Located in Northwest Washington State, many consider the San Juan Islands to be the trip of a lifetime. People come from all over the world to see then dozens of forested islands, large and small. The San Juans are located between mainland Washington on the east and Vancouver Island, British Columbia Canada on the west. The San Juan Islands is indeed a boater’s paradise!
Only the larger islands are inhabited and the marinas fill up quickly in the summer season when most of the sailing takes place. But most of the islands are quite small with protected little coves and beautiful beaches, perfect for exploring. You can build a driftwood fort or drop a crab pot. The islands are close to the mainland and are also a mecca for Kayakers who take the ferry to an island, drop their boat in the water and go exploring.
You can pick up your charter boat, either a sailboat or yacht, in Anacortes, Washington. You will need to fill out an online application describing your prior experience and qualifications. You may be asked to take a short overnight class to assess your skills before you leave with a yacht worth many thousands of dollars. Each charter company has its own rules but generally there is no smoking, no pets, seasonal rates, required insurance, and a strict cancellation policy. Boats are completely equipped with everything you need except a bag of groceries and your clothing. There are two big supermarkets within walking distance of the marinas so you can stock up before you leave.
The San Juan Islands are also accessible by the Washington State Ferry system with service from Anacortes.
We first came to the islands by way of a summer cruise up from Oregon. We were living on our 30 foot sailboat, Dreadnought, at Big Oak Marina near Portland. After an all nighter from Astoria, Oregon up the Pacific Coast (with almost no place to stop along the way) we sailed into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca to Victoria, BC. Once clearing customs, we stayed right in the inner harbor and spent a fun day exploring one of our favorite cities (anywhere) and then sailed further into US waters to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. Roche Harbor is a wonderful little marina that fills up quickly in the summer. We also stayed at Deer Harbor, a much smaller operation on Orcas Island, and Fisherman Bay on Lopez Island. After a stop in Anacortes for a minor repair, sadly we headed back home stopping at Friday Harbor on Orcas Island. But between Orcas and another night in Victoria, we came across a pod of Orca whales who swam right under the boat! We saw them coming and just stopped and turned off the motor. They came to check us out and we had several thrilling moments while 3 huge pod members passed by. We returned to Portland and not long after, packed up and moved back to the San Juan Islands. After 25 years, we are enchanted every day by the water, the islands, and watching the boats come a go. We get to live in paradise!
If you come in your own boat or qualify to take out a charted vessel, there are a couple of things you should know.
1. Tourist boating season runs from Memorial Day (end of May) through Labor Day (first weekend in September).
2. If you want to spend the night at a marina during the season, you better have a reservation in advance or you will be “swinging on the hook” anchoring out. But anchoring out is fun too.
3. Fuel and groceries are not available everywhere. Many of the islands are not inhabited at all.
4. Huge oil tankers and cargo ships regularly come through this area, as do the Washington State Ferries. Stay away from them and never assume you have the right of way unless you are heavily insured and are a good swimmer.
5. The best wind is in the off season. Sailing in August may be an exercise in sitting, so if you are looking for wind, you may have the best luck in June and July or earlier in the Spring. The best weather is in August and September, but this is Washington and It can rain anytime, so be prepared. After many years in the northwest, we’ve found that no one ever died from the rain – its just water.
6. Get a good map and tide table chart. While you may think you know where you are – from the water, it’s hard to tell which island you are viewing. Your phone GPS is a great tool while boating in the islands. As for the tides – I could tell you a big long story about being caught on a sandbar in the outgoing tide and then having to wait 12 hours for the tide to come back in. Not a pretty memory and fodder for divorce court.
7. Our favorite marinas to visit are Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor, and Deer Harbor. The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor is well worth a visit. This little town has a great community theatre, good restaurants, a little airport with flights to Anacortes and Seattle. Roche Harbor has a ceremony at dusk every day where they play taps and lower the flag.
8. If your boat comes with a crab pot or you have your own, you need a crab license to use it in Washington State. Ask at a marina.
For anchoring out, visit Reid Harbor to the west of the Islands and Sucia Bay up north of Orcas Island or James Island where you will have native deer for neighbors. There is also a hidey-hole little bay on the east side of Cypress Island, not far from Anacortes. These sites are quite sheltered and have nice beaches.
The best part is turning off the engine and letting the wind do the work.
Zoom in and out on the map below to see the San Juan Islands!