way. Ten sailboats lay at anchor in nearby Green Cove, with ringside seats for tomorrow’s fireworks.
The St. Johns is the longest river in Florida and is also one of the only north-flowing rivers in the country. At 310 miles long, the river winds through 12 counties, and its shores are home to 3.5 million people. Weather data shows that winds are consistently better for sailing the St. Johns than they are for the Chesapeake, home to Annapolis, the nation’s “sailing capital.” The river is more than two miles wide and deep enough bank-to-bank to accommodate most craft, so there is some room to run when the breeze freshens to Force 5, or when summer thunder squalls barrel through. No worries, though. With so many coves and creeks, shelter is never far away.
Beginning at Jacksonville (where you must begin if arriving from the Intracoastal Waterway), cruisers can sample the 21st century joys of “New South” urbanism. Continuing upriver for a few hours, though, you’ll soon find yourself sailing through an older Florida that recalls life in the ‘50s and ’60s. Dinghying up a jungle creek will take you to scenery unchanged since the days of the once-resident Timucuan Indians and even further back to the Mesozoic Era.
This is alligator country and some of the birds appear saurian, too, as great blue herons glide across your path like miniature pterodactyls. Bald eagles soar high above looking to swoop down and sink their talons into fish swimming near the surface. These waters are home to many species, most notably catfish and bass. In fact, the region is touted as “The Bass Capital of America.”
I live 25 miles south of Jacksonville in the “city” of Green Cove Springs, a shady, sleepy village that is gradually being consumed by the metropolis to the north. The town dock ($25 a night) provides easy access to restaurants, including the town’s only real bar, Ronnie’s Wings, Oysters and More. Next door to Ronnie’s is the Clay Theater, notable for its art deco façade, which has been showing flicks since 1934. In the steamboat era, tourists were drawn here to enjoy the spring waters, which were touted as having curative properties.
The river is wide until Palatka, a city about 60 miles south of the river’s mouth that is inaccessible to taller sailing craft, because of the 45-foot-high Shands Bridge at Green Cove Springs. The low clearance at the Shands Bridge is a bit of a mystery, because all the other bridges downriver either open or can either accommodate a 65-foot air draft. Fortunately, the state is in the process of completing a new Jacksonville beltway that will replace it with a standard 65-footer. This will, in turn, make the annual Mug Race, sponsored by the Rudder Club in Jacksonville, a far more inclusive event. Billed as the world’s longest river race, with a pursuit-type start in Palatka and a finish line in front of the Rudder Club, the race already offers some 80 trophies to accommodate the many different boats taking part.
A taller bridge will also give cruising vessels access to nearly the entire 240-mile reach of the river, through Lake George, almost all the way to Orlando. I wonder what that will mean for Memorial Day traffic.
Peter Swanson is editor-in-chief of PassageMaker magazine. He sails a Morgan Out Island 41, Rio
Photo by Peter Nielsen
A Bit of It All
Whether racing or cruising, freezing or sweltering, San Francisco Bay has plenty to offer
By Clark Beek
I sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time on a Wednesday, thus finishing my circumnavigation. It was howling and foggy, my Salar 40 ketch, Condesa, was double-reefed, but still overpowered, and getting her into her new berth in those conditions was my biggest challenge since Cape Horn. For my first walk on land I was bundled up in a thick jacket and a wool cap, which blew off.
On Friday my boat neighbor invited me over to Sam’s Anchor Café, across the bay in Marin County, for happy hour. We charged off in his speedboat wearing shorts and T-shirts under a blazing sun. I sat facing aft and watched the San Francisco skyline fall away in our wake. We blazed past the storied island of Alcatraz, around the east side of Angel Island with its idyllic picnic tables and hiking paths, and into Tiburon, all green hills and plush houses, to the guest dock at Sam’s and cocktails. It was a perfect afternoon and I remember thinking, “This is home.”
Drastic changes in weather are common on San Francisco Bay. Sometimes it happens within minutes. For a day of sailing I tell my guests to bring a parka and a bathing suit, and to be prepared to wear both. Either way, we’ve got northwesterlies almost every day, and that is what makes San Francisco Bay so great for sailing.
If you watched the last America’s Cup you saw the center of things: the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco waterfront, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Treasure Island, Sausalito and Tiburon. These sights never get old, but there’s so much more. The Delta, our galaxy of fresh water cruising to the east, is where we make our annual pilgrimage to warmth. It’s like being teleported from a foggy winter to a tropical summer in a day under sail. To get there, you sail north to San Pablo Bay, passing Berkeley to the east and San Rafael to the west, then veer eastward into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Once inside, you’re afforded an entirely new world of cruising and racing opportunities: an estuary with 700 miles of waterways and 60-plus islands, some more exposed above the water than others, lending this region of meandering canals a resemblance to the Netherlands.
It’s a good thing there’s so much great cruising within San Francisco Bay, because there’s not much outside of it. Our only islands, the Farallones, are desolate rocks 30 miles offshore. It’s a 20-mile sail to the south to the first protected harbor, Half Moon Bay, and 30 miles north to Drakes Bay. In any case, once you’re outside the Golden Gate you’re usually in full combat mode, with the cold, wind and fog of the North Pacific all bearing down on you. But I love that about San Francisco sailing: few boats venture out past the Golden Gate, so when I do I’ve usually got adventure and solitude. On a recent trip up to Drakes Bay we had the whole (cold and windy) place to ourselves for three days.
When you first sail into San Francisco, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be hit head-on with weather conditions that will shock you. It will either be exceptionally gorgeous or exceptionally treacherous, but one thing’s for certain: there’s no place I’d rather call home.
After circumnavigating for 10 years on Condesa, Clark Beek decided to stay put for a while in San Francisco. He blogs on Sailfeed.com
Photo by Meredith Laitos; Maps by AMR