The Islands of the Pacific Northwest

Border-hopping on a weeklong charter through the islands of the Pacific Northwest

Border-hopping on a weeklong charter through the islands of the Pacific Northwest

I was reminded of a few things during my week of cruising in the Pacific Northwest—you can’t always trust a weather forecast, it is a lot harder to get into the United States without a passport than it is to get into Canada, and the San Juan and Vancouver islands offer some of the most beautiful cruising grounds I’ve ever seen.

The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the very most northwest corner of the United States that sit off Washington state, north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, west of the Rosario Strait, east of the Haro Strait and south of Boundary Pass. To the east sits Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. With so much coastline and so many islands, the region offers a wide array of cruising destinations. I flew into Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island, to meet up with the crew for my charter—my brother Andy and our high school friend Doyle Robinson—and we made our way to Port Sidney Marina. There we met with the folks from Island Charters, a Preferred Partner of Sunsail, who led us to the Jeanneau 429 that would serve as our base of operations over the next week. The marina itself is one of the nicest I’ve seen, with excellent security and service, top-notch laundry and shower facilities, and a central location that made provisioning a breeze.

Orcas breach on our way to South Pender Island

Orcas breach on our way to South Pender Island

Now before I get too far along I need to warn the wary charterer—the wind in this region is, at times, nil. You’ll be dealing with currents running at up to 9 knots and if you don’t time them right you’ll be going nowhere, slowly. The water is deeper than a Chekhov play right up to the shore, and the tides run like a Kenyan sprinter. That said, when the wind does blow, you’ll get some seriously satisfying sailing—cruising at hull speed in deep water between mountainous islands, taking in the stunning scenery found around every corner and marveling at the abundant marine and avian wildlife.

[advertisement]The first stop on our cruise was Thetis island, which the Island Charters team said would give us a good taste of the lifestyle and beauty of the Vancouver islands. And I can’t argue with the recommendation. A tip for cruisers—if you decide to drop anchor on the east side of the island’s cut, there is a great anchorage with easy access to the channel that divides the Gulf islands from the Strait of Georgia. On the west side of the cut, there is a marina with a restaurant and small store for provisioning and plenty of places to drop the hook. You can still take the dinghy over to the marina and grab some dinner or a drink at the bar if you drop the hook on the east side, but be aware that you need to play the tides—staunch determination and dragging our tender through knee-deep water got us across the shallows. Worth it? You bet. Next morning, after coffee and messing about on stand-up paddleboards in the anchorage, we headed out into the Trincomali Channel. We made our way south along the shore of Galiano Island headed for Montague Harbour, where, we planned to drop the hook and head ashore to stretch the legs and have some lunch. Arnie Hammerman, my friend and a Pacific Northwest local was coincidentally cruising the same group of islands with his family, so we had arranged to meet at Poet’s Cove on South Pender Island for dinner and drinks.

A windy day has plenty of sailors out on the water as we cruise out of Orcas Island

A windy day has plenty of sailors out on the water as we cruise out of Orcas Island

While I had packed for the cold nights and dreary weather typical of fall cruising in the Pacific Northwest, the dog days of summer were in full swing for the first few days of our cruise, with blue skies, plenty of sun and temperatures creeping into the 80s. Our trip from Montague to South Pender was pure Pacific Northwest cruising at its finest. The warm weather held right up to sunset and the wind built a bit as the evening approached, allowing us to raise sail and have a bit of fun as we made our way out past the tip of Mayne Island. With the snow-covered peak of Mount Rainer reflecting the waning afternoon sun in the distance, we tacked back and forth over the U.S.-Canadian border, spying bald eagles perched ashore and orca whales breaching all around. This is what sailing in the Pacific Northwest is all about.

Poet’s Cove is a picturesque little harbor with a solid anchorage and first-class marina, complete with spa and heated pool and a lovely restaurant. After a fun dinner we bid the Hammermans adieu and headed back to our boat. By morning, a thick layer of fog was clinging to the trees ashore and creeping its way into the anchorage. The sky was grey, the temperature had dropped and a light rain was falling—welcome to the Pacific Northwest.

[advertisement]From South Pender it’s an easy jaunt across the Haro Strait to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, where you can check into U.S. customs. This proved interesting, to say the least. My friend Doyle and I had our passports and were ready to go. My brother, however, had left his passport in his desk drawer at home. After the Coast Guard came alongside, and asked for our IDs, what we were doing and why our boat didn’t have a name (what could be suspicious about three guys in their late 20s and early 30s sailing a nameless boat with a Canadian flag? ), we made it onto the customs dock at Roche Harbor safely.

The author at the helm on the way to Montague Harbour

The author at the helm on the way to Montague Harbour

This is where I learned a few valuable lessons. First off, only the skipper can set foot on the dock until all of his party is cleared. I learned that one when a customs/homeland security officer, whose northern drawl would have put him happily as a character in Fargo, handed me a form with a highlighted, section stating that any crew member other than the skipper leaving the boat could be fined $5,000 a head. I quickly urged the boys to get back onboard, gathered their documents and headed back to the customs office. While Doyle and I had our passports, my brother had only come with the contents of his glove compartment—his driver’s license and his birth certificate (why he had that in there I have no idea)—and two photos of his passport he had his roommate send him. Fun fact—if you tell the customs officer that your friend is stupid and didn’t bring a passport, you might get the same response I did: “Oh, he’s not stupid, he’s in violation,” and then receive a form that says you are violating immigration regulations. As for my brother, he got a big ol’ form that read “NOT IN COMPLIANCE” and a warning that in the future he might have to stand in a different line when trying to get on a plane.

Since there was no time to go ashore, and wanting to get the hell out of Dodge before anything else happened, we decided to depart Roche Harbor and head on to Orcas Island, covering as much ground as we could before nightfall. Despite the grey skies and the cooler temperature the cruising was still great, with enough wind here and there to sail and the hum of the motor helping us along the rest of the way. We cruised along the coast of San Juan Island, past Friday Harbor (the island’s other main boating hub), split Shaw and Lopez islands, and made our way to Eastsound, Washington, at the top of Orcas Island. The forecast had been calling for 15 to 20-knot winds and heavy rain the following day, so we figured Eastsound—with a movie theatre, a supermarket and a nice downtown with several restaurants and bars—would be as good a place as any to ride out a rainy day.

A foggy morning in Poet’s Cove, South Pender Island

A foggy morning in Poet’s Cove, South Pender Island

We performed what had become our evening ritual—found a nice place to drop the hook, cracked a beer, changed our clothes and headed ashore to do a bit of exploring. We settled in at a watering hole on the shore where we could keep an eye on the boat and got to chatting with some of the establishment’s patrons. One was a woman with a few friends who worked for the local NOAA station, which turned out to be a serendipitous meeting. She informed us that the forecasts we had read were incorrect, and that while there might be some rain, the bigger issue would be the strong winds, coming directly out of the south (which would mean a building fetch running all the way up Orcas Island, a veritable horseshoe of mountains). She implored us to take her mooring ball, which was conveniently located near the dinghy dock, about 200 yards from where we were currently swinging on the hook. We bought her a drink for her kindness, and headed back to the boat to pick up anchor and move over to our new home for the night.

Doyle spotting whales off the bow

Doyle spotting whales off the bow

While sunrise brought a light sprinkle and some building winds, it didn’t seem like anything too hairy, and while I was happy to have a secure spot, I thought that grabbing the mooring ball probably wasn’t necessary. Then the wind started to build. By 1000 it was blowing a steady 30 to 40 knots, and kept right on going up to 50. The VHF weather reports crackled warnings of downed trees, boats loose and people in the water. The stack-pack cover on our mainsail blew open and we had to lash down the main with dock lines. The SUPs lashed to the lifelines on our bow struggled and strained to get loose. Water crashed over the bow as we pitched in the 4ft to 5ft seas that were coming dead at us, and the rocks on the shore a mere 200 yards astern taunted us. My crew, still getting their sea legs, were resigned to lie in their berths and curse the world as I administered seasickness pills, donned my foulies and took up station at the helm, spray coming from all directions, hand on the throttle, ready to charge dead-ahead into the building seas if, God forbid, our mooring lines broke loose.

Morning at anchor off Thetis Island

Morning at anchor off Thetis Island

This was our day until around 1500, when the wind had finally died down some and the seas subsided to a manageable enough state that we were able to free ourselves from the mooring and motor to Rosario Resort, the nearest marina, where, fearing a mutiny, I reserved us a slip. After tying up to the fuel pier, the last spot they had, I was chatting with the dockmaster about the storm that had just blown through.

[advertisement]“That was the strongest wind I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he told us. Then he pointed to a long stretch of dock awash on the beach. “That was the dinghy dock,” he said, pointing to the mangled wood, concrete and rebar that was now bobbing sadly in the surf. “The wind blew it right off.” (We later found out that the storm had caused major power outages and significant damage all across the Pacific Northwest on both sides of the border. It was the largest outage event ever recorded by BC Hydro, the power company in Vancouver.)

Andy is all smiles at the helm

Andy is all smiles at the helm

The storm was a bit of a blessing in disguise though, as Rosario is a great stop over for anyone cruising the San Juans. Listed on the National Historic Register, Rosario Resort is situated on 40 acres of waterfront property and home to the Moran Mansion, which now serves as the main building in the resort featuring a museum, restaurant, bar, spa, gym, pool and plenty of guest rooms and banquet facilities. The day we arrived there was a wedding just getting started. The grounds offer breathtaking views of Orcas East Sound, and the marina has a small store and restaurant. Most importantly for us though, it offered a chance for some much-needed time on solid ground. Next morning we were greeted with perfect sailing conditions of—the wind had blown away the clouds and the sun was shining bright, and while the wind had diminished from the hooley conditions of the previous day, there was still enough left over to give us the best sailing we would get during our charter. We motored down East Sound, raised the sails, and spent the day cruising between Lopez and San Juan islands, tacking back and forth and dodging the flotsam and jetsam that had been blown into the water during the storm. Our destination was Roche Harbor, easily reached in a few hours, so we spent the day doing what is most fun—messing about, sailing just for the joy of sailing.


Everyone took a turn at the helm, and while we ran against the tide on our way south, after turning about we picked up 5 knots of boat speed and virtually raced back up the coast of San Juan Island, hitting 11 knots at times. After making our way back to Roche (keeping our distance from the customs house, just in case), we dropped the anchor and headed ashore for one final night of exploration.

The morning brought another cloudy day and the wind carried a chill, so we were more than happy to raise anchor and motor back across the Haro Strait to Van Isle Marina to fuel up before we returned the boat (there is no fuel dock at Port Sidney Marina, but there is at Van Isle, about 10 minutes north). You can also clear into Canadian customs at Van Isle Marina. The Canadian “customs office,” unlike the office in the U.S., is a phone booth with a number to call, which will put you in touch with a very pleasant customs officer who will ask you a few questions, give you a clearance number, and send you on your merry way. Bit of a different experience when you’re going the other way.

Rosario Resort on Orcas Island

Rosario Resort on Orcas Island

After clearing we headed south to Port Sidney, tied up back in our slip without incident, and while I cleaned up the boat Andy and Doyle packed their bags and got ready to head out. Our week-long charter in the Pacific Northwest had given us a little bit of everything—the last stretch of summer days, beautiful vistas, a good bit of sailing and one hell of a blow. Now all I have to figure out is when I can go back.

Photos by Christopher White

March 2016



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