I’m told that weekending is one of the latest, and fastest growing, trends in charter vacations. Ideally, you’d take a bareboat out for a week—or two, if you’re European—but such is the pace of modern life that many people can’t carve out blocks of more than two or three days. For the purposes of chartering, a weekend is not necessarily the usual Friday-Sunday span; often as not it’s a midweek “weekend “of two or three weeknights, like the one I spent in Washington State’s San Juan Islands last August.
Sailing the San Juans has been an ambition since I first had a taste of the Pacific Northwest on a charter in Desolation Sound a few years ago. A brief window of opportunity opened during a West Coast visit—but how much of the islands could we see in three days? Luckily, Anacortes Yacht Charters had an immaculate Beneteau 35.2 available in The Moorings livery (AYC is a “preferred partner” to this multi-national charter company).
Steering the aptly named Leap of Faith out of the marina and into a gorgeous summer afternoon marred only by a distinct lack of breeze, our small crew resolved to touch on as many must-see spots as possible in the short time available. Our route and timing would be governed by the tidal currents, which run at a ferocious rate through the narrow channels between the islands. Otherwise, as the San Juans Cruising Guide informed me, it would be near impossible to choose between the multitude of desirable destinations in this group of islands.
That first afternoon we motorsailed west at a leisurely 6 knots under a cloudless sky, enjoying the crisp visibility and the sunlight sparkling on the pristine water before anchoring at Spencer Spit off Lopez island—check off one must-see spot. Perhaps a dozen other boats, evenly split between sail and power, were secured to moorings or at anchor north and south of the spit. Evening cocktails were accompanied by the laughter of children splashing in the shallows. After a restful, perfectly calm night on the hook we were underway by 0730, bound for Friday Harbor.
This is the one destination in the San Juans that everyone seems to have heard of, and I admit I was expecting something a lot more commercialized than the charming, laid-back little township we found later that morning. Leaving Leap of Faith tied up to the town dock—“no charge,” said the pleasant young woman directing traffic from her booth at its tip—we took a stroll ashore and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. After a quick look around, and with noon still some way off, it was time to head for Roche Harbor.
The breeze filled in as we headed northwest up the coast of San Juan Island, so we cut the engine and sailed for an hour or so at a lazy 5 knots, enjoying a boost from the current as we watched assorted shapes and sizes of boats zoom in and out between the spattering of islets between Shaw and Orcas Islands.
As we turned the corner toward Roche Harbor we had our first argument with the tide. The boat slewed and crabbed in the eddies between San Juan and Spieden Islands as the current played with us. For all its beauty, you do need your wits about you when sailing in this rugged archipelago.
The cruising guide calls Roche “the ritziest resort on the island,” and indeed there were some rather large and flashy boats among the more modest cruisers and trawlers in the anchorage. The marina looked to be bulging at the seams, but we managed to anchor reasonably close to shore and took the dinghy in to explore. During the 19th century the island was a big exporter of lime and parts of the old works are still visible, while some of the buildings form part of the resort. Like Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor was more attractive than I’d expected, and it was with a twinge of reluctance that we hauled up—OK, winched up—the anchor and set sail for Sucia Island, the fourth and last of the goals we’d set for ourselves.
We’d been advised not to miss Sucia, and we were glad we didn’t. Not only did we have the best sail of our long weekend, reeling off three-quarters of the 16 miles in a couple of hours in a freshening beam wind, but we found a peaceful, charming anchorage in Echo Bay. After dropping the hook, we went ashore and stretched our legs along some of the paths that cross this 560-acre island. In the late afternoon light, the rocky outcrops fringing the bay gleamed black and brown against the solid green of the trees above. The white-peaked Mount Baker watched over the scene like a silent sentinel.
There were perhaps 20 boats anchored around us, but you wouldn’t have known it. We spent the evening stargazing from the cockpit and counting off constellations before retiring to another night’s unbroken sleep. Next day we were back in Anacortes early in the afternoon, having mostly motorsailed the 21 miles to the base, enjoying nevertheless the scenery and the eagles soaring overhead. Ahead of us was a 90-minute drive back to Seattle.
We had not spent nearly enough time in the San Juans, but it was more than enough to set the hook even deeper—and we’d had a great midweek weekend.
Contact: Anacortes Yacht Charters
Photos by Peter Nielsen